Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The Last Nude by Ellis Avery: review and interview

Set in 1920’s Paris, The Last Nude by Ellis Avery imagines the relationship between the real artist Tamara de Lempicka and her model, Rafaela. The author is a professor of creative writing at Columbia University, and she translates images to the printed page with literary finesse. Her approach to writing, however, is more lyrical and sensual than scholarly. You can almost taste her words.
 “I felt like a gardenia blossom as I drifted home, fragrant and bruisable. All the familiar things in my neighborhood seemed new again: the glass-domed arcades. The odor of honey cakes stealing toward me from the Pâtisserie Fouquet. The sharp chemical scent prickling out of Galerie Vollard: huile de lin, Tarmara had said. Térébenthine.” 
The main narrator is Rafaela, a teenaged girl who fled from New York City to Paris to avoid an arranged marriage. After trading her body to survive, Rafaela becomes Tamara’s model and lover, but her troubles are far from over. Collectors covet the paintings and the women behind them. Tamara has her own agenda and plays her many lovers, male and female, like chess pieces. At the Shakespeare Bookstore, Rafaela encounters liberated lesbians and a mysterious man, Ansom Hall. They inspire her to be more than a pawn.

Tamara narrates the final chapters in an extended epilogue (part two). This unconventional narrative structure with its jump in voice, time and setting was jarring, but it made sense. An iconoclastic approach to art is true to the spirit of the book. The Last Nude will surprise you. This creative historical novel will be released tomorrow (January 5, 2012) in the USA.

My Interview of Ellis Avery

Ellis Avery by Matthew Powell

Sarah: Your first novel, The Teahouse Fire, was set in late 19th century Kyoto and focused on Japanese tea ceremony. What led you to 1920s Paris and art? 

Ellis: While working on The Teahouse Fire, I happened to see the Tamara de Lempicka show at the Royal Academy in London. I was riveted by the luminous glamour and erotic force of her 1927 painting Beautiful Rafaela, and all the more so by the caption for the painting: the painter met the model in a public park in Paris in 1927 and propositioned her on the spot. She drove her back to the studio; the girl became her model and her lover, and their brief relationship yielded six paintings. This story fascinated and distracted me, and for a couple of days I found myself traveling in my mind to 1920s Paris instead of 1880s Kyoto. I’ll come back to this, I promised myself, and I did.

Beautiful Rafeala by Tamara de Lempicka (from the NPR website)


How did you research the art and setting for The Last Nude?

If the story of how Tamara met Rafaela wasn’t compelling enough on its own, along with de Lempicka’s biographies, including an excellent one by Laura Claridge, I also studied her catalogue raisonné: imagine my surprise when I discovered that the very last painting de Lempicka was working on when she died was a copy of her own 1927 Beautiful Rafaela. Fifty-three years later, that girl was on her mind. So my novel is the story of Tamara and Rafaela’s 1927 affair from the model’s point of view, and the story of Tamara’s last day alive in 1980, spent painting that copy of Beautiful Rafaela.


In addition to the reading and study I did on de Lempicka and art history, I revisited the interwar literary history I studied at the American University in Paris when I was sixteen, and I lived in Paris for three months in 2008 while working on the first draft of this book.

I also spent time studying in Paris at sixteen and have returned over the years, and you have captured the bohemian flavor of this most enchanting city. As an artist myself, I was impressed by how well you conveyed the act of painting from both the painter's and the model's perspective. How did you gain such insight?

I modeled for two paintings in my twenties, so I drew from experience on that front, but I also took a figure painting class while working on The Last Nude, so I would know what the experience was like from the other side of the brush: how it felt to look at a model for hours on end.

Was your Rafaela a real person or a fictional character? 

That Tamara met a girl named Rafaela in the Bois du Bouglogne in 1927 is documented in her daughter’s memoir, and Rafaela’s phone number turns up in Tamara’s address book. That said, the rest of the biographical Rafaela’s story is unknown. As for “my” Rafaela—the Italian-American who escapes an arranged marriage in order to run away to Paris—I made her up from scratch.

Why did you choose to narrate the bulk of this story from Rafaela's voice instead of Tamara’s voice? 

I narrated the novel from Rafaela’s point of view because Tamara’s point of view has already been amply documented and richly imagined by her biographers and cataloguers. While I’m immensely grateful to those scholars, I’d be bored if I simply stuck to dramatizing the research of others.

What led to the unusual structure of this book? 

I wrote the entire book from Rafaela’s point of view before I realized that I needed to tell the story from Tamara’s point of view, too: her voice snuck up on me, and then it surprised me with its passion and its uncompromising force, and once I started writing from her point of view, I couldn’t stop.

Rafaela’s friend Anson Hall reminded me of a gentler Hemingway: the manuscripts lost by his wife and the Spanish Civil War. Did you borrow and bend history? 

Yes, I did. Anson is a counterfactual Hemingway: he’s the person Hemingway would have turned out to have become if he had never gotten over the loss of all his manuscripts in 1922. Anson was Hemingway’s paternal grandfather’s first name; Hall was his maternal grandfather’s last name.

How do you create a balance between history and fiction when writing historical fiction?

I hew as closely as I can to historical materials, except when they get in the way of telling a good story.

How do you create a voice that is true to the time period?

