Natasha Lester is an Australian author who writes historical fiction often revealing influential and important women who have otherwise been written out of history. Her latest book “The Disappearance of Astrid Bricard” follows three women: Blythe, Astrid Bricard and Mizza Bricard, who history has reduced to nothing more than the knickerless muse of Christian Dior. Astrid and Blythe are the fictional children and grandchildren of Mizza.
Natasha Lester, let’s start with the recent book, The Disappearance of Astrid Bricard. How did you actually discover Mizza Bricard?
I discovered her when I was writing The Paris Secret, which came out in 2020, because that book has Christian Dior as a character, but it also has Christian Dior’s sister, Catherine Dior as a character. So, to write that book, I did a little bit of research around Christian Dior, and I came across Mizza’s name, and when I was reading the anecdotes about her and all the books about Dior, they all said the same thing. And then when I again did some more research for The three lives of Alix St Pierre, which again has Christian Dior as a character, I read those same anecdotes over and over again in every single book about Christian Dior.
When it talks about the four women that were around him Mizza Bricard was the muse and she never wore knickers, she wore fur coats and lots of jewellery that was furnished by all of her lovers. And she’d slept with everybody and was a demi-horizontale. So, that’s what I thought that she was, because that’s what was published in every nonfiction book, which is supposed to be truth. So, I was attracted to her because the all of the books also agreed that she was mysterious and as a writer, you always want to write about the mysterious people, not the ones about whom everything is known.
So, I’d been wanting to write about her since I was doing that research for The Paris Secret, but I just didn’t know what. I didn’t really want to just write about a muse that didn’t seem sort of strong and startling enough to me. And it wasn’t until I sort of began to find a little bit more out about the real Mizza that I thought, “oh, now I’ve got you”.
Click to reveal spoiler
There’s more to the story. You explained at the end of the book that some of the things that you had her do in the book were not necessarily fact, but they were very possible, such as Mizza’s involvement in the French Resistance movement.
Yeah. She had so many connections to different resistance figures that I just couldn’t believe that she sat around in her apartment in her fur and her jewels, doing nothing for the war. It just didn’t seem possible to be so well connected and so close to so many key resistance figures [and not have done anything]. I thought, “no, you did something.”
And to actually have nothing to do with it.
And the fact that there is nothing on the record also makes me know that she did something, because if she had have done nothing, that would be on the record. But where there are gaps, it’s like, “okay, well she did something.”
You think the gap in the records is explained by having done something.
Exactly. Yeah, definitely. I could find traces of Mizza throughout the 1920s, I had those shipping records that showed her going to New York and representing Doucet to the Harry Angelo Company to try and sell his designs. And there were articles about her then at the House of Mirande in the late 1920s. Pierre Balmain, in his memoir, writes extensively about her at the House of Molyneux, where he calls her Madam B, and then Balenciaga. She set up his millinery department during the Second World War but then he left Paris because he got closed down by the Germans because he was exceeding his quota.
And, I don’t know what she did. Then there’s a couple of brief mentions that she was a client at Lucien Lelong, a mannequin named Praline remembers her being there. And then she just pops up in 1947, obviously at Dior. So I was like, “okay, with all your resistance and allied connections you were doing something Mizza.”
And she was obviously super intelligent. Those articles that I found that named her quite clearly as the second most important person on the Dior staff, second only to the great man himself, and that she was his assistant designer.
So, she obviously was an incredibly talented woman, and there was that one obituary about her which said she was a greater designer than Coco Chanel. That was the one that really stuck in my mind [and made me think] she must have been so amazing. I just can’t imagine that she didn’t have something to offer and that she wouldn’t have offered that. She’d have clearly been an independent working woman since her early 20s, so it didn’t make sense for her just to be sitting around in the war.
The characters of Astrid and Blythe in The Disappearance of Astrid Bricard are fictional. Did Mizza actually have a child?
No, Mizza didn’t have a child at all. Well, not that I can find.
Not that we know about..
I’m writing fiction, which I love because it allows you to do all these kinds of things. And I thought the only way to really make people understand the legacy of how Mizza was reduced by the nonfiction books is to show how –
That travelled down the generations.
Exactly. And I think people are able to really relate to the way women are treated in contemporary times by the media. I wanted to have that woman in contemporary times who was treated in the way that a Taylor Swift or a Jennifer Aniston has been treated, because I think when we have something that’s so close that we can empathetically relate to, then it makes us more easily able to relate to Mizza and see how that happens.
