We’re delighted to return with part two of our Paris interview series. If you missed part one, you can read it here. Today Dana Gynther discusses her new novel, THE WOMAN IN THE PHOTOGRAPH, with Meg Waite Clayton. And if this doesn’t make you want to visit the city of lights, nothing will!
Meg: In your previous book, CROSSING ON THE PARIS, three women collide on an ocean liner leaving France in the 1920s. You return to 1920s France in your new novel—what draws you to this time and place in history? Did your work on CROSSING ON THE PARIS help inform THE WOMAN IN THE PHOTOGRAPH?
Dana: I love Paris. I studied French in college and, like Lee Miller (the woman in the photograph), I moved to France in my early twenties and lived there for a couple of years. I also had several aspiring artist friends in Paris—sadly though, unlike her group of friends and acquaintances, none of mine have become world famous.
While doing research for the two novels, I found these were completely different times. When talking about history, music or fashion, we tend to lump decades together, figuring that everything in a ten-year period was more or less the same. The 1920s, however, saw drastic change, much like the 1960s. CROSSING ON THE PARIS took place in 1921 when Europe was still reeling from World War I. People were trying to heal, to rebuild their lives and cities under a gray cloud of mourning. By the time Lee Miller arrived to Paris in 1929, it was already known for its art scene, bohemian parties, all-night cafés and night clubs. Poor Lee—the Crash would cause another big shift about six months after her arrival.
Meg: You delve intimately into the relationship between Lee Miller and Man Ray. I’ve read a lot written by and about Miller, too, and know that her life was … well, let’s just say there are plenty of fascinating stories to draw from her life. What brought you to focus on this relationship?
Dana: After reading the two key biographies of Lee Miller, Carolyn Burke’s definitive LEE MILLER: ON BOTH SIDES OF THE CAMERA and her son Antony Penrose’s THE LIVES OF LEE MILLER, I decided to write a novel juxtaposing two dramatically different times in her life. The first part was about her three-year stay in Paris, when she worked as model for French Vogue, as Man Ray’s assistant photographer, and even as an actress in Jean Cocteau’s first film. A rather frivolous lifestyle of champagne and dancing, the latest fashions and lovers, art openings and surrealist poetry. The second part of the novel was about her time as a World War II correspondent, when she was putting herself in danger to get the closest shot, wearing the same grimy fatigues and combat boots day after day, enjoying being a comrade-at-arms with fellow soldiers (a period you know about as well as I do!). I did all the research and wrote the first draft of the novel and… my editor decided we should cut the second part and really hone in on the first. I was initially disappointed but, in the end, I think it was a good decision. Her three-year relationship with Man Ray has almost “A Star is Born” quality about it—her rise through his mentorship, the intensity of their romance, its aftermath.
And it also makes our books, Meg, such great companion pieces!
Meg: How did you go about deciding the details of these actual people? What sources did you turn to, and how much creative license did you take in telling these people’s stories?
Dana: I tried to stay true to the people and their stories and not veer too much into my own fantasy. Almost all of the events in the novel are based on fact (or at least ‘legend’), from the essential bios mentioned above as well as tons of other sources, including, of course, Man Ray’s side of the story, as told in his wonderful autobiography SELF-PORTRAIT and Neil Baldwin’s MAN RAY: AMERICAN ARTIST. I also found the photos themselves (the work of both Lee and Man) very helpful. Needless to say, the thoughts and dialogues are my invention—as well as a few party scenes. But a surprising amount of the material is true—and in that way that truth can be so surprising.
Meg: Has your perspective on Miller changed over the course of writing the book, and if so how?
Dana: When I first started reading about Lee Miller, I thought of her as a rather unsympathetic character. A stunningly beautiful opportunist, the witty charmer at a party that all the men flock around, one who had no qualms about sleeping with any man (why should she care if he were attached? She only wanted him for an hour or two!), a person who Luck seemed to favor. Not exactly your PARIS WIFE Hadley Richardson, with her average looks and brains, who seemed little more than Ernest Hemingway’s hapless victim. But the more I read and thought about her, the more human she became. Not only because of the dark moments in her youth, but her weaknesses, failings, overstretched ambitions and then, the ageing… These were the things that made me fall for Lee Miller.
Set in the romantic glow of 1920s Paris, a captivating novel of New York socialite and model Lee Miller, whose glamorous looks and joie de vivre caught the eye of Man Ray, one of the twentieth century’s defining photographers.
1929, Montparnasse. Model and woman about town Lee Miller moves to Paris determined to make herself known amidst the giddy circle of celebrated artists, authors, and photographers currently holding court in the city. She seeks out the charming, charismatic artist Man Ray to become his assistant but soon becomes much more than that: his model, his lover, his muse.
Coming into her own more fully every day, Lee models, begins working on her own projects, and even stars in a film, provoking the jealousy of the older and possessive Man Ray. Drinking and carousing is the order of the day, but while hobnobbing with the likes of Picasso and Charlie Chaplin, she also falls in love with the art of photography and finds that her own vision can no longer come second to her mentor’s.
The Woman in the Photograph is the richly drawn, tempestuous novel about a talented and fearless young woman caught up in one of the most fascinating times of the twentieth century.