Alice to Prague by Tanya Heaslip

Alice to Prague.jpgTitle: Alice to Prague

Author: Tanya Heaslip

Genre: Memoir/Non-Fiction

Publisher: Allen and Unwin

Published: 6th May 2019

Format: Paperback

Pages: 360

Price: $29.99

Synopsis:What happens when a young independent Northern Territory country girl decides to follow her dreams and go off in search of adventures abroad? An honest, often funny, bittersweet memoir of love, loss and belonging; of the hard-won understanding around where home lies.

‘I loved it! I laughed and cried and it was very hard to put down.’ Fleur McDonald, bestselling author of Where the River Runs

‘A story of love for country, for home.’ Toni Tapp Coutts, author of A Sunburnt Childhood

In 1994, with a battered copy of Let’s Go Europe stuffed in her backpack, Tanya Heaslip left her safe life as a lawyer in outback Australia and travelled to the post-communist Czech Republic.

Dismissing concerns from family and friends that her safety and career were at risk, she arrived with no teaching experience whatsoever, to work at a high school in a town she’d never heard of, where the winters are frigid and plunge to sub-zero temperatures.

During her childhood on an isolated cattle station in Central Australia, Tanya had always dreamed of adventure and romance in Europe but the Czech Republic was not the stuff of her dreams. On arrival, however, she falls headlong into misadventures that change her life forever.

This land of castles, history and culture opened up to her and she to it. In love with Prague and her people, particularly with the charismatic Karel, who takes her into his home, his family and as far as he can into his heart, Tanya learns about lives very different to hers.

Alice to Prague is a bittersweet story of a search for identity, belonging and love, set in a time, a place and with a man that fill Tanya’s life with contradictions.

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~*~

In 1994, Tanya Heaslip, who had grown up in the Australian outback on a farm, and attended boarding school in the city, heads off to live in Prague, in the Czech Republic for year – only three years after the collapse of Communism, and five years after she saw the Berlin Wall come down. Heading there to teach English, she enters a world that is unfamiliar, and in some ways, is still clinging onto the Communist past, yet at the same time, trying to embrace the new way of life and venture into a new world. Unable to speak Czech, Tanya had to rely on the generosity of the Czechs who spoke some English, and the keen students at her school like Pavel and Kamila who loved learning from her. She found ways to connect with her students through Australian songs like Waltzing Matilda, and met Karel, a man who would help her find her way in Prague, who she would fall in love with. Yet their cultural differences and understandings of love and relationships did not always see eye to eye.

The Prague that Tanya visited and lived in is very much the Prague I visited in 2007- where remnants of Communism still cling on, and where the first MacDonald’s built in Prague is opposite the Museum of Communism – which goes through the history of Communism in the Czech Republic from 1948 until the Velvet Revolution.

What we know of Communist era Prague and Eastern Europe from the Western tradition, and what the people Tanya became friends with told her have a stark difference for understanding and interpretation. Where the West – and Tanya – believed it was oppressive, people like Karel said they found it safe – they knew where they lived, where they worked and how their lives would turn out. The fall of Communism had made that uncertain for some people yet given hope to others.

Visiting in 2007, there are still elements of Communism amongst the new capitalist areas, and the old, medieval icons such as the Astronomical Clock. Each of these elements combines to create a unique city that has seen many changes, war, revolution and everything in between. Its identity is clear in Tanya’s memoir as one that has been cobbled together of all these elements, and one that continues to grow in Europe. Tanya’s story is amazing and intriguing – and the way she adapted to life in Prague illustrated how anyone might have to adapt to any environment starkly different from the one they are familiar with.

Where Tanya had the freedom to head back to Australia, and younger students expressed a desire to leave Prague and head to what they saw as freer nations, people like Karel expressed that they could not leave their lives for uncertain futures or places. In this meeting of East and West, Tanya discovered through discussions with her students at the school, legal institutions and a ministry, that both sides had been fed a narrative that suited their respective governments. That everyone had a valid viewpoint but some things simply did not translate or crossover – and only Tanya could make the decisions she needed to make about her life and her future – which she touches on at the end, and where she ends up in Australia, a decade after her journey to Prague.

