Natasha Lester chats about her writing

Discover the inspiration behind A Kiss From Mr Fitzgerald

I’m so excited not just to be part of the #blogtour for A Kiss From Mr Fitzgerald, but to introduce you to the author herself as we chat about her writing and her inspiration for this wonderful story. I hope you enjoy meeting her as much I did.

 

Natasha, did you always want to be writer?

I have always loved writing. I was the kind of child who crafted stories for fun and kept notes for book ideas right into my twenties. But I chose to study Commerce at university, which set me on a completely different career path. It wasn’t until I hit my thirties that I had an epiphany… I looked at my life and thought, hmmmm. Everything was fine on the surface. I’d recently married my fabulous husband, I had a great job as Senior Brand Manager for Maybelline cosmetics, I was living in a gorgeous apartment in Melbourne; what more could I want?

I didn’t want more exactly, but I wanted something different. As much as I loved having a cupboard full of more lipstick than I could ever use, I was pretty sure I didn’t want to be doing the same kind of job in five years’ time. That’s when I quit my job, went back to uni and decided to pursue my dream of being a writer.

How easy did you find it sit down and write your first novel?

A Kiss from Mr Fitzgerald was actually my third published novel. My first two novels are works of contemporary literary fiction – incredibly different to what I write now. My first book came out when I had three children under the age of five. I had written the entire thing during their nap time between 12:30pm-2:30pm every day. It was, as you might say, a challenge! But I loved it, so I just kept going – and I’m so glad I did!

What drew you to write historical fiction, as opposed to say, thrillers?

I made a conscious decision to switch genres to historical fiction, mostly because its what I love to read. Theres nothing better than being swept away to another time and place. I adore writing sweeping love stories about courageous women set in an exciting time in history

Did you find it difficult to get published?

My first book won a prestigious writing prize in Western Australia – the TAG Hungerford Award – and the book was published as part of that prize. Getting A Kiss From Mr Fitzgerald published was perhaps even more difficult because it was a departure from what Id already published and I had to change agents and publisher. Basically, I threw caution to the wind and wrote from my heart. Luckily, another Australian literary agent loved it enough to take it on and the book ended up receiving offers from a number of publishers.

What was the initial inspiration for A Kiss From Mr Fitzgerald?

I read a biography about the poet Emily Dickinson and one of the things it touched on was the fact that in the mid to late nineteenth century, a very small number women began to go to university for the first time, even though it was very much frowned upon by society. Of course, these days, women go to university and nobody thinks twice about it, so I was fascinated by the idea that university used to be, for women, an exception rather than the norm.

That got my novelist’s brain ticking and I began to wonder what would be the most socially unacceptable thing for a woman to study, because we authors like to make our characters suffer! I did a bit of digging and found out that medical schools were very late to admit women—in my novel I use Columbia University in New York, which didn’t admit women until 1918—and that even after studying to become a doctor, actually practising as one was a huge challenge. I then discovered that, of all the medical specialities, obstetrics was one of the last to be broken into by women, which really makes no sense as women are the ones who give birth!

That was when I knew I had my story. I would write about a woman struggling to become one of the first female obstetricians in New York City. Add to that an idea I’d had about ten years ago to write about New York’s infamous Ziegfeld Follies, and it all started to come together in a very exciting way.

Your heroine Evie is determined to train as an obstetrician, and the book contains some horrific details about childbirth in the 1920s. Was it difficult to research and write?

It certainly wasn’t easy in all senses! I live in Perth, Western Australia, which is about as far away from New York as you can get! But I knew I had to go there and walk the streets that Evie would have walked. In the end, I went to New York twice—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 sifting through papers in the archives of Columbia Medical School. I was lucky enough to be able to access the handwritten lecture notes of one of Columbia’s early female medical students from 1922.

I also found the memoirs of the first female ambulance surgeon in Manhattan, which highlighted much of the discrimination faced by the early female medical students and graduates. And, with gritted teeth, I read through manual on birthing practices that was in use at the time. It was a horrific tome; the attitude expressed towards pregnant women and the way in which labour and birthing were viewed as pathological made me more determined to write the book and expose these aspects of women’s history.

I loved the contrast between Evie’s medical studies and her work at the Ziegfeld Follies – what inspired you to marry up such disparate backgrounds for her?

I loved the world of the Follies and the showgirls were almost like the very first celebrities. But once again, as with obstetrics, backstage at the Follies was a woman’s world, but it was dominated by men who exerted their control over women’s bodies and made judgements about them. I thought that juxtaposition between two seemingly opposite worlds, where women were treated in a similarly appalling fashion, was worth exploring.

Evie is a woman of such contrasts – focused on a career, yet open to falling in love. Do you see her as a feminist trailblazer?

Yes, definitely. What Evie did, in wanting to become an obstetrician back in 1922, was unthinkable. And she knew it. But she didn’t let it stop her. That isn’t to say she wasn’t scared about the idea of suddenly having to support herself, or saddened that her parents and sister refused to speak to her, or worried about what her career choice might mean for her fledging relationship with Thomas Whitman. She felt all the fear and the heartache and the anxiety but she kept on fighting for what she believed in, for what she wanted to do.

Tell us a little about the other women in the story – what was your inspiration for Mrs Whitman, Evie’s mentor? Do you think Evie’s own mother and sister could have been more like her?

Mrs Whitman was a gift from the writing muse! She fell onto the page one day while I was writing and I fell in love with her. I loved the way that, as an older woman, the reader might expect her to be more conservative and to therefore not support Evie – but she does. It’s more interesting as a writer to write against stereotype and to play around with reader expectations. I think it makes the characters come to life on the page – as I hope Mrs Whitman does!

The story moves from grit to glamour and back again. How easy was it for you to switch back and forth in Evie’s different worlds, giving us scenes of childbirth followed by descriptions of glamorous party dresses!

I think it’s important to be realistic – life is both horror and beauty and if you only write about one of those things, then you aren’t writing about all of life. Especially for women both in the past and now – it’s interesting to unpick the way female beauty is perceived and used and how women can use seemingly feminine things like dresses to rebel, like Evie does in the book.

What do you hope readers will take away from A Kiss From Mr Fitzgerald?

I hope they feel transported to another time and place – an era that was glamorous, yes, but posed incredible challenges for women. I hope readers are inspired by Evie’s bravery and her courage.

A Kiss From Mr Fitzgerald would make a great film! If one is made, who would you like to see playing Evie and Thomas?

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 off being a girl in her early twenties!

What can we look forward to from your next book?

My next book is The Paris Secret and it’s about Dior gowns, female pilots, the incredible Resistance heroine Catherine Dior and lots more!

That sounds so exciting, and I can’t wait to read it.  Thanks so much for your time, Natasha – we’ll leave you to get on with your writing now.

 

A Kiss From Mr Fitzgerald is out now in paperback, RRP £8.99.

Click here for my full review and for more about the #blogtour

For more about Natasha’s books, visit her website here

Follow her on Twitter @Natasha_Lester and on Instagram @natashalesterauthor