Monday, August 16, 2021

Tessa Lunney Interview - Autumn Leaves, 1922

Photo Content from Tessa Lunney

Tessa Lunney is a novelist, short fiction writer, reviewer, and poet. She holds a Doctorate of Creative Arts in Australian war fiction from Western Sydney University. Her debut novel, April in Paris, 1921, received wide praise across the industry, and her short fiction has won awards. In her spare time, she reads, wears vintage, dances lindy hop, and stalks Parisian-style bars for their champagne cocktails. She lives and works on Bidjiagal and Gadigal land in Sydney, Australia.

Why is storytelling so important for all of us?
The stories we tell shape the lives we lead.

Stories help us to understand who we are, our moment in history, and why we do what we do. They help us to imagine new selves in new worlds. They give us hope, and through hope, resilience.

Tell us your most rewarding experience since being published.
Readers reaching out, through social media, to let me know how much they have enjoyed my work, is one of the most rewarding experiences. I’m really just a reader who has extended her reading into creating work to read, so words from readers are the best.

I have also enjoyed speaking at festivals and conferences. The Leeton Art Deco Festival in 2019 was a particular delight. Leeton is a small rural town in New South Wales with an abundance of Art Deco architecture. Every winter they hold a festival of dancing, movies, and themed nights, and in 2019 they invited me down to speak about all things 1920s. I met some great people in beautiful buildings and have a wonderful time.

But if I’m honest, any publication, from a paper book in my hands to an online poem, is a thrill. To speak and be heard: isn’t that what we all want?

What are some of your current and future projects that you can share with us?
I write lots but so much remains unpublished! At the moment I’m writing another novel, planning a second and third and fourth, and writing 3 short stories. Subjects vary from the 2019 bushfires in Australia, Soviet Russia, World War One, World War Two… I completed a doctorate in 2013 on war fiction, so war will always be one of my themes.

What I’m reading, however, this is what I truly love to chat about: thrillers, historical fiction on 20th century, contemporary Australian fiction, contemporary literary fiction, literary journals, poetry collections… right now I have open To Die But Once: a Maisie Dobbs mystery by Jacqueline Winspear, Swing Time by Zadie Smith, Sucking my tongue to keep the salt of you close by Bridie Lunney, and Being Human: More Poems for Unreal Times edited by Neil Astley.

Can you tell us when you started AUTUMN LEAVES, 1922, how that came about?
Autumn Leaves, 1922 is the sequel to April in Paris, 1921.

April in Paris, 1921 came about because I’d finished a doctorate in war literature, and the subsequent novel on war trauma, and I needed a break. I was reading a lot of thrillers, drawn to their strong structure and inventiveness within the genre. But couldn’t quite find what I wanted – early 20th century, preferably Paris, strong heroine, first person narration, no serial killers or sexual violence – I realized I had to write it myself. I had a crazy idea for a World War I series that was crime, romance, satire, absurdist, lyrical, plot-driven… that idea was too big for one project, so I cut it in half. Half is a still-unfinished war novel, and the other half became April in Paris, 1921.

Autumn Leaves, 1922 was written after some personal loss, after being pregnant through Australia’s Black Summer bushfires, with a newborn through a pandemic while watching the Black Lives Matter protests unfold. Feelings of fear, grief, and outrage leaked from my everyday life into my fictional world. Autumn Leaves, 1922 has my main character, Kiki Button, deal with these feelings in her personal life and in the tumultuous political world she inhabits.

The series (hopefully) has one book per year through the interwar period in Europe, looking at the rise of fascism, and other totalitarian regimes, leading up to World War Two. Autumn Leaves, 1922 looks at the next development in European fascism. This period is so interesting – full of revolutions and sieges and wild parties – that I can’t help wondering, how did it come about? Could it happen again? These books are my way of thinking through these questions.

What do you hope for readers to be thinking when they read your novel?
One of the things I love about reading is that, when the book is in my hands, it is mine alone. The writer – or here, the main character – talks directly and only to me. It is a treasure and, when the book is great, a personal revelation.

I don’t have any prescription for what readers should think. Obviously, as a writer and big reader, I hope their reading experience is enjoyable. Beyond that, I hope there are layers that each reader can explore – the fun of 1920s, the thrill of spy fiction, questions of politics and how to be a modern woman, explorations of grief and loss.