This book gave an interesting insight into travelling to and around a former Communist country in the years just after the changes came forward, and the difficulties in transitioning from one to the other, and the conflicts of those who want change, those who don’t, and those who have come from an entirely different place where definitions of freedom and security are very different. It is eye opening and engaging – and I could picture Prague as she wrote about it – the River Vltava, Charles Bridge and all the ancient architecture peppered with newer, Communist bloc buildings. An interesting read for all into history and Prague, and for those who have visited or want to visit.

Book Bingo Nine – Double Bingo and BINGO – Row Six Across completed.

BINGO!.jpg

Literary and Romance

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It’s the end of April, and another Book Bingo week with Amanda and Theresa. This time, I am ticking off two squares as another double bingo week, but also, I have a complete bingo with the sixth across row, as seen below:

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Row Six:

Literary: Zebra and Other Stories by Debra Adelaide – AWW2019

Crime: All the Tears in China by Sulari Gentill – AWW2019

Historical: The Familiars by Stacey Halls

Romance: Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

Comedy: Best Foot Forward by Adam Hills

Northanger AbbeyRomance was one that I wasn’t sure how I would fill, as it is not a genre I read often or gravitate towards. Rather, I prefer the romance to be subtle and to happen alongside the core story, and where the characters have much more to them than it feels like many romance novels do. So, in my quest to read as much Jane Austen as possible this year, and books inspired by Jane’s works, I chose Northanger Abbey.

Northanger Abbey is the first of Jane Austen’s novels to be completed for publication in 1803, but the last published in 1817. It is a satirical look at the Gothic novels of the time, and the coming of age story of Catherine Morland, wishing for happiness and morality over money and wealth like other young women of her age. She loves to read and seeks others like her as friends. On a sojourn to Bath with family friends, she meets Henry Tilney, and Isabella Allen, and becomes friends with Isabelle, visits with the Tilneys and is eventually forced home after a series of misunderstandings. At the core is Catherine’s growth and understanding of real life, which is vastly different to her novels. At the same time, she has fallen in love with Tilney and they eventually marry on the final page.

Jane Austen Reading Challenge 2019

The romance in this novel is subtle, and develops slowly and cautiously alongside friendship, novel reading and ideas of class and acceptability of marriage. The subtlety of the romance allowed the characters to grow for themselves and not be pushed into a certain way of thinking by other characters. Of course, there are misunderstandings that led to the desire to correct things and set things straight, but at the same time, because it is subtle, it worked well and that’s why I enjoyed it.

ZebraLiterary

 

For this category, I chose a book sent to me by Writing NSW to review for their blog. Zebra and Other Stories by Debra Adelaide. In this book, there are many short stories, from different perspectives and about different things – a more in-depth review is here. But this classifies as literary because it simply has that feel to it, and when I think about it, these stories don’t have a distinct genre – sometimes literary fiction does, but sometimes not. Sometimes, they just slot into general fiction but because the strength of the stories are driven by the characters, rather than the plots, which are written so subtlety, that at times, they do not become clear until the end, which makes them powerful and intriguing.

Moving forward, I have about eight months left to fill the bingo card, and some are going to be harder but that’s part of the challenge, and sometimes, the review books just easily slip into a category, sometimes I have to seek one out.

Until next time!
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The Suicide Bride: A Mystery of Tragedy and Family Secrets in Edwardian Sydney by Tanya Bretherton

suicide brideTitle: The Suicide Bride: A Mystery of Tragedy and Family Secrets in Edwardian Sydney

Author: Tanya Bretherton

Genre: True Crime/History

Publisher: Hachette

Published: 23rd April 2019

Format: Paperback

Pages: 315

Price: $32.99

Synopsis: From the author of the acclaimed THE SUITCASE BABY – shortlisted for the Ned Kelly and Nib awards – comes the chilling story of a charlatan, a murder-suicide, and a family tree so twisted that it sprouts monsters.

