Franco-Australian author Sophie Beaumont talks to us about her latest novel “The Paris Cooking School”

Reading Time: 23 minutes

Sophie Beaumont is a French-Australian author who has just published her first book under this nom de plume. You may know her by her real name, Sophie Masson AM, under which she has published some fifty books. We talk to Sophie about her, the new book The Paris Cooking School, and much more. Read our interview with Sophie Beaumont below.

Sophie Beaumont The Paris Cooking School

Sophie Beaumont, starting with you, I’ve read that you were born in Indonesia to French parents and have grown up in France and Australia. Is this true?

Yes, it’s absolutely true.


And you grew up spending time in France and in Australia?

Because my parents were expatriates, working for a big French construction company called CITRA, mainly on major airport projects, government projects, huge commercial projects too. They left France when they were I don’t know 25, and they already had two daughters, my older sisters, who were born in France.


They went to Africa, to Togo and Uganda, initially for 2 years. My father worked on the building site. My mother was a secretary working in the office, not in the factory, and then they were transferred to Indonesia, which is where I was born, and Odette, who is 2 years younger than me. She was born in Jakarta, I was born in Surabaya.


But when I was 9 months old, I had severe dysentery and they thought I was going to die if I stayed in Indonesia. There were just so many diseases everywhere, but there were many, many problems. There were even (extremist) Islamists, Darul Islam, at the time who carried out terrorist attacks and there was a lot of unrest.


My parents loved Indonesia. They learned the language and were very well integrated into Indonesia. My mother took me back to France, leaving me with my paternal grandmother in Toulouse, and she returned to Indonesia with my father and sisters. I stayed with my grandmother and my aunts, who were teenagers at the time. I stayed there for 4 years without seeing my parents or my sisters.


That must have been hard as a child.

It was a bit special. And then they came back and said, well, we’ve been transferred to Australia, and they said Sophie can come because it’s stable and not at all risky in Australia. So, in the same month that I met my parents, and my sisters, we came to Australia, a country on the other side of the world. We only spoke French at my grandmother’s house, and then we had to learn English. So for the first year at school I was a bit lost, but little kids learn very quickly. From then on, I was bilingual. We had to speak French at home – my parents didn’t want us to speak English – but as other brothers and sisters arrived, we spoke a mixture of the two languages.


But also because my parents were expatriates, their contract included a trip to France every two or three years, paid for by the company, and then we had a house in France. That’s why we went all the time. It wasn’t really the experience of many migrants. It was more like a diplomatic experience, as we always went back to Australia and France, and to France and Australia.


You spent a few months in France at a time?

Sometimes they even sent us to school, so we were living in Sydney and then in France we were deep in the countryside, 35 km from Toulouse, in a small village school that wasn’t at all the same as the school on the Pacific Highway in Sydney!


It must have been a bit of a shock!

But you know kids so they find what they have normal.


How do you think living in these two countries has informed your writing?

Because I started writing a lot at school and discovered I had a talent for it. I knew how to tell stories, just with the right threads.


Even as a child, I used to tell stories to my brothers and sisters, and then my mother would sometimes say to me, “Go on, tell them a story, because I need a bit of a rest”. At one point, she had 5 children over the age of 7. The company put us in houses in Sydney. They often changed every time we came back from France. In one house in particular, there was a very large dining room and there was a huge table. You could put a curtain over this table and go under it like a kind of tent. I used to tell stories to my little brothers and sisters [under there].


So it was a very natural thing for me and even when I was with my grandmother she told me that when you were little you told lots of stories because she told me stories too. She read to me a lot and so it was a very natural thing for me. It wasn’t something I looked for at all, if you like. It was something that was really part of my life. I was mostly at school in Australia because once I was at secondary school, they didn’t send me to school in France so it was mostly during the holidays that we went there. I wrote in French, but also in English. Little by little, English won out over French, because I wanted to send stuff to magazines, newspapers and so on. And of course in Australia, you had to write in English.


Of course! Do you think your experience in France has changed the way you write?

