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How to Write a Bestselling Novel – an Interview With Natasha Lester

It’s interesting now that I’m doing more historical research. Each story comes out of the research that I’ve done for the previous book. So The French Photographer came out of something I found when I was researching The Paris Seamstress, and my 2020 book came out of something that I found when I was researching The French Photographer.


Mel                 An Interview with Natasha Lester. We’re talking about Natasha’s books, The Paris Seamstress and The French Photographer. You can listen to the podcast here.


Natasha          I’m quite fashion obsessed, particularly in vintage fashion. I’ve loved vintage fashion for a long time, and I’m a self-taught fashion historian. I’ve never done anything academically in the area but I read widely about fashion history and it’s a passion of mine, so I always like to include it in my books. All of the dresses the main characters wear are based on genuine pieces from the time and I do describe them in a little bit of detail, which a lot of readers comment on.


When it came to writing The Paris Seamstress, which was an entire book about the birth of the ready-to-wear fashion industry, that was my dream come true. I could let my passion for fashion roam completely wild. I did a lot of research into the birth of ready-to-wear in the late 1930s and early 1940s and looked at some of those designers who really led the way in that industry – many of whom we don’t hear of anymore, which is such a shame. They were absolute trailblazers for their time and some of their clothes are so iconic. They still haven’t dated. They’re timeless, they’re classic.


Mel                 Your idea and your inspiration for this came, in part, from a podcast you were listening to on early New York. I was fascinated when I heard that.


Natasha          This book was a little bit torturous to start. The very first germ of the idea – even before the podcast – was I’d been to see a documentary Dior and I, which was about Raf Simons and his tenure as the head of Christian Dior. I loved the documentary and the gowns were amazing.


But while I was watching, I had this very clear vision in my head of a mother and daughter working together in a Parisian atelier. But whilst that was in my head, there wasn’t a story. It was literally just a one-scene vision. I thought, ‘I can’t really do anything with that. I need a story.’ And I didn’t have one.


And so I played around with writing. I like to do what I call my pre-first draft, which is 20,000 words that I knock out in November and then let sit for a couple of months before I see what story is in there.


So I’d written this 20,000 words and I still didn’t know what the story was. I was starting to panic. And that was when I happened to sit down and put on the Bowery Boys podcast, which is a podcast about New York. This particular episode was about the Garment District in New York. It’s kind of a broad episode – it covers a lot of fashion history of New York. One of the little snippets in there was that it was really the Second World War that allowed New York and other places around the world to find their own fashion industry, because Paris was suddenly shut off from the rest of the world because of the German occupation. Up until then, everything that anyone wore anywhere in the world was a direct knockoff of a Parisian design.


I knew that Paris had been heavily copied but I didn’t realize the extent to which it had happened. Young girls – and the Stella character in The Paris Seamstress – were employed to go along to the Paris fashion shows and sit in the audience, subtly sketching the designs into their program and basically then sell them on to the department store buyers in the USA. They would then make up their own genuine Chanel copies.


Once that whole copying industry was shut down by the war, everybody else around the world had to discover their own fashion sensibilities and start to allow designers to design clothes within their own country. So it was that podcast episode that made me think, ‘Okay, I can take that vision I’ve had of the mother and daughter sitting in the atelier, and attach that to a story about the birth of the ready-to-wear industry in New York in the 1940s. That can be my character’s journey.’


Mel                 This is a new way of research. There a lot of people out there doing our research for us nowadays, aren’t there?


Natasha          Yes, absolutely. Podcasts are amazing. I realized when I was struggling to start The Paris Seamstress that I had been spending so much time writing that I hadn’t been getting out and doing other things to spur on my own creative inspiration. I hadn’t been going to galleries, I hadn’t been going to the theatre, I hadn’t been listening to podcasts, I hadn’t been reading widely. I made a deliberate choice to sit down and listen to my podcast and do things just to keep those creative juices flowing. We are so lucky. There are so many different things that you can do these days if you are having a creative drought.


I also had a fabulous trip researching this book. I actually hired a private tour guide in Paris to take me around the historical fashion area, which is called Le Sentier. She was amazing, so she got me into an atelier. I spent a couple of hours there watching the women at work and it was really interesting. Up until that point, my intention for Stella, the main character, was that she would be a traditional seamstress – using needle and thread, or a sewing machine.