Whenever society produces a depraved criminal, we wonder: is it nature or is it nurture?

When the charlatan Alicks Sly murdered his wife, Ellie, and killed himself with a cut-throat razor in a house in Sydney’s Newtown in early 1904, he set off a chain of events that could answer that question. He also left behind mysteries that might never be solved. Sociologist Dr Tanya Bretherton traces the brutal story of Ellie, one of many suicide brides in turn-of-the-century Sydney; of her husband, Alicks, and his family; and their three orphaned sons, adrift in the world.

From the author of the acclaimed THE SUITCASE BABY – shortlisted for the 2018 Ned Kelly Award, Danger Prize and Waverley Library ‘Nib’ Award – comes another riveting true-crime case from Australia’s dark past. THE SUICIDE BRIDE is a masterful exploration of criminality, insanity, violence and bloody family ties in bleak, post-Victorian Sydney.

~*~

I’ve only read a few true crime books, and the last one I read revolved around the last woman hanged in New South Wales – Louisa Collins in 1889. A mere fifteen years later, a spate of suicide brides would crop up in Sydney – women who were murdered by their husbands, and the husbands would later commit suicide. In the case explored in Tanya Bretherton’s new book, a husband a wife died, but also, four children were left parentless, orphaned and their fates were left to the state, which in the early twentieth century was a lot less caring than it is today, especially towards orphaned children like Mervyn, Bedford, Basil and their sister, Olive, who at the time of her parents deaths, was ill in hospital.

2019 BadgeThe lives of Alicks and Ellie Sly were taken with a razor, at the hand of Alicks – and nothing was left to help the children, apart from any money left over from the sale of all their possessions to pay off any debts, and then money would be given to orphanages for the care of the three boys, whilst Olive was adopted and given a new name, a new identity, and nothing much is heard about her after that happened. Her brothers went sent to Catholic orphanages, and as Tanya recounts, each had a very different experience and reaction while staying there, resulting in very different outcomes in their later lives as a result of the violence they had seen early on in their lives.

Tanya Bretherton looks at the circumstances surrounding the deaths, and the evidence and records that are available, and at the way society at the time dealt with the deaths and aftermath, particularly in regards to the children, and finding guardians, and paying off debts to them, and the sad fact that Alicks and Ellie had nobody come forward to mourn, or help with the children – much of their debts were paid off with the sale of their few possessions, and charity took care of the rest. Throughout the book, the stories of the children are woven throughout as Tanya tries to uncover what really happened – using the historical timeline and gazing at it through a sociological lens and the social implications of this within Edwardian society, and the importance placed on funerary rights and debt over the welfare of young children.

Where did Alicks get the idea to kill his wife, and then himself? This is a question that remains unanswered, as does the why scenario. Without any suicide note, the true motives of Alicks will likely never be known. We can only guess at why he committed the murder-suicide in 1904. Maybe Alicks had debts he couldn’t pay and saw no other way out. Maybe knowing someone, the church, would step in to help. Perhaps he assumed family or neighbours would step up. Or maybe his motives were much more nefarious, and he didn’t care what happened to his sons and daughter. Tanya Bretherton doesn’t appear to have uncovered any criminal links or issues beyond debt they owed. Yet it is the not knowing that suggests it could be more than the idea that only debts were owed, and because there is little, if any, evidence to suggest why this happened.

