(03) 5224 1438 info@thebookbird.com.au

Interview with Belinda Lyons-Lee

Big news! Ex-Book Bird Belinda is set to release her debut novel, Tussaud, into the world on 1 April. Tussaud is a rich and twisting tale of Marie Tussaud, reimagining the famous wax sculptor. Tussaud will be launched locally in Geelong on Saturday 27 March, 5pm, at Black Sheep (downstairs at the National Wool Museum). To register your attendance, RSVP to Belinda at lyonsleeb@yahoo.com. Read on for an insight into the book, and pre-order your copy here.

Most will recognise the name ‘Tussaud’ from the famous wax museum in London, named after its founder Marie Tussaud. Your novel, Tussaud, imagines her life and work as a sculptor. What drew you to her? What is it about Marie that captured your imagination? 

I had an idea for a middle grade fiction story about a young boy in 19th century London who was the apprentice to a wax sculptor, but before I explored that any further I needed to know when wax sculptures first started being made. I began researching online and up came Madame Tussaud’s wax museum. Once I started reading about Marie Tussaud, her early figures and her life, I was utterly transfixed. I read about her sentence of execution as she was accused of being a royalist in the French Revolution because she had wax figures of royalty in her windows and then how she had her own head shaved in readiness to meet the guillotine. Fortunately, she was given a reprieve at the last moment on the condition that she make wax death masks of notable people executed but I wondered, what would it do to a woman, to her insides, to her psyche, to survive that kind of trauma? How would she make sense of the complete fracturing of reality I imagined must have happened, where her hands were holding the severed heads of people on a daily basis that she herself had seen executed? Where she was forced to take the heads home with her, into her house, and stare at them for days on end? The smell… can you imagine? I suspect that this sort of experience would be so visceral, impacting all of the senses in all kinds of horrible ways but yet somehow Marie Tussaud not only survived this, but used these experiences to build a thriving business in a world where men very firmly dominated every level of society.

As you’ve mentioned, the novel begins with the French Revolution and details how Marie was enlisted in making death-masks of some of the Revolution’s most famous victims. Can you talk a little bit about the historical setting of the novel? 

I watched The Scarlet Pimpernel with Anthony Andrews and Jane Seymour on repeat as a young girl. I loved the dashing adventure of the story with the elusive Pimpernel and of course Jane Seymour’s dresses! I guess I absorbed something about the French Revolution then but while the Revolution and the context of the time obviously irrevocably shapes Marie, and it is right that the novel starts at that point in history and that point in her life, the Revolution itself is not the focus-the personal impact it has on Marie is. After the Prologue, which shows Marie watching the executions, the novel quickly moves on to 1810 in London. ‘Tussaud’ is actually my 7th manuscript, so yes, there are six others I’ve written prior to this that are all sitting in the proverbial drawer! They’re all set in the 19th century-  the Industrial Revolution, the fascination with spiritualism, magic, death, the after-life, the challenging of previously held society conventions related to women’s roles, the idea of ‘madness’ as well as the artists of the period, the architecture, the theatres, the music- I just find it all so terribly interesting and Marie’s story is right in the thick of it all.

A theme throughout the book is creativity and healing, making and mending: Marie’s art is vitally important to her sanity and sense of self. As a writer, do you feel a similar connection between art and mental health?

I do feel a strong connection between art and mental health. In fact, in my own life I would say that art and creativity, either in the form of making clay heads as I did as a high school student, drawing or writing has been a ‘way through’ for me. I read obsessively from a young age and dithered about with writing poetry and stories of my own but perhaps one of my strongest memories of the connection between art and mental health that actually links to ‘Tussaud’ was when I was in high school. School wasn’t always a great place for me, and I remember the absolute sense of peace, of fulfillment, of safety and security when I was in the Art room. So I asked my Art teacher one day if I could stay in the Art room, by myself, during lunchtime. Nowadays it probably wouldn’t be allowed (!) but she let me. And my anxiety, my fear, my tension would ease as I put the CD on with Pachelbel’s Canon and pick up my tools to start working on the clay heads I was making as part of my folio. I pulled  deeply on this experience and the sensations when writing the scenes with Marie making her wax heads. Creativity and art in any form – I don’t think it’s a ‘cure’ in and of itself but for me, and for Marie in the novel, it’s a way through.

You’re a self-described lover of all-things nineteenth century. What fascinates you about this period?

I just don’t know. The allure of it is just so strong! I remember as a young girl I took great pride in dressing up my room in 19th century style, a lace coverlet over my doona, arranging my bed alongside the window so I could pull out my lace curtains and arrange them over the bed like a canopy, framed miniatures on the wall, beautiful biscuit tins with the Pears paintings of old fashioned girls and puppies on them, arranging china ornaments and home-made potpourri that I used with ribbons to decorate small cane baskets. I collected imitation 19th century picture books with sliding cardboard pictures that with a tab moved and changed. The 19th century was a time of such tremendous change in every single sphere of society and that still excites me.

What was the research process like? Living in Australia and writing about France and England, was it difficult to source some of the historic material, or did you find most of what you needed was accessible online? 

I’ve visited England a number of times, France as well, so I used some of my own experiences, especially those in London. But I feel like I’ve been living in this time and place for a very long time! I have an extensive library of 19th century material of my own, including a number of rare theatre programs, newspapers and diaries as well as actual objects I have collected through family ancestors, antique shops etc. When I write, I like to have something with me from that time period, something that relates to the setting, the plot or the characters. With ‘Tussaud’ I stumbled across an old hardcover book at an outdoor market I was at in Melbourne. I was thrilled to open it and see a portrait of Marie Tussaud, a map of her time in England and some photos of the guillotine from France that she bought, as well as her original sculptures of Antoinette and Robespierre. I had seen all these online but to have them before me in real life, and to find this book in such an unexpected manner was just brilliant. I’ve heard it said before that research should be like the wallpaper of your novel. Of course now I suddenly think of the wallpaper used in the 19th century which contained arsenic to make it that beautiful bright green but which ended up making people desperately ill and in some cases caused death….slight side-track but it’s true!