Historical Fiction Week: Natalie Meg Evans

The next guest on my Historical Fiction Week is Natalie Meg Evans, author of The Dress Thief, The Milliner's Secret and A Gown of Thorns. Read all about her writing, her novels and her love for vintage fashion in this interview:

Hello Natalie and welcome to Alba in Bookland. First of all could you tell us a bit about yourself?
Hi Alba, thanks for hosting me and asking juicy questions!
I’m a writer with three passions; history, clothes and being nosy about people. I stir it into the books I write which are emotional journeys, full of intrigue and with a bone-meltingly attractive man or two. 

Actually, I have to confess to a fourth passion, a love of dogs and horses and these creatures often find their way into my books as minor characters. 

Basic biog goes something like this: born in Zimbabwe (Southern Rhodesia) to parents who’d emigrated from England. We returned to England, to the east Midlands when I was very tiny. Dad died when I was six, a real life-changer. Miss him still. Educated at Loughborough High School, went to Art College, left abruptly to go to London to be an actress. Started writing. Got work in public relations, had a son, got married. Kept writing. Eventually moved from the southeast to rural Suffolk. Finally got published. Got divorced last year, now happily single with two beloved Labradors. Currently down-sizing to another house in the same village. It will be a ‘move by wheelbarrow’, no Pickford’s lorry needed.

Your latest work, A Gown of Thorns, is a novella about a girl who moves to the south of France to work as an au pair and finds there a link to the past thanks to a vintage dress. What sparkled this idea? 
Some time ago, I read a biography of the designer Mariano Fortuny, a Spanish fashion designer who worked in Paris. He created the ‘Delphos Gown’ - a classic silk tube designed worn pretty much on the naked form. These gowns mould to the body like wet tissue paper, being constructed of pleats as fine as mushroom gills. Bursting on to the fashion scene in an era when women were still heavily corseted, the Delphos helped push female fashion towards the loose silhouette that came in after the Great War. Later generations have a lot to be thankful for! I love the role that fashion plays in politics. Fashion creates shock, or responds to shock but it never stays still. Lift the hem, look under the hat, and you find people’s life stories. That’s why my books draw on a fashion motif.

I’m not a seamstress myself (too impatient, though bizarrely, I own four sewing machines) but I love to know how things are put together. Fortuny’s technique is still shrouded in mystery. It’s said you can roll a Delphos gown like a sausage, throw it into a suitcase and take it out later, and find it perfect. That, for me, is genius. Making a Fortuny gown the mysterious heart of a story was irresistible. 

Why the dress in the novel was called the ‘Gown of Thorns?’ Well, because nothing is perfect. Something as desirable as a Fortuny gown comes with a price, and the price may be the prickings of sorrow.

This novella is a time slip with strong connections between the past and the present. Why did you chose that and how did you make it work?
I’ve wanted to write a time slip novel ever since reading Barbara Erskine’s ‘Lady of Hay’ years ago. Having decided to mess with the space-time continuum, you decide what your eras are to be. For me, it was World War Two meets the recent present. Both my previous novels, The Dress Thief and The Milliner’s Secret were set in Paris in the run up to and during world war two. For A Gown of Thorns, I shifted the action to rural southwest France. What else but to set it on a wine estate, and delve into the fascinating, complex world of grapes, fermentation and bottling? My travels through France have taken me to some remote corners, and I’ve been made aware how the wartime struggles of the country are imprinted on the landscape. In a Gown of Thorns, I strove to bring the passion and danger of the Resistance alive, through the eyes of a vanished generation (Henri and Yvonne) and also through the modern eyes of my hero and heroine, Laurent and Shauna.

Your debut novel, The Dress Thief, also centers on dresses and fashion. Are you a vintage fashion enthusiast? How do you research this part of your novels?
My love of vintage fashion was sparked by my mother, who brought beautiful clothes back from Paris. She was there in the late 1940s and early 50’s, just when Paris fashion was flowering again after the restrictions of wartime occupation. She wasn’t rich, just an au-pair teaching English to the children of a wealthy family. The clothes were hand-me-downs. She also brought fashion magazines back and two decades later, she and I leafed through them. I fell in love with the super-elegant shapes of the era; the hourglass figure, the detailed tailoring. A totally different vibe to the fashions of the 70’s and 80’s. For a start, the models were older women, elegantly posed and beautifully groomed. I never believed I could be like them, but I fell for the look. My style of dressing is very informal. But in my dreams, I’m a well-to-do Parisienne in 1950, with an account at a fashion house on Rue Cambon, and I’m dropped off there by my chauffeur twice a week to be fitted for exquisite clothes. Dream on, honey.

Research begins with pictures, lots of them. Thank heavens for ‘t’internet’ which is a resource that was unimaginable when I first started writing. I read biographies of the couturiers, and I’m always in second hand bookshops, looking for those unsung gems, the memoirs and diaries of totally forgotten people who lived through the eras I write about. Professional biographers write about events and feelings. Amateur diarists write about things (how much it cost to take a taxi in 1938). So much more useful!

