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.

Natasha+Lester_AUTHOR+PIC
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.

Booktopia

A Dream of Italy by Nicky Pellegrino

A Dream of Italy.jpgTitle: A Dream of Italy

Author: Nicky Pellegrino

Genre: Fiction

Publisher: Hachette

Published: 26th March 2019

Format: Paperback

Pages: 330

Price: $29.99

Synopsis: The No. 1 bestselling author makes southern Italy come alive in her most captivating, delicious drama yet

Here is your chance to buy your own home in southern Italy for less than the price of a cup of coffee. The picturesque mountain town of Montenello is selling off some of its historic buildings for just ONE EURO each. To be considered as a future resident of Montenello contact the town’s mayor, Salvio Valentini. 

Many people read Salvio’s advertisement with excitement. Elise is in her twenties and desperate to get on the property ladder. Edward wants to escape a life he finds stifling. Mimi is divorced and starting afresh. And there is one person whose true motivation won’t be clear for some time.

These four people all have a dream of Italy. And it’s going to change their lives. The passionate and gorgeous new novel by Nicky Pellegrino, the bestselling author of A Year at Hotel Gondola.

~*~

I had never read Nicky Pellegrino’s books until I received A Dream of Italy. I wasn’t sure what to expect – I knew it was going to be the intertwining stories of several people who purchase run down homes in an Italian village for one Euro under a cunning plan by the town’s mayor to repopulate Montenello.

Elise, who longs for more than what she has, heads off on her own, leaving her fiancé when he refuses to follow her. She is joined by Mimi, divorced and looking for something of her own. A gay couple from Australia join them, and a fourth whose true motivation isn’t clear. What is clear is that they each have dream of a life in Italy – but what these dreams are might not be clear to them when they arrive.

Reading is my way of travelling to different times and places, and this one took me to Italy where I really want to visit one day. For now, I will read about it and travel that way.

It is hard to pin down a favourite character, as I liked them all and they all had something unique to offer to the story and each other. I can say that I liked that the friendship bonds that formed between the characters across the story were more important than romance, and when there was a hint of romance between two characters, it was not forced or pushed when it didn’t work out. For me, this added an air of realism that I have, in the past, found romance novels do not always have, and the relationship is forced, and feels stifled. This one did not, and the relationship that does eventuate is not the one that is expected, making for a delightful twist.

This is one that I enjoyed, but perhaps won’t read again. It is one I know people will enjoy and look forward to sharing it with people, and passing it onto others who will enjoy it.

Henry VIII and the Men Who Made Him by Tracy Borman

henry viii.jpgTitle: Henry VIII and the Men Who Made Him

Author: Tracy Borman

Genre: History/Non-Fiction

Publisher: Hachette

Published: 30th October 2018

Format: Paperback

Pages: 500

Price: $32.99

Synopsis: Tracy Borman, author of the bestselling biography Thomas Cromwell, takes us behind the scenes of Henry VIII’s court and sheds new light on the most notorious Tudor monarch through the fresh perspective of his male relationships.

‘An outstanding work of historical artistry, a brilliantly woven and pacy story of the men who surrounded, influenced and sometimes plagued Henry VIII.’ Alison Weir

Henry VIII is well known for his tumultuous relationships with women, and he is often defined by his many marriages. But what do we see if we take a different look? When we see Henry through the men in his life, a new perspective on this famous king emerges.

Henry’s relationships with the men who surrounded him reveal much about his beliefs, behaviour and character. They show him to be capable of fierce, but seldom abiding loyalty; of raising men only to destroy them later. He loved to be attended and entertained by boisterous young men who shared his passion for sport, but at other times he was more diverted by men of intellect, culture and wit. Often trusting and easily led by his male attendants and advisers during the early years of his reign, he matured into a profoundly suspicious and paranoid king whose favour could be suddenly withdrawn, as many of his later servants found to their cost. His cruelty and ruthlessness would become ever more apparent as his reign progressed, but the tenderness that he displayed towards those he trusted proves that he was never the one-dimensional monster that he is often portrayed as.

In this fascinating and often surprising new biography, Tracy Borman reveals Henry’s personality in all its multi-faceted, contradictory glory.