What part of Kiki and Theo did you enjoy writing the most?
My friends have joked that Kiki Button is my doppelgänger. She is certainly the woman I would have liked to have been if I had lived in that time! I enjoy writing her interactions with everyone, friends and enemies and famous extras – but perhaps especially her wandering around Paris. As for Kiki and Theo – the romance, of course, was the most fun to write… yes, I can definitely say that writing a down-at-heel Russian prince flirting with me through Kiki was the most fun.

If you could introduce one of your characters to any character from another book, who would it be and why?
I would love to introduce Kiki’s friend Bertie to Christopher Isherwood from Goodbye to Berlin, as they both need some love. In fact, I think I will.

  • 1. It has a strong female protagonist.
  • 2. It’s set in bohemian 1920s Paris.
  • 3. It looks at the rise of fanatical ideology in interwar Europe.
  • 4. The book is full of famous real-life figures who come in for fun cameos, everyone from literary luminaries like Hemingway to scandalous aristocrats like Prince Felix Yusupov.
  • 5. It’s full of parties, clothes, cocktails and sex.
  • 6. Within the fun wrapper, it’s a thrilling chase through proto-fascist communities.
  • 7. Woven between the thriller and the parties are meditations on grief, loss, and political fear.
  • 8. It’s about memory and identity, and the long repercussions of war.
  • 9. When the world is on fire, historical thrillers are the best thing to read, a place where we can look at the world obliquely, where we can safely place our feelings of dread and despair and find comfort in the triumphs of others just like ourselves.
  • 10. The stories we tell shape the lives we lead, and to read is to tell ourselves a story. This one – with a strong woman who, with the invaluable help of her friends, manages to triumph – is a story to give us hope, and through hope, resilience.
1. Hemingway really was reporting on Smyrna in late September and early October, 1922, for the Toronto Star.

2. Gertrude Stein and Alice B Toklas held a famous salon that, by 1922, had been going for more than a decade. The walls of their house on rue Fleurus were covered, to the ceiling, with avant-garde artwork.

3. During World War One, Gertrude Stein and Alice B Toklas served as volunteers for the American Fund for the French troops. Stein ordered a Ford truck from the United States, learned how to drive and, with Alice, delivered supplies to French hospitals.

—4. Nancy Cunard was the heiress to the Cunard Shipping Line fortune. But she was an activist, as well as a poet and publisher, and cut herself off from her inheritance by standing up for her values – having a long-running love affair with African-American jazz musician Henry Crowder, helping refugees from the Spanish Civil War, and campaigning against fascism.

5. Kiki Button worked as a spy during World War One. This is not as unusual as you might think – women were certainly recruited for intelligence work, especially in occupied Belgium and France. There is a particularly famous group of resistors who operated under the name La Dame Blanche. Apart from Mata Hari, who was executed, women were rarely recognized for their work.

6. In the 1920s, Montparnasse was a haven for avant-garde artists from around the world. I think of these artists as expats – either literally, because they came from Britain, America, Australia, Canada and so on, or figuratively, as they were escaping their conservative country families to be artists in the big city. The exchange rate for the dollar and the pound was excellent, so many artists could afford to live in Paris much more cheaply than they could at home. It was a heady time.

—7. Paris was also a refuge for aristocrats and White Russians who were fleeing the Russian Revolution and subsequent civil war. In Paris were many Romanovs, as well as Prince Felix Yusupov, who was famous for murdering Rasputin.

8. Many of the cafes famous in Paris are still operating today. If you travel to Paris, you too can go to Maxim’s, Café du Dȏme, Café de la Rotonde, and Café de la Paix. They feel like a trip back in time and simultaneously utterly modern – rather like Paris itself.

9. 1922 is only four years after the end of World War One, or the Great War as it was then called. Graves were still being dug for the endless dead and the French farmland was full of unexploded ordnance. The streets were full of those who had suffered – either visibly, through loss of limb, or invisibly, through war trauma or as widows and orphans. The wreckage of the war, and the following Spanish Flu pandemic, was still present, and provided a dark counterpoint to the art and parties of the 1920s.

10. Commercial flight had just begun in the 1920s. Despite this, it was still exotic and outrageously expensive – most people used the train to travel long distances overland, and ships to travel across the sea. Flying was the preserve of the Air Force and rich playboys who could afford to buy their own plane.