What made you start writing historical fiction? 
As a kid, history was my reading of choice. I can’t really explain what gives me the urge to reach back and connect with times past. I feel a rev in the stomach when I see the ruined towers of a castle, or walk through a market town with lopsided timber framed buildings. I want to know the stories they contain, and where there is no information available, I invent it myself.

You are a multi award winning and bestseller author. What did it mean for you to get so much attention on your work? And what do you think makes your books stand out?
It took me thirty years from writing my first (crazily bad) novel to being published. In that time, I kept telling myself I could make it, but self-belief grew ragged and I had so many disappointments, I often felt I’d shackled myself to a millstone. Success, when it finally came, felt like a long line of dominoes falling. Everything happened at once and in the three years since The Dress Thief came out, I have won awards, sold quite a lot of books and seen myself in the New York top 100 and all three books at once in the Amazon historical top ten.

Those moments send me back to the struggle, to the tears and failures. I want to go back to my younger self, put an arm round her and say, ‘You’ll get there, sausage.’ So, while I enjoy the success, I never take it for granted. Amazon rankings can plummet to earth from the dizzy heights, like a lump of frozen washroom waste from a jumbo jet! 

I’m an emotional person and I still have to learn to be confident and thicker skinned. 

What makes my books stand out? Well, firstly, thank you for suggesting that they do! Huge credit goes to my publishers, agent, editors and the cover designs created by their talented artists. People love my covers, which are the inspired creativity of other people. 

The stories I write are my own, however, and I tend to ‘do my own thing.’ I like to give my readers something immersive and powerful. Reading the reviews (when I’m brave enough!) suggests that it’s what brings people to my books. 

Do you think that in historical fiction, the time period and setting is as important as the story itself?
Absolutely. The period should be as much a character as the hero and heroine. A historical should, in my view, be more than a story of contemporary values with long dresses thrown in. People ‘back then’ had different values and aspirations to us. Yes, they wanted love, happiness, security, wealth, power, what you will... but how they gained what they wanted and expressed their needs sets them apart from us. Location, era, setting are crucial ingredients, characters in their own right. A historical novel should grow out of its era as an oak tree grows from its soil. 

Could you recommend us a novel that has stayed with you? 
I have read and listened to so many books in my life (I’m a big fan of audio books, particularly in the car) that singling out one is hard. This I can safely say is a novel that set me on the road to becoming the kind of writer I am; Drum roll... it’s Margaret Mitchell’s epic Gone with the Wind. You know the film, but have you read the book, folks? It has everything. Gutsy writing, a plot that treats its readers as adults (no schmaltzy concessions to sentiment). The scenes of the Battle of Atlanta are among the best heart-gripping war scenes anywhere. And Scarlett, one of the most flawed females in literature, is also one of the most memorable. 

A shorter, more contemporary book I love to recommend is Nora Ephron’s ‘Heartburn.’ Ephron was the screenwriter of ‘When Harry Met Sally’ so you’re assured of laughter and wit. This novel also hands you a roller-coaster ride of revenge and recipes.

And finally, are you working on a new project? 
I am currently writing The Wardrobe Mistress, in which my love of all things clothes-y shifts to the London theatre. It’s currently ‘in progress’ but here’s a little blurb: 

“It is 1946, the war has ended but the worst winter in two hundred years is just around the corner. Young war widow Vanessa Kingcourt has been hired as wardrobe mistress at the Farren theatre in London. Working backstage there is not just a lifelong ambition, it feels like her destiny. Not only is she looking to mend her heartbreak and rediscover the sense of purpose that her war work gave her, she needs to understand what caused her father to take his own life just as war came to an end. The Farren Theatre and its mysterious, vanished former wardrobe mistress Eva, seem to be implicated in his death. As she takes over the wardrobe room backstage, Vanessa struggles to meet the twin demands of curating costumes for a glittering production of a play by Oscar Wilde while also digging down into the past. But when she becomes romantically entangled with the Farren’s married owner – enigmatic Alistair Redenhall – her career, happiness and her very survival are put on the line.”

You can find out more about Natalie Meg Evans and her books on:

About the book:

Title: A Gown of Thorns
Author: Natalie Meg Evans
Published: March 30th 2016 by Bookouture

Blurb: Hidden within the wardrobe’s embrace, she rifled through the folds of cloth until her fingers stopped at a gown of violet, lavender and silver-grey pleats. She lifted it off its hanger and turned towards the mirror… 

Shauna Vincent arrives in the little French village of Chemignac after accepting an offer to be an au pair to the grandchildren of an old family friend. 

As she begins to explore her new home at the ancient Chateau de Chemignac with it’s beautiful vineyards, she discovers a locked tower room where she unearths a treasure trove of exquisite vintage dresses. One gown feels unsettlingly familiar. 

When Shauna falls asleep one afternoon in a valley full of birdsong, she has a strange dream of a vintage aircraft circling threateningly overhead. So when she suddenly awakes to find charming local landowner Laurent standing over her - Shauna wonders if he might be just the person to help her untangle this unexpected message from the past. 

A Gown of Thorns draws you into a richly evocative world steeped in secrets that will mesmerize fans of Rachel Hauck’s The Wedding Dress, Kristen Hannah’s The Nightingale and Adriani Trigiani.

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