Welcome to EPISODE 20 of the Art In Fiction Podcast.
Paris between the wars is the exciting setting for Jeanne Mackin's novels The Last Collection and The Beautiful American.
In this episode, find out about wacky surrealist lobsters, why pencils and paper were not allowed at fashion shows, and a lot more!
Press Play right now and be sure to check out The Beautiful American listed in the Photography category and The Last Collection listed in the Textile Arts category on Art In Fiction.
Jeanne Mackin's website: https://www.jeannemackin.com/
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Welcome to the Art In Fiction Podcast, Jeanne.
I'm so happy to be here. Thank you, Carol.
I'm really excited to talk to you today about your two novels that we've listed on Art In Fiction. I initially listed The Beautiful American in the Visual Arts category, but having just finished it, I switched it to Photography because because of Lee Miller, of course, which we'll talk about. And then The Last Collection, which is your most recent novel is listed in the Textile Arts category because, of course, its relationship to Coco Chanel and Elsa Schiaparelli.
Well, let's start with talking about The Beautiful American. As I said, I just finished it and I loved it. What I really enjoyed was the way you wound the fictional story of Nora Tours through the lives of real characters, particularly of course, Lee Miller, Man Ray, and Picasso. Can you give us just a short summary of the novel?
The novel is loosely based on events and the life of real person Miller who began her career as a Vogue model. She was stunningly beautiful. Went to Paris in the thirties, did all of the Parisian things. Was Man Ray's mistress. But along the way, started to learn photography, which actually had been a family interest when she was a child growing up in Poughkeepsie and became a photojournalist and artist in her own right and, was one of the incredibly brave women who photographed the battles of World War II on site, not from a distance.
She convinced Vogue Magazine that the war was actually a woman's issue and needed to be covered. And also photographed the liberation of the camps, which as you can imagine was horrifying. She was the real-life person. I created, invented, a friend for her, Nora Tours, who grew up with her in Poughkeepsie and then also at some point moves to Paris and they kind of rekindle this friendship, which then goes on and off through their lives.
And you know, it's a novel about the friendship between the two women, the lives and the loves of the two women, the one real and the one fictional, and how art intersected and connected with them. And pretty much how the friendship helped heal a lot of the wounds created before and during the war, the value of their friendship.
Yes, you did that incredibly well because they met as children and then, you know, sort of in and out of each other's lives and then post-war, et cetera. Yeah, it was, it was extremely well done how you basically characterize Lee Miller, but through the point of view of wonderful Nora Tours, who really is the heroine of the novel being fictional.
But she really is a wonderful character. I very much enjoyed her. Tell us about, uh, how you invented Nora. Like, what were you trying to get across with Nora? As opposed to Lee?
They grew up in the same town, had some friends in common, but they were very different people. And I wanted Nora to be almost a complement to Lee. They're both artists, but whereas Lee becomes a photographer, Nora becomes a nose, a perfumer, her physical senses rather than your visual senses.
So I complemented them that way. And because Lee was working in black and white photography, of course, I wanted to make Nora's world as full of aural and visual color as I could. And for me that was the perfume and how she worked with the perfume.
And Nora is a calmer person, a kind of more gymnastic person than Lee, who was a total daredevil. Nora has a child early in life and lets that child become the center of her life even more so than the men in her life, whereas Lee was just all over Europe, in and out of tanks and battlefields and even for a while in Egypt. She was married to an Egyptian man for a while, just two women with very little in common, except that they really liked each other.
Yes, it worked very well. And what I enjoyed too is how cleverly you structured the novel because it opens towards the end with Nora searching for her daughter who had been lost following the war. And then you take us back to in their childhood, she and Lee, and then into Paris in the twenties.
So when you were structuring that novel, why did you choose to structure it that way? So you went back and forth in time.
I like to show readers the importance of the events they're about to read. I like them to know immediately what is at stake. When we don't have any back and forth structure, like I used, it can be hard to show how much is at stake.
Beginning this novel with the lost child was my way of saying there is a lot that you are going to be going through with Lee and with Nora, including the loss of this child. So stay with my story.
