by Holly West
First—I'd like to thank Scott for graciously allowing me to borrow his spot today. I appreciate it!
I always love visiting Do Some Damage, so when Steve asked me if I wanted to read a book set in 1920s Paris and then interview the author, I jumped at the chance. In these COVID times, an escape to Paris seemed like just the thing.
Tessa Lunney is the Sydney-based author of the Kiki Button historical series. The latest book AUTUMN LEAVES, 1922, comes out today, August 3, and follows Kiki Button back to Paris for another adventure. The book was just the escape I needed, and the bonus was that I got to talk to meet and talk to Tessa about the book. Now, I'm sharing that interview with all of you.
Tune in below to hear us chat about the book, the challenges of writing during the pandemic (with one-month-old, no less!), the fun of writing historicals (especially when there's a famous cameo or two), and much more about life and writing.
Or ask your local bookstore!
TESSA LUNNEY (TL): Wonderful to meet you. It's a pleasure. Thank you for asking.
HW: Tell us a little bit about AUTUMN LEAVES, 1922.
TL: Yep, sure. So it's the second in the Kiki button mysteries, as you said, which is a series of sexy spy thrillers set in and around 1920 Paris. It's written from the perspective of Kiki Button, my main character who's a blonde Australian, she was a nurse and a spy through World War One. And then after a long route through a pandemic, going back to Australia, she's come back to Paris to live life after the war. What we see here in AUTUMN LEAVES, 1922, she's just spent a year home in Sydney. After her mother's death, her mother's funeral, and then a long grieving process where she read all of her mother's diaries and her mother is not the woman she thought she was. So Kiki's come back to Paris, firstly, to find out who her mother really was. But once she's there, she's contacted by all of her friends, which she loves, and her former spy master and current boss, Dr. Fox, who is getting her to do little piecemeal missions, much to her reluctance, but she feels she can't say no.
HW: Anyone who is a fan of the series will really like this book. Because you're revisiting some really colorful, vibrant characters. Talking about that cast of characters. They're bohemian. And they're not shy about their pleasure-seeking ways. I'm curious how typical they are for the time in which they live?
TL: Well, there was a there was a bohemian pocket around Montparnasse, in like the early 1900s. It was in Montmartre. And you know, that’s with the Moulin Rouge, and yes, and those things in the art noveau time and Toulouse-Lautrec. And by the 20s it had moved to Montparnasse, the Left Bank as it's called, and the people who lived there, there were a lot of expats, and there were a lot of people who were sort of expats, from their conservative Catholic families in the countryside, as well. And they created this wonderful little world where they lived for art and modernism and making it new all the surrealists and Picasso and Hemingway and people would, Gertrude Stein, people would travel to Paris specifically to stay in Montparnasse, to make art and to do something new. The rest of Paris was like a lot of other industrial Western cities you know, they've got all the middle class burgers and the politicians and the diplomats and a vast working class who live in conditions that were substandard, really, although there was a lot of change in the 1920s, where people were trying to improve the living conditions of the working class of Paris, but Montparnasse in that little hidden bohemian enclave is a is like a special, special part of Paris.
HW: Did the war (World War I) have a lot to do with this bohemian… like people who had survived it in the way that Kiki, and some of her friends have? Did that have a bearing on the way they approached life?
TL: Yes, I think it really did. And I think when you read things like THE GREAT GATSBY, and the intensity of their parties, and the intensity of their emotions and their fervor, there's an edginess to it. There's no tomorrow, a party, like there's no tomorrow, they, you know, break up and make up like there's no tomorrow, everything has to be done right now. And the past is gone. And it's only the future. And I think that is a great deal come from the slaughter and the suffering that they had both seen and experienced during the war.
HW: The political situation that you're writing about, because you also discuss what's going on in Russia. And the revolutionaries and the Russian family are characters and Rasputin (he's not in it, because he’s dead). But it's very complicated. Did you put thought into how you were going to approach that—I know you had written the first book already. So the second book probably we're just taking some of that same spirit. What was that a difficult balance to achieve?