~*~

Of all the monarchs in British History, and indeed all leaders throughout history, Henry VIII, one of the Tudor kings, is perhaps one of the most fascinating and complex. We know of his darker side, of how he treated his six wives and the women surrounding them in the palace – the old refrain – divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived – reminds us of the fates of each of his wives:

Katherine of Aragon – divorced.

Anne Boleyn – beheaded.

Jane Seymour – died.

Anne of Cleves – divorced.

Catherine Howard – beheaded.

Catherine Parr – survived.

Most stories talk about how Henry was defined by how he treated his wives, children and the stories of his temper and the beliefs he espoused and the way he is depicted as monstrous in his actions. But there is always more to historical figures than meets the eye. Certainly, Henry – who was the spare in the family, only became the heir when his older brother died, and he was thrust into a world where he was trained to become king. He had of course received a very rich and expensive education, surrounded by many men and in a world where he would have had his every wish indulged. This would have contributed to his later attitudes and assumptions about the world. Here we are shown how the male advisors throughout Henry’s life and reign – Cromwell, William Paget and the other nobles like the Boleyn family, and everyone who had some kind of influence over him, and how he ruled during his reign, and what led him to marrying each wife and developing the Church of England – there were more behind the scenes machinations between these men than many sources reveal.

Whilst, for example, Anne Boleyn may have had some insistence on nabbing Henry for her own, some stories underestimate the power her brother and father exerted over the events that led to Henry divorcing Katherine of Aragon and marrying Anne. Coupled with this was his desire and indeed the desires of those around him – for his wife to produce a male heir. As Katherine had not succeeded, Henry sought to rectify this, and eventually would with Jane Seymour – who would die days after the birth of her son, and was the only wife that Henry seemed to truly mourn for after her death.

This is a very heavy and complex book, with many threads and aspects to take in and that are intricately woven together, so I spent my time with this one so I could fully appreciate the breadth of the history involved and that is quite often boiled down and heavily simplified based on popular ideas and not always based around evidence. What Tracy Borman does is show there is more to the story and how Henry ruled than we already know, and peels back some layers but also adds more, creating an intricate and intriguing history that shows what we see is not necessarily what actually happened and whilst Henry acted of his own volition, there were also other forces behind the scenes influencing him and those around him.

Booktopia

Lethal White (Cormoran Strike #4) by Robert Galbraith

lethal white.jpgTitle: Lethal White (Cormoran Strike #4)

Author: Robert Galbraith

Genre: Crime/Mystery

Publisher: Hachette/Little Brown

Published: 18th September 2018

Format:  Paperback

Pages: 650

Price: $32.99

Synopsis: LETHAL WHITE is both a gripping mystery and the page-turning next instalment in the highly acclaimed series featuring Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott, written by J.K. Rowling under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith.

‘Hugely absorbing. . . the best Strike novel yet’ SUNDAY MIRROR

—–

When Billy, a troubled young man, comes to private eye Cormoran Strike’s office to ask for his help investigating a crime he thinks he witnessed as a child, Strike is left deeply unsettled. While Billy is obviously mentally distressed, and cannot remember many concrete details, there is something sincere about him and his story. But before Strike can question him further, Billy bolts from his office in a panic.

Trying to get to the bottom of Billy’s story, Strike and Robin Ellacott – once his assistant, now a partner in the agency – set off on a twisting trail that leads them through the backstreets of London, into a secretive inner sanctum within Parliament, and to a beautiful but sinister manor house deep in the countryside.

And during this labyrinthine investigation, Strike’s own life is far from straightforward: his newfound fame as a private eye means he can no longer operate behind the scenes as he once did. Plus, his relationship with his former assistant is more fraught than it ever has been – Robin is now invaluable to Strike in the business, but their personal relationship is much, much more tricky than that . . .

The most epic Robert Galbraith novel yet, LETHAL WHITE is both a gripping mystery and a page-turning next instalment in the ongoing story of Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott.

