This week I have something very special for you. An interview with the amazing Australian author Natasha Lester.
Natasha is fast becoming one of Australia’s favourite historical fiction novelists, a fact that will be all but cemented with the upcoming release of her latest book “Her Mother’s Secret”, due out next Tuesday, March 28th, 2017.
If you’re interested to read my review of “Her Mother’s Secret” (no spoilers) click here. Otherwise, let’s get on with the interview. And make sure your read right through to the end for your chance to WIN a signed copy of “Her Mother’s Secret”! (I know! How exciting!!)
Where did you draw your inspiration for “Her Mother’s Secret”? Did the characters come first, the story, or the setting? Or did it all just evolve as one?
The idea for the story came first. I wanted to write about the birth of the cosmetics industry, about the fact that women had to actually fight for the right to be able to wear makeup if they wanted to. Back in the early twentieth century, makeup was thought to only be worn by ladies of the night and movie stars and it was considered scandalous to go about during the day wearing rouge or mascara; women were even fired from their jobs for daring to wear rouge to work!
It seems incredible now, when there were so many major social issues to deal with at the time—poverty, domestic violence, high mortality rates for pregnant women—that so much energy was spent by society on condemning and punishing women for simply wearing makeup. So that was the main inspiration behind the book, but of course that’s not a story; the characters and the story then had to emerge from out of that very loose idea.
Leo is such a strong character, and I imagine, very brave and forward thinking for her time. Was it your intention to write her as such, or did her personality leap from the page as you wrote?
Leo was actually a little tricky to get right. Because the book starts at such a terrible and devastating time—the end of WWI and the beginning of the Spanish Flu epidemic—she has much tragedy to deal with. I had to strike the balance between making sure she faced those tragedies in a believable way, that she did grieve, but that she didn’t become pitiable. I didn’t want the reader to just feel sorry for her; I wanted them to be cheering her on.
So I had to really dig deep in the writing to allow the circumstances she faced to make her grow and develop as a character, to cause her to become courageous, to give her dreams which might have been easy to forget because of everything else that was happening around her, but which she had the resilience to hold on to and the strength to pursue.
I learned a lot in writing her, so much so that the character I’ve now written into a subsequent book came onto the page relatively easily because of everything I learned in getting Leo just right.
As with your previous book, “A Kiss from Mr. Fitzgerald,” you really capture the essence of New York in the 1920s. Why do you have such an affinity for this era NYC?
I first learned about America in the 1920s in history in Year 12 and I was completely captivated. I remember thinking that it would have been the most wonderful time to have been alive, because it was such a huge time of change for women. Plus the speakeasies and the jazz made it sound kind of fun!
But really, the main reason I’m drawn to this time is because it’s the space between the two parentheses of world wars, which are major catalysts for change. And it’s the changes that I’m interested in: what caused them, what effect they had, especially on women, what opportunities did they bring and how did women have to fight for those opportunities in order to give me the freedoms I have today.
The rise of the beauty industry has such an interesting history, how did you go about your research? And was it fun?
It was lots of fun! I read a lot about early pioneers in the industry, Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein, who are both women to be admired. But they surrounded themselves with men in their business endeavours, which I thought was very interesting, and that’s what gave me the idea of writing about a woman who encourages the talents of other women to help her, as Leo does with her friends Lottie and Jia.
I looked at many advertisements from the era; advertising for beauty products was designed to shame women into buying the products, making cosmetics yet another thing women were made to feel they weren’t doing right, or were buying in order to please somebody else, rather than themselves. I wanted to pick apart this notion that wearing lipstick was something that women were first told not to do, and then only a few years later, they were told that if they didn’t wear it, they wouldn’t ever get married!
I also experimented by making up some lipsticks myself in the kitchen, using the methods that Leo began with, that many women used—cosmetics manufacture really began in the home using everyday ingredients before it became a multibillion dollar industry.
We accompany Leo over a period from 1918 through to the 1940s, did you always plan to cover such a large period with the story? And did you have any concerns about doing so?
I did always plan to cover such a large period and yes, I had many concerns about doing so! I wanted the story to be multi-generational; I wanted us to see Leo at a time much later in her life than when the story began so we could really get a strong sense of how much she had changed and how much of that change was driven by herself and how much by circumstances outside her control.
The major concern I had was the plot, and how to unravel the mystery over the time period without giving anything away too early and without making it seem implausible. This caused me more than a few headaches!
But, more than anything, I wanted to write a story that was sweeping in nature, and to do that, I had to just sit down and grapple with the years and with the plot until it all fell into place. Which it did, one day when I was swimming in the pool. The solution just came to me, thank goodness—but it was after a great many months of worry and thinking!
How do you feel your writing has grown over the past few years – both your writing process, and the writing itself.
I now have something which can be recognisably be called a writing process whereas when I began writing a few years ago I just had mess! I carve my year up into school terms. Each term I write a draft and then I use the school holiday time to let that draft sit and grow in my mind, ready to be tackled again as soon as the kids are back at school. I’m much more comfortable with redrafting than I am with writing a first draft; so much is unknown in the first draft that it’s incredibly scary, whereas in redrafting you are trying to uncover the best possible version of the story you now know.
In terms of how my writing has grown, it’s hard to say precisely but I feel like I’m much better at getting characters onto the page that readers care about. I also feel like I’m much better at plotting than I used to be; I have more ideas and am able to incorporate a few more twists or elements of mystery. I guess I also just feel a little more confident sometimes—although at other times I feel like a complete novice!
That’s the thing with writing; every book is new and so each time you sit down to start a new book you’re basically starting from scratch. Sure, you can draw on some things you’ve learned about technique, but you’re basically still groping around trying to find the story just as you were with your very first book.
Are you able to tell us anything about your next project or current work in progress?
My next project is a book called The Seamstress from Paris, which should be out this time next year. It moves from Paris to New York to Australia and has both a contemporary and a historical storyline. It was very fun to write and to research—especially having to go to Paris for the research!—and I can’t wait for everyone to read it. I just have to get through a structural edit first!
I’m now working on what I hope will be my 2019 book, which has a working title of The French Photographer. I’m about 90,000 words into a first draft and hoping to have that finished in the next couple of weeks. It’s set during WWII and traverses much territory—France, Italy, England, New York, Germany, Australia.
And finally, what advice would you offer to aspiring authors?
Cultivate patience and discipline. Be patient with yourself first and foremost. Allow yourself to find your story, to make that story the best it can be and recognise that that process takes time. Rewriting is essential and you will rewrite your book more times than you think possible but every rewrite will make you a better writer, and it will teach you to have yet more patience.
The discipline to sit down and write no matter what, in spite of the mind games and the busyness and the kids and the tiredness and the doubt and the confusion is absolutely essential too.
Thank you so much Natasha.
And if that doesn’t make you want to read the book, nothing will!
Now to your chance to win!
If you’d like to be in the running to win a signed copy of “Her Mother’s Secret” by Natasha Lester, all you have to do is leave a comment below. All commenters will go into the draw which I will do live on my Facebook page (so pop over and makes sure you like it), next Friday 31st March 2017. (Last entries in by 12pm (noon) Australian Easter Daylight Savings Time March 31, 2017.