As we can only speculate, as Tanya has done, perhaps it was a combination of things: debts, societal pressures, and a combination of the age old debate of nature versus nurture: where the brain functionality of a person is determined at birth, or whether the way we are raised has an impact on who we become and what we do. Having studied some sociology, I like to think its a combination, that neither one nor the other can inherently determine the actions one will take. Of course, there is always the element of choice in these scenarios. What i found fascinating about this is that there are no definitive answers – given the policing and forensic processes of the time, a lot less notice would have been taken of compromising the evidence and crime scene. So we may never know the truth, but there were many suicide brides in the months surrounding this case, including one case from the same family, a sibling of Alicks weeks or months later. The Sly family appeared to have many secrets throughout the generations,  and at least two of the brothers thrived quite well, and not much is known of Olive after her adoption. So for their father and relatives, were they predestined to kill, or did something awful happen to each Sly man to make the commit the crimes? This is where the nature versus nurture argument becomes tricky, because the nature of the family based on the murder-suicides would suggest a proclivity towards crime not really seen in the kids – at least, not violently. Nurture however, takes a look at how they were raised, first in the family and then the orphanage where it sounds like they weren’t nurtured in the way one might expect a child to be cared for. Which suggests that how we turn out is a combination of nature, nurture, our experiences and unique character – perhaps the younger children were able to adjust at a faster or easier rate than the oldest boy. What is certain though, is that we will never know all the answers, and the book, and my analysis is just mere speculation based on what we have present.

The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna by Juliet Grames

7 OR 8 DEATHS.jpgTitle: The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna

Author: Juliet Grames

Genre: Fiction

Publisher: Hodder and Stoughton

Published: 23rd April 2019

Format: Paperback

Pages: 438

Price: $32.99

Synopsis: A perfect book club and holiday read that crosses from mountainside Calabrian villages in the early 20th century to Hartford, Connecticut after the immigration boom and will appeal to fans of Elena Ferrante, CAPTAIN CORRELLI’S MANDOLINALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE and BROOKLYN.

When I tell you Stella Fortuna was a special girl, I hope you aren’t thinking small-town special. Other people would underestimate Stella Fortuna during her long life, and not one of them didn’t end up regretting it.

Hundred-year-old Stella Fortuna sits alone in her house in Wethersfield, Connecticut, crocheting blankets and angrily ignoring her sister, Tina, who lives across the street. Born into abject poverty in an Italian village, Stella Fortuna’s name might mean Lucky Star, but for the last century, her life has been defined by all the times she might have died. Up until now, Stella’s close bond with her sister has been one of the few things to survive her tumultuous life, but something has happened, and nobody can understand what it might be. Does the one life and many (near) deaths of Stella Fortuna have secrets still to be revealed, even to those who believe they are closest to her?

By turns a family saga, a ghost story, and a coming-of cranky-old-age tale, Juliet Grames’s THE SEVEN OR EIGHT DEATHS OF STELLA FORTUNA lays bare the costs of migration and patriarchal values, but also of the love and devotion that can sustain a family through generations, in a sprawling 20th century saga of a young woman with a fire inside her which cannot be put out.

~*~

Books with this kind of title seem to be a kind of trend right now – The Seven Lives of Evelyn Hardcastle, The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo (by different authors), and now The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna by Juliet Grames, which covers one hundred years of a life that begins in a Calabrian village, and finishes the story in Hartford, Connecticut. Stella Fortuna’s many near death experiences are a mystery – how she survives being eviscerated, being crushed by a door, bleeding out and many other near misses including fate intervening to ensure she does not board a ship that goes down at sea with no survivors, to the final almost death as a very old woman. So what causes them? Does her name – Stella Fortuna, which translates to lucky star suggest something more than just pure luck? Is there something keeping her from dying, like a ghost?  Throughout the novel, there is the sense that something is always going to coming, with long lulls that lead into each near death – some very long ones that whilst interesting, perhaps could have been divided up or shortened for ease of reading. However, I can see why each chapter was the length it was as well, so it did work for the story, but page breaks are always nice, so you know when you can set it aside temporarily and come back to find out what is going to happen.

Each event is intricately written – with the reminders of each previous near death forming physically and emotionally for Stella and her family as they see her through her life and deaths, especially her sister Tina, with whom her relationship is constantly changing. At the heart of this rather unique and highly unusual novel is a family saga of immigration, life and death, and secrets that family keeps or questions that do not always have an answer.

