Natasha Lester is the author of numerous books, including the internationally best-selling historical novels The Paris Seamstress, and The French Photographer, which has just been released in America as The Paris Orphan.
As the titles suggest, Natasha loves to set a story in France, particularly Paris, and such is her love for the City of Light, and appreciation of its past, and so evocative are her lushly vivid descriptions, that you imagine her to be writing away in a cute garret apartment in the Latin Quarter.
In fact, Natasha is based on the other side of the world, in Perth — which perhaps makes her yearning for France all that stronger. But Natasha doesn’t just visit Paris in her writing (and in her dreams). She travels there at least annually, and has come to know the city as well as any of her Parisian characters do. Read on for more about the Paris of her books, her top spots for creative inspiration, and her favourite destinations for fashion, food and generally all the good things in life …
Can you explain what it is about Paris you so love?
Paris is one of the truly legendary cities and writers love legends! It’s a city that doesn’t keep its history confined to museums; instead you can find it on almost every street. And it’s small, and therefore walkable, a city that encourages you to explore. Not to mention it’s simply stunning!
Inspiration for The Paris Seamstress struck when you were in the Marais. Can you tell us a little about this day?
I was looking for a street for my main character, Estella, to live on. As I wandered the streets of the Marais, I stumbled upon the Passage Saint Paul, a tiny street near the Places des Vosges, with an apartment vaulting over the passage.
The street looks as though it’s a dead-end. But if you venture right to the end of the passage, you come upon a back entrance into the Église Saint-Paul-Saint-Louis, which is a typically magnificent Parisian church. As soon as I walked down the street and discovered the secret entrance to the hidden gem of a church, I knew it would have to be the street upon which Estella lived. And now it forms such an integral part of the book — I can’t imagine how the book would have turned out without it!
You must have a soft spot for the Marais to this day. Can you share your favourite addresses here?
The Place des Vosges is one of the most beautiful squares in Paris — and that’s saying something as there are a lot of squares in Paris!
After you’ve had a picnic lunch in the Place des Vosges, it’s only a short walk to the Musée Carnavalet (closed for renovation until early 2020), which is housed in an old hôtel particulier, a noble’s home from the Renaissance period. The building and gardens are gorgeous so, even if you’re not interested in the history of Paris, which is the museum’s purpose, just go along to admire the architecture, and to sit in the garden for a while.
Spend a couple of hours taking a walking tour; the area has so much history and a guide will bring it to life for you. Traditionally a Jewish area, a guide can point out the heartbreaking plaques placed outside schools in memory of the Jewish children taken in the Holocaust, and the teachers who bravely went with them so that the children wouldn’t be alone. It’s very moving and I can’t even type these words without tearing up.
A guide can also show you the remnants of the rag trade that used to flourish in the area.
The Musée Picasso at the Hotel Salé combines art with another beautiful hôtel particulier too.
For readers who loved your characters Estella (The Paris Seamstress ) and Jess (The French Photographer/The Paris Orphan), what can they do in Paris that will enhance their understanding of these women and their lives?
Stay at the Hotel Scribe in Paris’s Opéra district. Now run by Sofitel, the hotel was used by the US Army as its Press Headquarters after the liberation of Paris. Lee Miller, the woman who inspired the character of Jess in The French Photographer/The Paris Orphan stayed at the hotel, whose facade is unchanged from the time. You will definitely feel you’ve taken a step backwards into history.
And go and see a show at the Théâtre du Palais Royal. The theatre is magnificent, an intimate and bijou gem of a place so it doesn’t matter what’s showing; you go to experience the theatre as much as to see a show. A very important scene in The Paris Seamstress takes place in the theatre, so ascend the staircase and imagine what it would be like to be doing just that, while ferrying papers to a spy in WWII.
Speaking of books, which are your favourite bookstores in Paris?
Browsing the stalls of the bouquinistes along the Seine (used and antique booksellers) is the perfect way to spend a Sunday afternoon. You never know what you’ll find!
I also love the Taschen store over in Saint-Germain (2, Rue de Buci 75006). The books are all expensive, visual, beautifully designed creations covering art, photography, fashion, and architecture so it’s not somewhere to go if you want a novel; it’s somewhere to go if you’re in search of bookish heaven!
As an author, where do you best find creative inspiration in Paris?
I love the sculpture garden in the Musée Rodin. I’ve possibly overused the word “beautiful” in these responses but the gardens are so beautiful! Rodin’s sculptures are made for contemplation and the gardens are designed for strolling, for sitting, for thinking — and for catching a glimpse, through leaves and flowers and hedges, of inspiring artworks.
I’m not an especially religious person but, for some reason, the Sainte-Chapelle on the Île de la Cité has always been a place that refills my creative well. I could study the incredible stained glass windows for hours and never get bored, and I always find something new in them too — which is what creative inspiration is all about.
You obviously love the history of Paris and France. What are your favourite places in Paris that double as portals into the past?
When I was researching The Paris Seamstress, I was lucky enough to tour the Atelier Legeron (above) where the artificial flowers are made for haute couture gowns. The atelier was founded in 1727 and the flowers are still made in much the same way. Visiting there gave me such an appreciation for the traditional métiers of the couture industry, and for the patient, painstaking crafts that support haute couture. There was nary a machine in sight and it was like stepping back to a time when artistry and beauty were treasured over and above disposable, trend-focussed fashion.
