Welcome to Tea with Mrs B, an author interview series. Here to share a pot of tea and to chat about her brand new book, The French Photographer, is Natasha Lester.
Natasha Lester worked as a marketing executive before returning to university to study creative writing. She completed a Master of Creative Arts as well as her first novel, What Is Left Over, After, which won the T.A.G. Hungerford Award for Fiction. Her second novel, If I Should Lose You, was published in 2012, followed by A Kiss from Mr Fitzgerald in 2016, Her Mother’s Secret in 2017 and the Top 10 Australian bestseller The Paris Seamstress in 2018. The Agedescribed Natasha as ‘a remarkable Australian talent’ and her work has been published in numerous anthologies and journals.
In her spare time Natasha loves to teach writing, is a sought after public speaker and can often be found playing dress-ups with her three children. She lives in Perth.
Hello Natasha. It is my pleasure to warmly welcome you to my blog, Mrs B’s Book Reviews. Thank you for joining me for Tea with Mrs B, an author interview series. To set the mood for our tea infused interview, what is your preferred beverage, tea, coffee or other? And side accompaniment, scone, cake or other?
I am a BIG tea drinker. My favourite is a rose-infused black tea that a friend gave me. And I will never say no to a scone!
Can you tell us what genres you write for and how many books you have had published?
I write historical fiction nowadays, and The French Photographer will be my fourth historical novel. Prior to that, I wrote two other novels that had more of a literary slant.
Can you describe your new book, The French Photographer in just a sentence?
One lost little girl, one soldier, and the woman who braves a war to save them both.
What came first in the creation of the novel – the title, plot, characters or setting when you first set out to write The French Photographer?
Titles never come to me first, or even very early. I find them quite challenging. Luckily I’m not the kind of writer who needs a title before I begin.
A little girl called Victorine was the first character who came to me. She was inspired by a little girl I saw when I was watching some archival footage at the Musée de l’Armée in Paris. The footage showed the exodus of people out of Paris and into the countryside, trying to keep ahead of the German army, as France was invaded by the Nazis in May 1940. The girl was clutching a teddy bear and her face was so sad. I knew how many people had died in that exodus, killed by German planes, the heat, lack of food and water, the distance to be travelled, and the crush of people. I wondered for a long time after if she had made it. So I decided to write a story about that girl.
How long did it take you to write The French Photographer?
It took a year to write. I’m contracted to write a book a year so I need to be able to research and write one in that timeframe. I always deliver early so we have plenty of time to edit. The editing process on this one probably took another three or four months.
Can you tell us about the research process to bring The French Photographer to life? How did you incorporate this research into the narrative?
I started in Paris at the Hotel Scribe where Lee Miller stayed during WWII and where Jessica May, my character, also stays. The hotel was used by the US Army as the Press Office doing WWII and the hotel’s exterior is largely unchanged from that time.
From there I had the very difficult(!) job of staying in a chateau just outside Reims in France’s Champagne region, just as D’Arcy Hallworth, the heroine of the contemporary storyline, does in The French Photographer. How I suffer for my art!
Also in the book are Les Faux de Verzy, a group of dwarf, contorted beech trees that I think add a magical element to the story. I visited the trees, which grow only in a small area outside Reims, and it was like walking through an enchanted forest.
I then travelled to Normandy, which was a sobering experience. Standing on Omaha Beach, as Jess does in the book, deeply affected me, as it does her. I visited the American Cemetery there, and then drove to Saint-Mere Église, where there is a museum dedicated to the paratroopers. As someone who learns best by seeing, and who previously knew little about the intricacies of battles and battalions, seeing a model dressed in a paratrooper’s uniform, plus all of the 80 kilograms of equipment they carried, and studying the maps of their campaigns and victories, was hugely helpful in allowing me to better understand Dan Hallworth, one of the other main characters, and what he might have faced.
Where did the inspiration for your characters come from?
Lee Miller was an incredible photojournalist for Vogue during the second world war and she inspired my creation of Jessica May, the main character in The French Photographer. Martha Gellhorn, another extraordinary war correspondent and also one of Ernest Hemingway’s wives, is a character in the book and her relationship with a paratrooper inspired Jess’s relationship with Dan Hallworth in the book. Belinda Bower, Jess’s editor at Vogue, was inspired by Lee Miller’s Vogue editor, Audrey Withers.