Oh absolutely! Absolutely! That is to say! I think that maybe being bilingual does exactly that, because when you’re in two worlds, and two languages, you can go from one to the other pretty easily. But we also find ways of building bridges that perhaps others who don’t have two languages won’t find, or which would be more difficult for them. So there are turns of phrase, the things I know, they’re very influenced by French. There are even things like semi-colons that I use a lot and that are found in France a lot. But here, people think it’s weird. But it doesn’t matter – I do it anyway, I want to because I find it very useful for punctuation.


I hadn’t noticed that we don’t actually do that here.

No, I like it a lot, and I like it a lot more in French than in English, because people often say “no, you should put a comma instead of that”, but I don’t think so, because it’s not quite the right thing for the comma.


So there are things like that, but also turns of phrase. I import, if you like, French words into English but at the same time make it accessible so that it’s not weird or cheesy or anything?


You said that as a child you were already telling stories. Was it obvious at a certain age that you wanted to become a writer?

Yes and no. I mean, I loved writing. I used to make little books, little comic strips for my friends, for my parents, et cetera, and so I loved it. But I wasn’t really aware that you could be a writer. We had a lot of books at home, a lot of picture books and stuff, but I had no idea how to make a living. They had appeared how they were produced. nothing at all to it. I knew a book had pages, you had an opening, you had this, that and the rest; so I knew a bit about the format and all that but I wasn’t at all aware of the literary world, if you like.


Well, there were no writers in the family – they’re all storytellers, but they’re not writers. My mother wrote very well. She read a lot in French and English, but what she wrote was mostly – she was from another generation – she may have written reports. You know, she was very interested in other countries – their customs – all that kind of stuff, but she wouldn’t have written fiction. It wasn’t her thing, although she read many, many novels. So I was aware of writing books and reading, but not at all of the literary world, because I didn’t know anything about it, and it was only in high school that one of my teachers told me “You know, you can send in texts for magazines and stuff”, and that’s how I got started. And then there were some authors we studied at school, mostly poets, and I still like poetry. There were some Australian poets we studied who I liked a lot, and then I discovered that you could write to them via their publishers, and I sent them letters.


And some of them wrote back to me very kindly and very generously for a very, very young aspiring writer. And so that’s how it really started, without any real confidence at first. But now you know, I often go into schools and talk to children. Kids now, they have a lot more idea of what an author is, that it’s a real person, that it’s not just someone you find in books, who appears by magic. But back then, we didn’t really have that. I didn’t know the Australian literary world or the French literary world. I knew the books


Have you had any profession other than writer?

No. Not at all because once I realized I could do that, no way, I wasn’t at all interested in doing anything else. I went to university, I got a degree and now I’ve got a PhD and everything, but I wasn’t attracted at all to the world of the academia – I didn’t want to – I didn’t want to teach in the University. I don’t like to be pigeonholed in things. At one point, when I was 14 or 15, I said to myself I’d like to be an actress but I did a lot of plays in my early teens but I got a lot of stage fright and then I said I didn’t want to do that at all. And then I preferred to concentrate on writing, I was always writing. It was a great pleasure and I had no problem with it at all.


My mother could be very critical. She was a very intelligent person, very analytical, even though I’m her daughter. She’d say, “You know, Sophie, this is crap.” But when she complimented me, she’d say “Oh yes, it’s well executed. I like that. As for my father, he really liked romantic novels, the great novels of the 19th century. He didn’t analyse things. Later he started reading my books and he liked them, but when I was a child he was more like. “Ah yes, you’re writing something again!” But they weren’t discouraging at all. They didn’t say, “You absolutely have to get another job.


Because it’s not easy.

No, it’s not that easy. Not many parents would be like that. They wanted us to be happy, to be fulfilled, and so they accepted what we did.


So far you’ve published a lot of books for children and teenagers, I think, and they’re a bit in the fantasy genre?

