You know how it feels when you’re a kid and it’s the night before Christmas, and you have that delicious sense of anticipation about what tomorrow will bring… Well, that’s exactly how I feel about the publication of Natasha Lester’s new novel A Kiss from Mr Fitzgerald.
It’s just gorgeous. I know that so many women out there are going to love it for the glamour, the romance and the sheer energetic joy that radiates off the page.
Here’s what it’s about…
It’s the roaring twenties in the Manhattan of gin, jazz and prosperity. Women wear makeup and hitched hemlines and enjoy a new freedom to vote and work. Not so for Evelyn Lockhart, who is forbidden from pursuing her passion to become one of the first female doctors. Chasing her dream will mean turning her back on her family: her competitive sister, Viola; her conservative parents; and the childhood best friend she is expected to marry, Charlie.
In a desperate attempt to support herself through Columbia University’s medical school, Evie auditions for the infamous late-night Ziegfeld Follies on Broadway. But if she gets the part, what will it mean for her fledgling relationship with Upper East Side banker Thomas Whitman – a man Evie thinks she could fall in love with, if only she lived a life less scandalous.
I had the pleasure of reading this beautiful book over the summer holidays. I didn’t want it to end and I’m jealous of all the readers who still have that joy ahead of them.
The book is officially published on April 26 but if you just can’t wait, then how about reading the short story Natasha wrote as a prequel to the novel? It’s available for free through Amazon and Booktopia.
But first, keep scrolling down, as the lovely lady herself has so many pearls of wisdom to offer in this fascinating interview.
I read a biography about the poet Emily Dickinson and one of the things it touched on was the fact that in the mid to late nineteenth century, a very small number women began to go to university for the first time, even though it was very much frowned upon by society. Of course, these days, women go to university and nobody thinks twice about it, so I was fascinated by the idea that university used to be, for women, an exception rather than the norm.
That got my novelist’s brain ticking and I began to wonder what would be the most socially unacceptable thing for a woman to study, because we authors like to make our characters suffer! I did a bit of digging and found out that medical schools were very late to admit women—in my novel I use Columbia University in New York, which didn’t admit women until 1918—and that even after studying to become a doctor, actually practising as one was a huge challenge. I then discovered that, of all the medical specialities, obstetrics was one of the last to be broken into by women, which really makes no sense as women are the ones who give birth!
That was when I knew I had my story. I would write about a woman struggling to become one of the first female obstetricians in New York City.
Add to that an idea I’d had about ten years ago to write about New York’s infamous Ziegfeld Follies, and my desire to write a love story, and it all started to come together in a very exciting way.
Your first two books were works of Australian contemporary fiction at the literary end of the spectrum, while ‘A Kiss From Mr Fitzgerald’ is a gorgeous romance, set in jazz-age New York. Was it difficult to switch gears in terms of the writing?
The hardest thing for me is making my character likeable on the page. I love all of my characters because I know them intimately in my head, but sometimes how I want them to appear and how they do appear is a different thing. I know from reading Goodreads reviews (which is something a writer should never do!) that some readers didn’t like the main characters in my first 2 books. Now I can see why, although at the time I was completely surprised. And in literary fiction, I think you can get away with the not-always-likeable character a bit more, but you definitely can’t in commercial fiction. So it was really important to me that I created a character who readers adored as much as I did.
And thanks to a wonderful editor, who generously pointed out places where I needed to go deeper with the character of Evie, and also where she was behaving too outrageously, especially to her long-suffering sister Viola, I hope I’ve been able to achieve this. So that was the biggest challenge for me in switching genres.
You’ve been open about ‘A Kiss From Mr Fitzgerald’ being a more commercial work. What do you think are the elements of great, commercial fiction?
Character likability is one very important element of commercial fiction, as is creating a journey for your character that readers can really get behind and root for. Also really making it clear what’s at stake throughout the narrative. Commercial fiction needs to have that strong sense of narrative tension and if nothing’s at stake, or if the stakes are unclear, the tension diminishes pretty quickly. Also, getting things moving at the start of the book and not taking too long to set things up is another hallmark of commercial fiction.
I should say, I think literary fiction can also do all of those things too. But there’s also more flexibility in literary fiction in terms of character likability, and a more generous amount of time is often allowed in literary fiction before you get to the inciting incident of the story.
Which books and authors most influenced this story?
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott sat on my desk the whole time I was writing A Kiss from Mr Fitzgerald because I always knew it would be a book about sisters.
Also, Amor Towles Rules of Civility because I just love the dialogue in the book, and also his witty and wonderful similes (which some people think he overuses, but I don’t mind a bit of excess!)
Evie is a lovable heroine – feisty, chic, intelligent, and ahead of her time. Where do you stand on the importance of having a ‘likable’ main character?
Ha! It’s so funny that you’ve asked this given everything I’ve said above. I didn’t realise this question was coming up!
