An Interview with Morris Finalist Elizabeth Ross, author of Belle Epoque

I am happy to continue our series of 2013 Morris Award finalist interviews with a chat with Elizabeth Ross, author Belle Epoque. Check out Alegria’s review of Belle Epoque, the story of a plain girl hired to become a beauty “foil” for an attractive society girl in 1880s Paris. Elizabeth was kind enough to answer some questions about her novel and even provided us with some pictures used in her research!

In Belle Epoque’s afterword, you mention that Emile Zola’s story ‘Les Repoussoirs’ in part inspired the story, but what made you want to set the book in this time? What do you think is so fascinating to many people of this time in history, and especially in Paris? I’m thinking the enduring love for the paintings of Toulouse Lautrec and other Post-Impressionists, and the continuing romance of the bohemian lifestyle. What is it about that time?

Salon at the Rue des Moulins, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec
Salon at the Rue des Moulins, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec

Paris at the end of the 19th century was a pivotal time in history. Technology, architecture, art and culture were exploding. It was the dawn of the modern age, where the ‘new’ was at odds with old ways of thinking in so many fields.

I’m glad you mentioned Toulouse Lautrec because his art was a huge inspiration for my repoussoirs. The world he painted and the Paris Zola wrote about show the ugly underbelly of a city that we usually associate with romance and luxury. These unbeautiful elements, such as extremes of class and gender inequality, helped augment the stakes and drama for my characters.

Lastly, setting my story in belle époque Paris meant I could examine lots of ideas about today’s society but disguise them in another place and time.

I appreciate how you delved a bit into the psychology of the girls and women who were considered ugly or plain and how using this trait as employment might affect them. How did you go about thinking of this? Do you think our current obsession with particularly impossible beauty standards, i.e. the unreality and ubiquity of photo-shopped bodies and faces on magazines and other media, influenced your writing of the idea of this business?

It was easy to imagine the psychology of the girls because all I had to do was switch on TV or open a magazine to be confronted with our modern-day society’s obsession with beauty. Particularly for women, scrutiny of appearance above all else is commonplace.

I think adolescence can be an especially hard time for reconciling one’s appearance and the pressure society puts on us to be attractive. I remember thinking as a teenager that men are allowed to be “people” but women but are always judged on their “womanliness” first and foremost. As a woman you are in some imaginary beauty contest, just going about day to day life.

In the novel it was kind of liberating to examine the theme of beauty from all angles, and I was able to have fun with it as well. My antagonists, Durandeau and the Countess have such a despicable way of behaving – as a writer I took real relish in writing their dialogue, they are so horrid to poor Maude and the other repoussoirs.

A still of Maude from the Belle Epoque book trailer
A still of Maude from the Belle Epoque book trailer

Were you tempted to make the story into an ugly duckling or makeover story, for example a story where Maude learns she’s really beautiful and all she had to do was the 19th century equivalent of taking off her glasses and taking out her ponytail?

Hah! Great question. Not at all. Actually I always knew that Maude would never become a swan and to try and beautify her would undermine the whole story. The girl on the cover is not exactly a plain Jane so that took some time to get used to (as gorgeous as the cover is).

The challenge with a character like Maude was to find a transformation that didn’t fall into the makeover category. So in the novel Maude learns to create beauty through her art rather than care about being considered a beauty. She’s plain to most people but those who look beneath the surface find her inner light.

Historical novels often involve a lot of research. Could you tell us a bit about the research that went into this novel? Any really interesting facts you learned about the period that you couldn’t quite squeeze into the narrative?

I did go to Paris for a research visit, stopping over on a visit home to Scotland. I enjoyed delving into the saga of the building of the Eiffel tower. Of course at the time the tower was unpopular and considered unattractive and that became a metaphor for my heroine. I was fascinated to learn how establishment artists and architects like Garnier (who built the opera house) took umbrage with its creation. There was only so much of this history I could put into the novel. Research can be a dangerous tangent – the characters must come first!

Period costume was another element of research I loved. I saw a historical fashion exhibit at the LA museum of art. Corsetry and undergarments were complex in those days! Also the number of beasts and birds that were sacrificed in the name of fashion was appalling and I allude to this a bit with the Countess’s wardrobe. In the 1880s there was a craze for dead animal parts to ornament accessories and I read about a dealer receiving 32,000 dead hummingbirds in one shipment! This small fact seems to perfectly exemplify the excesses of the era.

I also appreciated the inclusion of Isabelle’s interest in photography and the struggles of upper class women to have an interest outside of ‘society’ as a contrast to Maude’s interest in that said society. Could you talk a little bit about what you think were the different struggles within the classes for women at the time? Why do you think that this resonates with readers – and especially teen readers – today?

Some images collected by Ross during her research on 1880s costume
Some images collected by Ross during her research on 1880s costumes

Rich women were constricted by their gender and the society rules. They might be educated, but generally by governesses and in more feminine pursuits. Poorer classes of women were hampered by the cycle of poverty and not being able to earn a living wage. Both situations meant lack of options and choices. In Belle Epoque both of my characters have to fight their way out of the box society has created for them.

Even though today’s youth is independent in many ways, it’s a time when you can feel constricted and when it seems as though decisions are being made for you. For this reason aspirational stories where a character finds his or her voice will always resonate with teens.

Do you have a new project that you are working on that you’d like to share with us? Or a book you’d love to write?

Yes, I’m working on a new novel set in 1940s Los Angeles. It’s a fun period to research, and living in LA I’m inspired every day by the city around me. But of course no wonderful research trip to Europe, sadly.

A final note, I’ll be attending ALA midwinter in Philadelphia so I hope to meet some youth librarians – please say hi!

Thank you so much! We hope to see you in Philly and congratulations on your nomination!

-Anna Tschetter, currently reading Far, Far Away by Tom McNeal