Yes, but a lot of other things too, I’ve written mysteries, I’ve written family stories, I’ve written historical novels. I write a lot of genres in children’s literature for teenagers because I like it and yes, a lot of fantasy too because I like it a lot. And as a kid, I read that all the time. I loved stuff about other worlds with possibilities, you know, you could fly like a bird, you could understand the language of animals, that kind of stuff, and fairy tales and all that. And so yes, I’ve written a lot, but in several genres, especially for children and teenagers, but I’ve written other novels for adults before this one.


This is the first under your synonym Sophie Beaumont. Why did you choose to use a nom de plume for this book?

It’s for two reasons. One reason is to really distinguish it from all my teen novels for booksellers and libraries.


The other reason is because I’m hoping to write a series of books set in Paris, but around different things, and that would also distinguish the kind of novel I’m going to write, which is what they call Adult Contemporary Fiction, sometimes they call Women’s’ Fiction, but there are a lot of men [who read my books], so it’s a little about putting myself in a certain position for this kind of book.


You mentioned that you tend to write in English; your books in Australia are published in English rather than French, of course. Have you published any books in French as well?

Not that I’ve written myself. Well, there was a translation of one of my novels, but I don’t write books in French because then I’d need a publisher, I’d need a lot of stuff and then it’d be a bit too difficult for me. I could write the book, but to place it…


So, it’s everything that comes after the writing that makes that more difficult. And you’ve been awarded the Order of Australia for your services to literature. Congratulations on that. How did that come about?

It was a complete surprise. I think it’s wonderful. To get this kind of honour you have to be nominated. I had no idea. I’d never thought about it. I have a lot of friends from the literary world who thought I deserved one.


And that’s how it happened. So I really was over the moon, I had no idea. I didn’t expect it at all. It’s something very touching, because it told me not only that there are people who think I deserve this, but that I have so many generous friends in the literary world, because that’s not what you get if you have enemies. So it’s really a very good, very generous compliment. I think Australia is a very generous country, a very open country, and I think it was a great pleasure to receive it and to go to the ceremony at Government House in Sydney. It’s the governor of each state who presents the award, and so it was a magnificent setting. A splendid house and a lot of ceremony. But you’ve got this Australian ceremony, which is at the same time it’s formal, it respects the codes, the uniforms and all that, the beautiful things, but it’s very pleasant at the same time and so it’s very good because you feel at ease. You don’t feel like, “Oh, I’m stuck. I’m afraid of making a faux pas. Not at all, not at all. They were super nice and then we had some great champagne and the governor talked to us.


It was really lovely, but also really beautiful, so I was able to invite three members of the family. My husband, my brother and my daughter came. It was really a wonderful day.


When was it?

It was in 2019. Before COVID fortunately because it was in May 2019. And in the same month, I received my doctorat so it was quite special.


You were granted a 6-month residency in Paris by the Australia Council. What did this residency involve?

It was 6 months in an apartment in La Cité des Arts, in the 4th arrondissement, near the Seine, a stone’s throw from Notre Dame etcetera. I went with my husband. It was in a 40 m² apartment, in a wonderful place, then to write, to do the research, I really immersed myself in Paris, in these neighbourhoods.


It’s been extraordinary. I’ve been to Paris many times because my sister lives there and we go every time we go to France, but this time it was 6 months of really getting to know Paris. We went all over Paris, to all the markets, to all the little corners everywhere, and then I realised at that moment what Paris truly was, and how to evoke this extraordinary city. So that really stayed with me, and several books came out of that, but not everything that was set in Paris.


But for The Paris Cooking School, it was truly an extraordinary experience.


Yes, I was going to ask if this book was informed by that experience.

Oh yes, absolutely.


So now to discuss the novel for a moment, can you tell us a bit about the creative process behind The Paris Cooking School?

Yes, I can. So, as I said, my experiences in Paris had a big impact on me. I really had so many impressions. I used to write diaries, all kinds of notes, and I’ve still got some here, I’ve kept pictures, things cut out of newspapers, lots of things like that, let’s say scrapbooks. I love scrapbooks.


