Natasha Lester’s newest novel, The French Photographer, is out! And it’s every bit as delicious as her three other Historic Fiction novels: Her Mother’s Secret, A Kiss From Mr Fitzgerald (which made me bawl so much I went to work with puffy red eyes and faced a lot of questions and strange looks), and The Paris Seamstress.
Well, I’m honoured to say that Natasha graciously made time for me this week, even though she is busy conducting a whirlwind book launch:
Hello Natasha and welcome. If I can just get a bit of gushing out of the way first: congratulations! I think this is your best work so far!
Thank you! And I love gushing! It’s my favourite of all of my books too.
You’ve said this book was hard in some ways and easy in others, what stumbling block or difficult section were you most proud of working through?
I think I’m most proud of just bringing it all together. It was a hugely complex dual narrative, with four point of view characters spanning more than seventy years. There were so many different ways in which I could have structured the book, so many different choices about where to cut from one timeframe to another, so many different ideas about how D’Arcy might unravel the mystery of the past in contemporary times. It’s always about choosing the simplest path in the end, and also the path that is the most compelling, but sometimes, because I was so close to the book, it was difficult to see what that was. I’m really proud of the way the book turned out. I feel like I made the right decisions and couldn’t imagine it any other way now.
That is very heartening for (hopefully) emerging writers like myself to hear – that even someone as successful as you can still be so close that these choices can be difficult. Which brings me a question for us beginners: you so stunned me with your reference to peacocks (read the book, folks!) that I had to look it up to see if it was true or just artistic license. I’m glad that made the final cut, but you must have hundreds of equally revealing research items that never make it. Do you have any advice on how to make those decisions?
There are so many pages of research notes that never make it anywhere near the book but which are all there, in the shadow of the words on the page. Without the research behind it, even if the facts themselves aren’t in the book, the story wouldn’t be as strong.
The way I make those decisions is to try to do very little research before I write the first draft. This is very difficult and frustrating and means there are many holes in the first draft. But this way the story comes to the fore, driven by my imagination. Researching first can mean that you write to what the research says is possible, thus limiting your imagination from the outset. When I research I use my first draft as a blueprint, and I research to fill in the gaps in the narrative, and to add texture to the story and scenes that are there. I find this a really useful approach for me.
Otherwise it’s possible to be overwhelmed by all the different topics – I researched women war correspondents, Martha Gellhorn, photography, art handling, Lee Miller, the intricacies of war and battles, and the chronology of the war – amongst other things – for The French Photographer. Without a story first to pin the research to, the research is meaningless.
That makes so much sense! Thank you.
Now, as ridiculous as it sounds, the lack-of-latrines-for-women excuse was even used in fairly recent peacetime for Australia’s first female lawyers, doctors, and politicians; and the forced giving up of a (woman’s) job for someone (male) who needs it ‘more’ has happened in our own lifetime. You must be passionate about the issue of equality!
I am. I really want to bring these kinds of stories out of the past and show people exactly what women have had to endure over centuries, and how, if it weren’t for some brave and resilient women like my main character, Jessica May, then we mightn’t have made the advances that have been made.
There’s still a long way to go though, and I would love this book to be not just a story of things that once happened a long time ago, but a story that makes us reflect on #metoo and equality and what is still happening in contemporary life. I would love for Jessica May to inspire women to keep standing up for themselves and to keep fighting in the same way that she, even though she’s a fictional creation, inspires me.
Speaking of inspiration, which writers inspire you?
I think Paula McLain does an amazing job of bringing to life the stories of fascinating women from the past. Margaret Atwood is all kinds of brilliant. Kate Morton is a phenomenon who continually inspires me with how she is always willing to stretch herself in every book. And I have recently fallen in love with Madeleine Miller; her prose is exquisite.
Yet more books to add to my tbr list! So what do you like reading that may surprise us?
My kids and I listen to a lot of audiobooks when we’re in the car and we’ve recently been listening to Jacqueline Harvey’s Kensy and Max series. It might be for kids, but I am desperate to know what happens in Book 3 as Book 2 finished on a bit of a cliffhanger!
Which just goes to show, a good story told well can hook anyone!
Now down to something that really has me stumped: you are a mother of three, you conduct book launches and publicity tours, you run classes for writers, you’re working on, what, three future books in various stages? And you have to find time for life. You’ve shared tips on organization before, and talked to other authors about it, but can you tell us how you manage to keep going on those bad days we all have from time to time? When you’re rundown and uninspired, and you have no pressing deadline but you just have to get some words on paper?
Writing always makes me feel better. If I’m having a sh***y day and I don’t write, I feel worse at the end of it. So I always remind myself of that. I also remind myself that Future Natasha is going to be very proud of Present-Uninspired Natasha if she just gets a few hundred words written because that’s a few hundred less words that Future Natasha will have to write. I love to make people feel better, even if it’s just my future self!
Aaah how good are our future selves for a procrastination preventative!
Finally, because I know our time is nearly up, now that you’re a household name and have cemented your place in the Historical Fiction field, do you have a dream project you’d like to write one day?
Wow, that’s a great question. I would love to write something non-fiction actually, with a personal slant, about Paris and fashion and women, bringing together some of the research I’ve been doing over the last few years.
Wow what a great read that would make! Where do I sign up for the advanced copy?
Thank you, Natasha, for taking time to speak to me. Here’s to many more positive reviews, a successful book tour, and many more great stories to come.
You can see my review of The French Photographer here.
Natasha Lester has also written What Is Left Over, After; If I Should Lose You; and the short story A Beautiful Dare.