Terrasse de Cafe, 1925, Maurice-Louis Branger/Roger Viollet: the photo that inspired Kiki Button.
I adore this photo. Is it the seeming unconcern of the two women as they casually pose for the camera? Is it the way that it seems to encapsulate Paris life, with its coffee on the terrace tables? Is it the way it captures the spirit of the 1920s, with modern women solo, stylish and free? I have always wanted to be one of these women, drinking, writing, chatting, travelling – a street-side life, a bohemian life – I have tried my hardest, but it was never close enough. I had to live through my heroine, Kiki Button.
Kiki Button has been described by my Australian publisher, Catherine Milne at Harper Collins, as
“entirely original… her fabulous clothes, her gaiety, her secret sadness, her appetite for life, her many and complicated loves… She’s the kind of character where you know underneath that fabulous, slightly unwashed dress she’s wearing, her stockings might be torn and her knees might be bruised, but she’ll always be laughing, tossing her hair back and cadging a cigarette off someone. She’s an original, the real deal. I adore her.” (full post here)
Kiki is the woman I would like to be if I lived in 1920s Paris. She is the daughter of a wealthy wool baron from outback New South Wales, Australia, and his posh English wife. While on holiday with relatives in London in 1914, she ran away from the parties to the war. She enlisted a a nurse, a Voluntary Aid Detachment, and saw more terror and joy that she could have imagined. her experience changed her and she cannot sit around waiting for a husband who might never arrive. She needs action! And the best action in 1921 is in Paris – home of the bohemian and brilliant, the wild and wilful, home to all the refuse from the war. She loved when on leave from her nursing duties, but now that she’s back without a uniform or a shred of responsibility, it is home.
Kiki and her adventure combines all my obsessions: war fiction and war’s long aftermath – interwar European politics – bohemian life – the 1920s and 1930s – modernism – jazz – vintage clothes and dancing – mystery stories – how to be an artist – how to be a modern woman – how to be free.
On this page, you’ll find a few books and images that helped me to write April in Paris, 1921. On the home page of this site you’ll find more – just search for the tag Kiki Button. On the Instagram account Miss Kiki Button you’ll find even more. Explore, enjoy, and let me know what you find.
The book that started it all
Among the Bohemians: Experiments in Living 1900 – 1939 by Virginia Nicholson was my book research foray into the world of 20th century artistic life. I found her book when I was looking for a guide, a template, for reassurance on how to live a writing life. She is Virginia Woolf’s grandniece, Vanessa Bell’s granddaughter, and Quentin Bell’s daughter – her anecdotes of British bohemia were witty, tender, and lyrical. This book changed by life. I’ve read it more than a dozen times and own two copies – one on permanent loan to someone (the ‘library’ copy) and one just for me (the ‘Bible’ copy). Her extensive reading list, as well as her perfectly placed extracts, started an imaginative journey to last a lifetime.
Another book of Nicholson’s that has helped with this work is Singled Out: How Two Million Women Survived Without Men after the First World War. Heartbreaking and inspiring, the work details how many British women, brought up to think of their destiny as only wives and mothers, had to battle poor pay and bad working conditions, loneliness and grief, to create lives that held joy, wonder, adventure and good work – with other women, of course.
Paris books – non-fiction:
These works are all about the Annees folles, the crazy years, of Paris in the 1920s and 1930s. But more than that, they each give a sense of how exciting Paris was then, how much of modern life was shaped in this time – and how the historical fact is often richer and more complex than the myth. Most of them have an anecdotal, story-telling style that makes them as easy to read as a novel.
Paris was a woman: Portraits from the Left Bank by Andrea Weiss
Expatriate Paris:A Cultural and Literary Guide to Paris of the 1920s by Arlen J. Hansen
Paris books – Fiction:
I can hardly resist fiction set in 1920s Paris. Now that it’s research, I don’t need to! Below are some of the key texts I used to get into a 1920s, bohemian, Parisian, mood. They’re wildly different – 1920s classics, detective fiction, British, American and Australian. There will be more recommendations on the front page of this site.
A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway
Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
The Paris Wife by Paul McLain
the Phryne Fisher series by Kerry Greenwood
the Rowland Sinclair series by Sulari Gentill
the Maisie Dobbs series by Jacqueline Winspear
A Picture Tells a Thousand Words
I don’t think it does, actually, but it can certainly inspire a thousand words. Some of the photographers who documented that time, or were themselves documented, give a wonderful insight into the daily life of Parisians in the 1920s. I’ve included a brief selection here, and I urge you to explore their entire body of work.
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