Behind the Pen and New Release Book Review
It gives me great pleasure to highlight the latest historical fiction release by Natasha Lester, The French Photographer, with a Behind the Pen interview and review as part of the Hachette Australia blog tour.
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.
Published by Hachette Australia
Released on 26th March 2019
Behind the Pen with Natasha Lester:
What provided the initial inspiration for The French Photographer?
In the Musée de l’Armée in Paris I saw a film about the exodus of people out of Northern France and Paris in late May and early June 1940 as the German army advanced upon France. One of the images in the film was of a little girl on the road out of Paris; she was clutching a teddy bear and looking directly at the camera. Her face was so sad. I knew how many French people had died during this exodus, either strafed by the Germans, or from not having enough food and water for a journey that took so very long in the summer heat because the roads were so clogged. For a long time after I saw the little girl in the film, I wondered what had happened to her. My inability to forget her made me realise that I had to write her into a book. She became Victorine, the little girl who grows up on a battlefield during WWII in The French Photographer.
The other inspiration for this book was the remarkable Lee Miller: Vogue model, Man Ray’s lover and then brilliant photojournalist for Vogue during WWII. I was fascinated by her transition from model to highly regarded war correspondent and I wanted to write about that, as well as how very difficult it was for the women who did that job at that time. I always thought the sexism and discrimination I wrote about in A Kiss from Mr Fitzgerald was shocking, but what the women suffered as correspondents during the war was far worse and almost unbelievable.
What did you do when you finished the final edits for this novel?
I started writing another book! Honestly, when you’re contracted to deliver one book each year, there isn’t time to rest and enjoy. It’s time to start all over again.
How would you describe The French Photographer if you could only use 5 words?
Oooh, tricky! I’m going to use a quote from the book that I think sums up the story perfectly:
“War makes us monsters or angels …”
(Yes, I cheated; it’s 6 words!)
Now, I know you do a lot of research. Following this on your Facebook page is always so much fun and quite often I’m a little envious! What was your favourite experience to come out of your time researching for The French Photographer?
Definitely staying in a French chateau as research for the contemporary storyline of the book. That thread of the story is set in a French chateau in the Champagne region of France so of course, to be authentic, I had to stay in a chateau in the same region! In all seriousness, this actually did improve my ability to write this section of the book immensely; I saw so many small details that I would never have known about, had I not stayed there. I think these details enrich the book, everything from the bright orange pumpkins in the potager, to the canal, to the boiserie paintings in the salon de grisailles and, of course, the food, of which there is rather a lot in these parts of the book.
What attributes do you think you need to remain sane as a writer? Are there any particular things you routinely do for yourself to maintain your own headspace?
You need to be able to write without worrying what others will think of the book. You have to simply enjoy writing, and write what you love. In terms of my headspace, I walk every day before I write. This is so good for teasing out tricky scenes, for active meditation, for quiet time, for thinking. I never write with the wifi on either; being distracted leaves me unable to focus and is bad for my headspace and my writing.
Where do you draw your inspiration from? How do you fill up that creativity well?
My inspiration now usually comes from my research for an earlier book. I always seem to find something that makes me stop and re-read and begin to imagine that little fact or that person in a story of their own. I’ll sit on the idea until I’ve finished the current book and then try to see if there is anything in that fact or person worth turning into another novel. In terms of filling up the creative well, I’m really conscious of this and I like to read widely in non-fiction as there are so many ideas to be found there. I also try to do other creative things, such as going to the theatre or ballet or an art exhibition. Other art improves my art, I always find.
Is there any one particular season of the year that you find more creatively inspirational than the others?
I hate winter. I loathe being cold. And I don’t like getting up when it’s still dark. So spring and summer are my favourites. I love having my doors open in my studio when I’m working and I love being able to sit outside at lunchtime and soak up the warmth before I return to my office to write.
Can you tell us something about yourself that not many people would know?
I was born with a crooked nose and the top part of my right ear folded over. My ear is still folded over but they gave me a nose job when I was two days old to fix that. Apparently I was a little too squashed in the womb, thus my peculiar face. Glad they fixed the nose up, and not many people get close enough to see the ear underneath of my thick mane of hair!
If you could sit down for an afternoon with an iconic person from history, who would you choose to spend that time with?
I’m writing a book called The Dior Bequest right now so I would quite like to sit down with Christian Dior and talk to him. Especially if he gave me a few House of Dior dresses!
What authors and types of books do you love the most? Are you more of a print, e-book, or audio book fan?
I don’t read e-books other than for research, where I often find e-books the quickest and easiest way of getting to the sources I need. I listen to audiobooks all the time in the car and my kids do too. I love them! I can’t remember the last time I listened to the radio in the car; it would be at least four years ago. And, every night before bed, I read for at least half and hour and that’s always a print book.