I read as much fiction written during the time period in which my novel is set as possible, and I keep the OED by my side as I work so that I can check when the word I want to write began being used the way I want to use it. 

What is the best piece of writing advice you have received?

In terms of writing habits: read as much as you can and try to write something, however small, every day.

In terms of professionalization: read Poets and Writers magazine.

In terms of fiction writing: ask yourself, what does my character want? What stands in the way of my character getting what he or she wants? Does my character get what he or she wants in the end or not? If you can answer these three questions, you know your story.

Can you tell us about your next novel?

It’s set in frontier-era Florida. I’m tempted to go the Marilynne Robinson route and use one relationship, one small story, as a way to access a whole world, but I’m also tempted by David Mitchell’s More is More aesthetic. We’ll see!

I'm a big fan of David Mitchell's too, and I think you've done a fine job of balancing historical context, character and story in both of your books.  I'm looking forward to reading more of your work. Thanks, Ellis, for joining us for the Book Review Club, and good luck with your third novel! 

Disclosure: I first connected with the author through her excellent first novel, The Teahouse Fire.  By coincidence, we share the same agent, Jean V. Naggar of JVNLA. After learning that Ellis was researching her second novel in Paris and focusing on art, I asked to review it. The publisher sent me the ARC on the author’s request. The photos of France were taken by me in 2007.

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17 comments:

Linda McLaughlin said...

This sounds fascinating to me. I love anything historical. Great review and interview.

Amanda said...

comme d'habitude, a wonderful interview, sarah - avery's work seems as sumptuous as a de lempicka painting.

wishing you belated holiday wishes and blessings to you and yours for all the best in 2012~

A Cuban In London said...

What a fantastic interview and review. I actually read the interview during my lunch hour but kept getting interrrupted and couldn't leave any comment.

I love it when authors go the extra mile with their research into an era. That's probably why I loved Wolf Hall so much. I'm also intrigued about the unconventional narrative structure. I'm always on the lookout for books that are out of the ordinary. This one definitely is going on my to-buy list. Thanks a lot.

Happy New Year to you and yours!

Greetings from London.

Carol said...

Sarah, You have create a fabulous first post of the New Year! The images and your interview are inspiring. I have added Ellis's books to my winter reading list. Thank you! Love, Love your photos of Paris!!!! Happy New Year!!

Rose said...

A great review, Sarah, and as always, a fascinating interview with the author. I have to say I enjoy your interviews with the authors as much as the book reviews themselves; it's certainly interesting to see how and why an author makes the choices she does in writing. This book sounds intriguing; I'm going to add it to my reading list.

On my one and only trip to Paris, I did visit the Shakespeare Bookstore!

Lucy said...

I agree with the others . . . great review. Definitely one to add to my list! Thanks! :)

Alyssa Goodnight said...

While this does sound like a fascinating book, I confess I was completely drawn in by the interview! So very interesting all that went into this book!

Excellent post!

Barrie said...

What a very thorough review! And I loved the thoughtful questions and answers of the interview. "You can almost taste her words." Wow, Sarah! Wow, Ellis Avery! Oh, and how fun that you share an agent. ;)

Cat said...

This was such a good interview, Sarah. It's fascinating to learn how a writer develops her characters and prepares to create a story. I studied art history in college and always loved learning about the behind the scene stories. What inspires creativity is just as magical as the piece created, imho.

I hope you and your family have a joyous 2012!

tina said...

I learn so much about writing just reading your book reviews. Very good review and the structure along with the storyline sounds most interesting. Happy New Year to you!

walk2write said...

While driving home from Pensacola last week, I caught the tail end of an NPR discussion of the book. It was enough to stir my curiosity, and your review and interview have finished the soup, so to speak. Ms. Avery is certainly dedicated to her craft to have immersed herself so deeply in the research. I can't wait to read her next novel set in Florida. In the meantime, I'll look into her latest books.

Thanks for the excellent post, Sarah!

Donna said...

I enjoy your author interviews; they are always interesting and I love hearing what authors have to say about their work. Historical fiction is my favorite genre, but this book sounds like it might be too racy for (somewhat prudish) me!

Sarah Laurence said...

All, it’s wonderful to hear such positive feedback on this book and interview. You can hear the live interview of Ellis on NPR that Walk2Write mentioned (thank you!) by clicking on the link under the nude painting in my post. Do let me know what you think of The Last Nude after you’ve read it.

Barrie, thanks for hosting the book review! It is fun connecting with an agent-sister.

Donna, the love scenes are tastefully written, although the relationships are unconventional. The book is historical fiction with romance, not erotica.

Sarahlynn said...

Beautifully written review, as always. And I especially enjoy your behind-the-scenes-of-the-writing interview with the author.

troutbirder said...

Wonderful in depth review and interview, Sarah. Your the best. And thanks for the kind words. Mrs T is well on the road to recovery. I'm busy catching up on blogs. And soon reading, writing book reviews, and doing the back to nature thing. :)

cynthia said...

Wow-fascinating interview. I loved the painting too. And also the gorgeous sunset in your holiday send-off below. Nice to catch up with you.

Happy New Year!

Ashley Hope Pérez said...

Living in Paris... working on my own historical novel... I need this on my reading list. Thanks for such a fantastic interview to seal the deal.