Natasha Lester’s third book, A Kiss from Mr Fitzgerald, will be published by Hachette Australia in April 2016, with her fourth book, Her Mother’s Secret, to follow in April 2017. She is the author of the award-winning What is Left Over, After (2010) and If I Should Lose You (2012). The Age newspaper has described her as ‘a remarkable Australian talent’. She has been the recipient of grants from the Australia Council, and a writing residency from Varuna, The Writers House. Her work has also appeared in The Review of Australian Fiction and Overland, and the anthologies Australian Love Stories, The Kid on the Karaoke Stage and Purple Prose. In her spare time she loves to teach writing, she’s a sought-after public speaker, and she can often be found drinking tea, doing headstands at yoga or playing dress-ups with her three children.
Preparation meets Opportunity
“I always wanted to write. I went back to university to do a masters degree in creative writing, at Curtin University. As part of my thesis I wrote my first book, which won the TAG Hungerford award, and it all went from there. It’s a different thing, thinking you want to be a writer to knowing you do, to being a writer. Learning how to write made me realise I did really like it – and also you don’t know if you’ll be any good.
“I read a lot of great work that hasn’t been picked up… just because the timing isn’t right or it hasn’t got to the right person. I think there’s a bit of luck involved with that, unfortunately. But it’s also got to do with, I think, that Seneca quote, ‘luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.’
“My first book, What is Left Over, After was published with Fremantle Press. It will always have a special place in my heart and I love the people at Fremantle Press. My new novel is called A Kiss from Mr Fitzgerald – it will be published in April 2016. Writing A Kiss From Mr Fitzgerald was a bit of a gamble. I had written two novels that were contemporary women’s fiction, and the most logical thing to do would’ve been to write another, but I really wanted to write this book. It gets harder – when you have a couple of books behind you, that are good but maybe haven’t set the world on fire, a publisher might say, ‘why will this book be any different?’ You’re no longer new and exciting, and the real push from the publisher is to pick a genre and stay there. It’s hard not to be pigeonholed.
“The novel is set in 1920s New York, and it’s the story of a woman who went on to become one of the first female obstetricians in the United States. The medical colleges in the United States didn’t open their doors to women until the end of the First World War, and Harvard didn’t accept women until the 1930s. The 1920s was a great, dramatic time for women: many women had started working during the war, they wanted to keep working: their lives had been transformed. My novel is about this woman’s quest to become an obstetrician in a society that thought that was a completely scandalous thing for a woman to do.
“I went to New York and sat in the archives of the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, and I read the lecture notes, from 1922, of a woman who had gone through medical school there – I read those cover to cover. To support herself, my character becomes a chorus girl at the Ziegfeld Follies, which is an amazing, famous Broadway show that ran until the 1930s, and so I did a lot of research into the Follies. The wife of Florenz Ziegfeld, who ran the Follies, had kept all his papers, and they’re held at the New York Public Library, so I was able to look through them. There were wages, expenditure sheets. Florenz Ziegfeld bought an ostrich for the show – that’s in the papers – I love details like that, I’m a total research nut.”
A Magnetic Connection
“When I get an idea for a book I never sit down and start writing it straight away, I always let it sit in the back of my mind. I find as soon as I have that initial idea, other things that are attached to that idea arrive: words, dialogue, snatches of sentences that come from, seemingly, nowhere – and whether I’m doing the dishes, driving somewhere, in the shower – I have to write them down.
“My writer’s notebook is full of bits of scrap paper; in a drawer in the kitchen there’s drawer full of scraps of paper. A lot of idea-generation and connection stuff happens for me away from the desk, it’s spontaneous. I always have the notion of words as living things flying around, and then, as Elizabeth Gilbert says, they come to you, when you’re receptive. To me, there’s a magnetic connection between words and the idea in your head.
“I was watching a documentary on the ABC about the history of music, a good ten years ago. There was a little piece on the Ziegfeld Follies, and I wrote it down, and I thought at the time, what a great backdrop for a book. When I started thinking about A Kiss From Mr Fitzgerald and the idea of a woman trying to break into medicine, and how she might support herself when her family had thrown her off: she could only work at night, because she was at college during the day, and she needed to make serious money because she had to pay college fees. Then I pulled out a scrap of paper from ten years before and all of a sudden, that was it. Those words that I had written down had a spark in them years ago, but they suddenly came alive when the idea I had became the right idea for those words.”
“When I’m writing I tend to have a book on my desk that in some way resonates with my current work: it’s usually the voice, the voice of the book resonates with what I’m writing. For my second book, If I Should Lose You, it was Joan Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking. For A Kiss From Mr Fitzgerald it was Amor Towles’ Rules of Civility, which is set in 1930s New York. He probably overuses similes but I don’t mind that, I revel in those beautiful comparisons. There are those writers who say, ‘if you can tell it’s writing you shouldn’t write it down’ and he totally breaks that rule.
“Particularly in the early stages of writing a book, when I’m trying to establish a consistent voice, I always sit down and read a couple of pages or a chapter of whatever that book happens to be. It’s an influential part of my writing process: the sound of the book and the words that come from it.
“For A Kiss From Mr Fitzgerald I used a lot of 1920s New York slang. Those words and phrases are fabulous and they got me into the right voice, particularly for a character at the Ziegfeld Follies, who I knew would use all those phrases. Some of the phrases are so way-out; nobody these days would know what they mean. My protagonist, who has had a traditional upbringing, doesn’t know what they mean either, and she’s constantly saying, what the hell do you mean, which gave me a reason to explicate.