I read this in over the course of four hours – so it is engrossing and intriguing, but I’m in two minds about it. On one hand, it is not one I am likely to revisit – despite the intriguing storyline, there were times when I felt like too much was happening to lead up to the death, and perhaps things could have been condensed. I felt like the first births of her children meandered a little, and then the rest were a brief run down to fit them all into the story. For me, whilst a very good chapter, this was one area where I felt some more balance between each child would be useful. However, I can also see that some of them were to play a more significant role towards the end than others, and that is why more time was spent on them.

My other thought it that this is the kind of book that someone might need to read a couple of times to fully appreciate it and understand – to peel back the layers, so to speak. Given there are many books like this out there, I may not have the chance to revisit this one and take everything in for a second time, but I do believe there is an audience out there for this book.

A work of fiction, it is written as though by a relative, a grandchild of Stella, who is never truly identified as Stella recounts her long life and all the strange and intricate events to her as a family history, so it almost reads as a biographical piece throughout. The flow was good – maintained by very little intrusion of the person putting Stella’s story to paper, apart from the beginning and end, where the story is introduced and concluded.

I hope other readers enjoy this book and find something interesting in it.

Eliza Rose by Lucy Worsley

Eliza Rose.jpgTitle: Eliza Rose

Author: Lucy Worsley

Genre: Historical Fiction

Publisher: Bloomsbury

Published: 1st June 2018

Format: Paperback

Pages: 368

Price: $14.99

Synopsis:The captivating debut children’s novel from popular television historian Lucy Worsley is an exciting and charming glimpse behind the scenes of the Tudor court.

I would often wonder about my future husband. A knight? A duke? A stable boy?
Of course the last was just a wicked fancy.

Eliza Rose Camperdowne is young and headstrong, but she knows her duty well. As the only daughter of a noble family, she must one day marry a man who is very grand and very rich.

But Fate has other plans. When Eliza becomes a maid of honour, she’s drawn into the thrilling, treacherous court of Henry the Eighth …

Is her glamorous cousin Katherine Howard a friend or a rival?

And can a girl choose her own destiny in a world ruled by men?

~*~

The Tudor years were fascinating, grim and violent, and the stories that are told don’t always reveal everything that happened behind the scenes of court – but rather, what Henry VIII wanted people to see and how the court projected itself. Eliza Rose Camperdowne – a fictional character who will become caught up in the intrigue and deception of court under two queens – Anne of Cleves and Katherine Howard, whose untimely fate concludes the book. Eliza’s world is changed when a marriage falls apart and she is sent away to train to be a lady in waiting, and then assigned with her cousin, Katherine Howard to become ladies in waiting to Anne of Cleves. Yet over the years of that marriage, the king, Henry, is taken with Katherine and divorces Anne to wed Eliza’s cousin.

What follows is the court and its intrigues seen through the eyes of Eliza, as she watches rules being broken, where for some, this can have harsh punishments, but for others, seems to have very few consequences until it is too late. Woven throughout is Eliza’s desire to break free of tradition as much as she can – and marry for love, not duty, as she has been trained to do her entire life.

In this sense, Lucy shows the headstrong, and feminist ideas of women throughout the ages, even though they may not have had the words to describe it, the feelings were still there for some of them. She effectively contrasts this with the demure women like Anne, and those who cling to tradition, like Katherine, but who use their wiles and some trickery it seems to reach the goals they have been aiming for: to marry King Henry VIII and become his queen. Katherine was wife five of six – the second to be beheaded for adultery, so the charges went. And after her death, fears are that Eliza could be tainted and tarred with the same brush and she must find a way to change her fate.

Filled with powerful women of all kinds and personalities, the male characters for the most part, are not heavily present in this book, but where they are, they definitely have an impact on the story and its outcomes. All the necessary characters perform their roles really well and it is a great historical read for those interested in Tudor history.