~*~

Lethal White is the fourth novel in the Cormoran Strike series by Robert Galbraith, the nom de plume of J.K Rowling. In this novel, we begin with the marriage of Robin Ellacott, following a rather turbulent case that has almost ended her career with Strike, but she is drawn back in, much to her husband’s disapproval. Set in 2012, around the time of the London Olympics and Paralympics, as well as other elements of politics that are present in relation to what is going on in England. Amidst all of this, comes a complex case, starting with a young man who comes to Strike claiming he witnessed a murder as a child, Strike begins to investigate, and he is led to a secretive inner sanctum residing in Parliament, and a sinister manor house in the country – where secrets abound between family and friends, and lies extend into a community far beyond as Robin and Strike work together, using undercover aliases to infiltrate various places that each person involved in the case is linked to, to uncover the truth, which turns out to be stranger, and much more complicated than Robin and Strike had ever thought it would be – this is not a cut and dry case, and with people hiding secrets all over the place, and it will take all of Robin and Strike’s skills and bravery to uncover the truth.

Lethal White is a dense mystery novel, with many strands that are woven in and out of the plot in an intricate and fascinating fashion, engaging the reader, though there is a lot to take in, it all ends up coming together at the end, even when some threads seem unrelated – the final chapters will bring it together and allow the reader to feel like a decent conclusion has been made – as well as seeing justice served. In this sense, the intricacy of plot and plethora of characters works, as it allowed for links between characters that might not have been considered to be discovered and their involvement in the crimes Strike investigates would go by the wayside, and people would get away with all kinds of crimes, and justice would not be served.

It is a dark and gritty world they enter, a world where the private detection services they provide bring events and people to light that were once hidden – a place where people reveal themselves to Robin and let their guard down with her as she injects herself into their lives to obtain evidence and uncover secrets that have been hidden for a long time, and also uncover truths that Billy’s mind has hidden from him for many years, blocking out trauma and events that he misinterpreted as a child, yet that had some kernel of truth within what he said he had seen – events that led him to ask Strike and Robin for help.

I enjoyed this novel, with all its intricacies and depth that revealed more about Robin and Strike, and what this job means to them. Even though I have not had the chance to read the second and third novels in the series yet, it was easy to pick up on past events, as they were referred to, and I can go back and read the others.

Private detectives like Cormoran bring a fresh look and take on the crime genre and provides a new look at how crimes can be investigated and solved beyond the usual police detectives. An intriguing novel and series for crime lovers.

Booktopia

Bright Young Dead (Mitford Murders #2) by Jessica Fellowes

bright young dead.jpgTitle: Bright Young Dead (Mitford Murders #2)

Author: Jessica Fellowes

Genre: Crime/Mystery/Historical Fiction

Publisher: Hachette Australia

Published: 9th October 2018

Format: Paperback

Pages: 392

Price: $29.99

Synopsis: The second in the bestselling The Mitford Murders series of Golden Age-style crime novels, soon to be a major TV drama from the makers of The Crown.

‘All the blissful escapism of a Sunday-night period drama in a book’
THE POOL ON THE MITFORD MURDERS

As the glamour of the Bright Young Things crashes into the world of the Mitford sisters, their maid Louisa Cannon finds herself at the scene of a gripping murder mystery.

Meet the Bright Young Things, the rabble-rousing hedonists of the 1920s whose treasure hunts were a media obsession. One such game takes place at the 18th birthday party of Pamela Mitford, but ends in tragedy as cruel, charismatic Adrian Curtis is pushed to his death from the church neighbouring the Mitford home.

The police quickly identify the killer as a maid, Dulcie. But Louisa Cannon, chaperone to the Mitford girls and a former criminal herself, believes Dulcie to be innocent, and sets out to clear the girl’s name . . . all while the real killer may only be steps away.

~*~

Picking up three years after the end of Mitford Murders, on the cusp of the second Mitford sibling, Pamela, turning eighteen, Bright Young Dead sees the return of nanny, Louisa Cannon, and the Mitford siblings – the elder two, Pamela and Nancy are at the forefront of the crime solving, along with Louisa Cannon, who acts as their chaperone, and their policeman friend, Guy Sullivan, partnered with a female constable, Mary Moon. Guy and Mary are busy investigating a crime ring known as the Forty Elephants, and later, a murder that takes place at Pamela’s eighteenth birthday party. During a treasure hunt, one of the guests, Adrian Curtis, brother to Charlotte, is found dead, and the maid, Dulcie, who becomes linked to the Forty Elephants, is accused of the crime. But things are not as they seem, as Louisa, Pamela and Nancy will soon discover, there are many more secrets being kept by Dulcie, as well as many more suspects to consider – suspects that Guy’s boss dismissed but that Guy, Mary, Louisa, Pamela and Nancy are keen and willing to look into and bring the real killer to justice.