And the Musée des Arts Décoratifs usually has a sensational fashion exhibition each year that allows me to indulge my love of both fashion and history. There, I find the clothes my characters will wear in my books, all based on pieces from the era in which the book is set. Clothes can tell us so much about the concerns of the time, and they are a particularly good way to trace the evolution of women’s roles throughout history.
Do you have any ‘Secret Paris’ addresses you can share?
Definitely the Village Saint-Paul (21, Rue Saint-Paul 75004). It’s located in the Maris, it’s very hard to find, but it’s worth persevering. The Village Saint-Paul is maze of a few narrow, cobblestone streets, some of which open out onto courtyards. You’ll find beautiful antique shops, cafes, napery and tableware stores, and so much more. Plan to get lost — because you will! — but enjoy the experience of being caught for a few hours in this very secret place. I loved it so much that I included it in The Paris Seamstress!
Which is your favourite Paris monument?
I adore the Notre-Dame Cathedral. It’s an icon for a reason, and I hope it’s able to be rebuilt soon so that generations to come can marvel over it too.
… and museum?
The Louvre. So many people visit the Louvre the wrong way, making a beeline for the Mona Lisa and then spending the whole day there before emerging almost catatonic from art overload. You need to go for only an hour or two and just choose one section to visit. Look at the pieces that speak to you. Ignore the ones that don’t. Never feel that you ‘should’ like something.
An honourable mention goes to the Musée de l’Orangerie (above) and its spectacular display of Monet’s Nymphéas.
And another honourable mention to the Musée Yves Saint Laurent, my favourite small museum in Paris. In case you haven’t guessed, I’m somewhat obsessed with fashion history. So the Palais Galliera, which is due to reopen in 2020, is also a favourite of mine. Their fashion exhibitions are amazing and if I could spend a day in their archives, I would be a very happy woman!
What are your top Parisian shopping addresses?
I adore Buly 1803 (6, Rue Bonaparte 75006), which is a divine parfumerie that makes you feel like you’re stepping back in time. The store is elegant, the bottles for everything from perfume to body lotion to toothpaste are vintage treasures and you will spend more money there than you ever thought possible!
I also love the Marché aux Puces Saint-Ouen for the vintage clothing finds. One of the best vintage clothing stores there is Chez Sarah in the Jules Vallès market (18, Rue Jean-Vallès 75018). You’ll find everything from vintage Chanel to Dior – it’s the place of vintage fashion dreams come true!
What’s the best thing to do in Paris if you’re on a budget?
Walk! So much of Paris is in the architecture and that’s all free. Or, the Jardin des Tuileries is magnificent at any time of year; just go for a stroll.
My kids also love seeing Paris as an outdoor art gallery. Try spotting all the space invaders throughout the city by street artist Invader, or the octopuses by Gz’up. Or the many other amazing pieces of street art on every corner.
What do you always pack for Paris?
My Golden Goose sneakers. Paris is a city made for walking and you don’t want sore feet to ruin the experience. Save the heels for evening but spend the day on foot in comfy shoes.
What’s your preferred time of the year to visit?
That’s a hard one! I do love Paris in the summer because then you can really enjoy the sidewalk cafes and walking everywhere without the rain and cold. But Paris at Christmas is very special, with the Christmas markets, and beautiful lights, and the Christmas concerts in the churches.
Do you have a favourite place to stay?
I adore Le Pavillon de la Reine in the Marais. It’s actually part of the Place des Vosges, set behind a portal in the facade of the north side of the square. Try to get a room facing out onto the ivy-covered walls of the courtyard garden. You’ll feel like you’re living a very Parisienne life in a townhouse, even though you’re in a hotel.
Let’s talk food … What’s your ultimate Parisian breakfast?
If you ask my kids what their favourite thing about France is, they will all say: the breakfasts! We do love to indulge in French breakfasts when we’re in Paris and I am addicted to fresh baguette and cheese for breakfast there. I would never eat that for breakfast at home, but in Paris the baguettes are addictive, the cheese gooey and yummy and it’s the best way to start the day.
Where do you particularly love for lunch?
The Marché des Enfants Rouge in the Marais (39, Rue de Bretagne 75003). It’s a delicious food market, so you can grab baguette and cheese (yes, more!) and walk over to the Place des Vosges to have a picnic, or there are several yummy places to eat inside the market itself. I always buy punnets of raspberries and spend the whole day eating those!
For afternoon tea you’d head to …
Sitting on the terrace at Loulou, the restaurant at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, is the best way to ponder over all the delicious fashion you’ve just seen inside the museum, to sip tea and to be creatively recharged. I could also stay on for apéro, and watch the sun go down over the Jardin des Tuileries — it really has the most spectacular view to soak in as day turns into night.
What’s your favourite dinner spot?
I love FrouFrou at Place Edouard VII. It’s like stepping into Gatsby: deco-inspired, fabulous and always fun. Oh, and the food’s good too!
Do you have a favourite day-trip destination?
The Champagne reason is a fave. As for why, well — champagne! It would be wrong to go to France and not drink champagne and there is no better place to do it than in the place where it’s made. If you wish to stay overnight, I can definitely recommend the Château de Courcelles.
The next time you’ll be in Paris, you plan to …
I want to walk the Promenade Plantée, which is a bit like New York’s Highline. I have never done the catacombs and I’d like to take a tour through that more macabre side of Paris too!
Any final words of Paris wisdom?
Just go! Everyone has to visit Paris at least once in their life.