Natasha Lester is the author of four novels including the acclaimed international bestseller The Paris Seamstress. Natasha’s latest novel is The French Photographer, a historical novel inspired by the true story of Lee Miller, Vogue model turned one of the first female war photojournalists. Kelly Rimmer is the author of six international bestselling books including Before I Let You Go. Her latest novel is The Things We Cannot Say, a searing page-turner of family secrets and the legacy of war.
Natasha and Kelly were the star guests at the Books & Bubbles night in May, an event hosted at Hachette Australia‘s head office in partnership with WHO Magazine where WHO editor Keshnee Kemp sat down with the bestselling Australian authors to talk all things writing and publishing.
We also sent both Natasha and Kelly a couple of book club-related questions for them to ponder over – scroll down to see what they said!
B: Have you ever been part of a book club? If so, what’s the best book you’ve ever read for it?
NL: I’ve been part of several bookclubs over my life but I’m not in one at the moment. The best book club books are the ones that surprise you, books you’d never heard of before and that you come to with low expectations only to find they are completely absorbing. The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery is one that springs to mind. I almost cheated and didn’t read it for book club several years ago but I’m so glad I did – I loved it.
KR: I’m part of a book club that meets (unfortunately) sporadically. The best discussion we’ve ever had was around All The Light We Cannot See. Some loved it, some loathed it and because of the diversity of those reactions, we had a terrifically energised discussion.
B: What is one book that you would LOVE to read for a book club?
NL: Circe by Madeline Miller. I adored that book so I’m choosing it partly because I want everyone in the world to read it. But I’m also choosing it because I’d love to discuss the way readers might come to the story with certain preconceptions about mythological characters, such as Odysseus, based on the more traditional retellings of those myths, and how Miller’s iteration of those characters is such that you feel they shouldn’t ever be written any other way.
KR: Karma Brown’s The Choices We Make would be such a great book for discussion – I’d love to sink my teeth into that one with some friends!
B: Do you prefer books that are plot-based or character driven?
NL: This might be a bit of a writerly answer but I think all books are character driven. Without character, there isn’t really a plot. You have to fall in love with, or admire, or become fascinated by a character first in order for a plot to follow.
KR: I don’t have a strong preference. I love can’t-put-it-down books that are driven by a fascinating plot or strong sense of action or suspense, but at the same time, one of the great pleasures in reading for me is when an author can flesh out a character that feels completely real and craft a journey in that character’s growth that seems genuine.
B: Where do your book ideas come from?
NL: Usually from the research I’m doing for a previous book. I stumbled upon Lee Miller, the woman who inspired me to write The French Photographer, while I was writing The Paris Seamstress, for example. And I found the idea for next year’s book while I was researching The French Photographer. There’s always a detail that you can see deserves its own story, and which you can’t do justice to in the book you’re currently writing, so you save it for a different book.
KR: I’m not really sure. It’s usually a random thought that my mind snags on for some reason, and then as I think about whatever that issue/idea might be, it grows and swells until it’s quite a long story!!
B: How important to you is the setting of a book when you’re writing it?
NL: Very important! I believe in the idea that nothing happens nowhere. I like for readers to be able to really immerse themselves in the places my characters inhabit. I also think that, when you’re writing about war, in order to do justice to the terrible things that happened and to not write over them too lightly, you need to stand in the places you are writing about. For The French Photographer, this meant travelling extensively through Normandy and Paris.
KR: It depends on what the book is. Sometimes, setting is almost irrelevant to the stories I tell. I’ve written four books set in Australia, one of which is set in a purely fictional village. In the cases of those books, I don’t think the setting is all that important to the story – it just give a vague context so readers have an idea what to picture in their minds as the scenes play out. Other times, like with The Things We Cannot Say (which is partly set in Poland and that’s vital to the plot) or Before I Let You Go (set in Alabama and based around a specific local law) the setting is an integral part of the story.
B: If you could re-write your book from another character’s point of view, which character would you pick and why?
NL: Maybe this is a copout but I wouldn’t choose a different character. The French Photographer is partly about the discrimination faced by the female correspondents during WWII and I think my character, Jessica May, inspired by model-turned-photojournalist Lee Miller, is the only one who could make that story work.
KR: In The Things We Cannot Say, Tomasz is an important character in my book who doesn’t actually get to narrate, but I think his perspective would have been fascinating.
B: What was your favourite part about writing your latest novel?
NL: Staying in a French chateau in order to authentically write the contemporary scenes of The French Photographer, which are set in a French chateau! No, seriously, my favourite part was writing the characters of Jess and Dan. They were true gifts from the writing muse; I’ve never had two characters appear so fully formed as they did. They were a joy to write.
KR: The research. I loved delving into the minute detail of WW2 era (and modern day) Poland. After years of researching for this book from Australia, when the time came to actually write, I knew I’d have to travel there in person, so I spent several weeks in the country. I loved every minute of it – that trip was one of the best experiences of my life.
B: What was the hardest part about writing your latest novel?
NL: In the book, there is a character called Warren Stone. He is an amalgamation of several different male Public Relations Officers who I read about, and who treated the female war correspondents very badly. When you’re writing a character who is, in effect the villain, and who is based on men who did some terrible things, it’s hard to dig in deep and find their humanity. But you have to. Otherwise they seem like a caricature. I was so angry at so many of the things that the male PROs did that I found it hard to give Warren that sliver of humanity. I hope I managed it in the end.
KR: The research! I felt a heavy sense of responsibility writing about World War 2. Most of my books are research intensive, but with this book, I felt it was vital to get the detail right.
B: What do you hope readers will get from your novel?
NL: For me, historical fiction is all about saying to readers, on the one hand: look how far we’ve come. Some of the extreme incidents of harassment and discrimination I chronicle in The French Photographer almost seem unbelievable now, because things have changed. However, historical fiction is also about saying: look how far we still have to go, and let’s make sure we never go backwards. In the current political climate, I think it is especially important to make sure we don’t lose the gains that women in history fought so hard for, and which I have benefited from. I hope readers can admire the women I’m writing about and keep fighting to hold onto and improve upon every right those women won.
KR: I hope readers will be encouraged to look back into their own family history, and in particular, to seek the stories of their parents/grandparents while those people are alive to share them.
Thank you Natasha and Kelly!
Books & Bubbles is a quarterly event, an intimate evening designed to give readers the opportunity to meet their favourite authors, discover new ones, and meet fellow fans.
Stay tuned for details of the next WHO x Hachette Books & Bubbles event!
About the Contributor
Olivia Fricot is the Editor of the Booktopian Blog. After finishing a soul-crushing law degree, she decided that life was much better with one's nose in a book and quickly defected to the world of Austen and Woolf. You can usually find her reading (obviously), baking, writing questionable tweets, and completing a Master's degree in English literature. Just don't ask about her thesis. Olivia is on Twitter and Instagram @livfricot - follow at your own risk.
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