The Artist’s Portrait by Julie Keys

Artists Portrait.jpgTitle: The Artist’s Portrait

Author: Julie Keys

Genre: Mystery/Literary/Historical

Publisher: Hachette Australia

Published: 26th March 2019

Format: Paperback

Pages: 290

Price: $32.99

Synopsis: A story about art, murder, and making your place in history.

Whatever it was that drew me to Muriel, it wasn’t her charm.

In 1992, morning sickness drives Jane to pre-dawn walks of her neighbourhood where she meets an unfriendly woman who sprays her with a hose as she passes by. When they do talk: Muriel Kemp eyes my pregnant belly and tells me if I really want to succeed, I’d get rid of the baby. 

Driven to find out more about her curmudgeonly neighbour, Jane Cooper begins to investigate the life of Muriel, who claims to be a famous artist from Sydney’s bohemian 1920s. Contemporary critics argue that legend, rather than ability, has secured her position in history. They also claim that the real Muriel Kemp died in 1936.

Murderer, narcissist, sexual deviant or artistic genius and a woman before her time: Who really is Muriel Kemp?

~*~

The Artist’s Portrait moves between the early nineties and the first three decades of the twentieth century, up until 1936 – when a woman named Muriel Kemp is said to have died. Yet in 1992, Jane, on an early morning walk as she tries to combat morning sickness, encounters the long-presumed Muriel Kemp, whose abrasiveness somehow draws Jane in, and from there, an unlikely companionship forms – where Muriel constantly criticises Jane, as Jane begins to write Muriel’s biography as Muriel would like it to be written – on her own terms, in her words and only including what Muriel herself wishes to be in it.

The novel weaves between 1992-1993 in Jane’s perspective, and the first decades of the twentieth century in Muriel’s perspective – both told in first person. At first, this was a little confusing, but it became clear that the change in voice often coincided with the year or decade that was at the top of the chapter, thus making it easier to follow with both voices in first person.

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The mystery at the heart of this book is the true identity of Muriel Kemp, and whether or not she actually died in 1936. The trick for Jane in 1992-3 is getting those who rely on the official record to believe her. Mixed in with this is a story of the world of art and the ways in which gender could impact the role someone had in that world, and the breaking free of conventions to forge your own way in the world.

Where art critics and historians tell Jane that Muriel Kemp’s legend has secured her notoriety more than her artistic talent and her triptych paintings, and the mystery of the post-1936 paintings are relegated by the official archives as fakes, rumour – anything but the real thing, and even credited to a different Muriel. So, at the heart of the novel is a search for identity and the how a myth is created around a person, and the lengths people will go to deny anything that contradicts what they know.

Not everything I felt was revealed in this novel – some things are definitely left to the imagination, particularly when it comes to Muriel, and others are revealed slowly, likely peeling back the layers of an onion. It is a very layered novel, and one I found intriguing, and think is worth the read for those who like a mystery where not everything feels wholly resolved and bits left to the imagination of the reader.

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Blog Tour Part Two: The French Photographer Interview with Natasha Lester

the french photographer
Cover of The Paris Seamstress.

Hi Natasha, and welcome to my blog, The Book Muse. Thank you for joining me here today.

First of all, congratulations on the new novel, it was exceptional, and had everything a good novel should have to tell a very powerful story.

  1. Jessica reminded me of Estella – both are women of their time, yet still strive to achieve more than people expect of them. What is it that draws you to write characters like Jess and Estella?

If women like Estella and Jess had never existed, then I wouldn’t have the opportunities that I have now, the opportunities that I have had over my lifetime. But there is still much that needs to change. So I write these stories to honour the women who have come before me and who have made many aspects of my life possible, but also to show how far we still have to go in many other respects.

  1. Jess is based on a real-life journalist, Lee Miller. I’ve researched Lee, and she sounds fascinating. How did you stumble across her story, and what was it about her story that inspired Jess?