I let you care with me because when I write, I use first person narrative and to some extent, the writing is kind of me creating how memory works too, which is not a straightforward thing. Our memories go back and forth rather than serial or completely sequentially. So I like to get that feel of what it's like to be in a character's mind, not just in the events of her life, but also how her imagination and intelligence is processing those events.
The novel is like a container for this mystery. We start off knowing that she's going to have a child and the child is going to get lost, but then we're right back into the childhood and all the way through Paris. And we get involved in the story. But in the back of our mind, we know, oh, there's something coming. It was very clever.
I really enjoyed that, just from a purely writing, structural standpoint. I found that that was a really interesting thing to do.
Now. I talked a little bit about the role of Man Ray and Surrealism and Picasso in the novel. This is a period that I personally love. My husband, as I mentioned in our email, is known as a Canadian Surrealist so he knows a lot about this period, way more than I do.
Can you tell us something about the sort of milieu of Surrealism that the novel takes place in the twenties and thirties?
The Surrealists in Paris were very active in the visual arts, filmmaking, literature and when I was researching the novel I questioned why was Surrealism so important at this time? What was it about, what was happening with it? And I came to believe that the Surrealism, which can be a very violent art form, especially with women, that it in a way was remembering the violence of World War I, but also foreshadowing the violence that was to come in World War II.
It also, of course, there's a lot of humor in Surrealism as well. Like, you have that scene where Nora is at a party and she's wearing a live lobster on her head because they did wacky things like that, didn't they?
They did and I'm glad you picked that because it just kind of came to me out of the blue, what is a really silly thing to do at a drunken party and I thought well, put a lobster on your head.
And then when I was, you know, kind of going back to Surrealism and realizing lobster was actually a very popular motif with the Surrealists.
Yes, it was. Yeah, you see it in, in Dali's, uh, paintings. And also, uh, another very big artist that appears in the novel is Pablo Picasso. And I got quite a kick out of how you portrayed him. He comes across actually somewhat avuncular, which is really not how we think of Picasso.
So when you were doing your research, how did you determine how you wanted to portray Picasso?
I read a few biographies of Picasso, quite a few, I'm still reading about him. He fascinates me and he has a very well-earned reputation as a womanizer. You know, if he asked you to pose for him it also meant will you come sleep with me, but I find that he also had a sense of old-world gentleness to him in his relations with women.
And you know, part of that might be my fiction, but I just had the sense that a lot of what we know about Picasso was written by people who really had grudges against him. And that, of course, they're biased in that way. And I think there was more to him than just that philandering meanness. He was a brilliant businessman as well as a brilliant artist.
And he did have lifelong friendships. There was something real there, something substantial that he could offer in terms of friendship. And I made him a friend for Nora because he didn't want to sleep with her. There was not that seductive aspect of their relationship. But I think he felt for her. I think he had an almost protective sense of wanting to help her. And he did, and in his life Picasso did do that. He was a very generous gifter, giving his works to people and telling them, openly that, but if you do, do not sell this work. If you need money, come to me. I will give it to you.
There was also that generosity. So yes, he was a womanizer, a manipulator, a calculator, but also he did have the capability for friendship that I wanted to include in the novel.
Yes, and really, when you look at his work and especially the span of his work, he was an amazing artist. And particularly, one time we saw a show of his early work of drawings that he did of when his children were little and they're so tender and so beautiful that you've got to think there's a lot more to Picasso than meets the eye, which, which is why I really enjoyed how you did portray him as this nice guy, actually, that helps out Nora.
Yeah. There is tenderness in his work and it has to come from somewhere inside him.
Exactly. Yes. I'm going to get on to The Last Collection, but before I do, both of your novels take place during similar periods, the late 1930s in The Last Collection in Paris and then from the twenties to the post-war in The Beautiful American and mostly largely take place in Paris.
So what is it about Paris during this period that fascinated you? I mean, it is a pretty fascinating period.
