A Conversation with Ellis Avery

I first met Ellis Avery following the paperback publication of her award-winning novel, The Teahouse Fire (Riverhead Books, 2006). Her new novel, The Last Nude, had been recommended to me by Avery’s brilliant editor at Riverhead, Megan Lynch, a friend and former colleague of mine at Penguin Books. Avery’s erudite and warm personality, as well as her eloquently queer voice inspired me to ask her to sit for a brief interview. I asked Avery a bit about her writing process, and then she followed by interviewing me.

Can you discuss your work process? How do you go about building a history for your characters?

In her Notes on Writing a Novel, Elizabeth Bowen claims that once-seen settings can often be more useful to us novelists than settings we’ve seen countless times. My novel, The Last Nude, takes as its point-of-view character Rafaela, the beautiful young woman who modeled for the Art Deco painter Tamara de Lempicka in 1920s Paris. No one knows where the real Rafaela came from, but when I chose to have my Rafaela grow up on Baxter Street in the Lower East Side of New York City, I based my Baxter Street on walks I used to take to my favorite tea shop in Chinatown in 1999, not on more recent memory.

I have what’s called Reactive Arthritis, which went undiagnosed and untreated for nine years, the last four of which spanned the first few drafts of The Last Nude. When the arthritis was at its worst, I had spontaneous stress fractures in the bones of both feet that simply would not heal. Perhaps I was writing about a hot affair between two beautiful and healthy young women because those were four years, ages 33-37, when I could not so much as take a walk for pleasure.

Because I was housebound and depressed, even though I lived in New York City, I never made a research trip to Baxter Street for Rafaela. I discovered the church Rafaela attended as a little girl online, from looking at newspapers from the nineteen-teens, not from walking downtown: if I thought about it at all, I assumed Most Precious Blood had gone the way of old New York.

I’m on some great medication now, and I can walk anywhere. To celebrate the publication of The Last Nude this week, my partner and I took a walk to Baxter Street, to pay our respects to Rafaela’s origins and see if we could pick out the tenement where she might have lived a child.  Imagine my surprise when we reached113 Baxter Street and discovered Most Precious Blood!  The church, built to honor San Genarro, the patron saint of Little Italy, is in excellent repair, open on a Saturday afternoon, and filled with the kind of trippy Italian-American devotional statuary my mother grew up seeing every Sunday. I went inside, lit a candle, and admired the stained glass over the organ loft, wishing I had seen it when I was writing my novel: it made me remember “the gloomy skylit domes” of Rafaela’s neighborhood church inParis, “the milky-glass windows bordered in blue, forlorn above the baroque bric-a-brac.”

But maybe Elizabeth Bowen was right. One person who read The Last Nude told me she didn’t know Tamara de Lempicka was a real painter until after she read my book, and she enjoyed the paintings so much the more for having imagined the painter first. Perhaps I needed to imagine Most Precious Blood into being so that I could savor it when I finally could walk there.

Rafaela’s actually my favorite character in The Last Nude. She’s both young and streetwise; I admire her tremendous resourcefulness immensely. And she reminds me, deliciously, what it was like to fall in love with a woman for the very first time—both the foreignness in the new experience of it, and the exhilarating thrill.

Who is your favorite secondary character?

Kizette, Tamara’s young daughter. In the first half of the novel we see her exclusively through Rafaela’s eyes. Kizette quietly betrays a true tenderness in the often ruthless Tamara.

Do you have a favorite scene or moment?

It’s the book’s opening scene, where Tamara and Rafaela first meet, in Paris’ Bois de Boulogne, and it’s such a gift. You render it intensely elegantly, Nabokovian even, with those bright, glistening greens and scents of resinous pine. It’s mouthwatering and jeweled, and all of the sensuous detail immediately puts me right there.

Too, we get that first hit of white-hot heat between Tamara and Rafaela in the Bois.

Do you have a favorite sentence?

Yes. Yes. Yes. “I would trade anything to spend one day in Paris, looking at women in Chanel dresses.” I’ve underlined it three times in the book. It belongs to Rafaela, and speaks to me directly of desire and of a lesbian gaze.

What have you found yourself thinking about after reading The Last Nude?

In her recent essay, “On Beauty,” writer Marilynne Robinson mourns the loss of plain language, of an aesthetic of simplicity in literature. For me, much of the beauty of The Last Nude lies precisely in this sort of ordinary language: “The sunlight broke the lake into a thousand hard-edged mirrors, but the pines were cool overhead, their needles fragrant on the ground.” This simple lyricism moves me ineffably.

Finally, in that same essay, Robinson writes that “the essence of our art lies in creating a lingering dream, good or bad, that other souls can enter.” And I’ve been thinking a lot about how many places a reader can enter your art, your novel.

You strike this genius balance between the human interest and the literary in The Last Nude. It’s the story of a treacherously passionate love affair, which happens to be between two women, and it also references a whole Who’s Who of Twenties Paris—everyone from Ernest Hemingway to Sylvia Beach. You make it easy to be breathlessly swept up by either or both simultaneously.