A few weeks ago I had a lovely chat with Canberra Times journalist Karen Hardy about writing Precious Things. Here’s the resulting article, which was syndicated across Fairfax newspapers last weekend:
By Karen HARDY
2 April 2016
Kelly Doust is the first to admit she has a weakness for vintage clothes.
She has always been intrigued by the history of a piece, who wore it, their story, and what first drew them to that dress or jacket.
“Ever since I was about 12 years old, I’ve been collecting old frocks,” says Doust. “I’d take whatever fashion magazine I could find to Vinnies and try and recreate certain looks.
“I’d find these amazing dresses which looked like they’d never even been worn and I’d wonder who the women were who owned them.”
But with the collecting comes the editing process – wardrobes “bursting at the seams” takes on a different meaning when it comes to fashion – and one day she was selling some pieces at a flea market and she found herself wondering about the new lives her old clothes might lead.
“One day I’ll write a book just like Annie Proulx’s Accordion Crimes, or the film The Red Violin, about a cheeky little frock who gets about and lives in more cities than I ever will. Wouldn’t that be fun?” she wrote on her blog later than afternoon.
A few weeks later, she received an email from a publisher friend asking her if she’d really be interested in such a project. And the seed for the novel Precious Things was planted.
As the author of several non-fiction books about vintage clothes, craft and recycling, including the best-selling A Life in Frocks: A memoir and The Crafty Minx: Creative recycling and handmade treasures, Doust had always dreamed of writing fiction.
“But I’m enough of a realist to know that fiction is a totally different process to non-fiction. I had all these lovely ideas and stories, but I didn’t have a solid plot, or any real idea of how to get from A to B.”
But then she stumbled across her hero piece. She was visiting her friend, artist Jessica Guthrie, who used to own a vintage clothing store, Coco Repose, and saw a beaded headpiece.
“I couldn’t stop thinking about it, it enchanted and inspired me,” Doust says.
“How many different adventures had it seen in its lifetime? It might have originally been a collar on a wedding gown, but then refashioned into a crown or a choker. It could have been worn as a bracelet wrapped around a girl’s wrist or added as a bodice detail to a latter-day dress. Or displayed as art upon the wall.”
In Precious Things, it becomes a collar, and we follow its journey from Normandy in 1891, as a young girl sews her wedding dress; to Shanghai, in the 1920s, where it belongs to a flamboyant circus performer; in the 1950s it belongs to an artist’s muse.
At the centre of the story, however is a totally modern woman, Maggie, an auctioneer, juggling marriage, children and a demanding job, who finds the crumpled, neglected collar in a box of junk and sets out to discover more about its past.
Doust loved researching the historical aspects of the novel, indeed is fascinated by how fashion reflects the changing lives of women through the ages.
“Through research I’d done for a previous book, Minxy Vintage, I’d already learned how intrinsic the link is between fashion and social change, and wanted to explore this further,” she says.
“It’s far more than just hemlines lowering or raising with the economy – the women of the 1920s chose to cast off the restrictive, corseted styles of the Belle Epoque in favour of a sportier aesthetic.
“This was championed by Coco Chanel in Paris fashion, but only occurred in the mainstream because women were finally entering the workplace and taking on men’s work.”
Doust is already working on a second novel which has many similar themes: family; women looking for love, direction and purpose; history and fashion.
“I think I’ll always weave my books around these themes to a lesser or greater degree because that’s what I love, and because the question of, ‘What am I going to wear today?’, is such an enduring, constant preoccupation for many of us.”
Do you follow Culture Street? It’s a great site featuring reviews of the latest films and books, recipes, giveaways and interviews. I’m thrilled to be featured as their April Author of the Month, and wrote a short article recently about a few of the inspirations behind Precious Things which I thought I’d share with you here:
Desire, marriage and writing fiction
Clothes – particularly vintage and antique ones – are my weakness. I’ve always been intrigued by their history and am constantly fascinated by what we wear and why. That’s why I decided to write a novel about an antique French collar. Precious Things tells the story of the women who wore this special piece; those who created it, loved it and lost it over the course of more than a hundred years, and the crucial events it witnessed in their lives. There’s also a modern-day heroine who, like me, finds herself intrigued by the beaded collar’s mysterious past.
Let me explain: an antique travel trunk covered in peeling labels looking worn and scuffed around the edges isn’t just a rusty, damaged item that’s seen better days. To me it brings to mind tumultuous sea journeys, the smell of salt and gulls cawing, as well as the image of a fetching skirt suit worn to stroll a cruise ship’s upper decks. Or a stiff snakeskin purse with a long-ago tram ticket tucked inside its inner pocket – where was the woman who owned it going that day? Did she meet her lover for lunch, visit a gallery, or find herself fidgeting nervously in a job interview? This is what I mean; I love how old things give us a tantalising glimpse into other people’s lives – lives we can only dream of.