  • 1. A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway
  • 2. The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas by Gertrude Stein
  • 3. The Age of Light by Whitney Scharer
  • 4. The Paris Wife by Paula McLain
  • 5. Shakespeare and Company by Sylvia Beach
  • 6. Paris Between the Wars: Art, Style and glamour in the Crazy Years by Vincent Bouvet and Gerard Durozoi
  • 7. Paris was a Woman: Portraits from the Left Bank by Andrea Weiss
  • 8. The Other Paris: all illustrated journey through a city’s poor and bohemian past by Luc Sante
  • 9. When Paris Sizzled: The 1920s Paris of Hemingway, Chanel, Cocteau, Cole Porter, Josephine Baker and Their Friends by Mary McAuliffe
  • 10. Expatriate Paris: a cultural and literary guide to Paris of the 1920s by Arlen J Hansen

  • Our heroine, Kiki speaks directly to us of her experiences in Paris.
  • She’s Australian but does not call Australia home. After the war, she fled back to Paris for life, love, parties and, most of all, freedom. After a year in Sydney following her mother’s death, she’s back in Paris for good.
  • Kiki works as a gossip columnist and, when she must, as a spy.
  • She was a nurse through World War One, where she was recruited as a spy by her surgeon, Dr Fox. These two experiences shape her worldview.
  • Kiki is sassy, sensitive, hard-partying, always thinking and assessing, and loves to be active. She loves clothes and sex and cocktails and is free with all three. The world, for her, is a sensual experience.
  • Maisie is one of Kiki’s best friends. She nursed with Kiki all through the war and has continued to nurse.
  • Maisie is also Australian and inspired in part by Marion Leane Smith. She is a First Nations Australian who ran away to the war for adventure and freedom.
  • Maisie is now a Parisienne, married to a French diplomat and living permanently in Paris. She’s no-nonsense but with a big smile and bigger heart.
  • Bertie is another friend Kiki met through the war. They liked each other on sight and began an instant, friendly, on-off affair. They adore each other.
  • Bertie is love-lorn after losing his true love, Edward, in the war. His loneliness, and love for Kiki, shape Bertie’s worldview.
  • Bertie is an editor on the magazine that Kiki works for and got Kiki her job as a gossip columnist. He lives in London but travels often to Paris.
  • Tom is Kiki’s boy from home. They grew up together, on adjacent farms in outback New South Wales. Tom followed Kiki to the war, but fled home after a dreadful misadventure.
  • Tom works as a reporter for a Sydney newspaper, as one of their junior Europe correspondents. He works under a pseudonym and very few people know his real name.
  • Tom is tall, handsome, clever and brave, but suffers from trauma of a war that never seems to end, making him angry, despairing, and dangerously thin. He lives in London but his true desire is to be as close to Kiki as possible.
  • Fox was Kiki’s supervising surgeon in the war. He recruited her secretly and became her spymaster. He also tried to become her husband, but Kiki ran away.
  • Now that Kiki is back, Fox uses all his power to make sure that Kiki is within his grasp. Fox still works, secretly, for British Intelligence. He recruits Kiki piecemeal by blackmailing her.
  • Kiki hasn’t seen him since the end of the war. He exists, for her, as a voice on the telephone line, as a line of spidery handwriting across a note.
Your Favorite Quotes/Scenes from AUTUMN LEAVES, 1922

The cold air pricked my skin as we lay naked in the darkness, the only light from our cigarettes and the flickering moon. Bertie absentmindedly ran his hand up and down the length of my torso, stopping occasionally to run his thumb over my nipples, a trick he had played only a little while before, but now I was too spent to do anything more than move my cigarette to my mouth to inhale. We lay there for a long time, wrapped in each other but isolated in our separate loss. Bertie kept turning to me to stroke my hair and look into my face, as though by staring he could drag himself into the present and its hope of happiness. I gazed back in the intermittent moonlight—his messy hair, his big brown eyes, the stains on his fingers from ink and tobacco and lack of care—I let myself be his anchor, as he was mine.

“You know it wasn’t just your mother you were grieving, don’t you, Kiki?” A flash of moon showed just how sharp his cheekbones had become.

“I do, sweet Bertie. Though I didn’t at the time.”

“Never at the time.”

“I was just floating in the underworld—”

“All the ghosts caressing and claiming you in half-waking dreams—”

“When I resurfaced and I realized whole days had disappeared—”

“Whole seasons—”

“It was suddenly late autumn and my hair had grown past my shoulders—”

“You’d missed a birthday and were a whole year older—”

“Then I realized, Bertie.”

He leant over and kissed my shoulder.

“It felt pagan, Bertie, almost elemental. All the ghosts wore khaki uniform, they had the King’s shilling in their mouth to cross the Channel instead of the Styx. Mother’s grave was a door and the war marched back through it.”