So I had all that here. I’d already written two or three books based on that experience in Paris. But I always had it in the back of my mind that maybe one day I’d write something contemporary, but I’d started to write something else that was a bit about what happened up there and between the trees and then I spoke to my agent about it and it sounded interesting.


The book was to be set in the Loire. It wasn’t all The Paris Cooking School. It was something else. And she said, “I’m going to talk to a publisher I know who’s looking for interesting novels set in France.” So she put me in touch with her. This publisher really liked the way I write. And then we talked and talked and finally we came up with something in Paris. At first I was thinking of a writing school. But then she said “that’s not interesting enough, I’d rather do something with cooking, that’s better“.


And it was true, and that’s where it came from, but the characters came to me straight away. These characters were alive right away, it was really extraordinary. So from that I wrote a little thing, a little outline saying such and such does this and that. That’s the story, but then I was able to take them and go for a walk in Paris with them. It was a real eye-opener.


It was a novel that practically wrote itself. It really was a wonderful experience, something very out of the ordinary and then it was as if it was the novel I always had to write that came out at that moment and then with these characters who were so alive. I’d talk about it sometimes. I had little conferences with my agent and my publisher and then I talked a bit. That was it! And they too thought that these characters were so alive, so it was a bit of a thing and I became obsessed with them. I thought about it all the time. My poor husband, we were at the dinner table and I said something to him [about the characters] without a preface – there you go, there’s that thing. “Wait, wait, we’re talking about your book, right?” I do this a lot, but he knows me well. I have to remember to say sometimes, “Look, I’m talking about a character, not someone I’ve met“.


It went really well. I even finished the first draft long before I was supposed to send it to the publisher and because of that we were able to get the book out much earlier than we’d planned and in time Christmas this year, which is great because it’s absolutely perfect for Christmas. The editor, Alice Craig, who works at Ultimo Press, she’s fantastic and Ultimo are great too. They’re so attentive, they’re very meticulous and they have a lot of imagination too. So when it came to creating the cover and all sorts of other things, they did some amazing things. It was a real pleasure.


I think everyone asks authors this question. But do any of the characters in the book resemble you?

There are aspects of the characters that resemble me. That’s for sure. For example, Gaby Picabea, so the artist, on her father’s side, she’s Basque and for me too, my mother is from the Basque country. Her mother was Basque and Spanish, but she was born in France. So Basque and Spanish from Valencia on her father’s side, and then Portuguese so it’s very Iberian but we know the Basque really well, we go there all the time and that’s something I know well so I wanted to put that in there.


And then there are other little things: the artist also has certain ways of working that are a bit like mine, but also like one of my sisters who’s also in the Basque country, who’s an artist and works a lot in conceptual art. So I know a bit about the ways of acting, of creating, this kind of art.


And then there are lots of little things too, like dishes, desserts, things that I make. My children are reading the book and my son texted me the other day saying, “Mum, I’ve read it, I love it, it’s fantastic and it’s incredible because I see so much of you in it and also of what we’ve been through too.” My husband and I are very keen on good food. We’ve got a vegetable garden, and we make lots of things from very good, very simple ingredients. That’s what our children have grown up with, and they continue to do it with their own families. So when it comes to cooking and all that, it’s really exactly what I experienced as a child and later as a family. But some bits and pieces are mine. But otherwise I really wanted to create people who were different from me.


You said at the beginning that up until the age of 4 you lived in France with your grandmother, so that’s a bit like Max, you could say?

Yes, that’s it! Yes, exactly. It’s true. Except my grandmother wasn’t at all dry like that. No, my grandmother was much softer. Physically she was very chic, she was very pretty, and she was a blonde, whereas I’m a brunette. She was really super elegant but at the same time, she really loved children and she knew how to be with children.


So yes, there are certain things, but in the book I’m writing, which is the second Sophie Beaumont for me, there’s another grandmother. She’s much closer to the character of my grandmother because I adored her. She was almost like a mother to me because from a young age, it was her that I knew, not my mother. So, yes, it’s true, so it’s that thing of being a bit distant, you know, from the rest of the family, but much closer to my grandmother like Max, that’s a little bit of my experience.