The second in the series, I was again swept up in the inter-war and pre-Depression setting of England and London, where the Mitford family, especially the older girls, Pamela and Nancy, are starting to discover who they are, and where they fit into society, and the beginnings of the careers and actions that would make them famous, long before the darkening days of the later years of the nineteen thirties and World War Two. The years of the 1920s, at least for the Mitford sisters, were filled with decadence and parties, and a world caught between the dying years of the Victorian and Edwardian eras of Lord and Lady Redesdale (Mr and Mrs Mitford), and the new generation, embracing social change, the suffragette movement, and a freedom that the older generation refused to understand and tried to quash – ideals that Pamela and Nancy did their best to refute and rebel against, especially Nancy. The group in attendance at Pamela’s party are known as the Bright Young Things, who enjoy parties and treasure hunts. Little do they know what this treasure hunt will end with.

We met Nancy, and got to know her in the first book, and here, it is her sister, Pamela at the forefront, but we see more of Nancy’s character and development as an author here too, as well as their growing friendship with Louisa as the two sisters leave the nursery and the world of their younger siblings behind for adult lives, and the continuing investigations into murders that occur within their circles. Where one person sees a cut and dried case, a maid murdering someone in the social class she serves, and a guest of the Mitfords, the other see complexities that need to be uncovered, and links that are unsubstantiated – and the supposed links between the Forty Elephants and the murderer are questioned by Louisa, Nancy, and Pamela, and eventually, Guy and Mary. These characters are what makes the book – each one is unique and individual, and they complement each other, and create a crime fighting team that ensures justice will be done in a world where many take things at face value.

Filled with rich historical detail about underground clubs and how people managed to have frivolous fun amidst a society that at times, wanted things to be done properly and without being too out there or attracting attention, where morals were purported to be quite important and any hint of impropriety had devastating consequences. These rich historical details cement the story and setting, and are nicely contrasted against the modern feel of the main characters as they navigate a changing world.

While Guy and Mary investigate as police officers, and within the law and what their bosses will let them do, Louisa, Nancy and Pamela use their connections with various clubs and other people i the social circles they move around in to gather more information on Dulcie and her connections to the Curtis family, the Forty Elephants and anyone else who might have been involved. As the novel reaches its conclusion, the characters find themselves faced with the prospect that Adrian’s killer is a lot closer to home than they previously thought – or even considered, which ratchets up the tension, and reveals that the world of the Mitfords isn’t as perfect and as elegant as the parents of Nancy and Pamela like to think. The world their daughters are inheriting is going to be dark and dangerous and these few years before the reality of war hits show the freedom that will be lost in the coming years, and the collision of two different worlds within the same family. It is a series that explores the role of family and society, and the implications of stepping outside of these roles amidst murder and theft, and other crimes, and the changing roles of women, and the new-found freedoms young women like Nancy and Pamela, and later, their sisters, Diana, Unity, Decca and Debo would come to enjoy and understand.

This is a series that is just starting, and that has promise – for historical fiction fans, for crime and mystery fans and for anyone else interested in the series. What I like is that the crime is not always straightforward – that like in any good crime show or mystery novel, the first suspect isn’t always the one who has committed the main crime, though they may be linked to it or the victim in another way – nefarious or not. Like any good detectives, official or not, Guy, Mary, Louisa, Pamela and Nancy follow the case and the clues to ensure the murderer is uncovered and that the wrong person doesn’t take the fall for what somebody else did. All in a day’s work for these intrepid investigators. I look forward to the next book, to see which sister or sibling is the next to take a starring role and how far into the thirties and forties the series will take us.

Again, an intriguing read that swept me up in the mystery and the 1920s world. Keep them coming, because this is a series I adore.