“When I was starting out with this novel I was constantly aware of writing in a way that was convincing as an early 20th century voice and also readable for modern day sensibilities. I find if you read the literature from the time it really helps – Fitzgerald, for example, and it’s interesting how modern F. Scott Fitzgerald’s writing is. I was particularly careful not to use words and phrases that would never have been used at that time. The manuscript got to the copy-edit, and the copy-editor found two or three things, and I thought ‘of course they wouldn’t have said that’, which was great, that’s why you have a copy-editor, but I’d been so careful, I couldn’t believe I’d used these expressions. When you write historical fiction it’s something you’re continually thinking about.
“I used to work in marketing for L’Oreal so I spoke fluent French and did a lot of work translating from French to English, including translations for products and packaging. And my French vocabulary of cosmetic terms is quite well developed! I drew on my French for What is Left Over, After – the main character, Gaelle, is French – it was something familiar to me.”
Imagine Your Way In
“For me, sitting down to read an amazing book is the most liberating and freeing experience. You disappear into a world that you would never have been able to access but for the words in that book. When I’m writing, I’m wishing and hoping that I’m able to do that for my readers, to really sweep them away: into 1920s New York, into these worlds that are unfamiliar. The way books create a living picture of the world on the page…
“I think this is the thing you can’t teach writers. There’s a lot you can teach: dialogue, plot, characterisation, but then some writers have a natural affinity with language and they’re able to take those elements and create something extraordinary. If you don’t have that natural affinity you may be able to write a perfectly adequate book but for the reader, it will never be a transportive experience.
“There’s a recent study that says readers are more empathetic people and I can see how that would be true: people who read experience so many different ways of being, of living. And books do that in a way that maybe cinema doesn’t allow, cinema is more prescriptive. The opportunity to imagine your way into the character or story isn’t available.
“These small black marks on a piece of paper have so much meaning: you bring your experience to the process, you get into the world of the story, pull together the metaphors.”
Two Authors, One Book
“I have had this experience with all of my books: there are two people writing the book. The conscious mind, writing scene after scene and the subconscious, feeding themes into each scene. There is a texture that I’m not always aware of initially but I become attentive to it. Returning to Elizabeth Gilbert: she talks about the magic that happens in writing. A lot of people would scoff at that, and say it’s just sitting in front of the computer and banging out words, but I don’t think that’s true. Now that I’m aware of that happening, I can see connections and I can pull themes together more effectively.
“I love the quick and dirty first draft. I have to get that first draft out as fast as possible. When I start writing, the idea for the book is very loose, and small, and I don’t actually know what the story is. The first draft is a discovery draft: what is the story I am trying to tell? If I were to take a long time to write that first draft I would lose track of it. I find the first 15,00-20,000 words the hardest and then after that I set myself the goal of 3000 words, four days a week – so a really big goal. My first draft is unreadable, I don’t fix it; I leave in all the spelling mistakes.
“The second draft is a lot of work. A lot of the story has changed and I will have discovered something in the research that means an aspect of the story isn’t possible. I don’t do a lot of research before my first draft. You can over-research; my first draft is like my research plan. The second draft puts in all the research and turns the work into something readable. At that stage I print out the manuscript, and the third draft is another big draft. After that it’s tweaking.
“I love redrafting. I find the first draft stressful, terrifying. The whole time I have a voice saying this story is not going to work, it’s not going to work, flashing lights in my head, stop stop stop. When I’m writing my first draft I have to remind myself that this happens every time and it will work out and to just ignore that nasty voice and write anyway. It’s really hard. The self-doubt never goes away. Write in spite of it – it keeps you on your toes. You don’t become comfortable…if you wrote feeling comfortable your work wouldn’t be as exciting. It wouldn’t be electric.”
Didion, Atwood, Bronte, Alcott
“I always read, even when I’m writing.
“I first read Joan Didion at university. It was an essay from her collection, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, and I read that essay and fell in love with that woman. The way she writes… no one writes like Joan Didion. Margaret Atwood is another writer I particularly like. The Blind Assassin is one of my favourite books. I used that book when I was writing What is Left Over, After because of the story within a story aspect. I love Jane Eyre and Little Women. They were books that really drew me in; they showed me what you could do if you wrote books. I wanted to be Amy March – she had that artistic temperament…”
“My favourite words are kaleidoscope, beloved and yearning…”
“Kaleidoscope means ‘observer of beautiful forms’ and was named by the inventor, scientist David Brewster.”
From Greek, kalos, ‘beautiful’ + eidos, ‘shape’ + skopos, ‘object of attention, to view’.
In use since the late 14th C. From belove. Love, from Latin lubet, later libet, ‘pleases’ and Sanskrit lubhyati ‘desires.’
Yearn, from Old English giernan, ‘to strive, be eager, desire, seek for, beg, demand.’
“In Big Magic Elizabeth Gilbert talks about how she gets dressed to go to work – at her desk in her home – and some days she doesn’t feel like writing, so she puts perfume and make-up on, to seduce her creativity into appearing. It’s such an interesting idea.
“When I’m in the middle of a book and I know I’ve got a full day of writing ahead and I need to immerse myself in that day of writing I always put these jeans on: they are really old and soft and comfortable. I realised after reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s book that they’re my writing jeans. These jeans have been with me through those focused, energetic, joyful days of being so absorbed in my book that I was literally bashing out the words.
“I bought them in Melbourne. In 2013, in New York City where I was researching my new book, I went to J Brand and bought the exact pair of jeans – I wanted to be able to replace them with a new pair (it’s amazing the crazy things we do). But I’ve never got myself all dressed up to seduce my creativity. I might have to try that one day.”