In the very beginning of the book, before the actual story begins, you’ve thanked Dick Lester for hiring a chateau in the Loire Valley. Did you take the idea of having Blythe stay in a chateau from the Loire Valley from that experience? Or did you kind of say, why don’t we all do this?
100%? I always joke that my father-in-law loves a grand gesture, For all of his big birthdays, so anything ending with a five or a zero, he takes his whole family somewhere to stay for a week or so. And he’s got a big family, it’s 29 people in total.
So, the 23 or 4 in the book is similar.
Similar. So, he decided that for his 80th he would hire this chateau in the Loire Valley. And for a week and 29 people would go and stay there. His family and I thought, “yep, absolutely. I’ll be there.” And it was December that he had booked it for.
So it was freezing just like in the book!
It was freezing. It was really cold. It was minus five degrees outside. And we rocked up at the chateau in our coats, scarves, hats, scarves, everything because it was freezing.
Expecting that you could take all those off when you go inside.
Expecting that the doors would open and we would be kind of hit with this blast of warmth, and it was absolutely freezing. We think that the owners were literally sitting in the window watching for the coach to pull up in the driveway, and only then did they decide to go and turn the central heating on. French chateaux, being drafty and large, take at least a week to heat up.
So, we were wearing everything inside, and the chateau owner had on the big fluffy furry boots and the full-on coat, and we did nickname her the Yeti, as Blythe and family do in the book. And I just thought to myself, “oh my God, this is just too good not to write about“. But being the evil writer, I thought, “how could I make this like even worse than what it is?” And I thought, “oh, what if you were staying with your ex-husband and your ex-family in law and it was three weeks in a freezing chateau instead of one?” So that’s how I extended reality into something that was potentially even more dramatic.
You’ve done a lot of research for all of your novels, and that’s included actually going over to the places that you’ve written about. With your research about French people, have you gone to French archives and the like?
Yes. So, for the book I’m writing right now, I have literally spent my life in French archives. But for this one, I did get some documents.
I think you wrote this one during COVID, and you were having things photocopied and sent?
That’s right. So, I wrote this during 2020 and 2021, but then I went to Europe in October last year and visited many of the sites that I needed to, like Mizza’s apartment building and the Galerie Dior, and some places like that.
But the main thing I did in the archives was to use those for Mizza’s civil records. French birth certificates are these amazing documents where, at that time, they would go back and handwrite on the original birth certificate any other civil events that happened in a person’s life. So, any marriage or divorce is written on the certificate. So, one birth certificate provides you with a snapshot of all the different names that a person used over the course of their lives. That’s how I found everything.
French records are really hard to find, you’ve got to know the arrondissement that your person was born in and the Act number. But when you find the birth certificate, it’s a treasure trove. Thank God you don’t have to find the separate marriage certificates. You can once you’ve got the birth certificate, but you need that one document. So, it was a lot of civil records hunting because I wanted to know all of Mizza’s many names so that I could then put them into all the other databases to find.
Which is essentially what the niece does in the story.
Yes. So what Coco did is what I did.
Do you speak French?
Yes, I do.
Well, yes. I’ve done my DELFS and I’ve done past C1.
Did you have an interest in in history back when you were at school?
I did. I did history through to year 12 and I did French through to year 12 as well. And I loved history. It was one of the subjects that I could just have bathed in basically.
And women’s studies which kind of flows from that.
We did a little bit about women in the 1920s in America. And I remember particularly being fascinated by that. The only French history we did was Napoleon and there are not very many women featuring in Napoleonic history. There wasn’t that much of that. And I feel like with my age, I just missed all of that focus on kind of women’s studies and history.
Your recent books have been set in the fashion world and the House of Dior was one of pivotal fashion houses that the women in your books were linked to. I’ve really liked how you weave fashion terminology through your books. Not just when you’re talking about the dresses, but when you’re talking about people and the way that things are happening in their lives.
It seems every time you turn on the news, they will throw a pun in there. This is news! This isn’t meant to be full of puns!
You manage to do it in such a beautiful way that it adds to the story rather than seeming as though you’re just adding in these words unnecessarily. There’s obviously a balance, but how do you achieve it? How do you do that without it sounding corny?
People ask me that question quite a lot. I wish I had a better answer and I need to come up with a better answer. And but the honest truth is, I don’t really know.
It just flows that way?
Well, kind of yes. Which, I don’t know whether that answer makes it sound easier than it is. I do find there’s a little bit of a mysterious element to the writing process, and when you are really in the flow of it stuff comes out that you actually think, “oh, wow, that’s a pretty good sentence”. I don’t really know where that comes from.