“As it will, every time.” He lit us each another cigarette. The flare from the lighter scratched shadows into his stubble. “So, who was your mother? Did you find out?”

I could feel his breath, the smoke he exhaled over my body.

“I’ve only just returned from my year in death, Bertie. Ask me in a few months’ time. Right now, I’m here for life.”

French chatter in the streets, the fickle air now damp, now crisp, diesel and cat piss and fried garlic and wine and the occasional waft of a Parisienne’s perfume. Is freedom not in leaving your home, but in choosing it? When you can’t choose, either to leave or to stay, you aren’t truly free—but when you can choose, then the city is yours, it opens up like a new lover, completely and with abandon—is that it? Because that’s how I felt when I stepped out at Gare du Nord, crumpled and fuzzy-tongued after a breakfast of champagne and cigarettes. That’s how I felt as I waved away taxis and buses and started my walk through the boulevards and alleys toward Montparnasse.

It wasn’t a short walk to my apartment, nor a comfortable one in heels with a suitcase. But every step rejoiced, every click of my heels said I was free, I was here, I was home. Cafés were scented with strong black coffee and stronger cigarettes. Corner boulangeries gave the hungering smell of fresh bread. Flower sellers wove between the pedestrians, professional sellers offering hothouse irises, beggars crooning over their wilting wild-bloom posies. Fashionable women, with hats down to their eyebrows, walked their dogs on short leashes. Shopkeepers in pinstripes and waiters in aprons darted back and forth to the footpath to meet, greet, cajole, and farewell. Across the Seine, men leaving the factories for lunch pulled on their flatcaps as they looked me up and down. Butchers whistled while shouldering carcasses. Soon the artists and assorted bohemians began to show up amongst the laundresses and off-duty cab drivers, the women hatless in impractical shoes, men in golden satin and burgundy velvet, all distracted by the cloud they found themselves living on. I moved onto Boulevard Montparnasse to see my favourite cafés, Café de la Rotonde and Café du Dȏme, my street just a few more steps away.

The key was warm where it hung on a ribbon against my skin. My heart was beating so fast as I walked into rue Delambre that I had to stop to let it settle. The sky was pearly, the sun flirting with the footpath through the curtains of clouds. Wrought-iron balconies punctuated endless pale stone, shops displayed their salami and cheese, their corsets and stockings, their books and books and books, in windows that shone with golden script and scrubbing. People called in English to friends in the upper window of the Hȏtel des Ecoles, people passed by speaking French and Spanish, in the café to my left I heard people arguing in fierce Eastern languages I didn’t recognize. Was this really my home? This place with its aperitifs on check tablecloths set on the street, this place where a woman could wear trousers and revolutionaries fall in love and no one would raise an eyebrow? I bought a packet of Gitanes and a newspaper from the kiosk on the corner and walked to number 21 so fast I was almost running. I took the stairs in a little jig of impatience, my suitcase banging against my legs, the smells of soap and whitewash and poor drains that always lingered, to the roof with my little studio apartment—someone had oiled the lock recently, kept the floor clean, the air sweet, and the water fresh, as if I had only just left, as if the apartment itself had been waiting for me. I flopped on the bed and the sheets smelt of rosemary. I splashed my face and gulped crisp water from the jug. I ran my hands over my rack of dresses, so neatly hung, I kicked off my hat and coat and shoes and opened the window even wider. The geraniums were wildly blooming and the eave sparrows greeted me as the life of the party. I hung my legs over the window sill and lit up. Now I was properly home: here, this view over the four corners, over the streets and the gardens, all the way to the Eiffel Tower, here it was and so was I. The sky slid up its skirt to reveal hot blues and pinks but I was already seduced, I had been in love for years.

Rue de l’Odeon was peppered with people, speaking English with French inflections and French in all sorts of American accents, as they gathered outside Shakespeare and Company and Adrienne Monnier’s bookshop opposite. The creamy façade of Sylvia’s shop invited me on and the yellow light invited me in. Sylvia looked up when I opened the door.

“Kiki! When did you get home?” Sylvia’s smile extended across the counter, as warm as an embrace. Home: the word made me smile in return.

“Only a few days ago! Hello,” I held out my hand to the woman seated next to Sylvia, “I’m Kiki Button.”

“Nancy—Cunard.” Her vowels were as round as a sea-tumbled stone. “I’ve come for another copy.” She indicated the blue brick of Ulysses that sat heavily in her lap.

“Nancy’s a poet,” said Sylvia, “and runs with ‘the Crowd.’”

“Do I?” Nancy looked amused.