But the atelier that I visited makes the silk flowers for couture dresses. I hadn’t realized that that was a separate part of the fashion manufacturing process. There are seven traditional metiers in Paris attached to haute couture – leather work, flower work, lace work, embroidery, etc. I was in one of only two existing flower work studios, watching the women make these amazing flowers. It is incredibly complicated and incredibly amazing to look at. I just sat there for hours, snapping photos, asking them questions about what they were doing.


My guide also took me around the Marais area in Paris, which is a big setting for the book. There are lots of old nobles’ townhouses in the moraine called hôtels particuliers, and one of those is essential kind of setting in my book. A lot of those amazing houses were abandoned and derelict during the Second World War.


My guide took me to places that I didn’t know existed, like the theatre of the Palais Royale. We walked through the courtyard of the Palais Royale on our way to the Frontière, and there was a waiter outside sweeping the path. My guide started chatting to him – she obviously knew him – and it transpired that he had the keys to the theatre of the Palais Royale. He asked whether I would be interested in going in and having a look, and I said, “Yeah, that sounds great” – not really having any idea what I was about to stumble upon. We walked up this amazing, winding staircase, got to the top, walked into theatre – and I think I literally stood there immobile for five minutes looking around. It was the most gorgeous, splendid, amazing place. While I was standing there, an entire scene for the book appeared in my mind. If I hadn’t gone there, I would never have found that place. Moments of serendipity that you haven’t planned are an amazing part of on-the-ground research, and they set book apart and make it better.


Mel                 Putting in the effort, putting in the research, mulling over ideas, and letting your subconscious do some of the work brings out a much better product.


Natasha          Ninety percent of the work of a novelist is thinking time, not actual writing time. As I mentioned before, I do a 20,000-word pre-first draft in November every year – and then my three kids are off on school holidays for the entirety of December and January. It actually works quite well because it means I don’t write at all over that time. Those 20,000 words just sit in my head and starts to unravel into a story, rather than a mess of words that I would never let anyone read.


I sit down in February when the kids go back to school, and I write a first draft. Then every time the kids have school holidays, I aim to finish a draft that I can let sit for two or three weeks. I think about it and come back to it with fresh eyes. I can’t finish a draft and then look at it again the next day and see the problems inherent in it. I need to step away and have that thinking time. That’s where the most valuable ideas occur. I also always take a good month off around July.


Every year I don’t write that’s my research time. I’ll go away overseas and do on-the-ground research, and also just sit for a couple of weeks at home and read lots of books related to the different themes and ideas in the novel. In the course of those years, I’m not actually doing any writing at all – but that’s the most valuable time.


Even when I’m doing the dishes, I have a notepad in the kitchen. I tend to find that every time I’m doing something mundane, when my mind’s not occupied, that’s where you have all the ideas. Or walking, or during meditative yoga. I’m the world’s worst meditator because I literally lie there with a million different scene ideas happening in my head. That’s where the work of writing occurs. It’s when you’re doing the thinking, having the ideas. Then really it’s just a matter of sitting down at your desk and turning those thoughts into words and sentences.


Mel                 Did you go to New York for research as well?


Natasha          Yes! I hired a guide there who was a specialist in New York’s garment district. He took me around the historical garment district, which is quite near Times Square. There’s not much left there now – a lot of it is moved out of the city – but you can still see the old buildings that used to be clothing factories. I also went to the Parsons School of Design archives, because they hold the collection of Claire McCardell fashion illustrations. I sat in there for a day looking over all of her illustrations through the 1940s, just to see how she used to draw, because every illustrator is different – particularly for her, working in space where it’s a quicker process than couture, say. She didn’t have the time to watercolor – they’re really just pencil sketches with swatches of fabric attached to them and written details about the bottoms and the belts and that kind of thing.


Mel                 The buildings in those places in those places so lovely. You talked about your beautiful lodgings in Paris.


Natasha          They’re just so lovely. The Marais has restored those buildings and returned them to their former splendour. What I love most about them is that from the street it’s just a set of wooden double doors and you don’t know what’s behind them. Then you open the doors and traditionally you enter into a courtyard, not the house. The courtyard is usually a beautiful, formal, manicured garden, and behind that is the house. It’s stone and it’s just so amazing and there’s sense of anticipation as you open the wooden doors and step through into the courtyard, and look at what lies behind that.