I came across Lee Miller when I was writing The Paris Seamstress. She was mentioned in an article I was reading, specifically that, after writing about and photographing a war for years, she had turned to writing cooking articles and recipes once the war was over. I wondered how that might have felt and I was compelled to look further into her life. When I realised she began her career on the other side of the lens, as a model, I was fascinated by how the transition from model to war photojournalist had evolved. Then, when I discovered that, at her death, her son never knew of the incredible articles his mother had written during the war, never knew of the exceptional photos she had taken, I knew for sure that there was a story in there waiting to be written.

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Natasha Lester, Image from Hachette Australia
  1. Your characters reflect and explore the spectrum of humanity and human emotion. When writing, did you find doing this enriched the story, and how challenging (or not), did you find it to explore someone like Amelia or Warren Stone?

Warren Stone was very challenging to write. But the more I read about the experience of the women war correspondents, the more I knew that men like Warren had existed. The difficulty was in not making him seem pure evil, in making us understand his motivations and in giving him humanity. There is one scene in the book that uses direct reportage from one of the female correspondents, Iris Carpenter, about a sexual assault that she stumbled upon. When I read her memoir and the words she wrote about that incident, I found it incredibly difficult to imagine how the man involved was anything less than a monster. But I had to imagine, in Warren, who is an accumulation of many men and many incidents, more than his despicable acts; I had to strip them away to find the person beneath and the reasons why he might behave in the way he does in the book.

  1. Fashion plays a large role in this novel. The beauty of fashion and photography bookends the reality of war, and the bland clothes Jess wears during the war. Where did your fascination with fashion start, and do you have a favourite designer you’re drawn to for inspiration in writing these stories?

I’ve always loved clothes. My real interest began when I lived in London for two years and wonderful vintage stores like Steinberg and Tolkien were at my doorstep, and the V&A museum was there to be visited each weekend. One of my absolute favourite designers is Vionnet; she was a true artist. I am also currently obsessed with Christian Dior, as I am writing a book called The Dior Bequest.

  1. How do you think the war affected Jess and her interest in art, photography and fashion before, during and after the war?

I think you could not photograph and write about the things Jess saw without being deeply affected by it, without needing to seek out the other things besides war that humankind can create; beautiful things like art and photography. I think she spent the rest of her life trying to strip away what she saw during war and attempting to replace those pictures, layer by layer, with things that inspired other emotions than sadness and other actions than violence.

  1. Looking at what we saw on the page, how much of your planning for plot, character and backstory never makes it into the final copy?

So much! When I wrote the first draft, I had no idea how the book would end. I had no idea how Victorine would fit into the story, and that she would become such an important player. I had no real idea what D’Arcy would do once she arrived at the chateau in the contemporary storyline. Once I sketched all that out in the first draft, I went a bit overboard, as I always do, in the second draft, adding in lots of the research and deeply fleshing out scenes. So a lot of that has to be cut in the end as it slows the pace too much. The first and second parts of the historical storyline in particular were trimmed quite a lot.

  1. I adored Victorine, and I hope other readers do too. Her story was heartbreaking but revealed the reality of war and war orphans. When researching this, did you find experiences like Victorine’s were common, and what country had most of the stories you found from?

Her experience was so common, especially in France where the exodus of people out of Paris and Northern France in late May and early June 1940 left so many lost and abandoned children who were never reunited with family. The Russians also experienced a huge and devastating number of war orphans, numbering in the millions.

  1. One of my favourite things about this novel was how you developed the relationship between Dan and Jess, starting with respect, which led to friendship and then love. To me, this was something that was extremely important to the story, because we rarely see friendships like this celebrated. When writing, what led you to write this relationship in this way, and did you find it effective to do so for the plot?

This was always going to be a book about a friendship between a man and a woman, a strong and important friendship, that eventually turned to love. But that initial friendship, and their mutual respect, was to be the foundation for all of it, and without that, I don’t think their relationship would have been anywhere near as powerful as it is. I say in the back of the book that Jess and Dan were like gifts from the writing muse and they were; they came to me easily and quickly and their relationship almost developed by itself without me having to do more than type out the rush of words in my head.