TL: Well, I because it's written from the first person from Kiki's perspective, and these things are new for Kiki. She's learning them so I can introduce, I can introduce information a little bit of a time, through her viewpoint, and she has a similar background to me. So I can, you know, pick out bits of information and be like this piece I found interesting. And this I found unusual. And this took me a long time to understand. So I'm going to explain it in a particular way. And also, because of the people that she meets in Paris, she has a very particular interaction with something like the Russian Revolution. So she's got the Russian artists, some of them are very left wing and some of whom are not, who fought for France. And then she's got all the aristocrats who are obviously very anti-Bolshevik. And, and, you know, so that's also how she, how she has an interaction with these ideas. And in that sense of, it's not, you have to think about it. But it's not so hard, because it's all very personal about how it affects her life. But to be honest, I just, I love the period. And it is so complicated. And so much revolution, after the war from 1917 to about 1924 was continued political turmoil. And so the more I read, the more I want to read. And then when you know a lot, sometimes it becomes easy just to go this is this is the important point. Yeah, after having read seven books, I can say this. This is what's important.
HW: There is an art to all writing that requires research, which and most does require research, but balancing out so that it doesn't seem like info dump is particularly hard, especially when you've got I mean, I'll be honest, I know very little about Europe, during World War I. I know much more about World War II than I do about World War I. It was great for me to read and learn. I realize it's still fiction, but I really enjoyed that aspect of it.
TL: Thank you.
HW: So we discussed that Kiki is a former World War One nurse, a gossip columnist and a spy, which is, you know, that's quite a complicated character. Is she inspired by anyone in particular?
TL: Not a particular person, but she has both historical and literary inspirations, I guess. So the literary inspirations is someone like Phryne Fisher, do you know the Phryne Fisher books by Kerry Greenwood? I'd read them all and watched the TV series and the movie. And after a while I wanted something more. I wanted something different. It's sort of permanently 1929 in Phryne's world, and she could eat vast amounts of never puts on weight, but also never loses weight. And she can do that she never gets too tired. I thought, what would it be like if she had a body more like mine that gets fat or loses weight? According to what I do, you know that has trouble. You know, when I drink too much, or when I don't sleep enough and when I'm heartbroken. And so that sort of started that was one of the literary inspirations. But there's also things like A MOVEABLE FEAST, which I love and THE GREAT GATSBY, which I've mentioned before, and I've read enough 10 times, and I keep reading it. Now it's lock down again in Sydney, I probably read it again. And I wanted to be in that world. So I wrote myself into it. In terms of real-life inspirations. I did a PhD on war fiction, specifically looking at silences in Australian war fiction, how a professional writer writes about what is incommunicable about the war experience. But because it was in a doctoral setting, I was able to, I had the time and the resources to do a lot of research and a lot of reading. And I read a lot about World War I. And there are some amazing women doing amazing things, you know, where it was quite constricted in the Edwardian period, and then World War I, and suddenly they needed everybody. And so women who had been brought up to be nothing but wives and mothers were being nurses and bandaging people and anyone, any woman who had a little bit more just had wanted a little bit more. This was their chance. And there was a woman for example, a Yorkshire woman called Flora Sanders, who joined the Serbian army and rose to the rank of sergeant major. And there are two nurses who set up the first casualty clearing station in Belgium, the army hadn't thought of it. They're like, you know, we know how to stop these soldiers dying, and they treated them on the front line. Marie Curie used her discovery of radium to have a mobile X-ray van, which she drove around the front line, taking x-rays of limbs so you can see if they're broken or not, and how badly they're broken. And these kind of go on and on and on. So that that inspired me as well. And there's lots of lots of Mata Hari, although she's the most famous, but women were spies in World War I, especially in the occupied territories in Belgium in northern France. And of course, studying 1920s Paris, people like Sylvia Beach and Nancy Cunard and Lee Miller and Josephine Baker and Kiki de Montparnasse. These women who after the war just went, I'm not staying at home.
HW: Yeah, I know, I’ve tasted life, and now, I'm gonna live it.
TL: Yeah, yeah, yeah. And sometimes it was because the men I was going to marry is not here, I have to have a different life. But I think a lot of them were like, I never wanted that life. And now, now here's an opportunity. I don't have to, I'm going to travel to this place, I'm going to make my own life. And if you are British or American, the exchange rate for the French franc was very helpful, shall we say? So, which is why the 20s were huge, because it was all boom, and people had money. And then in the 30s, everything changed.
HW: I hear stories like this, it makes me kind of wonder, not that I ever really want to find out, but how would I react? Or how would I have reacted to a wartime situation? That would require me to be more than I ever expected I could be. And would I rise to the occasion? Would I step back? And I think the reality for me personally, is that I probably would have stepped back. What do you think yourself?
