“Inspirations and Influences” is a series of articles in which we invite authors to write guest posts talking about their…well, Inspirations and Influences. The cool thing is that the writers are given free rein so they can go wild and write about anything they want. It can be about their new book, series or about their career as a whole.
Today we are thrilled to welcome Elizabeth Ross, author of the historical fiction novel Belle Epoque (which has been receiving rave reviews). Inspired by a short story from Emile Zola, Belle Epoque tells the story of a young woman named Maude, hired for the specific purpose of becoming a “beauty foil” for a rich noblewoman – that is, Maude is hired to look plain and drab, therefore making Countess Isabel look more beautiful and desirable in contrast.
Please give a warm welcome to Elizabeth, everyone!
Belle Epoque was inspired by a short story written by Emile Zola called Les Repoussoirs (or Rent a Foil, in English). The story focuses on the creation of an agency of ugly women who are rented out, essentially as props, to make rich society women appear more attractive by comparison. I think it was really a vehicle for Zola to poke fun at the bourgeoisie and reveal how they could turn a profit from anything – even an ugly woman. I was amazed that Les Repoussoirs was written in the 1860’s as it felt so incredibly relevant and almost contemporary in tone. I had a visceral reaction to the story of this agency; it was so casually cruel and managed to shine a light on our modern-day society’s obsession with beauty and physical appearance. But the Zola story left me with a crucial unanswered question: what did it feel like to be one of those ugly girls for hire? It was this question that led me to create the character of Maude Pichon and write the novel.
The Durandeau Agency ad created for the Belle Epoque book trailer
As I began the novel, the theme of beauty was suddenly everywhere. Our media is bloated with advertising geared towards dissatisfaction with yourself and aspirations towards the narrowest kind of physical perfection. My historical lens gave me distance and license to have fun with what I saw as gross, shallow and unjust about today’s beauty standards. I drew inspiration from some unlikely places – such as contestants on reality shows like What Not to Wear and teens petitioning Seventeen magazine not to photoshop models.
Inspiration for the repoussoirs
Beyond the Zola short story, which inspired the initial premise, there was an array of sources, visual and literary, which influenced the writing of the novel over a two-year period. As a film editor, visual inspiration was hugely important. Across my office the walls were papered with settings, costumes and character sketches. Toulouse Lautrec was a definite muse for the repoussoirs (the beauty foils) and the work of Julia Margaret Cameron was a touchstone for Maude’s approach to photography.
Jane Eyre book cover and a still image from the BELLE EPOQUE trailer shoot
I was also inspired by many literary classics: Bronte’s Jane Eyre, as the ultimate plain Jane; the suffocating society of upper-class New York in Wharton’s The Age of Innocence; the blossoming of Lucy Honeychurch in E.M. Forster’s A Room With a View; and my childhood favorite, Anne of Green Gables, for the friendship of “kindred spirits” between Anne and Diana. Closest to my heart is Thea Kronborg, the opera singer heroine of Willa Cather’s jewel of a novel, The Song of the Lark. That kind of story – the artist’s journey – was a huge inspiration for Belle Epoque. I could never turn my heroine, Maude Pichon, into a swan or give her a make-over. Instead, her arc is to create beauty rather than be considered a beauty. She finds her passion and at the same time her voice. The artist’s spark is the secret story within my novel, the one that charts the discovery of the creative life, the desire to become an artist – a theme I connect with strongly. And this is what made this novel so intensely personal, because through my character, Maude, I found my own voice.
Although I can cite many sources of inspiration and influence, a good deal of the creation process appears mysteriously. That is the most exciting thing about writing a novel. From early on I felt as though I was writing to a vision of the book that already existed. Somewhere in my mind, there was a perfectly formed novel I could almost touch, but it was just out of reach. It was as though I’d seen a foreign film of my book without subtitles, or dreamed of the story but lost the details upon waking. Writing my way back to it was foggy, at times confusing, but I knew when it felt right and when I was in sync with the ghost version of my book that to me already lived and breathed. You write to that ideal and you try to do your characters justice. You write in the pursuit of this dream.
“The hope that I channel into each effort reaches its peak in those dark moments of mystery when the bow of the unseen connects with the taut string of my spine and sends a shiver the length of my back, not of fear, but of possibility. This time, I might have it. This time. This photograph.”
Maude Pichon, Belle Epoque.
(Belle Epoque trailer images ©Elizabeth Ross)
About The Book:
When Maude Pichon runs away from provincial Brittany to Paris, her romantic dreams vanish as quickly as her savings. Desperate for work, she answers an unusual ad. The Durandeau Agency provides its clients with a unique service—the beauty foil. Hire a plain friend and become instantly more attractive.
Monsieur Durandeau has made a fortune from wealthy socialites, and when the Countess Dubern needs a companion for her headstrong daughter, Isabelle, Maude is deemed the perfect foil.
But Isabelle has no idea her new “friend” is the hired help, and Maude’s very existence among the aristocracy hinges on her keeping the truth a secret. Yet the more she learns about Isabelle, the more her loyalty is tested. And the longer her deception continues, the more she has to lose.
Check out the official trailer below:
About the Author:
Elizabeth Ross grew up in Scotland where she studied French and Film Studies at the University of Glasgow. After graduation she worked in the film industry in Montreal for several years, becoming a film editor. That career path eventually led to Los Angeles where she now lives with her husband.
Follow Elizabeth on her website, blog, facebook, or on twitter (@RossElizabeth).
We have ONE copy of Belle Epoque up for grabs! The contest is open to ALL and will run until Sunday, July 14 at 12:01am. To enter, use the form below. Good luck!
my blogJuly 4, 2013 at 7:45 am
Hurrah, that?s what I was exploring for, what a stuff! existing here at this blog, thanks admin of this website.
mary anneJuly 4, 2013 at 9:24 am
I love reading Regency stories, and most of them are about the wealthy and privileged. I think any era of decadence has an underpinning of poverty and need, but most people are not entertained by a story about extreme poverty, unless it involves somebody escaping extreme poverty – usually for wealth, privilege and decadence.
ErinJuly 4, 2013 at 10:22 am
My favorite era of decadence would have to be the Roaring 1920’s. Mostly for the jazz, pearls, and Art Deco of the era.
LexiJuly 4, 2013 at 10:44 am
I like Regency stories too, but it is rare to find one that also deals with the underlying issues of poverty, women’s rights and other issues of the time.
JenniferJuly 4, 2013 at 10:52 am
My favorite era of decadence is honestly Cleopatra’s era the stuff is just utterly fascinating.
KristinJuly 4, 2013 at 11:08 am
The Roman Empire, nothing says decadence like a Vomitoria. Gross, yes, but also the epitome of indulgence. They may have copied a lot of their practices from the Greeks but they may have surpassed them when it came to excess.
CrystalJuly 4, 2013 at 11:19 am
Tudor England. THOSE CLOTHES. And while Henry VIII was scsry, Elizabeth was nothing if not a rock star.
KatrinaJuly 4, 2013 at 11:38 am
Pre-European contact Pacific Northwest Coast indigenous groups (Kwakiutl, Salish, Haida, among others). Nothing says decadence like potlaches where you spend years stocking up, then give everything you own away in huge feast parties!
MienekeJuly 4, 2013 at 2:01 pm
While I love the Tudor era, for decadency I’d struggling to make a choice between the Restoration Era in the UK and the reign of Louis XIV – the Sun King – in France. They were both decadent and indulgent in very different ways, but both equally fascinating.
Rebecca I.July 4, 2013 at 2:52 pm
Ancient Egypt sprang to mind for me!
KatharineJuly 4, 2013 at 2:52 pm
This book sounds fascinating and the trailer was great – I could smell the roses!
JamieJuly 4, 2013 at 4:04 pm
This seems like it could be a really important book. The way we treat women in this culture is terrible, and it’s spreading to the way we treat men. It’s horrible and needs to stop.
NataliaJuly 4, 2013 at 5:46 pm
I have to go with the 1920s because behind the frenetic good times people where trying to forget the nightmare of WW I and the Influenza epidemic. Also women started getting greater freedom.
Marie-ClaudeJuly 4, 2013 at 6:39 pm
France, with the reign of Marie-Antoinette.
HebeJuly 4, 2013 at 6:44 pm
DebraGJuly 4, 2013 at 10:09 pm
The regency era is my favorite.
LlehnJuly 4, 2013 at 10:56 pm
JustineJuly 4, 2013 at 11:29 pm
The Gilded Age has yet to cease to amaze me.
saracJuly 4, 2013 at 11:47 pm
The Jazz Age. I loved the Great Gatsby!