I think we can safely say that I now think it’s extremely important. It’s been one of my biggest learning experiences as a writer. I actually don’t mind, as a reader, books which have unlikeable characters or characters who do unlikable things, but I know from the Goodreads reviews of my first 2 books that many readers want only characters who are likeable. And I do completely understand this.
Also, I love Evie so I want everyone else to love her too! There are so many women in the past who did extraordinary things, things we don’t even know about because their stories have been lost to history. I really wanted to use Evie to point to one of those stories of a person whose every day life was actually utterly remarkable, even though to them, at the time, it mightn’t have seemed so. It’s the Evies of the past who’ve helped get us to where we are today, and I wanted to celebrate that.
One of the strengths of this book are the evocative descriptions of 1920s New York. It has quite a cinematographic feel. If it was to be made into a movie, who do you think would play Evie?
Gosh, that’s a really hard question! I don’t watch a lot of movies – its just a time factor – so I don’t really know. If Cate Blanchett was a few years younger, then definitely her, although she’s so gorgeous she could probably pass for a woman in her early twenties! She has that whip-smart quality that I imagine Evie to have.
For a long while, the working title for this novel was ‘A Beautiful Catastrophe’. Can you tell us the rationale behind the change?
Titles are my weakness. I am terribly bad at choosing them, and I usually have a total lack of title inspiration. My publisher wanted, and I agreed with her, a title that more instantly evoked the era of the book.
When she first proposed it, I wasn’t sure, but when I looked back over the book with the title in mind, I could see how perfect it was. The book opens, as you know, with a discussion of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s fictional kisses, and this motif is carried through the book. So it fits wonderfully well on both a story level, and in setting the scene for the reader.
You have a wonderful blog and are very active on social media. However, there’s a lot of conjecture about ‘author platforms’ and the importance of them. Where do you stand on this?
I think you have to do what you love, in every respect. I love talking to readers—I spend so much time by myself at my desk that social media is a wonderful way to have conversations with people that I wouldn’t otherwise be able to have. And that’s how I see social media—as allowing the opportunity for conversation.
I also just genuinely love blogging. I get to write about stuff I wouldn’t otherwise be able to write about, but it’s stuff I really want to write about. So my blog is a perfect way to explore those other ideas that don’t really fit anywhere else.
And yes, I’m an ex-marketer, so I have an inbuilt love of this kind of thing anyway. I do have to say though, one of my favourite ways to interact with people is in person. I love doing events and teaching and I think my best ambassadors are people I’ve met at events or in courses; these people often then go on to spread the word about my books in amazing and lovely ways, which I appreciate so much.
You’ve clearly put a lot of research into the book. However, it never overwhelms the story. I’m wondering how you, as a writer, decide how and when authenticity and accuracy matter, and when ‘artistic license’ is not only allowable, but actually necessary?
I do like to be as accurate as I possibly can – down to studying subway and El (elevated railroad) lines to see which routes my character would take and which stops she’d use.
I was also very particular about my word choices and became a regular user of etymonline.com which is a site that gives you the first known usages of words and phrases. So “Bermuda Triangle” and “asshole” got thrown out but “spifflicated” and “hotsy-totsy” made it in.
I just believe that I should strive to make my book as accurate and authentic as possible, so that I’m bringing it to life as it actually was, rather than creating a new and faulty version of the era. I have made 2 exceptions, which I point out in the back of the book, but as there were no fixed dates for those 2 exceptions, but just a lot of conjecture, I felt it was okay to place them in my book.
Also, I’m a research nerd. I love a dusty archive! So the research is a genuine love, not a chore.
Can you tell us a little about the book that will be published in 2017? Are you staying in the historical fiction/romance genre?
I’m definitely staying in the same genre because it is my true love. The next one begins in 1918, the day before Armistice Day, and goes up to about 1922, so it’s just a little earlier than A Kiss from Mr Fitzgerald. It also jumps ahead to 1939, which is a new time period for me, in the month leading up to World War Two.
Of course there’s love and tragedy and another fabulous woman blazing a trail – but you’ll have to wait until 2107 to find out what exactly that trail is!
You’re so generous on social media with information about yourself, your writing, and writing in general. But is there something about yourself that you haven’t shared?
Oh, the pressure to be witty and interesting!
Okay, let’s go right back to the beginning, to me as a tiny baby, just a day old. We’re not exactly sure what happened, but clearly I was a little squashed in the womb, because I was born with a crooked nose and a folded over right ear. Yes, I was definitely not in the running for any Baby of the Year prizes!
Because a baby’s cartilage is so soft, I had a nose-job at just two days’ old and now my nose is pretty straight. I still have a bit of a folded over ear at the top of my right ear – to the point where I had the charming nickname of Ear-Fold in high school! God teenagers are lovely!