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INTERVIEW: Natasha Lester

Friday, May 11, 2018

Today I welcome Natasha Lester, author of The Paris Seamstress, to the blog.

Are you a daydreamer too?

Yes! I always have been. My daydreams were somewhat dramatic when I was younger, and spurred on by whatever I was reading - when reading Little Women, for instance, I daydreamed about having a sister who died; when reading What Katie Did I daydreamed about breaking my back and lying in bed for months on end. Thank goodness none of it actually happened to me, but I think my daydreaming habit is part of what made me want to be a writer – it’s the chance to, through words and stories, always be living another life besides your own as you write each book.

Have you always wanted to be a writer?

Another yes! My mum has kept lots of little books and stories and poems that I wrote when I was younger. I was always writing or reading and I dreamed of one day being able to do, with words, what other writers had done for me: sweep me away to another world for a few hours.

Tell me a little about yourself – where were you born, where do you live, what do you like to do?
I live in Perth and was born in Perth; I’ve lived in London and Melbourne too but Perth is definitely home. I love to read - of course! - and I also love to drink tea, go to yoga, go for long walks by the water, cuddle my gorgeous children, travel and collect vintage fashion.

How did you get the first flash of inspiration for this book?
I had the first flash of inspiration for The Paris Seamstress when watching the documentary, Dior & I, about Raf Simons’ tenure as Creative Director of the House of Dior. While watching the movie, I had a vision of a mother and daughter working together in a Parisian atelier and, while it took me months to work out who they were and what their stories might be, the seed for The Paris Seamstress was sown in that movie theatre.

How extensively do you plan your novels?
I don’t! I write a synopsis for my publisher and then I throw that away and start writing. I have tried to plan but it just doesn’t work for me; I can’t see the story in advance of writing it. I have to feel my way into it by getting the characters onto the page, by getting to know them, by letting them show me what the story actually is.

Do you ever use dreams as a source of inspiration?

Rarely, but I had a very vivid dream that prompted the contemporary storyline in The Paris Seamstress. Up until that point, the book had been just a historical novel but I dreamed one night about a new character, the main character Estella’s granddaughter in fact, and it was so vivid and so compelling I had to get up at four in the morning and write it all down. It was the most productive sleepless night I’ve ever had!

Did you make any astonishing serendipitous discoveries while writing this book?
Yes! When I began writing The Paris Seamstress, Estella, the main character, was going to be a traditional seamstress. But I went to Paris to research the book and a tour guide took me to an atelier where they practice the traditional métier of artificial flower making.

If you’ve ever seen a picture in a magazine of a Christian Dior or a Chanel gown in particular, you’ll notice that they’re often decorated with flowers. Haute couture has eight traditional métiers and flower making is one of them and the process was so fascinating that, as I sat in the atelier watching the women work, I knew Estella would have to do that same thing in my book. I went to New York after Paris and visited The Met, which always has a fabulous costume exhibition. Their exhibition that year was on the traditional haute couture métiers and featured an extensive collections of dresses featuring flower-work. The universe was definitely telling me it had to be Estella’s job!

What is your favourite part of writing?
Rewriting. I do love the flow of the first draft once I get to about 50,000 words. But because I am an inveterate pantser, I find first drafts quite scary as I never know if the story will work out. With redrafting, I have the story there and all I need to do is make it into the best possible version, which is a process I much prefer.

What do you do when you get blocked?

Because I only write in school hours (I have three young kids), I never have enough time to write so I never get blocked. If I’m facing a tough scene and I don’t know how to write it, I’ll go for a walk or go to yoga. Quiet thinking time, while doing something meditative like walking or swimming or yoga or even washing the dishes, is the best way to solve story problems.

Who are ten of your favourite writers?

Margaret Atwood, Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, AS Byatt, Dorothy Dunnett, Kate Atkinson, Joan Didion, Hilary Mantel, Paula McLain, Shirley Hazzard

What do you consider to be good writing?
When you forget you’re reading a book and feel as if you’re actually living in the world of the story.

What is your advice for someone dreaming of being a writer too?
Don’t give up! Dani Shapiro calls this, more elegantly, endurability. It means that you have to write for the love of writing itself, not for anything else. That love will sustain you through all the highs and lows and thorough the long years it takes to both write a book and have it published. If you give up, you just never know what might be around the corner, and you should never give up on something you love.

What are you working on now?
A book called The French Photographer, which is inspired by Lee Miller, a Vogue model turned photojournalist in WWII. She was an incredible woman and while my book isn’t strictly based on all the events of her life, my main character is heavily influenced by Lee’s work.

You can read my review of The Paris Seamstress here.
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