In 2002, I learned that a one-carat diamond would be auctioned at Christie’s in Beverly Hills—minimum price one million dollars. I, of course, had to see this diamond. So on a summer evening when champagne and hord’oeuvres were being served at Christie’s, I stood in front of a glass box in which a tiny red diamond sparkled violently demanding attention. It certainly captured mine. I later learned that it was sold for an undisclosed sum that was higher than one million. Fascinated, I began research. I had to learn what about this tiny stone justified, for some at least, such an exorbitant price?
The seed of a story planted itself in my mind. But where and when will the story take place?
I researched the mysterious world of blood diamonds and found out about the ruthless atrocities that take place around the world in their name. To my surprise, I learned, among many other captivating details, that red diamonds are a mistake of nature and that a rare abnormality, a deviation in their chemical structure, changes the way they absorb and react to light, thereby giving the impression of that intense and rare color that makes them so valuable.
Not long after, I received a postcard in the mail. It was from UC Berkley. An invitation to Travel with Scholars—a six week course in the Belle Époque in France—one of the most decadent eras of our time.
France! The Belle Époque! This was the time and place I wanted to write about.
I signed up for the course and in July of 2003 found myself in a hotel in Paris with a wonderful group of students and an exceptional teacher who, by the end of the course, managed to map in my head the complete ambience of that era in France.
The only drawback was the food in the hotel. Bad food in France? Hard to believe, but the hotel meals were truly terrible. One night, myself and three other students, decided to take off and treat ourselves to a decent dinner.
As is the custom in France, we decided to walk to our destination, as is the custom with tourists, we got lost. Before long, we found ourselves in an area we soon realized was not so respectable. For me, of course, who was in the process of devouring the wealth of information presented to me, this was a fortunate turn of events.
And then, under an archway, I was attracted by the vision of a prostitute who wore a brimless hat pulled down to cover her eyebrows. Her face, half hidden in shadows was no longer that of a young woman but carried a certain elegant defiance.
Maybe because I was staring shamelessly, she suddenly raised her hand and flipped her hat off. A shock of blue curls sprang out in all directions.
And Mme Gabrielle d’Honoré, my first character, was born.
I began to study the life of courtesans, specifically a small group who had carved an extraordinary place for themselves in history. At a time when women were denied any voice, they became the voice of freedom and self expression. Rising from the petit bourgeoisie, or lower classes, they created an aristocratic life for themselves in their own closed universe—the demimonde, or ‘Half World’ where their excessive life-style exuded a dangerous universal appeal. They were courted by some of the most influential men in Europe. They were mistresses of kings who cherished their conversational skills, literacy, and political insight. Counts and Princes proudly displayed them in public. Women envied their independence and accomplishments, but kept silent about them, while emulating their fashion, coiffure, and makeup. And I learned that the most significant difference between a prostitute and the rare courtesan, who managed to succeed in her trade, was that while both were outside the family system and approachable for sex, only the successful courtesan had the financial freedom to say no. A powerful tool that shaped her life in unexpected ways.
After six weeks and the end of the course, I left Paris and came back home to LA. I had begun my research on diamonds. I had my first character. I was familiar with the Belle Époque and the adventures of its Courtesans. But what about Persia of a hundred some years ago? At this time in my career, I was not yet ready to let go of a country I was raised in.
So I Googled 1900, Paris, Persia, etc. And lo and behold, I discovered that Mozzafar El Din Shah had visited the Paris Exposition at the time and that there had been a foiled assassination attempt on his life by an anarchist. The Shah, I decided, would facilitate the seamless transition back and forth from Paris to Persia.
Once again, as was the case with my first novel, Harem, I plunged into the Persian culture with its wealth of legends, mythology, folklore, and superstition. Once again, I was drawn into the dangerous intrigue of the Persian court where everyone schemes day and night to rise up a notch on the ladder of power—a world dominated, not unlike today, by religious fanaticism, violence, and oppression.
And this is how my second novel, Courtesan, was born.