Have you ever been to a cookery school?

No, never! And that’s why I had to imagine what I’d like to do if I went to cookery school. It’s not just about being in the kitchen all the time measuring quantities for recipes. I really wanted to be immersed in a world, in a culture, in stories, so I had to imagine how things could unfold and it was really enjoyable afterwards, so I said, “That could work!” I don’t want to do it, not at all, but I thought to myself it wouldn’t be bad.


At the start of our conversation, you said you were originally thinking of doing a story about a writing school. And now that I know that, I understand a little better the fact that in these cookery school courses, the students have to invent stories around the dishes.

Yes, that’s absolutely true. It’s a bit of a mixture of the two things, because often the cooking is about the table. It’s really the site of the story, it’s the site of things to tell, impressions, all sorts of things. It’s like writing, we want to communicate stories. You want to communicate impressions as an experience and so here, yes, I was able to combine the two.


The book has three narratives, you might say, because the book tells the stories of the three main characters. Did you write them in the order we read them? Did you write separating the chapters of each character’s story?

No, I wrote it chronologically. So I knew I wanted to write one chapter from Gaby’s point of view and then one chapter from Sylvie’s point of view, and one chapter from Kate’s point of view.


And then, at the beginning, so in the first chapter, you’re introduced to the 3 characters, they’re in the same chapter, but then they each have a chapter until the end when they all come back together. I always write chronologically. I know there are writers who write a chapter here, a chapter there and then they put it all together. But I can’t.


I can’t because my experience is almost like watching a film and it has to unfold chronologically. I can’t simply make a flash here, a flash there and then put them together to make an image. I have to follow the story and so I say, OK, today I’m going to write the chapter from Gaby’s or Kate’s point of view and that’s it, that’s where it’s going to happen.


Often what I do is, I’ll go for a little 5-minute walk or something. It’s just to start the first paragraph of the chapter I’m going to write that day and then there it is, so Gaby does this, or Kate does that. I even talk to myself about everything. It’s a good thing there aren’t too many people passing by, otherwise they’d think I’d lost my mind!


Or else there’s the local author!

Yes, that’s it. These authors are weird!


And I’m in the process of doing the same thing. I think it’s a format that suits me very well and that I find very interesting because that way I can write the chapter from, say, Gaby’s point of view and then I say, OK, I’m going to move on to Kate now because I want to see things in a different way. It’s refreshing for the writing instead of always being stuck in the same head. You can do a bit here and a bit there, but at the same time you have these characters that really stick and you can spend time with.


I really liked the way Gaby, her mother, and Sylvie live and have lived through much the same thing, but from different perspectives. So we have Gaby, who is mistreated by Max’s grandmother. And that in turn makes her think of how her mother was treated by her father’s parents. And then we have Sylvie who, instead of being angry and not being welcoming of her son’s fiancée in Australia, decides to do the opposite.. Did you always intend to have this link?

No, that is to say, I thought that this – it’s because this is family stuff that can be very difficult and we’ve had a lot of drama in my family, a lot of history, a lot of what have you. And I’ve observed a lot of this kind of thing and so it comes into the books without me even being aware of it.


When I thought, for example, of Gaby and how she’s mistreated by Max’s grandmother and then she thinks of her mother and her grandmother who wasn’t very nice to her, so it came to mind when I was writing, so I was writing Gaby on the train and so on and then she was thinking about that, of course it’s when you start thinking about that because I’ve seen that it can happen in families too.


But as for Sylvie, she knows she doesn’t want to do that. So there are a number of things in the family, in life, where you say to yourself, we’re not going to do this again. In this case, you consciously do something different or you’re unaware of what you’ve done and then you reproduce it without even knowing it.


Now to talk about writing in general, how do the characters in your novels come to life? Do you have specific methods for developing them?