Well, Paris is Paris. You have to love it, right? This timeframe between the wars, and leading into the war, is full of artistic energy and revolution, I find it absolutely mesmerizing. My husband was an artist. I'm not a visual person. I'm very much a word person, but I am fascinated by people who do have these visual talents and boy, was Paris full of these people, and it was a big party - not so much during COVID, but I would love to be a party animal.
You would go to Paris for that, the nightclubs, the balls, the parties. It was just a city of intense, artistic energy and social energy as well. And I just find that period so appealing. And also I had this hindsight of what's to come. And of course, they didn't, except for some very prescient, you know, some people knew, had a sense what was going to be happening and to be able to contrast the energy and joy of some of those years with the years to come is heartbreaking and fascinating for me as a writer, the before and after.
Yes, very much so. It was just interesting how fast things changed in the time period that you're writing your novels about.
So tell me a little bit more about The Last Collection. It's about the two great Parisian designers, Coco Chanel and Elsa Schiaparelli, and their rivalry, which I gather was real.
Absolutely real. Yeah, they were both competitors for the primary spot as the premier fashion designer in Paris which was the premier designer in the world, basically because Paris was the center of the fashion industry. And, uh, you know, Coco, most people are familiar with Coco's story. Her mother died. She was abandoned by her father. She was sent to an orphanage and that childhood of pain and deprivation never completely left her and it influenced her designs. You can see echoes of the orphanage going on in her clothing. It's really quite amazing.
And Elsa, who was a few years younger than Coco, but not a whole lot, they were contemporaries. Elsa was Roman, grew up in a very well-to-do intellectual Roman family, a child of privilege, but also with her own heartbreaks. Her mother repeatedly told her she was not a, you know, she wasn't pretty. She had a beautiful sister and Elsa was not pretty.
Elsa in her way was even wilder than Coco because she ran away from home. She eloped with a fake Polish count, and ended up doing fake magic shows in New York City. And then when her daughter was born and developed polio, life got very serious for Elsa. And that's when she went back to France and decided to become a fashion designer. Keep in mind, she knew nothing, nothing about sewing and dressmaking, but she was going to do it anyway. That's, that's the kind of woman she was.
So here are these two incredible, alpha, driven, talented females in the same city and they detest each other. They were fun to write about. Yeah.
Oh yes. There's some wonderful scenes, well, the scene when one burns the other, maybe you can remind us of that, that wonderful scene.
And this is, this is documented. This was not invented. Uh, one of the last balls of the season before the German occupation was a huge ball given by an artist André Durst and everybody was there and Coco danced with Elsa and danced her into a candelabra and set her on fire.
Oh, yes. What a wonderful scene that was.
Yeah. And you know, you have to wonder, was it an accident? Did she do it on purpose? I mean, it was so much fun to speculate on that because it actually did happen. You know, what was Coco thinking? Was it just a stupid accident?
Of course, Elsa wasn't seriously hurt, everyone survived. And the people at the party thought it was a big joke. They poured their drinks all over poor Elsa, but that was the intensity there in their rivalry. Coco literally set her on fire. And that was really foreshadowing what the Germans were about to do to France. They were going to set that country on fire.
There is so much foreshadowing in that novel because of course, we knew. this is 1938. We knew what was going to happen as readers and they didn't. And yeah, that was wonderful. You really got that tension there.
I love the way that you brought in the whole textile art. That's why it's in the textile arts category on Art In Fiction, because I learned a lot about design, which I didn't know. What kind of research did you do for that?
I read every biography of Coco, every biography of Elsa. I read tons of memoirs. There's so much documented material from that time. And I know very little about sewing. I know what a French seam is and basting and whip stitch and that's about it.
But I learned so much about the fashion industry that I hadn't known. You know, the, the themes of the shows, how, how the industry worked itself and it still works to a large part, specifically how it worked in Paris at that time, and there were some great memoirs.
One of the details that sticks in my mind is how fashion houses would employ literally spies to spy on other houses. And they would send in these undercover women who would pretend to be shopping and all the while they're making sketches and were clipping fabric out of seams, really quite amazing. And it's the whole form of cold warfare going on in the fashion industry. Coco, when her showings were going on, when she showed her collection, she would not let people have any paper or pencil for fear that they would copy some of the designs as she was showing them.
