“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.
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!