The other characters in the contemporary storyline, D’Arcy Hallworth and Josh Vaughn, just came out of my overfull imagination.
Can you tell us more about the different locations featured in The French Photographer?
The book moves from New York to Italy, focussing on a small area around Monte Cassino. There are several scenes set in London at the main hotels used by the correspondents: the Dorchester and the Savoy. Then we journey into France, from Normandy into Paris, then through Belgium and Germany, before finishing in Munich, before the action swings back to New York. Sydney also features. So it’s a very well travelled cast of characters!
What do you hope readers will take away from reading The French Photographer?
This is a #metoo book. You’ll see what I mean when you read it. In a nutshell, the discrimination faced by the female correspondents was so shocking that I wrote an extended author’s note in the back of the book as I didn’t think people would believe that many of the incidents in the book could possibly be true. But they were. I’d like readers to consider the effects of treating any group of people differently and of punishing members of the group because of a particular attribute, such as gender or race. We should be more compassionate than that.
How will you celebrate the official release day of The French Photographer?
I will get up and make school lunches for the kids, drop the kids at the bus stop, go for a walk, and then try to do a bit of work in between all the wonderful social media that usually happens on publication day. Then I might drink a glass or two of champagne later that night when the kids are in bed!
How has your writing evolved since your first published novel?
I think it’s better. I don’t know how exactly, but I think my plots are more complicated and interesting and my characters have more emotional depth. I’m a better researcher and my storylines are more ambitious, covering many time periods and points of view. I like to challenge myself with each book.
How do you balance life with writing?
I exercise each day as this gives me time to think. I’m a big reader, I always make time to play with my kids as they make me laugh and I catch up with friends when I can.
Is there a genre you haven’t tried writing yet, but want to in the future?
I love historical fiction and I can’t see myself changing out of that for a long time.
Aside from writing, do you have any interesting hobbies?
I collect vintage fashion, which is a passion project of mine!
If you could slip back in time, what era would you travel to and why?
At the moment I’m writing a book called The Dior Bequest for 2020 so I’d love to go back to 1947 when Dior’s first collection was shown and get myself a Bar Suit!
What is next on the horizon for Natasha Lester? Do you have any writing projects you would like to share with us?
As I mentioned above, I’m in the editing process for my 2020 book, which is called The Dior Bequest. This book was HARD to write – I wondered if I had been overly ambitious at many points. But it’s coming along so well, I can’t wait to share it with everyone.
What 2019 book releases are you most excited to read?
Elizabeth Gilbert’s City of Girls is high on my must-read list, as is Margaret Atwood’s follow up to The Handmaid’s Tale.
Finally, wrapping up our tea themed interview, who would you most like to share a pot of tea with?
As I usually pick an important author for this question, I’m going to be really cheeky here and say Dan Hallworth, one of the main characters in The French Photographer, because he’s just yummy!
Thank you for taking the time to visit Mrs B’s Book Reviews for Tea with Mrs B Natasha. Congratulations on the publication of The French Photographer!
Inspired by the incredible true story of Lee Miller, Vogue model turned one of the first female war photojournalists, the new novel by the bestselling author of The Paris Seamstress
Manhattan, Paris, 1942: When Jessica May’s successful modelling career is abruptly cut short, she is assigned to the war in Europe as a photojournalist for Vogue. But when she arrives the army men make her life as difficult as possible. Three friendships change that: journalist Martha Gellhorn encourages Jess to bend the rules, paratrooper Dan Hallworth takes her to places to shoot pictures and write stories that matter, and a little girl, Victorine, who has grown up in a field hospital, shows her love. But success comes at a price.
France, 2005: Australian curator D’Arcy Hallworth arrives at a beautiful chateau to manage a famous collection of photographs. What begins as just another job becomes far more disquieting as D’Arcy uncovers the true identity of the mysterious photographer – and realises that she is connected to D’Arcy’s own mother, Victorine.
Crossing a war-torn Europe from Italy to France, The French Photographer is a story of courage, family and forgiveness, by the bestselling author of The Paris Seamstress and A Kiss from Mr Fitzgerald.
The French Photographer by Natasha Lester is published by Hachette Australia. Out now. $29.99
Connect with Natasha here: