Book Talk: Quest for the story of an enigmatic model and lover

TOKYO Thu Jan 5, 2012 6:26am EST

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TOKYO (Reuters) - The dark-eyed, black haired woman with strong features and a blood-red mouth lies naked on a sofa, her sultry -- and somewhat hurt -- gaze locked on the viewer.

She is Rafaela, the subject of several paintings by Art Deco artist Tamara de Lempicka and the narrator of "The Last Nude," a novel by Ellis Avery set mainly in 1920s Paris.

Little is known about Rafaela besides her appearance in the paintings, the fact that she was de Lempicka's lover, and that de Lempicka was working on a copy of her most famous Rafaela painting the day she died, more than half a century later -- which made her compelling to Avery.

Avery, who took a painting class as part of her research, spoke to Reuters about getting inside Rafaela's skin and the book, including an 11th-hour decision to cut 120 pages.

Q: You've said you were inspired by the paintings. How did you develop the story and the characters?

A: "I saw her work at the Royal Academy in London in 2004 and came away weak in the knees -- this is so gorgeous -- and the caption said that the young woman in the painting was the 'Beautiful Rafaela' from 1927, that she had met this girl on a walk in the Bois de Bologne and she became her model, and her lover. Their relationship resulted in six paintings, and it seems to have been a brief relationship. Then when I looked at her catalog, the very last painting she was working on when she died was indeed that copy of 'Beautiful Rafaela.' So 53 years later, this girl was still on her mind, which was thrilling to me.

"I got a book of her paintings and cut them out and spread them on the desk. All the paintings from 1925 to 1929, and looked at them for days. I read biographies of de Lempicka by her daughter, by others. I read a lot about her era. But a lot of the work was just looking at the paintings and at the people that she represented, and just trying to enter that world."

Q: How did you get to the character of Rafaela?

A: "I really tried to imagine what it was like to be that person. I tried to hold my body the way she held hers, and (understand) the way it felt to occupy her skin.

"I knew she was going to be American and an English speaker because I decided she would, and I knew that she had modeled for de Lempicka. From there I kind of spun out a story. De Lempicka claims that Rafaela was a prostitute and I wanted to work with that to make a character. I wanted to see if I could get something more interesting and unlikely out of that story."

Q: Was it hard, or did the character come easily?

A: "I feel, as somebody looking at the de Lempicka paintings, awestruck and a little bit in love. That delight in looking at her work piped into Rafaela's voice, so to that extent it came easily. The first 14 pages took two and a half years, me beating my head against the wall. And then the rest of the book took eight months. It was so difficult and strange to have it not work for so long.

"I had a sort of narcoleptic, marvelous falling asleep-waking up, falling asleep-waking up experience of writing a climactic scene. That scene was absolutely delicious and bizarre, and I didn't know what I was writing. I was just following Rafaela along for the ride until I kind of woke up and thought, 'well, now what?' So then instead of chipping away at the first 14 pages, I set them aside and wrote backwards, trying to figure out my way to that climactic scene, everything that would build up to that. It surprised me, but it worked."

Q: So would you say you're more of an intuitive writer?

A: "Well, once I wrote that scene -- which was bizarre, pure intuition, from there it was serious outlining. I think there's a left-brain, right-brain partnership that occurs between intuition and planning. I feel like I'm building a roller coaster or marble run, some kind of structure upon which my more intuitive, imagistic brain can just slide downhill. I've done all the work and careful planning so that when it's time for the actual writer brain to do its thing, it doesn't experience the friction of wondering what happens next. I don't know how it's going to happen, that's the intuition part, but I do know what's going to happen, so I don't have to stop mid-flow."

Q: I imagine you really liked Rafaela, but what about de Lempicka? She's much more problematic.

A: "I didn't know that I was going to write the last section from de Lempicka's point of view, I thought I was going to write the whole novel from Rafaela's point of view. Because de Lempicka has contempt for Rafaela, so she can cover something that would take Rafaela much longer -- what takes Rafaela 120 pages to tell, she can dismiss in a couple of sentences.

"That said, I felt like I was tapping into a frightening place in myself. She's ruthlessly ambitious, she'll sacrifice anything to her art, including someone who loves her. She was a frightening character to be for the time I was writing her. It wasn't pleasant, but I think there's a part of being an artist that does put art first, and so I have to honor that."

Q: And you cut 120 pages?

A: "I had lovingly polished those pages and the book all summer, and my editor had accepted the final draft. I had one friend who was reading along and he'd email 'love it, that's great' every 50 pages. Then ... he stopped emailing. The weird thing is, he'd stopped emailing right at the place where I'd always had the sneaking suspicion that it really ends. I really, really thought about what it would mean to cut out a quarter of the book, and then I sent a new version to my editor. Four days later I got an email from her saying 'I love it.'

"It felt a little crazy, and I imagine only people who do recreational blood-letting on themselves might feel pleasure in it. I did not feel pleasure at all, but I think it's a better book."

(Reporting by Elaine Lies, editing by Paul Casciato)

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