One of the great things that Elsa did for the fashion industry, and she didn't get enough credit for this, is that during the German occupation, one of Hitler's many ambitious plans was to move the fashion industry from Paris to Berlin, and Elsa and some other members of the fashion syndicate fought that tooth and nail so that it did not happen. And she doesn't quite get enough credit for that. She kept the fashion industry in Paris.
So just as a general note, what are some themes that you are exploring in both novels? Because there are some similarities between the novels, certainly in setting and, and plot, et cetera. But, but what are some of your themes that fascinate you?
Friendships, romances, rivalries, how we connect with other people is always a them. There's always a bit of a love story if not an out and out love story going on, because it's what drives us is that, you know, that seeking for love, whether it's romance or not, there, there is love there.
And I like to show how people, how the women I write about, fit into their world and affect their world.
For me, fiction has always been about the interplay between the public and the private. You don't have one without the other. And that is always very much a theme in how public events are affecting private lives and then turn around, how private lives affect public events.
Yes. So can you tell us about your background that led you to write novels?
I grew up loving stories where my mother came from a big family with a very varied background and they would kind of just sit around telling stories so then, I don't know how true all of them were, some of them are ghost stories, but I, I just love stories.
I learned to read when I was very young, my parents supplied me with all the books I wanted and I was, you know, kind of a, a solitary child. I had plenty of friendships, but I've always been very comfortable spending time on my own, which is very necessary for a writer, as you know, you're alone a lot and you know, just being left alone with stories and my imagination was such a delight to me and so kind of basic and fundamental to how I wanted to be in the world, that writing just seemed to be a given for me that I would write my own fictions and, you know, I had decided that already by seven or eight.
I was already writing by then. And, you know, writing fiction is how I learned about the world and enjoy the world the most. I had a friend who once was an actor and she said to me that she felt most arrived when she was on stage. I feel most alive when I'm inventing a story in my head.
Yes. I can definitely relate to that. And I heard that from many, many other authors as well. There is something about it. It's that magic that happens when you're deep within your story and yeah, there's nothing like it, is there?
One thing, if I'm not writing, I actually get kind of borderline depressed.
I'm convinced that writing uses a part of my spirit and my mind that would not get used any other way. And if I let it go dormant, I get very sad.
It's funny that, isn't it. I know exactly what you mean. Uh there's, there's a restlessness I know I get when I'm not writing or working on something and I end up doing busy work and it's not satisfying.
There's nothing that really satisfies the soul as much as creating something out of nothing. I mean, it's the creative spirit, right.
And I think that's what will save us, hopefully. That's my, my, my sort of feeling for the world.
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I want to talk a little bit about the, the craft of writing because one of the goals of the Art In Fiction Podcast is to inspire other authors. So, one, one question I have is we've talked about that you have several historical figures in your novels, both novels. What are some of the challenges related to depicting historical figures?
I set my own criteria for that and when I'm working with the actual historical figures I stick as close to the fact as I can get of their lives. Of course, when they're with fictional characters, that dialogue is invented in some of the events I invented, but for me, I really feel it's important to be true to who the character was rather than going too far afield.
I would not make Coco Chanel a loving, matronly woman who takes care of sweet children. She was not matronly or maternal in any way. And I would not make Elsa Schiaparelli a loose woman who slept with a different man every night. She was, you know, a little wild, she had lovers, but not, not like that.
I think that because it is in this genre of historical fiction, that the history has to be as accurate as you can keep it without risking losing a good sense of plot and storytelling.
Yes, exactly. It is interesting, isn't it, when you are working with historical figures, but yes, I think you do it extremely well too, because you do get a sense of their humanity, but also they are true to the characters that we know of which, which I find interesting.
So what would be some advice that you would give to aspiring writers?
I would say don't wait for inspiration to strike. Sit down and start writing.
People who wait for inspiration to strike are the ones who don't finish their books.
It's a job, it's work.