More about Natasha:
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 Age described 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. For all the latest news from Natasha, visit http://www.natashalester.com.au, follow her on Twitter @Natasha_Lester, or Instagram (natashalesterauthor), or join the readers who have become Natasha’s friend on Facebook.
New Release Book Review:
Last year, when I reviewed The Paris Seamstress, I wrote that it was my favourite novel by Natasha Lester, and indeed, it was in my reading highlights list for 2018. But here we are, a new year with a new novel by Natasha, The French Photographer, and yes, I’m saying it again…this is my favourite novel by Natasha Lester. I’d go so far as to say that it is her best yet. There’s a strength to the writing in this novel, a reckoning with regards to her themes that just elevates this novel into a class of its own. It’s brilliant, insightful, and wrenching; an ode to all of the women who fought for their right as journalists and photographers to report on WWII. History is rife with inequalities against women, and here, in The French Photographer, Natasha rips the dust cloth off and shakes out the rot that is steeped into the history of women in journalism, exposing it all, in its shocking and distasteful glory.
As a woman, she had absolutely no access to press camps, which meant no access to briefings, or to maps, or to news about hot spots and likely strafing attacks and the day’s objective or anything else that would actually give her an idea which part of the country was safe and which wasn’t. When Jess had pointed out that this would put her at more risk that the men, nobody seemed to care. And she still had to wait in line with her stories; hers were sent back to London where the censors tore them apart and then directed them on to Bel, which meant that her words occasionally make no sense as she wasn’t allowed to review them. Whereas the men submitted theirs direct from France after their very own sensor had checked them and allowed the men a final edit.
Inspired by war correspondents such as Lee Miller, Iris Carpenter, Lee Carson, Catherine Coyne, and Martha Gellhorn, The French Photographer not only examines the misogynistic treatment of these war correspondents within their work environment, but also the way in which the war was reported on, particularly with regards to the treatment of women, post Allied victory. The stories the people at home ‘didn’t need to hear’, and which male reporters weren’t interested in reporting on because when balanced against bolstering morale for the war efforts, these crimes against women weighed less. The entitlement that some members of the armed forces had towards women, particularly German women after the Allied victory, can be summed up aptly by the title Jessica May gives to her piece written after the war: “I’ve Got A Pistol and There Ain’t Nobody Going to Stop Me Having Her” – which was based on Iris Carpenter’s recollections in her memoir. The French Photographer tells an important story, and the extent of Natasha’s research gives this work of fiction a gravity and merit that offers it up as a worthy source for historical insight, as well as a springboard for further reading. This novel is strongly feminist, and while Natasha’s work has always been this way, The French Photographer is sharper, less subtle, and all the more powerful for it.
Nobody else would take those pictures; a male photojournalist would never think nurses worthy of any interest besides the prurient. And of course the War Department wouldn’t let Bel have Jess’s pictures because then everyone would know that a woman had been in a combat zone and that, apparently, was the real problem, not the death and dying and undocumented bravery of that small tent full of women in Monte Cassino.
The French Photographer is a dual narrative, but both eras are firmly linked. D’Arcy, in 2004, is an art handler, charged with the responsibility of packing up a collection of photographs from a famous photographer, whose identity has remained secret for decades. As D’Arcy digs deep into the collection, she begins to discover connections between herself and the photographer that don’t sit well with her. This is where Natasha excels at story building, applying human connections to her narrative that span generations. Keeping the sections short, the story moves along at a fast pace, building the tension within both eras, and as we near the end, Natasha switches perspectives to two other characters, major players whose voices offer an essential finish to this heartbreaking family story. And it is heartbreaking, more tragic love story than romance, mirroring real life with precision.
There were almost too many things happening for D’Arcy to grasp them as individual hurts and losses, as well as wonders and astonishments. She suddenly felt as if she understood Balzac’s belief that a person was made up of ghostly layers, layers that image-taking stripped away each time a photograph was taken.
There are some really beautiful passages of writing in this novel. Atmospherically rendered, inviting the reader to immerse themselves into the world the characters were inhabiting. A saturation of the senses, so to speak.
D’Arcy felt as if she were being lured little by little into a forest, as if a trail had been laid for her the moment she stepped foot into the chateau and she could do nothing but continue inexorably on into the gloaming.
How lovely the night was, the gentle whisper of flower stems stretching and yawning and then curling in to slumber, the swish of the last bird’s wings flying home to roost, the rustle of night creatures awakening. Lemon and chive-scented air. The taste of champagne grapes on her tongue.
Glorious! Needless to say, I highly recommend The French Photographer – an illuminating and transporting read that will take your breath away.
Thanks is extended to Hachette Australia for providing me with a copy of The French Photographer for review.