I believe strongly that a lot of that does come from reading and internalising those words and phrases. I read a lot of fashion and fashion history, so the vocabulary is there. So, when I’m writing a sentence and I want to describe something and draw a comparison or make a simile, my mind immediately leaps to those kinds of words.
So, it’s not like you’ve got a list of fashion terminology we use in everyday language, and you’re trying to incorporate them.
No, it’s just kind of there. I do think that my mind is an avid collector of beautiful, unusual words. So, whenever I do come across those things, if I’m reading a fashion history book, it stores them so that they can then be retrieved. When I am writing something like that. I think it’s a big part of it.
I always say when I’m teaching writing “collect words”. There’s this piece of research that shows that most humans only use about 20 verbs, and the English language is actually a very rich language compared to some of the Scandi languages, for instance. And it just seems such a crime to only use 20 verbs when we have so many of them at our disposal.
I think as a writer, I’ve always tried to push myself to have a good extensive vocabulary so that it can perhaps occasionally feel that the writing is fresh and unique in some way.
It definitely does.
And again, something else that you’ve probably also been asked – in this book, you’ve got the three women, the three generations. And as a reader you kind of have a chapter about one and a chapter about another. And it’s often changes and sometimes you have a few about one to develop their story. Do you write them as we read them, or do you write each woman’s story separately?
In the past when I’ve written the dual narratives, the contemporary and the historical, I’ve always written them separately, and I would always write the historical narrative first and then the contemporary, because the historical is the one that is the grounding of the book. And then the contemporary is where the secrets or mysteries might get unravelled.
But in this one, because I was still only in the very early stages of finding out all those things out about Mizza, I didn’t want to start writing her into a version that wasn’t real, and that was too much like the injustices that had been done to her. So, I didn’t feel like I was ready to write her. And the 1970s was such a new period for me that I was feeling less confident about writing Astrid and Hawk. So, I actually started with a contemporary storyline in this book, which is the first time I’ve ever written a contemporary storyline first.
So, you started with Blythe
Yeah. I started with Blythe and I think that was because, you know, I’d stayed in that chateau like I could see it all. It felt quite achievable and manageable. So, I wrote the whole of Blythe’s storyline, and then I wrote Astrid and Hawk, and I hadn’t really intended for Hawk to have a point of view, but he decided that he needed to have one. And he was right. So, I let him have one as well.
Then I wrote Mizza. And then I tried a number of different ways of weaving them together. In my previous novels, which are all dual narratives I usually have about six chapters of historical, before I then have maybe four chapters of contemporary, and it kind of goes like that. But for this one, I tried that and it didn’t work. Structurally, it just didn’t flow, and it wasn’t helping me with the narrative tension and getting the reader to just really want to know what happened.
So, it took me a couple of goes before I landed on the way it is now, which is alternating. Astrid, Blythe, Astrid, Blythe, Astrid, Blythe. And having these slim chunks of Mizza at the end of each act like a kind of a bookend so that you believed when you began reading the book, everything about Mizza that I had believed until you got to the end of act one, when you had to say, “oh, hang on, maybe there’s a little bit more here than we thought.” And it just, you know, as soon as I did that, I thought, oh, this is obvious and this works. Why didn’t I think of this before?
I saw that someone on Instagram had a copy of your book and they had bookmarks all through it, which made me wonder whether they’ve actually gone and bookmarked each of the chapters by person to go back and read it that way.
No. There’s this new thing on TikTok now, and I’ve seen quite a lot of these books now at signings because people have brought them along where they highlight and colour code tab quotes from the book that they like and the colour coding stand for different things like blue is for key quotes, pink is for romance scenes. And then there’s green and you’re like,”wow, they’re all different.” It actually looks quite beautiful when you look at the pages and you see all these little tabs sticking out.
But I hadn’t come across it until at the start of the tour when a 17 year old girl bought her book in and I was asking her about it. And then Kate, my publicist, said, “oh yeah, it’s this thing on TikTok.” So I asked my kids, they said, “oh yeah, it’s this thing on TikTok”. And at every event since then I’ve had people come in [with books like that]. So now that I understand what it’s all about actually I really love it.
I thought maybe it was someone has gone through and tagged all of the Blythe one colour, all of the Astrid another, etc. It made me wonder whether it would be interesting to go back and reread the book rather as its written but one character at a time.
I have had people in the past tell me that that’s what they do. They don’t like to read it mixed up. They like to read one narrative and then the other. So, they just skip and they do that.