Booktopia

No Country Woman by Zoya Patel

no country woman.jpgTitle: No Country Woman

Author: Zoya Patel

Genre: Autobiography/Memoir

Publisher: Hachette Australia

Published: 14th August 2018

Format: Paperback

Pages: 264

Price: $32.99

Synopsis: ‘An ambitious, nuanced and confident debut: Patel writes with passion, curiosity and purpose.’ Maxine Beneba Clarke, bestselling and award winning author of The Hate RaceForeign SoilThe Patchwork Bike and Carrying The World A fresh and exciting feminist memoir about what it means to never feel at home where you live.

‘I was born in a hospital in Suva, Fiji. I can’t recall ever seeing the building on my trips back to the city, first as a child or later as an adult. I imagine it in shades of blue and brown, the plastic waiting room chairs covered in the fine film of moisture that creeps over everything there. It is not a place I’ve thought of often, but I think of it now and wonder how it has shaped me. I am Fijian-Indian, and have lived in Australia since I was three years old. Memories of my early life in Fiji are limited to flashes, like an old film projector running backwards. I remember a blue dress, a trip on a boat where my father handed me a dried, floating starfish that I clutched in my fingers, determined not to lose it back to the ocean.’

No Country Woman is the story of never knowing where you belong. It’s about not feeling represented in the media you consumed, not being connected to the culture of your forebears, not having the respect of your peers.

It’s about living in a multicultural society with a monocultural focus but being determined to be heard.

It’s about challenging society’s need to define us and it’s a rallying cry for the future.

It’s a memoir full of heart, fury and intelligence – and the book we need right now.

~*~

AWW-2018-badge-roseNo Country Woman by Zoya Patel is a story of identity – the intersection of three cultures and nations across generations – Fiji, India and Australia, and how these contributed to the identity of Zoya, and how the clash of her Fijian-Indian identity, to her, felt like it was at odds with the Australian identity that she grew up with. Zoya grew up in flux and flitting between her Fijian-Indian identity and culture at home with her family, and her Australian identity at school, with friends, that saw her feeling like she had to choose between her identities, and where it took her many years to realise she could embrace both of them equally and find solace in each – that being Fijian-Indian-Australian was who she was and each culture, country and heritage was who she was. Grappling with how to navigate the traditions of her family, parents and the culture they grew up in with her new life in Australia, where she found herself faced with the conflict of trying to embrace an identity as a Fijian-Indian, a migrant and an Australian – all of which were, to Zoya, felt as though they were competing against each other and she could only choose one.

Zoya’s story reflects her own experience as a migrant, as someone of non-Anglo heritage, and her experiences of racism and prejudice.

Zoya’s story isn’t chronological, but rather, thematic. Each chapter is related to a theme, and sometimes various family events: moves, school, weddings, or going back to Fiji to see family – and through these experiences, Zoya felt different all the time – too Australian for Fiji and family, yet too much of her Fijian-Indian identity to be fully Australian – not realising that there was a way for her to be both while she was growing up.

Zoya has also tried to tease out some of the complexities of how we interact in a multicultural society, and the different ways in which people experience privilege and disadvantage – race, gender, sexuality, class, and disability – and how this can differ for each person, yet there are also common experiences of privilege, disadvantage and discrimination that affect everyone in different ways, or ensure there is some kind of hierarchy, even if it is one that we cannot always see and that is not always obvious.

It is eye-opening and reflective, a book where people can learn what racism looks like and hopefully, fight against it and feel like they can – as allies or as those often discriminated against. Zoya teases out the complexities of all these issues, through her lens but also, through her interactions with various people along the way, looking at as many sides as possible whilst still exploring her identity and what each interaction means, how each interaction affects how she sees herself, then and now, and her journey to reconcile her whole identity as a Fijian-Indian-Australian, who has spent time living in Edinburgh, without having to give anything up, and knowing her identity is a combination of her ancestral and familial past, her life in Australia and her time spent in Edinburgh, where she was writing this book.

I enjoyed reading this, and gaining a greater understanding of what someone like Zoya goes through and how they might deal with it. Zoya’s openness and desire to communicate to her audience is fresh and easy to understand, with a flow to her story that ensures it is engaging, and is filled with humour and humanity, where Zoya discovers what feminism means to her and her identity – an identity that she comes to discover over time, where she can embrace every part of it: as a Fijian-Indian, as a migrant, and as an Australian, and a feminist.

