I had the great pleasure recently of interviewing the wonderfully generous Natasha Lester, who - almost 10 years ago - was a Writer-in-Residence at KSP working on her first book What Is Left Over, After. That book went on to gain her a T.A.G Hungerford award and the drive to embark on her second novel, If I Should Lose You. Nowadays, Natasha is the hottest name in Perth literary circles, with the launch of her latest novel A Kiss From Mr Fitzgerald in April this year.
Natasha is a valued ambassador of the KSP Writers' Centre and I am delighted to share her words with you here.
Your latest novel, A Kiss From Mr Fitzgerald, is a great achievement (and a great read, might I add). Apart from being accepted for publication with Hachette, what has been the most exciting/interesting part of that journey?
Working with my publisher, Rebecca Saunders, at Hachette. I’ve learned more by working with her on the structural edit of A Kiss from Mr Fitzgerald than I’ve ever learned in 10 years of writing books. I’m so privileged to have her as my publisher; she challenges me, never lets me off easily, and she’s made me a much better writer.
What’s the best compliment a reader has ever paid you?
I’ve had several readers say that they want to be Evie, the main character in A Kiss from Mr Fitzgerald, and that they are in love with Thomas, another character in the book. If someone can feel your character so much that they either want to be her or that they fall in love with him, then that means you’ve achieved everything you set out to do when writing the book.
When writing A Kiss From Mr Fitzgerald, did you develop a crush on any of your characters? (I know I did!)
I’m completely in love with Thomas too. I figure if you’re going to be spending 2 years inside your head and on the page with a man, you might as well make him swoon-worthy!
As a self-confessed person who spends much of her time with imaginary characters, do you find it hard to sleep, when the creative juices are flowing?
Luckily I sleep pretty well and I don’t drink coffee so I’m not an insomniac. That said, there are certain very intense times, like when I’m working on a structural edit or when I’m just starting out with a book, where my characters will occupy me so completely that I have trouble letting them go and getting myself off to sleep.
Writing a historical fiction requires research in order to give your work authenticity. What sort of research did you undertake for this novel?
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.
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.
I also visited Newport, Rhode Island, because Evie and Thomas spend a very romantic weekend there in one of the “cottages”—gilded age mansions that line Bellevue Avenue. And I went to Concord, Massachusetts, which is where Evie comes from, and I visited Louisa May Alcott’s home there.
Your next novel is set during the German occupation of France during WWII. (I hope I got that right?) If Dr Everett Brown arrived at you door in his Delorion (complete with Flux capacitor) which era would you most like to go back to and why?
My next novel, due to be published in 2017, is set in England, and begins on the last day of the first world war. It then migrates to New York, in the years 1919-1922, and then skips ahead to August 1939, in the month before the second world war. The one you’re referring to will hopefully be published in 2018.
The era I would most like to go back to is definitely the 1920s. I remember learning about the 1920s in Year 12 history and thinking it would have been a wonderful time to be alive. It was when women were just starting to work, to earn money, to vote—to see life beyond marriage and children. Plus there’s the jazz, the speakeasies, and the glorious clothes!
If A Kiss From Mr Fitzgerald was to be made into a Hollywood Blockbuster, whom do you envisage playing the roles of your main characters?
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!
Who gets to read your manuscripts before anyone else? (Apart from you of course!)
Nobody! My husband doesn’t like to read early versions because he says there’s no point reading it if I’m going to change it. I have a few writing friends who might read a few chapters but really, until it goes to my agent and publisher, nobody has read it.
What items MUST be on your writing desk, before the creative thoughts can flow?
Tea, water, my notebook, and whichever touchstone book is inspiring me to write my current manuscript. For A Kiss from Mr Fitzgerald, it was Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, Amor Towles’ Rules of Civility and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise.
Apart from writing, what else are you passionate about?
Yoga, my kids, reading, tea, New York, Jimmy Choo shoes, children’s literacy
Not only are you a successful writer, but you also dedicate much of your time to helping other writers, by presenting highly sought-after workshops, courses. Your website is always full of great content about the WA writing scene, book reviews and helpful advice. Why is it important to give back?
Because so many people have helped me in my career. Without them I wouldn’t be where I am today. So if I can help even one person to achieve their dream of writing a book, then I will be very happy.
As a writer with children, what advice would you give other Mum’s or people who work full-time, who want to write, but feel like they can’t squeeze it into their schedules?
To selfishly carve out and protect some writing time. So often we feel guilty for doing this—we feel as if we’re neglecting our children, or chores, or friends or something else. But if writing makes you happy and it makes you feel fulfilled, then you’re a better mother/friend/person because of that sense of personal satisfaction. Life really is too short to always put yourself last, and then to regret that later on.
If your local library was on fire, which five novels, would you run in and rescue?
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, Persuasion by Jane Austen, A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara, The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood and Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion.
In the eyes of your fans and friends, you appear to have it all together. A devoted family woman, a style icon, a smart and educated woman. What are you really bad at?
Ha! I’m terrible at cleaning the house, I’m awful at cooking - so glad I wasn’t a fifties housewife. I’m also completely unable to do hanumanasana at yoga, which is the splits. No way am I flexible enough to make my body do that!
What are your top five writing tips for aspiring writers?
Write anyway. No matter how tired you are, how busy you are, how sick you feel, how terrible you think your work is, how much you don’t feel like it, how much you want to do something else instead, just write anyway. It’s rare that you feel like writing. But once you sit down to do it, it’s amazing how quickly you fall into enjoying it.
Go to things. Go to writers’ festivals, author talks, writing conferences, writing courses. Soak up the world of writing, learn everything you can, let it inspire you, and use it to meet people who love writing. All of these things make you a better writer and bring opportunities your way.
Read Local. Support the Australian publishing industry by buying books written by Australian authors, and buy them from local bookstores. If we don’t support the local publishing industry, it may not be around any more when we want it to publish us. Read. Needs no explanation.
The Re-write. Be prepared to re-write everything more times than you think possible.
Thank you Natasha for taking time out from your busy schedule to talk about what it takes to become a successful writer. The KSP Writers' Centre is very proud to have you as a friend and supporter.
Natasha will be presenting her short course Author Branding with Natasha Lester over 4 Tuesday evenings in August. Click her for details.
The team at KSP wish you luck with your continued journey of success.