That is to say, I make a lot of notes first. I’ve got a little notebook where I write a lot of stuff down. No-one could possibly understand what I’m saying in it because it’s all over the place. For example. I wanted to write Gaby, I say here she is, she’s like this, she’s got black hair, she walks a certain way. She knows what she likes to do, that’s her background. So I make little notes but then afterwards these notes are a bit like, you know, meeting someone for the first time, so you see the physical aspects, how they look, how they talk, their voice, the way they walk, any little tics you might notice. But after that, once you get to know them better, you get to know a bit of their family history and then you get to know a bit of what’s in their heart too when you get to know them on a deeper level and become a real friend.


So what you need is for your characters to come alive, to become good friends with you. So that’s something you build on, so how do you do it with the notes, with the little walks I tell you about when I talk and walk a bit. And then I make little dialogues and everything about these characters who talk. I look at the reader’s landscape a bit like that. And sometimes they comment on it. And then afterwards, so you start writing, it develops through the writing itself.


I generally write one chapter a day. And then the next day, I revisit that chapter and then I reread it and see if there are any things wrong with it that I need to change. But sometimes I think just before I go to sleep or when I wake up, “I’ve got to change this” because she’d never say that, or she wouldn’t do that, or that moment wouldn’t work at that moment. So the characters start with this little outline at the beginning and then little by little, it’s as if you have a drawing that becomes a painting.


You can still see lots of aspects of the character. There are still a lot of aspects that I didn’t even put in the book but that helped inform me about the character, little things that really helped me build someone solid and believable.


You said that you become friends with the characters to get to know them well. How do you go about writing an evil character?

Oh yes, that’s difficult because you don’t want to become their friend. But you have to get to know them all the same. You also have to see the sides that may not be exactly nice but are somewhat understandable. So, for example, there are some we don’t like at all in the book, for example Claude, but he’s weak, he’s a coward, he was arrogant, lots of things we wouldn’t like in his life and at the same time we need to understand why Sylvie is attracted to him.


So you have to have certain things that might be understandable. There are certain characters I could never write. Really perverse people, really cruel people, murderers, that sort of thing I could never write, I couldn’t because it would scare me and then it would disgust me. I couldn’t do it.


So even when I write villains or losers, I have to come up with something a bit understandable. Why a character who’s nice connects with that person, for example.


And how do you see your writing style has evolved over the years?

You become more and more adept, more and more flexible. You have more and more confidence in what you do. Personally, I’ve always really enjoyed writing. A great deal. I would never say “It’s torture for me” because it’s not.





It’s not that I don’t work hard. And it’s not that sometimes I’ve suffered from certain things about certain characters, especially because I’m very attached to certain characters and it breaks my heart to see them suffer. And sometimes it’s a bit frustrating because you want to write exactly the right sentence and it eludes you.


But I was very, very happy from the start and I’m not ashamed of any of my books. I’m very happy with all my books. In other words, I know that I write better now than I did when I wrote my first book. But at the same time I know that it’s me. It’s the same voice and so I think this joy has become even more striking than it was at the beginning, because at first I was a bit anxious about how people would receive it and so on.


I loved writing anyway so I would have written even if no-one had published me. Of course it’s much better to be published. But joy evolves a lot. Now, with this book, I feel it’s a book I’ve always had inside me but which hadn’t come out before. And it’s a book that’s really close to my heart, because it seems to me that in this book, I’ve managed to bring together a lot of things from my childhood, my life now, from France, Australia, Paris, other places; a way of life … a lot of things.


It’s very personal, but at the same time, it’s very open because I know that readers have already reacted enormously, of course. It’s a huge pleasure too. I know that it brings people joy, pleasure and that’s really great. I don’t think I could have written this book before now.


You needed time…

Yes, it’s interesting because it’s a book that I didn’t know I needed to write. Because I spoke to my agent, and my publisher and then all of a sudden it was like love at first sight.


And you said you were going to do other novels based in Paris. So they will be about other characters.

Yes, other characters now because it’s not going to be a sequel. It’s what’s called a Companion Volume, so I’m writing one at the moment that the publisher has already taken on, so it’s a bit about the gardens of Paris. So, public gardens, private gardens, secret gardens, but also around the pleasure that plants, flowers and all that always bring.


