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.
A Francis Bacon portrait of Henrietta Moraes
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!