That must be so strange. It’s not how you’ve intended it.
No but I do think that once you finish the book and it’s in the reader’s hands, then it’s for the reader to do what they like and they’re able to do that. But I do think that the best reading experience comes from reading it the way it is set out.
I’ve only read the last one and this one. So far. They’ve both portrayed strong women, but there’s also been a bit of a romance side. Do you always intend to have the romance side? Do you do you aim to have a romance in your novels?
Yeah, I always like having a romance subplot because I think everyone loves love. Who doesn’t love reading about love? And I feel like it’s such an integral part of life in all its different facets, whether it’s love for a child or parent or lover, it’s just something I really enjoy exploring.
I guess as part of that constant debate when it comes to women, about having it all, I’m hoping to show people is that there’s not an all or a kind of a goal, it’s Just that women have lots of different things going on in their lives that they are juggling and trying to manage and trying to do their best with. So, if I was just kind of focusing on any one of those things, I feel like it wouldn’t be reflecting how women’s lives really are. That’s why I like having it in there as well.
You spend a lot more time with the characters than any of us get to. So, if when I was reading it over the course of four or so days and nights, I was dreaming about the characters, wondering so what’s going to happen next, I thought that must happen to you, right? And they feel like real people to you by the end.
Yeah, they do. And I guess it’s that they’re always in the back of your mind, which is a good thing, because the real work of writing is sitting down at the desk and typing out the sentences and paragraphs. But a lot of the ideas come when you’re not at your desk writing.
Yes, I was reading about all the inopportune moments that you get the ideas
It’s like [when I’m] running or washing the dishes or driving without the kids in the car. And that can only happen because they are in your mind. When you’ve got that quiet moment and you’re doing something monotonous and your brain is unoccupied, it can be imaginative about these people who are kind of occupying your world at the moment. And I really like that and really enjoy those little sparks of “oh, yes, that’s a good line of dialogue” or “yes, I need a scene that does that or something like that”.
Do you find yourself talking to your husband about the characters in the books when you’re researching them?
Not, he’s not a big reader. He likes non-fiction. So, as he would say, he’s got nothing to offer. I also think that I don’t know whether there’s anyone I know that I would toss ideas around with because they’re my characters. And of course, I know some people do things like that with plot and stuff. It’s just not ever been a way that my writing practice has worked.
I guess because they get to feel so real, I wondered if it was kind of like, “oh, today, such and such did this.”
You said you did French in school? Through to year 12? Was there something about France and the French language that grabbed you back in high school? Or was it compulsory?
I think we had to do it in year eight, but then after that we could choose whether or not to do it. And I just really enjoyed it. I don’t really know why. I think I found it easy too. Some people find maths easy. I’ve just always found languages easy. You know, English was easy and so was French. So, I think I liked it from that perspective. And then I just kept I kept doing classes at Alliance Française, and then I worked for L’Oreal for a few years, and obviously we spoke French there.
You worked for L’Oreal in Paris?
No, here in Melbourne, actually, but the French people would come out, of course, from Paris twice a year, and we would present to them and all of that kind of thing. And we had classes. So, it enabled me to keep up the language, which has actually been fantastic, actually.
It’s helped with the research. I look back on teenaged Natasha and I say thank you teenaged Natasha, thank you for doing that, because that was a really good idea!
How do you get access to the French archives?
Pretty easily actually. Yeah, just as easily as any other archive.
Is it because you’ve got a publisher behind you that it’s easier?
No, I mean, anyone can access archives. Sometimes you have to make an appointment, and sometimes you have to request the documents in advance to be there waiting for you when you’re there. But any member of the public can go into most archives and request documents and look at documents. Once you’re familiar with how an archive works, it’s pretty easy. The first time you do it, it’s all a bit like, “well, what am I doing?” I really enjoy archives.
It would be really Interesting. Do they have a French equivalent of the trove website that we’ve got here in Australia?
They’ve got some. You can get some copies of Le Monde and Paris-Soir online. I think Le Monde actually has its own database. One of my biggest finds was the French equivalent of Ancestry, which is the family tree, which is where I got started to get all the Mizza information from. And when I found that, I was like, “oh my God, now this is gold, now I’m onto it.” So, I had a subscription to the French equivalent of Ancestry for the whole time I was writing the book.
Similarly, you speak the language, so it’s probably fair to say you’re a bit of a Francophile. Is that why your last few books have had at least one of the characters set in France? Or was it just because it flowed from the research about Christian Dior that you thought there were all these different women?