A wonderful memoir that that explores the intersection of vastly different cultures, religions, nations and race, alongside feminism, and how this shaped Zoya and her world, whilst recognising how the factors that make up an individual’s identity – whatever their race, gender, beliefs and ability – are as individual as hers, and whilst there are common experiences related to these aspects of identity, and assumptions made based on these factors, each individual experience is always going to be different in some ways, and similar to the common experiences in others.

Blog Tour Part #2: Interview with Kayte Nunn, author of The Botanist’s Daughter – 12th August 2018

the botanists daughter

Hi Kayte, and welcome to The Book Muse.

First, thank you for taking the time to answer my questions about your latest book, The Botanist’s Daughter, which I reviewed here on the 4th of August for the blog tour. I hope you can answer the following questions in as much depth as you would like to.

  1. What was your initial inspiration for this story, and where were you when it came to you?

About three years ago, I took my young daughter to the Sydney Botanic Gardens for a picnic as it was not long before she was due to start school. It was a sultry late-January day and we were looking for fairies (there is a fairy trail there) and ended up at the Herb Garden. In the middle is a wonderful cast bronze sundial on which is a raised relief of herbs. I put my hand on the warm metal and instantly knew there was a story there – it was like a bolt of lightning. I had a vision of a young, headstrong girl in a similar garden in England and I spent the rest of the afternoon in a daze as I thought more about who she was and what her story might be. I fully believe that stories come and tap you on the shoulder and it is the writer’s job to try and do justice to them.

  1. Gardens, and in particular botanic gardens such as the one in Kew, and the Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney, as well as Anna’s landscaping business play an important role in the story. Following on from where you got the idea, what is it specifically about gardens that you are the most attracted to? Did this attraction help to formulate your plot and characters?

I’ve always loved gardens, and the mystery and magic of growing things (though sadly I have a rather brown thumb, not a green one!). I also love the names of plants and flowers, that often sound like poetry, and have fond memories of listening to my grandmother tell me the names of all those that bloomed in her garden. The scent of tomato plants and greenhouses takes me straight back there.

  1. On the theme of gardens and plants, do you have any favourite literary gardens or plants? When I think of this, The Secret Garden and the plants in Herbology in Harry Potter immediately spring to mind – are there any characters linked to gardens and botany that you like?

AWW-2018-badge-roseThe Secret Garden is a book I have re-read many times. Dickon is one of my all-time favourite fictional characters – a gentle and wise boy who was so in touch with nature. More recently, I loved Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s The Language of Flowersand Garden Spellsby Sarah Addison Allen, which combine two of my favourite things – gardens and magic.

  1. Are you a plotter or a pantser when it comes to writing?

I’m mainly a plotter – I actually have a whiteboard where I map out the main beats of the story – usually once I am a little way in and know where it might go. That really helps me get the emotional structure of the narrative clear. However, I still leave plenty of room for the detours my subconscious might take me on.

  1. The dual timeline is fascinating, and I found it very effective to tell your story – as it has been for several other historical fiction novels I have read over the years. What made you choose this format to tell Anna and Elizabeth’s stories?

My favourite thing about history is when it becomes tangible in the present – an object from the past that still exists today provides a very clear link to that time.

I also wanted to have two characters that could almost have been better placed in each other’s era – Elizabeth is modern, confident and headstrong, whereas Anna is cautious. calm and quiet. I liked having the ability to contrast and compare events in both of the stories.

  1. What challenges did you face when writing the dual timeline, and what were they? Is there any advice you received or something you found out about writing a dual timeline that could help writers who want to use this format?

Near the beginning, I contacted the novelist Kate Forsyth, as I had read and loved her book, Bitter Greens, which has a dual timeline that works really well. She was generous enough to give me the advice to write each one separately, to keep my head in the world of each story, and that is what I did. When I came to stitch the narrative together, though it was mostly surprisingly seamless, it required great concentration not to give away the mystery of the past in the present narrative until close to the end, and to try and remember what the reader did and didn’t know at any given point.

  1. What sort of research did you do, and how intense was the process? What strategies did you use to ensure the process was smooth and accurate?