Mel                 Does your work mean there’s a resurgence of sagas in the publishing industry?


Natasha          Yes, I think there is. At the Romance Writers Conference last year, if you looked at the list of publishers and agents who were attending, many of them mention family sagas. I love those kinds of stories. I love writing anything that takes place over a large period of time and involves multiple generations of family, multiple locations around the world… They’re wonderful stories that literally sweep you away and that’s what I aim to write. Hopefully I’ll sweep one reader away, at least.


Mel                 I wonder whether it’s because of what’s happening in the world – whether we’re actually closing down and wanting to see some more romance?


Natasha          The news is so depressing lately, and you have to make yourself watch because you have to know what’s going on in the world and to be the advocate for change in the areas that most affect you – particularly with everything that’s happening with women at the moment. It’s all really important but it is hard to always be struggling and fighting and looking at what’s happening and despairing. You research something like the Second World War and see all of the terrible things that happen and think, ‘How can we ever let something like that happen again? Why don’t we learn from history?’ Then you see the evidence all around you of us not learning from history. It’s really quite sad. I think that’s probably the hardest part of the research for me – that sense that we don’t learn and we keep making the same mistakes. I feel like sweeping everybody up and passing them some of the things that I’ve read – if everybody sat down and read this, surely we wouldn’t still be doing these things.


So yes, maybe it is something like that. I love to read books that help me to escape from all of that, just as I love reading books that are realistic and set in the nitty gritty of what’s happening right now. It helps you reinvest and inspires you to keep fighting. Perhaps it is a sign of the times that we need to have both, the escape and the reality.


Mel                 I wanted to talk a little bit about the writing process, which you touched on already. You’ve got intricate plots and dual narrators – it must take a lot of work.


Natasha          Again, if I knew how I did that, I’d be a much better writer. I’m an inveterate pantser – no matter how hard I try to plot, it doesn’t work. My ideas don’t like to be forced. They like to unfold page by page, as they do for a reader. I have to unravel it – what is the plot, what is the story? At first I didn’t even know this book was going to be a dual narrative. At first it was purely a historical story. The contemporary narrative got written later and then threaded in throughout the story. I don’t recommend doing it that way, but that’s just how it works for me. I just write my first draft and get it all out.


I’m working on 2019’s book, which is called The French Photographer at the moment. Because if worked for The Paris Seamstress, what I’ve done is just written the historical storyline first and then written the contemporary storyline. In the second draft, I start to look at how those two storylines can be woven together. If I was to write a few chapters of one and then think, ‘Oh, the contemporary storyline should come in now,’ and write a few chapters of that, I would lose the thread. I need to be immersed in one storyline until I’ve nutted it all out, and then immerse myself in the other storyline. So the first draft is historical storyline, then the contemporary storyline. Draft two is threading them together and adding in all the research that I’ve done. Draft three is making sure the plot is working and the pacing is working and all of that. That’s about the point where I do a bit more planning. I have a couple of charts and tools that I sit down and do to make sure that the narrative has enough tension and the pace is working. That comes quite late for me. I don’t know that I recommend following me. It’s been a bit chaotic, but it works, so I have to go with it.


Mel                 A couple of comments on your blog were, ‘How could you possibly write six drafts? That’s so many.’ There seems to be this idea that you can chuck something out in a couple of drafts and it’s good. And I really want to dispel that myth. The process is hard. Sometimes things don’t work and you’ve got to get back to the drawing board.


Natasha          Absolutely. My first book was thirteen drafts. Since then I have gotten a little bit quicker, but it’s still constant rewriting. I know there are some writers who do their first draft and send it to their publishers. I think those writers do more planning and spend more time on that first draft. My first draft is an eight-week rush to get it all out before I lose the story. So it’s very messy. I don’t even do a spellcheck of it. I think multiple drafts is absolutely the way to go, because you have to keep pushing yourself to make it the best you can be. I never want to make it ‘good enough’. I want it to be the best I can possibly make it at the time, and for me that only comes about through a constant process of rewriting and revising.


