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!
Someone asked me recently why I wanted to write a novel. Not an unusual thing to ask, but it stumped me for a bit. Because at this stage of the process, when most of the writing is done and it’s now a case of editing and polishing and trying to make the book the best it can be, it’s easy to get caught up in outcomes and lose sight of this central question, which is of course the most important one of all.
Ever since I was small – about five or six from memory – I was enthralled by the people and places authors created from their imagination. With those books I loved the most, I so very desperately wanted them to be true… each found a way to affect and remake me profoundly, not unlike certain people I’ve met over the course of my life. Somehow these characters reside in me still. Michael Ende’s Momo, the Narnia children, Frodo Baggins and Roald Dahl’s BFG. Anne of Green Gables and Moonface from the Magic Faraway Tree. The Famous Five and Owen Meany, and the strange worlds of Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. As a child I lived in a sort of half-place between reality and imagination (the way most children do) wishing these people could escape from the pages and invade my own world the way Bastian found in The Neverending Story, or that I could escape into theirs. I wanted all my books to be ‘dangerous’ in this way, until one day – probably during my mid to late teens – I forgot to wish for such things.
I can tell you now, decades later, that reading has always been a way of connecting with that same sense of childish wonder and delight. Along with forays into other art forms like illustration and dance, film and music – or a trip to Cirque du Soleil – it’s the best way for me to recapture it. That another person can make us feel this way through their writing is amazing, don’t you think? It’s a small miracle, and I want in!
The same person who asked me this question the other day also said; ‘books are powerful, they change lives’. Of course she’s right, and no writer should wield this power lightly. It’s taken me a few days, but I have an answer for her (which is why I’m so rubbish in exam situations – I need time to ponder these things).
I want to take readers on a journey, and make them delight in wondrous things. To make a connection, and leave a lasting impression. Because we are all essentially the same underneath, and narrative is everything.
I would like to tell you a story…