Kate & ZenaJuly 4, 2013 at 11:58 pm
The 1950s! Poofy skirts, beautiful hair, red lip, and victory rolls!
erinf1July 5, 2013 at 1:13 am
I’m also gonna vote for the Roaring 20s. I loved the Great Gatsby 🙂
Lillian MaloneyJuly 5, 2013 at 1:54 am
It’s always been a tie between the 1920s and the 1950s, but if I had to choose….1920s. The insanity that went on during the Jazz Age still blows my mind.
RainaJuly 5, 2013 at 2:10 am
Definitely Ancient Egypt to me!
Neysa KristantiJuly 5, 2013 at 3:12 am
Probably those Victorian era? I don’t know why, but I really love the elegance and classical feels it give off. 😀
RachelJuly 5, 2013 at 3:27 am
Probably either Ancient Rome or the 1920s, mostly because they have this weird vibe of decadence and excess but seemed to acknowledge the darker side of life more than a lot of other times and places
Shannelle (The Tracery of Ink)July 5, 2013 at 8:36 am
Thank you for the international giveaway! I’ve been wanting to read this for some time now.
BeeJuly 5, 2013 at 9:12 am
The fifties, entirely due to the fashion : )
superbwgJuly 5, 2013 at 10:39 am
I love the Roaring 20’s not just for the sheer decadency (that is a word right 🙂 ), but for the fact that more people had access to it. The 1980’s had its own special brand of decadence as well that seems to mirror the “new” rich like the 20’s did.
Jillian TJuly 5, 2013 at 2:39 pm
I’m still on a Downton Abbey kick, so I’m going to say it’s the luxurious 1920s. But that’ll probably change next week because I love history so much.
SusieJuly 5, 2013 at 3:39 pm
Historical fiction is a favorite genre so it is a hard choice. Right now I’m liking the Maisy Dobbs mystery series so, WW I and just afterward.
Gavin ChuaJuly 5, 2013 at 7:54 pm
Love historical fiction
Tim RJuly 5, 2013 at 8:12 pm
Oh, let’s go with late Rome.
Julia RainJuly 5, 2013 at 8:46 pm
I love the Victorian Era.
Chenise J.July 5, 2013 at 9:46 pm
I really love the roaring 20s!
Shelver506 @ Bookshelvers AnonymousJuly 5, 2013 at 9:55 pm
The Renaissance. 🙂
Mary PrestonJuly 6, 2013 at 1:40 am
Most definitely the 1920’s. Quite a wild time was to be had.
Vanessa RJuly 7, 2013 at 1:47 pm
I just read The Oracle Glass and I have to say the Sun King’s reign in France always astounds and amazes me with its decadence. Such fun.
Anita YanceyJuly 8, 2013 at 3:36 pm
I like several but my favorite is the Roman.
Amanda @ Late Nights with Good BooksJuly 8, 2013 at 11:04 pm
Such an interesting interview! I always love reading about an author’s influences. I haven’t read Belle Epoque yet, but now I’m very curious! Inspiration from Jane Eyre, Tolouse-Latrec, Zola, Cather, and Wharton? All those are authors/artists I enjoy myself, so it would be so interesting to see if I can identify any influences as I read it!
I do love Tudor England. I also like stories set in Ancient Greece/Rome, especially those focused on the Trojan War.
NairaJuly 10, 2013 at 3:58 am
My favorite era of decadence in history is the Victorian era, but I’m recently becoming more and more fascinated by the 1920’s. The main reason must be the clothes and music, but I have realised that I cannot dismiss other historical periods as every period can be made interesting in a well-written book.
HannahJuly 10, 2013 at 10:33 am
I would have to say that my favorite era of decadence is ancient Egypt. The most astounding fact to me is that remnants of that decadence are still visible thousands of years later.
SerenaJuly 10, 2013 at 2:09 pm
I love reading both Regency novels as well as Tudors. I’ve also recently begun reading a lot of WWI novels.
LeAnnJuly 10, 2013 at 2:11 pm
This sounds like such a cool concept!
KrystiannaJuly 10, 2013 at 9:23 pm
I’d have to say that I love the 20’s. I just love the clothing and it seems like most had much fun.
Hannah HJuly 12, 2013 at 12:12 am
Oh, for sure the twenties. Ever since I read Gatsby, I’ve been fascinated with them. I love the contrast of the beautiful and the corrupt. I also think they’re more ephemeral than any other era of extravagance (except maybe France before the revolution). I think the people of the era must have known it couldn’t last, but they definitely did not act like it.