In her latest novel “The Last Nude," creative writing professor Ellis Avery envisions the alleged affair between an Art Deco artist and the subject of her painting, a reclining female nude. Published on Jan. 5, the novel is set in 1920s Paris and is inspired by Tamara de Lempicka’s famous 1927 portrait “La Belle Rafaela."
“I was flabbergasted by its beauty,” Avery said recently about her first impression of the painting at London’s Royal Academy of Arts in 2004. “It’s gorgeous. It’s arresting and beautiful. It’s as radiantly sexual as you can get without making pornography.”
The painting’s caption in the museum indicated that de Lempicka and her model for “La Belle Rafaela” had met in Paris’ Bois de Boulogne, which Avery said spurred her interest in the work. For Avery, the painting was a “present” waiting to be unwrapped, and from there she began to create an entire backstory.
At the time, the author had been in the process of writing her first novel, “The Teahouse Fire," but she said de Lempicka’s painting temporarily distracted her.
“I spent a day lost in my mind in 1920s Paris,” Avery said.
Told primarily from the point of view of the model, “The Last Nude” traces the complicated relationship between de Lempicka and her muse. As Avery imagines conflicts of class, desire, and betrayal, the writing shifts to Lempicka’s point of view by the end of the novel.
“I think historical fiction is literature as much as everything else,” Avery said. “Literature is grounded in history.”
As a writer, Avery said that she always pays close attention to historical documents. While writing “The Last Nude,” she read a biography of de Lempicka and researched Parisian history to “create [the novel’s] world.”
From there, Avery filled in the gaps. As the original model in “La Belle Rafaela” is unknown, Avery decided to call her Rafaela and to make the character an anglophone. Another character, Anson Hall, is based on Ernest Hemingway.
Named one of the 25 Top Fiction Titles from January Through April 2012 by Library Journal, “The Last Nude” has also received critical acclaim from O: The Oprah Magazine, More Magazine, and Booklist. Avery is on leave from Columbia this semester to promote “The Last Nude” on a book tour across the U.S.
Avery’s first novel, “The Teahouse Fire,” has won three awards, including the American Library Association’s Stonewall Award. It is set in the Tokugawa period of 19th-century Japan.
Both “The Last Nude” and “The Teahouse Fire” explore an “interest in art and questions in what beauty and justice have to say about each other,” said Avery.
Stylistically similar, all of Avery’s books are “attentive to beauty in all of its sensual forms,” she said.