A lot of the time it’s because I’m writing a book, and I find something in the research that I haven’t been able to include in that book that I’m writing. So, with Alix, I had long wanted to write about the post-war period, because what happened to women post-war was pretty shocking, and also something I really wanted to unpick. And I wanted to do that since I wrote The French Photographer, which was inspired by Lee Miller because she had a really hard time after the war. But again, I didn’t know what the story was.
Then, when I found out that Dior’s first Director of Publicity was an American – he was a man – I thought, I’m going to make him into a woman, and I’m going to have some fun with that. Sometimes it’s just you hold on to the idea, but you just need something else to stick to it and go, “okay, now you’ve got the story.”
And same with Mizza. I’d had her since 2020, but I didn’t have the thing that I needed. And it was when I discovered the Battle of Versailles that was “ah now I know what I’m doing”. So, I think that’s why the books then tend to be set around France, because it’s come out of previous books’ research.
Is the next one, that you posted finished manuscripts of the other day, set in France?
The next one is entirely set in France.
You said that that Mizza was there from 2020, in your mind, how far in advance do you choose the historical women that you’ll be writing about?
Probably about three years. Each book takes about two and a half years to write. So, the one I’m writing now, which I’ve got to hand in at the end of this month I’ve been working on for about a year now, and that will come out in 2025.
Can you tell us anything about who the next one is set around?
There was a woman who is mostly now known by her name, Marie-Madeleine Fourcade. She was the only female leader of a French resistance network during the Second World War. And she’s very much been forgotten by history. And she was probably the most remarkable woman I’ve ever written about in my whole life. So that has been a really heartbreaking story to write.
When you’ve been doing research – such as researching the women in the post war period where anyone that was seen to be a collaborator had their head shaved, stripped, naked, beaten, how do you look after yourself when you’re delving into such darkness?
] I guess having three kids really helps because, you know, they come home at 4 o’clock and they’re so rambunctious and full of life and wanting to chat. And so, you have to obviously give them your attention and that is kind of a part of that. I think in the early years I found it quite hard to switch over. But I think you get just get better at that through practice, like you do with everything.
What do you do when someone’s not very widely known? Is that where you get the creative liberty or like for with Mizza so for example, you started with the birth certificate?
It’s just a matter of following the research. Every document that you find, there’ll be something in that document that you don’t know about. So, then you go on and track that down and then that leads you to something new. And looking in the bibliographies of any books that you might be reading. That is how I came across Praline’s memoir about where she mentioned Mizza. It’s just following every single end, I suppose.
You did a Master of Creative Arts before you published your first book. What do you think that taught you about writing?
It just taught me that there isn’t one process for writing a book, and that to write a book, you actually just have to sit down and write something, and which kind of sounds silly, but it’s actually really true. Being crippled by self-doubt and worry that you’re not doing it the right way… All of those things that get in the way and stop you from sitting down to write are kind of the enemies. And if you get caught up in those, you will never be a writer.
It was my supervisor that just said, “no, just sit down and write something.” And that was her only advice. Just sit down and write something. And if you just do that all the time, then you’ll get a book in the end.
It will come more naturally. How do you think your writing has evolved since your first book to now?
I mean, I hope it’s gotten better. I try to write a better book every time. You’re just always trying to write a better book and a more complex book. Maybe you think “I didn’t quite get there in the last book. I’ll try and get there in this book.” It’s hard for me to tell how my writing’s evolved. I feel like that’s more of a reader question, because I can’t really look at it objectively, other than to say that I’m always just trying to write a better book.
Any tips for anyone that wants to write historical fiction?
You have to love research. I think it’s not just writing a story. You actually need that grounding. I don’t think you can write historical fiction unless you love research. So, if you don’t, then you shouldn’t write historical fiction.
The biggest skill of a historical fiction novelist is to understand how to balance fiction and fact. And remember that you’re writing a story first and foremost. If you’re writing historical fiction and the research is just there to enhance the story, you always start with the story.
We thank Natasha Lester for this interview and can’t wait for her next book to be released– hopefully sooner rather than later!
You can purchase Natasha Lester’s latest book The disappearance of Astrid Bricard from all good Australian bookstores.
You can also follow Natasha Lester on Facebook and if you like historical fiction you may also like to join the Book Club that Natasha Lester and Belinda Alexandra have set up.
For more articles with literature links, check out the below:
For events with links to France and the Francophonie happening in Australia this month, check out our What’s on in November