‘Would you let me write Grace’s story?’ Interview with The Paris Model Author, Alexandra Joel

‘Would you let me write Grace’s story?’ Interview with The Paris Model Author, Alexandra Joel

The Paris Model is a stunning novel of love, betrayal and family secrets. Can you tell us a bit more about the book?

Grace Woods flees her vast Australian sheep station and travels to tumultuous, post-war Paris in order to find her true identity.

While working as a mannequin for Christian Dior, the world’s newly acclaimed emperor of fashion, she mixes with famous authors, artists, diplomats, politicians and aristocrats, befriending the future Jackie Kennedy and the daring US Ambassadress Evangeline Bruce.

But when Grace falls in love with handsome Philippe Boyer she doesn’t know that he is leading a double life, nor that his past might inflict devastating consequences upon her.

As Grace is drawn into Philippe’s dangerous world of international espionage she discovers both the shattering truth of her origins – and that her life is in peril.

What inspired the idea behind this novel?

I was sipping tea in the fragrant garden of a good friend when, unexpectedly, she began to tell me the extraordinary story of her beautiful model mother, Grace Woods. As soon as I learnt about the mystery surrounding Grace’s birth, the tragedies that engulfed her parents and the astonishing coincidence that provided this beautiful, green-eyed girl with an entirely new identity, I was captivated.

‘Would you let me write Grace’s story?’ I immediately asked , only what I was really saying was, ‘Can I steal her away, take her on new adventures in glamorous 1940s Paris, make her a Dior mannequin, force her into perilous situations, watch on as she experiences joy and suffering, as she fall hopelessly in love?’

Luckily for me, my friend agreed. Feeling hugely excited I thanked her profusely, then peppered her with dozens of questions about her mother’s past. As soon as I’d waved goodbye I rushed home to the space I call ‘the turret’, a small room crammed with my books, files and computer. I couldn’t wait to start writing.

What was the research process like for The Paris Model?

For me, writing a book starts with a single idea, a character, an occupation, a setting – and a set of obstacles. As I write historical fiction, research comes next, but not too much because it’s all too easy to become lost in fascinating books, old newspapers and recollections. I sense when I’ve acquired enough material to begin, bearing in mind that as the story develops I will need to seek out additional information – it might be just a detail, such as the type of flowers that grow in a particular French town, or the hotel bar favoured by a certain couturier, but it’s those authentic details that breathe life into an historical setting.

Having previously written two books on the history of fashion, I had a much-loved, large reference library, so my next step was to bury myself in many of its volumes. In addition, I acquired other works, especially about Christian Dior and post-war Paris. Among the most valuable were The Autobiography of Christian Dior by Christian Dior; Christian Dior: The Man Who Made the World Look New by Marie-France Pochna; Paris After the Liberation by Antony Beevor and Artemis Cooper and Les Parisiennes: How the Women of Paris Lived, Loved and Died in the 1940s by Anne Sebba.

I also conducted several intensive interviews with my friend, Grace’s daughter; spoke to my own mother (she was herself a model in the late 1940s); studied a variety of the National Library of Australia’s incomparable digitised publications via Trove; endlessly surfed the net in order to check hundreds of references; and even consulted a fertility expert (those who have read the book will know why this was important!).

However, for my richest research experience, it would be impossible to beat being ‘on location’ in Paris. Although I was already quite familiar with the city, I knew it was essential for me to walk in Grace’s footsteps. As a result, I went everywhere that she did, from the bustling cafes of Saint-Germain to the Christian Dior atelier in the chic avenue Montaigne. As you can imagine, this was pure joy! I also went to the painter Monet’s glorious gardens in Giverny for some important scenes, and explored the Loire Valley in order to create the magnificent château of Charincourt. Finally, I visited three outstanding exhibitions that celebrated the seventieth anniversary of the House of Christian Dior: first in Paris at the Musée des Arts Decoratifs, later on at Melbourne’s National Gallery of Victoria and then in London’s V & A Museum. You could say I became an international Dior exhibition groupie!

What is something that has influenced you as a writer?