TL: One of the reasons I like reading about war and war stories is to and writing them as well is to try and put myself through those positions and think myself through, and then to use that template. What would I have done? You know, if my country had been invaded by the Nazis? If my country had been invaded by the Germans? If I was living in a tiny village, but the war was on? What would I have done? And then use the ideas that I might take from the war novel into my own life? Here. What would I have done? From my research, and my reading and my writing? The answer, the short answer is I don't know. Because it depends on what, on my situation. So. So, you know, 10 years ago, when I started my PhD, I was a single young woman. Well, the risks I would have taken then and the courage I had been a different to now, when I'm a mother of two and my children are under five. So I think as a young woman, I would have taken more physical risks. But I, I would have been more nervous and more concerned about myself. But now as a mother of two I, I don't want to take the physical risks, because they're who, what, what would happen to children, but at the same time, I'm much more determined to create a better world for them. And I can't, I wouldn't, you know, there's a great World War I poster, it's, I mean, it's a terrible idea. But it said, “What did you do in the war Daddy?” you know, using shame to try and totally push men to join the army in World War I.
TL: But sometimes I think of, you know, myself and my daughters, you know, in their 10 years time saying, Why didn't you do this mum? And I want to be able to say, actually, I did everything according to my values. I really did try. And so I, I don't know what I would have done, because what you could have done is so complex. I find the most interesting is, not what I would have done if I was one of my grandmothers in England or in Australia. But what would I have done if I was like, my German friends’ grandmothers? What would I have done then? How can you live in a morally corrupt system? And what would you do? How do you live a country that's been defeated so drastically? Like Germany at the end of World War I? That's the other question I'm asking myself now, or how my husband is Russian, which is why, which is why the Russians will continue to make a presence in all of my writings. And he left the Soviet Union just as it was ending in 1991. So I think back to my mother-in-law, my grandmother-in-law and grandfather-in-law and just think, how would I have lived inside that system? What can you do? What does it mean to live in, say, that system at this point, and at this point, at this point, and at this point, as you know, as time moves on, and, and, and, you know, Communism, and Soviet Communism becomes more entrenched or Capitalism changes and through the different wars? It's a long answer.
HW: No, I mean, I think that, you know, I think that these things for me are worth discussing. And I think that's one of the reasons we read and one of the reasons we write is to learn about ourselves. And when you're writing about war, and when you're learning about war, you can't help but think more deeply about the subject, or at least myself and it sounds obviously like you as well, because it's a subject that you've studied at length. And you've studied not just the entertainment aspect of it as it applies to your writing. You’ve studied it on a much deeper level. And so I feel like that, yeah, long answer, but it requires some thought and It requires some length. I mean, it's clear, you know so much about the time period, that you're passionate about the time period. And I don't know how you could write a book like this or a series like this without being passionate about the time. It's like you're so entrenched in it entrenched isn't the right word.
TL: Entrenched is a great word.
HW: You're so immersed in it. And it comes out of you. It just comes out. When you're writing it as if you had lived it. You’re living in a world in which you write, which is a fictional world.
TL: I appreciate that because I read a lot about the 1920s, when I was trying to take a break from my PhD, like, I can't read about any more war trauma, but the 1920s it's got a bit of trauma, but also a lot of fun. So I read and read and read. And there's a great book called AMONG THE BOHEMIANS by Virginia Nicholson, which is about Bohemia in London in 1900, to World War II, and she's the granddaughter of Vanessa Bell, the grandniece of Virginia Woolf. She knew a lot of these people personally, and she just talked about, not their art, but their lives. And that came at a critical moment for me when I was deciding to be a writer. So in terms of being immersed in the period, yes, I've been reading about it for 15 years.
HW: So do you consider this crime fiction?
TL: I call it a spy thriller, right? There’s no body, right? And there's no mystery. There's no theft, it has nothing that you would call a conventional crime. And spy thrillers, one of the reasons I like them is that the spies are agents for change. They're actively changing the world, often in the tiniest and most mundane ways. And once they do their work, if they're successful, nobody knows. I feel that it sounds silly, but I feel that I can identify, I want to, I want to be an agent for change. But anything that I do, I feel almost impotent. And so I look at the spies and go, well, that was the important, but totally dispiriting meeting that they had. And that's what they had to do. And I can take comfort and hope from that. So I guess I see it as a spy thriller. But also, Kiki doesn't really want to be a spy, she doesn't want to work for Fox, because he's so manipulative. So she's sort of becoming a spy. And little by little by little, by little, hopefully, as the series develops, she'll become better and better, and also more and more professional, less reliant on her friends and coincidence and more able to make things happen.