Mel                 Perseverance is just the key to writing life.


Natasha:        Absolutely. As a writer, you also need to get used to rejection because it happens all the time, even when you’re a published writer like I am. I’ve been rejected by other overseas publishers with A Kiss for Mr Fitzgerald and Her Mother’s Secret. Last year I also changed things around with the way my rights are managed. Little, Brown – a major publisher in the UK – made me an offer to publish all four of my historical novels, which was great. A couple of weeks later Grand Central offered to publish The Paris Seamstress, so it will be out in the UK and the USA as well as Australia and New Zealand this year, which is very exciting. I can’t even imagine how it would feel to hear that there are people on the other side of the world reading my books.


Mel                 International rights become quite complicated.


Natasha          Absolutely. Even if you go in with the best of intentions and the best advice, it still might not work out. You have to be prepared to constantly reassess the way you’re managing your subsidiary rights – audio and everything else. If you’re pressured to make changes, it can be hard. It often means that you’ve got to take rights off some people to give them to other people. The biggest thing about being a writer is understand that you are managing your own business and you have to be across every part of that business. It’s not just the writing – it’s the marketing, the publicity, the contracts, the legalities, the selling of your rights and your products and your creative output. And you have to constantly be assessing every part of that to make sure it’s working the right way. Sometimes you have to make decisions that aren’t nice and they’re really hard, but you just have to have faith in yourself. You know in your gut what the right thing to do is, and you just follow that through.


Mel                 Have you also sold your ebook rights?


Natasha          Yes. Hachette have bought rights here in Australia and Little, Brown in the UK. I’ve also got The Paris Seamstress coming out in audio on the 27th of March. I love listening to the audition for the narrator – it’s really fun because your book becomes a different thing when it’s spoken aloud. It’s no longer just the words on the page.


Publishers jumping on audio rights is starting to become much more common, particularly as audio is starting to pick up and increase market share. It’s still quite tiny but the growth is massive. I’m a huge fan of audiobooks. I always have one to listen to in the car. It’s becoming more common to have a simultaneous release because readers can get the book in whatever format they want. I don’t care which method people use to listen or read it – whatever works best for them.


Mel                 I should imagine that the meatier sagas would make great listening.


Natasha          I’ve listened to bits of my previous books and you can easily get swept away. It is a different kind of experience to read the words on the page. We’re really interested to see how the narrator works with The Paris Seamstress because her audition was amazing.


Mel                 You sometimes teach with the Australian Writers Centre.


Natasha          Yes. I cut back a bit on teaching last year and then even more this year, just because teaching is often weekends and weeknights – and publicity events are also nights and weekends, so something has to give. But teaching is the thing that always inspires me and reminds me how lucky I am. When I started out I had some great people teaching me, so if I can return the favor to anybody I would love to. I am teaching a course for the Australian Writers Centre in Sydney in April. I’ve also got a couple more coming up. My plan is to run a writing retreat on the east coast, probably somewhere in New South Wales. I’ve been getting quotes in from venues. It’s just a matter of finding the time to sit down and go, ‘Yes, that’s when I can do it,’ and getting it all locked in.


Mel                 Tell us about The French Photographer. Have any podcasts or documentaries dropped out of the sky to inspire you?


Natasha          The French Photographer will be out in late March, 2019. It’s interesting now that I’m doing more historical research. Each story comes out of the research that I’ve done for the previous book. So The French Photographer came out of something I found when I was researching The Paris Seamsrtress, and my 2020 book came out of something that I found when I was researching The French Photographer. Each book is inspiring an idea for the next, and in each book I bring back the main character from the previous book in a bit of a cameo role. It’s a bit of continuity. People who’ve read the books really like to see them pop up again, albeit briefly.


Mel                 It’s been a privilege to talk with you, and I wish you all the best for The Paris Seamstress and The French Photographer.


Natasha          Thank you so much.


About the author, Melinda

I'm an authorpreneur, English teacher and podcaster who dreams of a life on the road full of adventures and handsome heroes, whilst making squizillions of dollars in book sales to pay for my chocolate fix. In the real world, I write novels and non-fiction, and offer my expert advice via online courses (as soon as I make them) and writing retreats (as soon as I organise them).

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