  1. Warren Stone consistently tried to jeopardise Jess and embarrass Dan. Was this inspired by any truth, and did anything like this happen to your inspiration, Lee Miller?

As I mentioned earlier, Warren Stone is an amalgamation of men and incidents. One of the books I read for my research was called Never a Shot in Anger;it was the memoirs of one of the Public Relations Officers during WWII who was responsible for dealing with the press. So much of what happens to Jess is recorded as fact in his book and the troubling part of it was that he wrote about those incidents with no understanding of how wrong it all was. To him, it was just the way life was at that time. It’s quite shocking to read. And there was so much more that I left out and didn’t have the space to include. This is the part of the book that worries me the most – that readers won’t believe these things could possibly have happened. But they did!

  1. Each part is told from a different point of view and in various times and years. I enjoy the dual time line set up, because I feel it makes the story richer. Do you find a format like this effective, and what makes you decide on the dual timeline set up?

It makes it richer for me as a storyteller too, although it is so very challenging to pull off. So many character and points of view and story threads to juggle and eventually weave together. I decided on it for this book simply became I enjoyed writing that way for The Paris Seamstress. I like the way that it allows a mystery to unfold and for the reader to become involved in solving the mystery.

  1. Taking into consideration what has been discussed already, are there any sources for fashion, Lee Miller, war orphans and the war in general that you explored that might not have been mentioned yet?

The main sources were the actual articles written by the female correspondents at the time. I read most of Martha Gellhorn’s pieces for Collier’s Weekly, Lee Miller’s pieces for Vogue, Iris Carpenter’s pieces for the Boston Globeand Margaret Bourke-White’s pieces for Life. In their articles, I heard their voices, saw what concerns they had, what they deemed worthy of attention, and how they wove a story together. It was extremely useful, especially when I compared their pieces to the articles written by the men at the time.

  1. One scene that was written effectively was the scene at the concentration camp. It was powerful and drove home the reality of war. Can you tell my readers more about where the inspiration for this scene came from, and why you decided to include it?

That was a hard scene to write. But I knew from the outset that it would be in the book as all of the women talked about the effect that seeing the camps had on them. There were so many important points I wanted to make in that scene: about the fact that so many people thought rumours about the camps were untrue, that the camps could have been liberated earlier if more people had listened and acted, that  civilians in towns with camps on their doorstep ignored the plumes smoke and the smell of death for years. That, of course, we must never allow such a thing to happen again. It’s the hinge moment of the book and, without that scene, so much of what follows would not have been brought to bear.

13. Apart from the scene in the book, what more can you tell us about the occupation of Hitler’s Munich residence, and how being there affected those who raided the home?

It was fascinating to read Lee Miller’s piece about her stay in Hitler’s Munich apartment. I couldn’t believe how much souvenir raiding went on, how many soldiers took his cutlery and linen, and I wondered what it would feel like to be living in the apartment of such a man. Most who stayed there seemed to think it the ultimate sign of victory and took great heart from it; it allowed them to ridicule a man who, two years before, had been so feared that nobody would have ever thought to ridicule him. It made him a defeatable man rather than an immortal monster.

  1. Without giving too much away about the ending, can you tell us why you decided to write a realistic, bittersweet ending, and what this process was like after everything you set up for the characters?

The ending was hard to write but I couldn’t see another way for the story to end that won’t seem too convenient and too unbelievable. War changes everything for the people involved and its bitter aftermath extends for decades; the pain doesn’t end just because the war itself is declared to be over. I wanted to be true to that in the ending of this book.

  1. Any additional comments?

Just that this is my favourite of all my books, the book of my heart, and I hope everyone loves reading it as much as I loved writing it.

Thank you for joining me here today, Natasha, and congratulations again.

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