Thanks to my mother, I learnt to read before I had even started school. As we lived in a part of Sydney that was still largely bushland and Mum didn’t have a car, once a week she would walk with me up to the local shopping centre where we would wait for a large, caravan-like truck to arrive – the mobile library. There weren’t many children’s books on board, but I remember that I started on fairy tales. I then read every myth and legend I could get my hands on, particularly those from ancient Greece and Rome, but also some from Germany, Scandinavia, Africa and Arabia. Since then I have become a dedicated reader of all manner of books, although those early stories about the capricious Fates, heroes and heroines, quests and adventures have continued to impact upon me.

My second writing influence was my late father, who began his career as a fourteen-year-old copy boy on The Daily Telegraph. He taught me that words were precious: I recall the way that, even when writing a fairly run of the mill letter, he would weigh up each one, carefully considering whether it conveyed just the right meaning.

Finally, as a former psychotherapist, I have had the privilege of hearing many, many stories, often encompassing life’s most searing experiences. My clients allowed me to walk with them and, in so doing, experience something of their own courageous journeys.

What’s your daily writing routine like and what are you working on at the moment?

Once I actually began writing The Paris Model, I found myself dying to know what would happen next. In order to do so, however, I had to keep going – you could say it was the perfect incentive!

I would start after breakfast, usually still wearing whatever T-shirt and leggings I had pulled on after I slithered out of bed. I’d often find it was four o’clock in the afternoon before I remembered I hadn’t yet had a shower or anything to eat – other than a steady supply of double chocolate chip biscuits, my secret addiction. I wrote pretty well every day, including during the weekends.  I’d also regularly drift back to my computer after dinner, sometimes becoming so involved that I wouldn’t drop into bed until two in the morning.

When I’m writing I don’t answer my landline or my mobile, respond to texts or read emails. I also tend to be pretty terse with anyone who knocks on my door!

Right now I’m deep into my next novel, The Royal Correspondent. Set in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the book is about Blaise Hill, a feisty kid from the wrong side of the tracks who’s determined to make it as a newspaper reporter. At only nineteen years old, and having been transformed by the paper’s Women’s Editor into a stylish version of her former self, she’s sent from Sydney to London to cover Princess Margaret’s wedding to the unconventional photographer Tony Armstrong-Jones. Unwittingly, Blaise becomes swept up in a scandal involving a senior government minister, a beautiful good-time girl, a Russian spy – and a member of the British Royal Family. As she grapples with the consequences of exposing this treacherous affair, a crime connected to her past life in Sydney’s tough inner-city threatens everything she’s fought for. Neither the powerful politician who wants to marry her nor the mysterious, silver-eyed man she can’t forget can help. Only Blaise herself can find the answer, but time is slipping away and there are very few options left.

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            Publisher details

            The Paris Model
            Author
            Alexandra Joel
            Publisher
            HarperCollins
            Genre
            True Story
            Released
            20 January, 2020

            Synopsis

            Sometimes you have to lose everything to find yourself ... A stunning novel of love, betrayal and family secrets for all fans of Fiona McIntosh and Natasha Lester.After a shocking discovery, Grace Woods leaves her vast Australian sheep station and travels to tumultuous post-war Paris in order to find her true identity.While working as a mannequin for Christian Dior, the world's newly acclaimed emperor of fashion, Grace mixes with counts and princesses, authors and artists, diplomats and politicians.But when Grace falls for handsome Philippe Boyer she doesn't know that he is leading a double life, nor that his past might inflict devastating consequences upon her. As she is drawn into Philippe's dangerous world of international espionage, Grace discovers both the shattering truth of her origins – and that her life is in peril.Inspired by an astonishing true story, The Paris Model is a tale of glamour, family secrets and heartbreak that takes you from the rolling plains of country Australia to the elegant salons of Paris.
            Alexandra Joel
            About the author

            Alexandra Joel

            Alexandra Joel is the author of Parade: the Story of Fashion in Australia, a social history detailing the development of fashion, style and national identity. She is a former editor of the Australian edition of the international magazine Harper's Bazaar, and of Portfolio, Australia's first magazine for working women. She has also been a regular contributor of feature articles, interviews and reviews to a number of national and metropolitan publications including The Australian and the Sydney Morning Herald Good Weekend Magazine.More recently, Alexandra has been a practising counsellor and psychotherapist. She is an honours graduate from the University of Sydney and has a Graduate Diploma in Applied Psychology.

            Books by Alexandra Joel

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