As I started to think about it more carefully, I realised I wanted to write a sweeping, romantic story that took in many generations of women and covered the significant eras of the twentieth century. I started envisaging how the collar – which is later transformed into a headpiece or a ‘coronet’, as I like to think of it – might have come into the various women’s lives.
My favourite part was researching the historical sections. I chose some of my favourite times and places, and my imagination was sparked by long-held passions and what I was seeing or reading at the time. For example, Bella – my 1950s goddess and artist’s muse – came from my love of Fellini’s 1960 film, La Dolce Vita, and the film’s star, Anita Ekberg who was famously pictured gambolling in the Trevi Fountain. Bella’s character was fleshed out for me when I saw an exhibition of Francis Bacon’s artworks. I wanted to feature an artist of some sort in the book, but when I read about Bacon’s muse, Henrietta Moraes, it got me thinking about what kind of world Bella might operate in. Henrietta worked as an artist’s model and became the inspiration for many artists of the Soho scene in the 1950s and 1960s. She was also known for her marriages, love affairs and hedonistic lifestyle, which saw her ending up in Holloway Prison after a failed burglary attempt.
There are other instances in the book where I wove in real-life events and embellished them to enrich the narrative. They say you should write what you love and that’s exactly what I did. I’ve visited each of the cities described – Istanbul, New York, Rome and Shanghai – and used to live in London, so there was also a huge element of nostalgia at play as I slipped into those different places in history and imagined the drama of what my characters were experiencing. Unfortunately my current home (Sydney) doesn’t get a mention, but I’m thinking of remedying that in novel two!
HarperCollins is in the process of designing the cover for my first novel, Precious Things. I’m so excited to see it – it should be ready in the next few weeks, and hopefully in time to grace the cover of the reading copies, which they’re working on at the moment.
My publisher Catherine and I have been going back and forth for some time on ideas about how it will look. Firstly, I was asked to send through some book covers I liked with suggestions as to what I thought worked or didn’t work about them for Precious Things. I sent through about fifteen covers, some with heavily stylised photographs and others with illustrations. Then I was asked to put together a mood board about my main character, so that Catherine could brief the designer on what the book’s about.
This is what I came up with. The images aren’t meant to be taken literally. My protagonist – a warm, sensitive woman called Maggie – isn’t a model, after all, but she is gorgeous in her way and these are meant to give a sense of how I see her. I compiled the mood board with tear sheets taken from fashion magazines laid out on my kitchen bench and overlaid with some of the beaded, richly embroidered and quirky vintage pieces Maggie collects. There’s also a postcard painting in there of a circus setting, which reflects her fascination with costumes and unusual or special pieces.
I loved doing this – it’s quite fun to be asked to contribute to the design of your book and I realised I had all the images I needed, already collected in a folder which accompanied me throughout the writing process. Whenever I saw an appropriate image, I put it in there just for my own reference, along with articles that seemed to evoke the mood or setting I was looking for.
The funny part about the cover process is that you can provide all sorts of background ideas and images to designers, but it often happens that inspiration strikes them, and they come up with something so unexpected, extraordinary and right – but completely different to what was envisaged. That’s the magic of what they do.
Stay tuned for news on the reading copies. I’m hoping to be given some extra to hand out to those of you in book groups, so you can spread the word in advance x
TO READ: THE STORIED LIFE OF AJ FIKRY
Bookish folk, this is for you. The Storied Life of AJ Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin is a perfect novel about a failing bookstore, its cranky owner, a perky sales rep and a precocious foundling. Mostly it’s about love, though – love and books. Mr Fikry, you’re my kind of man.
TO WATCH: BIG EYES
The story of artist Margaret Keane and her domineering cheat of a husband is so extraordinary, it seems hard to believe it hasn’t been told sooner on the big screen. Tim Burton does the tale justice without going over the top on the magic realism and it’s a better film for it, but I loved the small touches that were present in the haunting eyes of Keane’s women and children. Don’t fret, Amy Adams fans… Oscar’s coming for her one day soon. Great 60s fashion and architecture, too for all the die-hard vintage peeps out there.
TO LUST AFTER: NEW-SEASON GUCCI
Frida Giannini’s nailed it – this is all I want to wear in the coming season. I’m thinking 70s nostalgia is a-ok when I missed it first time round… just. I didn’t miss out on a very fetching bowl cut, though (all photographic evidence destroyed). How amazing is this jacket!?
AND SOME ACE TV: GIRLS SEASON 4
Lena Dunham’s comedy about four twenty-something women in New York just gets better and better, and this season was the pinnacle for me. Jemima Kirk’s Jessa is a joy to behold but man, she’s a piece of work!
ALSO – VISIT: YOUR LOCAL ARTIST’S STUDIO
I recently made a trip to The Bakehouse Studio, workspace of Marrickville artist Lisa Holzl. I’m writing a clay sculptor into the next novel and got such a great feel for her character and life in this magical space.