Interview – author Natasha Lester
I read Natasha Lester’s latest book, A kiss from Mr Fitzgerald, over two nights and sneaked in half a chapter here and there. Evie is a fascinating character in her own right, but when you add her culture – 1920s New York, medical school and the Ziegfeld Follies – you add another layer to her character.
Natasha is also the author of What is left over, after and If I should lose you, both contemporary novels. Natasha is a generous blogger – she blogs about her writing process and the books she’s reading, with many useful tips for writers. As a reader, I’m always interested in Natasha’s video bookclub chats to find some new stories to read and as a writer, I’m keen to learn as much as I can from Natasha’s tips. I’m grateful she has agreed to be interviewed for my blog!
KC: For any readers who haven’t heard about your book, can you tell us what it is about?
NL: A Kiss from Mr Fitzgerald is about Evie, whose mother wants her to marry the handsome and wealthy boy next door. But, it’s 1922 and women are just starting to work and to live away from their families and to earn their own money. Evie thinks she might like to do this too, rather than marry immediately, and a horrific experience of helping a woman give birth in secret by a river, makes Evie determined to put her science classes to good use and to be one of the first women to go to medical school.
It’s a battle though: society and her parents are scandalised by her decision, the medical school isn’t eager to admit more women to its ranks, and Charles, the boy next door, isn’t sure he wants to marry a woman who is doing something so unconventional. So, Evie has to decide: does she follow her dream and risk losing everyone she loves, or does she become like her mother, content to spend her days on embroidery and afternoon naps?
KC: Evie is such a likeable character – she’s privileged and hardworking, ambitious and kind-hearted, naïve and later a little hardened. She’s also a Zeigfeld Follies girl and a medical student! What did you do to get to know Evie and develop her?
NL: The first thing I did was just write the first draft, to see what her story was and what kind of person she might be. Then I did a lot of research into the Ziegfeld Follies and the experiences of the first female medical students and this showed me how tough and stubborn and uncompromising she would need to be, how much of herself she would have to be willing to give up in order to chase after her dream. I re-wrote the book with this in mind, making her more determined, but also showing her courage: that she was afraid and lonely but she kept going because she wanted to help women, and she knew that there was nobody else who would do what she’d set out to do. So she evolved very organically, taking shape with each draft and with the research, which is the way I like all of my characters to emerge.
KC: The setting is almost like a character – what did you do to research New York in the 1920s?
I went to New York a couple of times—the first time I got stuck in Hurricane Sandy, which was an awful experience so I had to abandon all hopes of research. I went back a few months later and had a wonderful time in the archives of Columbia Medical School, sifting through the lecture notes from one of the first females to go through the school.
I also went to the New York Public Library’s Theatre on Film and Tape division at the Lincoln Centre and pored over boxes of wage sheets, programs, letters, and photographs about the Ziegfeld Follies, which Evie joins in order to support herself through medical school.
And I walked the streets of Greenwich Village and the Upper East Side, two locations which feature heavily in the book, and where much of the architecture is the same as it would have been when my characters walked the streets in the 1920s. I studied 1920s transport maps to be sure my characters caught the right trains, a memoir of a female ambulance surgeon, and books and articles about the obstetric practices of the time.
KC: I loved how the sibling relationships between Evie and her sister Viola were mirrored by the relationship between the two Whitman brothers, Thomas and Charles. Did you set that up deliberately or did that theme emerge as you wrote the book?
NL: I’d wanted to write a book about two sisters from the outset, and I also had the idea of them living next door to two brothers, and that one of the brothers would end up with the sister nobody expected him to. The rest of it emerged out of the writing: I always find that I start out with the vaguest of ideas and, somehow, in putting words down on the page, the real story behind the idea emerges.
KC: How long did it take to write your book, and what was your process? How many drafts did you work on?
NL: It took about 2 years, not that I was working on it that whole time. When I wrote the first draft in 2013, I still had a 3 year old who wasn’t at school, as well as my 5 and 7 year olds who were. So I wrote during his nap time only and, that year, I wrote the first draft and at least 2 more redrafts. Then, the next year, my son was in Kindy two days a week and I had more time to work on it. By then, I knew I had an agent who wanted to represent the book, but I needed to do another substantial re-write on it. Once that was finished, in late 2014, it was pitched out to publishers.
KC: Did you have any difficult moments during the writing of this book? What made it difficult and what helped you to continue on?
NL: The most difficult thing was thinking it would never be published, and wondering what I would do if it was rejected, and I could no longer justify being a writer. I love writing, and couldn’t imagine doing anything else. But I knew I was taking a huge risk: changing genre, which would mean changing agents and publishers and that, to pull off all 3 of those things was almost impossible. But the thing I’ve learned over the years is that you can’t let any of the self-doubts stop you from writing. You have to sit down and write anyway. So I made myself keep going, despite the fact I was so worried that moving from contemporary fiction to historical fiction might not be the most sensible thing to do! It was what I wanted to do, however, so I just had to go with my gut.
KC: What did you love most about writing this book?
NL: The actual writing. It was the most fun and joyful writing experience I’ve ever had. I loved every minute of it and couldn’t wait to get back to it everyday. I thought about the book constantly. I loved the research, loved evoking the setting of 1920s New York, loved exploring Evie’s character, loved getting the world of the Ziegfeld Follies onto the page, loved exploring the way birthing and obstetrics has changed so much in less than 100 years. And I especially loved making Evie a fighter, who did whatever she could to push against the views of society and the men in charge who thought what she did was preposterous.
KC: A Kiss from Mr Fitzgerald is such a visual book – I can see it as a movie! Who would you like to see play Evie if your book became a film?
NL: This is such a hard question because I hardly ever watch films and so I’m hopeless with remembering actors’ names. If Cate Blanchett was younger, I could easily see her as Evie – although Cate Blanchett is so amazing she could probably pull of being a girl in her early twenties!
KC: How do you manage to stay present for your family and also absorb yourself in your writing? I’m looking for tips, please!
NL: I’m not always present! My family knows that I’m apt to nod my head at them with a glazed look on my face which means I’m thinking about my book and not listening to them at all! What I try to do is to carve out time, and to let them know that I’ve carved out those times. So, when I’m in the middle of a structural edit and need to work on weekends, I’ll let them know that in advance so they understand Daddy is the one in charge and that they need to ask him all their questions. I find that the more I communicate with them about what I’m doing, the prouder they are of me and my books, and so the less they mind if I need to work; they understand that I’m working for a certain amount of time and I will come and play a game with them at the time I’ve promised.
KC: I know your next book is due for release next year. Can you tell us anything about it?
NL: My next novel, due to be published in 2017, begins in England on the last day of the first world war. The main character, Leonora, suffers a huge loss which forces her to move to New York. The book is about the start of the cosmetics industry, and Leonora’s role in taking the lipsticks she used to make in her father’s chemist shop to the women of New York. At the same time, she has to change the way society thinks of cosmetics: that they shouldn’t only be worn by movie stars and ladies of the night but that they can be worn by ordinary women too. Part of the book takes place in the years 1919-1922, and then skips ahead to August 1939, in the month before the second world war.
Thank you, Natasha! Natasha has written a prequel to A kiss from Mr Fitzgerald – so if you’d like to meet Evie, it’s available as a free download here.