So I found a very nice quote from Claudel about flowers and it talks a bit about that too, so it’s also about joy, pleasure and consolation, because there are a lot of things that happen between girls that are very difficult but that will also work out well, as in The Paris Cooking School, but as in The Paris Cooking School there are some very difficult situations that change because of the month they spend in Paris.


And in this book, too, there are some things that are going to be resolved. It’s through the pleasure that people experience, like they do from cooking. It’s not just a French pleasure, it’s universal. Lots of people love gardening and lots of writers have written about it. There’s a very long history of garden literature, so there you go. This book is also a great pleasure and I’m also obsessed with it, as I am with The Paris Cooking School.


Sophie Beaumont Sophie Masson Jake of Spades

Just to finish, you said earlier that several books have come out of your Paris residency. What are the others for people who want to read them?

Well, there’s one for teenagers called Jake of Spades. It’s a novel set in 1910 in Paris, at the time of the anarchists, the great Paris floods and just after. It’s a novel with a touch of espionage, mystery and so on.


There is another which is called My Father’s War. You knw in The Paris Cooking School, there’s a short interlude where Noah and Kate go to Amiens in the Somme. The book My Father’s War is set in Amiens in the Somme during the First World War. So when we were in Paris, we had to make a little trip to Amiens. We spent 2 days there and then we also went to the hortillonnage where they went.


And then there is the very Australian book called Ned Kelly’s Secret. The boy meets Ned Kelly as a teenager. The main character lives in Paris. He helps Jules Verne with his research. It starts in Paris and then he goes to Australia, because he is doing research for Jules Verne, who has never travelled anywhere.


Sophie Beaumont Isabelle MerlinAnd then there is a book which is called Pop Princess that I wrote under the nom de plume Isabelle Merlin. And Pop Princess is also set in Paris. It’s a romantic-thriller for teenagers and it’s set in the music world, and there’s a character called Max, a name I really like. But he’s nothing like the Max from The Paris Cooking School.


All these books are very different. 

We thank Sophie Beaumont for this interview. You can purchase her book « The Paris Cooking School » at Booktopia and from other bookstores. You can find more information about the book on the publisher Ultimo Press’ website


If you’d like to read more interviews with authors, book reviews and the people who have set up bookstores selling French books in Australia, we suggest you read the following:

Natasha Lester talks about researching French archives and her latest book “The Disappearance of Astrid Bricard’

Australian author Pip Drysdale talks to us about The Paris Affair

My Sweet Guillotine: an absorbing memoir about a city that almost killed its author

Guillaume Besson chats to us about his novel Le rêve australien  

Ma Petite Librairie: buy French books in Australia

BabelBooks, an online second-hand bookstore selling books in French and English



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Natasha Lester talks about researching French archives and her latest book “The Disappearance of Astrid Bricard’

Reading Time: 20 minutes

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

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.

Natasha Lester
Image of Mizza Bricard from Natasha Lester – Author Facebook page

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.


Natasha Lester The Disappearance of Astrid Bricard cover

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.

Mizza Bricard Birth Certificate
Mizza Bricard’s birth certificate

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.


You’re fluent.

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.

The DIsappearance of Astrid Bricard quote Natasha Lester

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.

Thank you.


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.

Coloured book tabs in a set of books
From instagram @readwithyes


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.

The Three Lives of Alix St Pierre
Natasha Lester’s previous book “The Three Lives of Alix St Pierre” Photo from Natasha Lester’s instagram page

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.

The Secret Life of Marie Madeleine - manuscript
The Secret Life of Marie Madeleine – manuscript from Natasha Lester – Author Facebook page


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:

Australian author Pip Drysdale talks to us about The Paris Affair

My Sweet Guillotine: an absorbing memoir about a city that almost killed its author

BabelBooks, an online second-hand bookstore selling books in French and English

Ma Petite Librairie: buy French books in Australia

Guillaume Besson chats to us about his novel Le rêve australien  


For events with links to France and the Francophonie happening in Australia this month, check out our What’s on in November



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