HW: Will there be a third key button novel?
TL: I don’t know. I hope so. I have an idea, I have a really great idea.
HW: Well then I hope that you’re able to write it. In the world of publishing, sometimes these things aren't under our control. I mean, you could write a book. But yeah, it's not always under our control. And but I hope you do write the book. In my own novels, I had real life historical figures. But my question for you and other authors who do it is how do you approach that? Are there ethics of writing real historical figures that would be different than fictional characters you write?
TL: There's ethics, and there's techniques, and I think they're different. In terms of, of ethics with historical characters, I think it depends on what you do. So something like Paula MacLean, who wrote THE PARIS WIFE, can you see it up there in the corner? So she was writing Hadley Hemingway's story. And so I would feel that she had a great ethical responsibility to portray Hadley truthfully, because it's not a person that we get to hear from at all. And so she's writing another written woman, whereas sort of, whereas in my books, I have a famous people come on as cameos, and they are often extremely famous, you know, Hemingway, and Gertrude Stein and Picasso. And I feel, I feel an obligation to be factually correct, but not such a great obligation because they say so much about themselves. Number one, so many other people have said so many great things about them, number two, and number three, because they're, they don't carry the emotional weight of the story. They don't carry the emotional burden of the story.
HW: That’s a good point.
TL: They're, they're fun cameos, and, also, plot drivers. So that's what they're there for. Whereas, I think much more deeply about the characters who carry the emotional weight of the story, for example, in the structure, if I look at it, I changed you know, I've changed the action so that it's not all the women being injured in an action scene, and then how needing to be rescued by the men like that is not that is not the structure of the story that I want to tell. So I'll change around who does what, so that it has a different mix. And so for the for my fictional characters, actually, I feel a different kind of ethical responsibility but the greatest responsibility do the research on who's carrying the emotions. In terms of technique, because of all my famous people are famous extras, really, little walk on parts, I'm aiming for a vivid sketch. And sometimes there's an enormous amount of material, like with Hemingway. And sometimes, there's not much at all. And so I get an idea as a bit of a springboard. For example, I've got a lot of Russian aristocrats in my novel, and I found out a bit about them, but not about all of them. And there were so many. And I don't think they all did amazing things. So people didn't write about them individually. But you know, Coco Chanel had an affair with one of them. And she said, these Russians, tall, handsome, superb they are. And then behind that, nothing. Hollowness and vodka. And I'm like, well, I don't know if it's true, but it's a great idea. It is a great springboard to create a little sketch that there's nothing behind them but hollowness and vodka. It really depends how many lines they have and what they and what they do. But it's sort of like when I say it's a sexy spy thriller. They're the kind of the sexy in the thrilling bits. So I use all the facts that I can. And then if I can't, I just make it up. And often, and it nearly needed to be plausible, just has to be vaguely possible.
HW: I think for myself, I always, the way I looked at it was you know, I need to I need to, I will make up dialogue for them, of course, and I will try to make it true to what the historical record has shown of them. So I wouldn’t just create characters for my own purposes, I would have them in their role in history, I would say that the king was like my number one person and I kind of gave him—I wouldn't say he carried the emotional weight of the story—but he was a part of it. And it was important to me that he be a part of it. So I probably gave him emotions or reactions that he might not have had. But I had, like you, I had done so much research on that time period for so long. And so many books, and you know, all those books that you've got behind you. I have the same ones only for 17th century England, right. And so I actually, I mean, I felt like that was, it was a lot of fun. Like I said, I had, I was in love with him. I had I had like fallen in love with him. So I had to create this character based on this man that I had envisioned him to be.
TL: Of course, I know. I want to be in Paris. And see all these people. Exactly. I want to have a an affair with Picasso, so I will. And I just wrote it.
TL: Well, I had another baby. So it changed a lot. So I had written a bit. And then I got pregnant, and I can't write when I'm pregnant, I can't think so I had to leave it. And then when a little one was a month old, I picked it up again. And it was just the beginning of the pandemic. So baby plus pandemic, created my writing habits, my writing routine, everything I'd done before was out the window. And I just wrote when I could whenever I could hand the baby over to someone else for an hour, or just sit down and write. And the only reason that—there are two reasons that I could do that one, in the writing terms, I'd written out a very strong plot outline. So it didn't matter how little sleep I'd had, or where I was, I just could look it up and go, okay, we're there in the plot, and then just write that scene. And the second was that Australia has good parental leave policies, and my workplace has very generous parental leave policies. I had 11 months off. And it was paid as well, then I could afford to do it.