“Of course you do. Bob, Djuna, Mina, Bryher, Ken Sato . . .”

“Oh, them! Yes. Better add Michael to that motley crew, he’s coming over soon. And Tristan, as he’s fallen out with Breton again . . .”

“I heard.”

“They’ll make it up, they always do. They have to, no one else understands these Dadaists.” Nancy turned her enormous blue eyes to me. “Are you an artist?”

“A gossip columnist.”

“Oh, handmaiden to the devil!”

“Kiki’s a reader.” Sylvia smiled. “Have you come for a read or a chat, dear Miss Button?”

“You come for one and stay for the other, isn’t that how it works, Kiki?” Nancy’s voice was fluting. She was slender, dressed in black chiffon, and bangles jangled on her wrists. Physically, she seemed like some kind of nymph or fairy, powerfully magical, but there was nothing ethereal about her direct gaze or her sharp words. I’d been fluttering about in my own head, dreaming of poets and princes, and Nancy yanked me into the present.

The walls held shelves to just above head height, after which they were covered with portraits of writers, many of whom had handed Sylvia their photo once she’d put their books in her window. Sylvia stocked so much poetry, both new and in the library; none of the dross that I was forced to read at school, but Romantics, radical Victorians, Modernists. I had borrowed T. S. Eliot last year and found Gerard Manly Hopkins here too. I listened to them gossiping about poets as I scanned the shelves for Shelley; “How is dear Tom? When is The Criterion out? I’ve heard such amazing things about his new poem from Ezra.” Sylvia must be talking about T. S. Eliot and . . . Ezra Pound? “I’ve seen some of the draft—it’s called ‘The Waste Land.’ You will be astounded. But, then, Vivienne’s worse than before.” Was Nancy talking about Mrs. Eliot? I was out of my depth.

“How is Michael doing, Nancy?”

“Oh, you know, his work is successful and titillating and boring.” She waved her hand in a gesture that signalled “and all the rest.” “He’s still a lion in the sack, though, and after holding my hand all through my recovery, I’m not complaining.”

“Is Ulysses for him?”

“Good God, no. It’s for George. Or perhaps one of the men George is trying to impress. He asked me to get him a copy.”

“You won’t be able to smuggle that in your trousers, like Hemingway’s friend did.”

“Ha! No. My hat box has a false bottom. I may as well take advantage of my womanly wiles while I can. Wouldn’t you say so, Kiki?” She had a wicked smile. “Come over, don’t pretend you’re not listening.”

After a year away from Paris, Kiki Button is delighted to be back in City of Lights. But danger threatens her return as she is pulled into another spy mission—one that brings her ever closer to the rising fascist threat in Europe.

October 1922. Kiki Button has had a rough year at home in Australia after her mother’s sudden death. As the leaves turn gold on the Parisian boulevards, Kiki returns to Europe, more desperately in need of Paris and all its liveliness than ever. As soon as she arrives back in Montparnasse, Kiki takes up her life again, drinking with artists at the Café Rotonde, gossiping with her friends, and finding lovers among the enormous expatriate community. Even her summertime lover from the year before, handsome Russian exile Prince Theo Romanov, is waiting for her.

But it’s not all champagne and moonlit trysts. Theo is worried that his brother-in-law is being led astray by political fanatics. Kiki’s boy from home, Tom, is still hiding under a false name. Her friends are in trouble—Maisie has been blackmailed and looks for revenge, Bertie is still lovesick and lonely, and Harry has important information about her mother. And to top it off, she is found by Dr. Fox, her former spymaster, who insists that she work for him once more.

Amidst the gaiety of 1920s Paris, Kiki stalks the haunted, the hunted, and people still heartsore from the war. She parties with princes and Communist comrades, she wears ballgowns with Chanel and the Marchesa Casati, she talks politics with Hemingway and poetry with Sylvia Beach, and sips tea with Gertrude Stein. She confronts the men who would bring Europe into another war. And as she uses her gossip columnist connections for her mission, she also meets people who knew her mother, and can help to answer her burning question: why did her mother leave England all those years ago?

You can purchase Autumn Leaves, 1922  at the following Retailers:

And now, The Giveaways.
Thank you TESSA LUNNEY for making this giveaway possible.
3 Winners will receive a Copy of Autumn Leaves, 1922 by Tessa Lunney.


  1. "What’s the longest you’ve gone without taking a bath?" I don't believe in going without.

  2. I'm not sure, maybe a week or so when I was camping, but I probably went swimming so I wasn't a total mess.

  3. A couple of days when without power.