Why did you choose to write about 1920s Paris?
It’s so exciting! Paris has always been a magnificent city, and throughout the 19th century it became a magnet for writers and artists from across the world. After WWI, artists came to Paris in droves. Paris was a place where such artists could be free.
1920s Paris is my ultimate fantasy destination. I had read so much about it but what I really wanted was to live there. I didn’t want to just look through the window of a memoir or a history text, I wanted to meet Picasso and talk with Gertrude Stein and party with Josephine Baker. Writing myself into 1921 Paris, through my heroine Kiki Button, was the best I could do.
And then, of course, it’s Paris. It is its own reason.
What makes your protagonist, Kiki Button, a modern woman?
Kiki is on a mission to be a modern woman for one main reason: she wants to be free. She doesn’t want to be held in place by laws, bonds and expectations, whether they’re of work, marriage, family or bigger institutions like the British Army. Her drive to be the agent of her own destiny is what makes her modern – she makes her own decisions. In doing so, she pleases herself – she drinks and smokes as much as she likes, takes lovers when she wants to, has abandoned corsets and chaperones and other mechanisms for policing the female body. She insists on equality in her relationships and, for the most part, gets it.
How does this book look at WWI?
The war cast a long shadow. People grieved for their family, friends and lovers, and a reaction to this was wild partying as though there might never be another party again. Middle and upper-class women had begun working in the war and kept working, their social status changing as they took up careers instead of family life. Working class women moved from domestic service to war production in factories and found it hard to return to service once the war ended. Women of all classes took on jobs that were previously reserved for men during the war and the return to a more constricted life chafed.
Kiki Button worked as a nurse (among other activities) as a Voluntary Aid Detachment with the British. Her own experience of the war has stayed with her – as bad memories, as a desire never to take orders, as a need to live a life that has meaning.
My doctorate was on Australian war fiction, in particular looking at the aftermath of war, and I continue to be very interested in how this is represented in literature.
How did you use genre in April in Paris, 1921?
I started reading crime and mystery novels, and romance novels, after I finished my doctorate and I was mentally very tired. I loved them pretty much straightaway.
With crime, I love how so much of a particular society can be analysed through crime and its consequences. It allows for enormous scope to look at social mores and manners, the intersection of politics and emotions, how the motivation of money infiltrates all parts of our lives and yet how people often act against their best interests.
Romance novels are like a drug. Many times, I’ve been on my way to do something else and read just one page, which has become just one chapter, and before I know it I’m sitting on the stairs for hours speed-reading whatever romance book I had in my hand. As a reader, I wanted the snappy pace of a romance but without the heroine sacrificing everything for love. As a writer, I wanted to examine some of the tropes, to see if I could create that romantic hook without recreating all parts of romance novels that made me angry.
Do you think Kiki’s dilemmas are still relevant today?
Most definitely. As the scandals over sexual assault and harassment continue, adding to scandals about unequal pay and conditions, as we still fight for marriage and reproductive rights, we still have much work to do to fulfil Kiki’s goal of freedom.
About the author:
Tessa Lunney is a novelist and poet who lives in Sydney. In 2016, she won the prestigious Griffith University Josephine Ulrick Prize for Literature for her book, Chess and Dragonflies. The same year, A Room of Her Own Foundation Orlando Prize for Fiction for her story, Those Ebola Burners Them. In 2013, Lunney graduated from the University of Western Sydney with a Doctorate of Creative Arts that explored silence in Australian war fiction. The following year, she was awarded an Australia Council ArtStart grant for literature. Her poetry, fiction and reviews have been published in Best Australian Poems 2014, Southerly, Cordite, Griffith Review and the Australian Book Review among others.