HW: Were you under contract for that novel?
TL: Yeah, I was.
HW: So yeah, so it has a different, I mean, your pregnancy if you can't write during your pregnancy, then you can't write during your pregnancy. But if you're under contract, you do have that little extra urgency to get the word yet. More motivation.
TL: I think I would have left it another six months until she was sleeping. But when she was a month I went, if I don't start now, we'll never get it done. And I think I begged for two extensions. And then I begged for another two extensions with the edits. I was editing up until like, it went to the printers.
HW: More power to you because I have no children. I don't work, except to write. And so you know, the fact that you were in a pandemic, two children, the fact that you got it done, and you did your job well. Kudos to you and I know, people over the planet do the same thing. But I'm always in awe of people who juggle so many things and still get their writing done. Is there anything, any wisdom that you might want to impart?
TL: Keep going. Like, every everything in the world will conspire against you and you just need to keep going. Even if it's 10 minutes, I have a lot of support. So I don't want to give advice to people who have a lot less support than me, except to say, identify, sort of one by one, things that stop you and then work out a way to get over them. And so for me, the thing that stopped me is, it's time I don't have enough time with an office job and two children. So I'm like, well, where can I have some more time? 5 a.m.? Alright, how do I get up at 5 a.m.? No TV. Alright, that's it. No TV at 9pm. You just got to stop. You're like eBay. Don't look at eBay. Don't just don't look at Pinterest or Facebook when you're online. Yeah, so it just, but that's if you've got lots of time. If you've got literally 20 minutes. You then yeah, you just write.
HW: I have friends who’ve said that they you know, they actually write more when they have less time.
TL: I think I find the same.
HW: Because I think your focus gets fine-tuned, or, you know, honed in. The book, Autumn Leaves, 1922 comes out on August 3, from Pegasus Prime. And it's available where all books are—in the US it's distributed by Simon and Schuster. So it's available everywhere.
TL: I’m wearing a cape, and as you can see, it's made of silk velvet. And it's these wonderful colors. And it was given to me by a publisher who was given it by someone else. And she was a nurse in World War I and bought this in Paris in 1919. And it looks like it's barely been worn, but it's why I'm wearing it now because it's my special KiKi cape. It's so—the colors are still so bright and it's so soft and beautiful. It's got this wonderful fringe, lovely fit. It was just given to me was given to be by a publisher and she said she said this is for you, really, writing Kiki Button. So it hasn't made its way into Kiki Button yet but it will. And it's um it's amazingly warm and comfortable. But yeah, it's a big cape. Apparently, they were all the rage in Paris in 1919. All the it-girls had a velvet cape, a silk velvet cape. So this nurse, Australian nurse, before she went home, she bought herself one. And clearly never wore it. Because it's in beautiful condition.
HW: Oh, wow. That is very, very special. I'm glad that you had a moment to interject and say , but wait, my cape!
TL: Thank you. Yeah, yeah. So I just I mean, I've got a lot of visual material as you see—
HW: Is there anything back there in particular?
TL: This book, PARIS BETWEEN THE WARS, can you see it? It was very important for my research. And this, I'll bring it a little bit forward. If you can see it is like a pinboard of ideas for this current book. So you've got some more Art Nouveau, Kiki's mother. And this is Charleston. This is where Vanessa Bell lived in Sussex. And this is the returned when I went there as a coaster for The Rotonde, when I went there in 2018. Yeah, so probably this as well, my little my little pinboard, that when I had a one-month-old, and I was desperately trying not to think about nappies and to think about cocktails, I had this in front of me. And I’d put on this cape and some fancy shoes and play some you know, Parisian chanson music, and drink coffee and go I’m in Paris, I’m in Paris. Yes. And begin.
HW: That's another thing that I should mention—that the book is transportive it transports you to another place in time. There are heavy duty things happening in that time period. But it's different and fun and beautiful and evocative. It was a good, transportive read, which is what you need in a pandemic. Thank you again.
TL: Thank you, Holly, it’s been lovely.
HW: This was amazing and such an enlightening conversation.