It is work and you have to be disciplined about it. Yes, you're allowed time off, but you sit at your desk and you work and you write. And once you're doing that, once you're sitting there working, uh, the second thing is to turn off the editor in your head who's saying you can't do this. That's not good enough. I don't like that sentence, especially if you're in the first draft; ignore all of that and just keep writing
That is great advice. And I like, I like that phrase, turn off the editor in your head because that little guy can really stop you. I know it stopped me for a number of years, which is a shame, right? I always say, you've got to be willing to be bad. Just get it down and then you can work on it. Then you can turn him on it.
In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott talks about her little brother having this meltdown because he has to write an essay on birds and he doesn't know how to do it and he can't sit and concentrate and doesn't know where to begin and his father says do it bird by bird. You know, we build stories brick by brick. Anne Lamott also gives us wonderful advice of allow yourself to write—and this is a direct quote—a shitty first draft.
Yes. That is excellent advice because yes, you do. And I'd like that bird by bird, just like one word at a time, one scene at a time, just build. It's like building an edifice. Because that is what you're doing because novels are so long and they take, you know, a year to write.
Sometimes authors can get quite discouraged, new authors, that they, they think that this is done quickly and no author I've talked to has ever said, yeah, this is easy and quick. It's not, is it?
I've never spent less than two years on any given novel.
I get impatient because my career for many years was in non-fiction and I sometimes think, well, it should be the same, but it's not. It's absolutely not. I wish it was.
I was a journalist for many years. There was such satisfaction in writing a 900-word piece and being done with it. You know, when you move into a 120,000-word novel, you know, it's a commitment. It takes stamina.
It certainly does. It takes a lot of faith. It takes faith that even if what you're writing at the moment isn't very good that eventually you'll be able to make it good. So you have to have some self-confidence, don't you?
Well, I think of writing actually as my acts of faith, hope and charity, faith that I'm doing what I need to be doing, hope that it will turn out well, and charity that I'm putting enough love and empathy into it, that it will entertain or even help inspirit other people who read it. Writing is that important to me.
Absolutely. Yes. And I like, I like that. That's a really good way of looking at it. Faith, hope and charity. Well done. So what's next for you, Jeanne? What, what, what are you working on right now?
Well, I'm working on a novel that's set in the 1920s and thirties. Mostly not in Paris this time, in Southern France.
Oh, fantastic. One of my favorite parts of the world.
Oh, it's beautiful, isn't it?
I know I was supposed to be there this summer, but it wasn't to be.
But other than that, I won't say because I haven't written the first draft and I'm a little bit superstitious about it.
I totally understand. Can you give us a hint, does it have anything to do with the arts?
Well, because I want to be able to put it on Art In Fiction because our whole sort of raison d'être is to list books that are inspired by the arts, of which there are many, as we've discovered while doing this. It's been amazing how many awesome books I've discovered in so many different areas that I didn't really know existed.
Art is a wonderful thing to write about. I, because I think for many writers was the similar problem of trying to use words to create a visual experience. Um, it's fun. You know, writing is fun when you're solving problems, and that's one of the more interesting problems is how do you render the visual into the verbal and vice versa?
It is very difficult, or the auditory, like, I've written a novel about music as well. And also one about visual arts. How do you describe music? Well, I suppose, just like art, you describe the effect it has on people because we're writing about people essentially, always, is the main thing in a novel.
You're right. It is a challenge to write about the arts, but it's also a great deal of fun because there's more creativity, right?
Quite honestly, artists tend to be very fascinating people.
They do, of all stripes. Yes. Artists, musicians, et cetera. Yes. I had to expand the categories when I was starting Art In Fiction beyond visual art and music and literature, just because there are so many areas. We have 11 categories. The creative spirit just is so amazing.
Well, thank you so much, Jeanne, this has just been wonderful to chat with you about your novels. As I said, I've enjoyed both of them very, very much. I just love being taken back to that time in the twenties and thirties, that was such an amazing period in the 20th century and also in the development of contemporary art.
Thank you, Carol. Keep in touch with me, let me know how your books are doing and how your writing's going.