I’m not certain I used any particular strategies – I looked for as many reference books, both on Victorian everyday life, and Chile in the 1880s, as I could find, from my local library and the State Library of NSW, and read, made notes of points of interest, before starting to write. I spent several months doing this.

During the writing process, when I found myself wanting to know certain facts and details, I stopped to find them out – for example I found a very helpful online community of ship enthusiasts who helped with the type of vessel Elizabeth would have sailed on and from which port; I found photographs of Valparaiso in the 1880s and so could see what the town looked like, which buildings existed then.

I also found a wonderful diary written by a sea-captain’s wife who lived in Valparaiso in the 1830s. This was fifty years before the time of my story, but her descriptions of the landscape and the plants that grew there was an invaluable primary source. I also visited several exhibitions of botanical art and about 19th-century plant hunters in both Sydney and London during the course of writing, and read many letters written by plant hunters when they were on their expeditions.

  1. I love that the novel is distinctly female driven in both the nineteenth and twenty-first centuries by Elizabeth, Daisy and Anna and her family. These relationships were key to the story – what kind of sacrifices did you make in terms of character for Daisy and Elizabeth for the time you set them in, if any, and why?

One of the books I came across in my research told the stories of a number of extraordinarily adventurous women in previous centuries, and when I visited Kew, I discovered the Marianne North Gallery, which houses the paintings of this Victorian adventuress and botanist. So, I knew that I could faithfully create characters who were equally single-minded and brave, even though this was not generally expected of women in those times.

  1. Daisy’s sacrifice after a significant and heartbreaking event in the novel was crucial to the plot and uncovering the secrets that link Anna to Trebithick. The impact these had on me as a reader was profound – i was shocked and saddened but knew I had to keep reading on to find out what happened. Were these scenes and revelations hard to write, emotionally, and how so?

Yes, I remember writing the scene where Daisy discovers Elizabeth and Tomas with my heart in my mouth!

  1. What more can you tell us about the Devil’s Trumpet, its history and what it does? Does it still exist in the world, or is it a mystery plant to many still?

One of the clues in writing the story was a newspaper article I came across online about a rare, poisonous plant (actually a class B drug and illegal to cultivate in England) that had mysteriously sprung up in an English suburban garden. The owners eventually realised that it must have grown from seed imported from Chile that they had been putting out for the birds. That plant is the Devil’s Trumpet – datura.

  1. In Kew, Ed tells Anna that he believes the plant is extinct, or at least, that they have no samples available. Is there any truth in this, or did you take a bit of creative licence with Ann’s cultivation of the seeds in Sydney?

I invented a sub-species of daturaas the plant that Elizabeth went looking for, but when I researched if it was possible to germinate very old seeds I was delighted to find that scientists have successfully grown seeds up to 32,000 years old.

  1. Who was the most challenging character to write, and in what way did you find this to be so?

Damien Chegwidden – I had to rewrite him several times to make him truly villainous, but also not a one-dimensional baddie. I wanted the reader to understand what motivated him – I kept the adage ‘everyone is the hero of his or her own story’ very much in mind.

  1. Damien Chegwidden is of course, the villain in this novel – against anyone who is trying to beat him in finding the Devil’s Trumpet – were there people and situations like this in real life, do you think, of botanists competing to see who could find plants first?

According to accounts I read, early plant hunters were sometimes cooperative and collaborative, although several (particularly orchid hunters in the late nineteenth century) were unscrupulous – or worked for unscrupulous men – and would strip an area of the desired plant, urinate on a competitor’s haul to kill them, or even pull a gun on a rival!

  1. Finally, the ending left things quite open to the imagination – does this mean there is potential for a follow-up, or are you leaving this to the imagination of your readers?

I love stories that leave a question for the reader’s imagination to decide on, and help the story and characters live on in their mind. I hope, in some small way, I managed to achieve this, while still providing a satisfying conclusion.

Any further comments, or anything I may have missed?

The book is ultimately, I hope, about courage: Elizabeth’s is bold and obvious, and Anna’s more subtle, but both have to summon inner strength, albeit in different ways.

Again, thank you Kayte for agreeing to appear on my blog as part of the blog tour for your novel.

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