Natasha Lester is the author of the international glamour sensation The Paris Seamstress, and has published two other books: Her Mother’s Secret and A Kiss from Mr Fitzgerald.
I was inspired to write it by a few things. Watching the documentary Dior & I gave me me most vivid vision of a mother and daughter working together in a Parisian atelier and that kicked the book off. But I didn’t really have a story until I listened to a podcast on the New York Garment District. It mentioned that, up until WWII, every item of clothing in the world was a copy of a Parisian design but that once Paris was shut off from the world by the German occupation, the rest of the world had to create their own fashion industry. Then I knew I had a story – that it would be about a Parisian seamstress trying to start a ready-to-wear business in New York City.
The contemporary storyline didn’t come to me until quite late and actually helped me to solve my most difficult challenge, which was to unravel the plot knot I had worked myself into. I was flying to Adelaide and I watched the documentary Crazy About Tiffany’s, about the iconic Manhattan jewellery store. At the time I thought it was just an amusing diversion and had no idea that it would spark an entirely new direction for The Paris Seamstress. Up to that point, The Paris Seamstress was purely a historical novel, with all the action taking place in the past. But I’d written myself into a plot tangle that I was having trouble unravelling.
That night in my hotel room in Adelaide, I woke up with scenes literally writing themselves in my head, and those scenes were set in contemporary times – 2015 in fact – and one of the characters in those scenes was the Head of Design at Tiffany & Co. It ended up being the most productive sleepless night that I’ve ever had. I got up and wrote everything down and, in the morning, realised I had a way to solve my plot tangle – by making The Paris Seamstress into a dual narrative, with a contemporary and a historical storyline and that one of the characters in the contemporary storyline would most definitely be Will Ogilvie, Head of Design at Tiffany, clearly invented by my creative mind in response to the documentary I’d watched on the plane.
The most joyous moment was the research – having a tour of a Parisian atelier; stumbling upon the Theatre du Palai Royale, which I knew, as soon as I’d seen it, must go into the book; visiting the hotels particulier in the Marais as inspiration for the mansion in my book; sitting in an archive in Manhattan and looking through all of Claire McCardell’s fashion illustrations from the 1940s; and even attending fashion illustration classes myself!
I’m working on the structural edit for The French Photographer, my 2019 book, set once again against the backdrop of WWII. It follows a former Vogue model turned war photojournalist and is inspired by a real person, and is also a dual contemporary/historical narrative, set largely in France.
There is the scene on the Pan Am flying boat where Estella and Alex have lobster, smoked salmon and asparagus. French pastries also appear a lot, as do sidecars – we could definitely quaff a couple of those! Estella also makes her mother’s chocolate cake in one scene.
I’m a terrible cook! My mum was also a terrible cook so she did not pass on any family recipes. My husband is the cook in our family and he makes me lots of delicious things that his mum used to make for him – pecan pie, summer berry pudding, nutty biscuits. We all have a bit of a sweet tooth in my family!
As I mentioned, my mum was the world’s worst cook and dinners at my house were like torture – overcooked steak with slimy steamed cabbage seemed to be on the menu almost every night. I became vegetarian in protest when I was about 14 in an effort to avoid the overcooked steak. My favourite food as a child was fish fingers every Friday during Lent because even my mum couldn’t overcook a fish finger! Now I can’t bear the sight of fish fingers although I’m a big fish eater and, even though I said I can’t cook, I do cook fish very well – I still don’t love red meat although I’m learning to enjoy it more as I grow up! My mother scarred me almost for life!
Women’s Weekly’s Sweet Old Fashioned Favourites. It was my husband’s mother’s book and is full of classic and delicious recipes that never fail. We just made lamingtons from it this weekend and they were sensational! The gingernut biscuits are my failsafe quick and easy recipe if guests are popping by on short notice.
I have so many food excerpts in my 2019 book, The French Photographer, that my editor said she was permanently hungry reading the book! In lieu of that book not being ready yet, there is the Midnight Dinners scene in The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern which I absolutely love.
Dior – I went to a Dior exhibition in Paris last year, and one in Melbourne and I am completely obsessed with his designs. I just bought my first vintage Christian Dior dress and I’m working on a book for 2020 that features 65 Dior dresses.
Anything with ginger in it – ginger cake is one of my favourites.
We went to France last year and stayed in a couple of chateaux and the breakfasts there were just so good that I would go back there for my death bed meal. No bread tastes as good as fresh french baguette and those cheeses – heaven! I’d have to have a glass of champagne to accompany it of course!