In The Chanel Sisters we get an inside look at the life of Chanel and her sisters told by Antoinette or ‘Ninette’ as Chanel called her. Throughout her life, Chanel attempted to keep so much of the truth about her upbringing from the public, so I enjoyed the opportunity to get an inside look at her life from her sisters point of view.
In this interview author Judithe Little shares what it’s like to go between practicing law and writing novels, when her interest in Gabrielle Chanel first began, why she chose to tell the story from Antoinette’s POV and a sneak peek at what she’s working on next.
You have a BA in Foreign Affairs, studied at the Institute of European Studies and the Institut Catholique in Paris, France and earned a law degree from the University of Virginia School of Law. What is it like going between practicing law and writing novels?
There a synergy between the two, which is why I think you find so many authors who are also lawyers. Practicing law involves a lot of writing and a lot of research and even telling a “story” so to speak about a case or a company. Writing novels uses these same skills, but thankfully in a much more creative way.
When did you first come up with the storyline for your latest novel, The Chanel Sisters?
A few years ago, I’d picked up a biography of Coco Chanel to read just for fun. That was how I learned she had a sister, Antoinette. I was instantly intrigued by the idea of what it would have been like to be Coco’s sister.
When did your interest in Chanel first begin?
Like most people, all I knew of her was the glamorous side. I’d heard somewhere that she was an orphan, which was surprising, and I was curious to know if that was true. That was when I picked up the biography.
What did you enjoy most about researching Gabrielle Chanel and her sisters prior to writing the novel?
I enjoyed looking through the old French census records. They’re like a window into the past. And they’re written in the most beautiful, old-fashioned handwriting—a lost art!
The story is told from the point of view of Chanel’s sister Antoinette or ‘Ninette’ as Chanel called her. What led to your decision to tell the story of The Chanel Sisters from this particular POV?
There are a lot of books about Coco, but none that are written from Antoinette’s point of view. Coco never told the truth about her past and refused to admit that her father abandoned her and she was raised in a convent orphanage. Antoinette is a more authentic narrator able to reveal an intimate, honest side to Coco she herself kept hidden. Also, as I learned that Antoinette played an important role in the founding of the Chanel empire, I wanted her to finally have a voice to tell her story as well as Coco’s.
I loved reading the descriptions of the places the characters visited in the book. Have you visited many of the locations throughout Paris that Chanel frequented both before and after she founded her namesake brand?
I’ve visited many of them. I would really like to go to Aubazine where the convent orphanage she grew up in is located, but it’s very much off the beaten path. Someday, hopefully.
Who among the men in Chanel’s life do you believe she was truly in love with?
Without a doubt, Boy Capel was the one true love of her life.
The novel features both real-life characters like Antoinette, Chanel, Adrienne and Boy Capel but also entirely fictional characters like Arturo and Lucho. Among the fictional characters whose storyline did you enjoy writing the most?
I really enjoyed writing about Arturo. He’s fictional but based on an actual unknown person who did carry a portable gramophone with him and loved to dance. He’s one of those characters who basically wrote his own scenes. I’d like to have a friend like Arturo.
If you could have met one of the Chanel sisters in real life, which one would it be and what would you have asked her?
I would have loved to meet Antoinette, and I would have asked her to give me all the details about everything.
At the end of the novel you have a list of questions and one of them is which of the Chanel sisters is our personal favorite. After reading the novel I would have to say it was Antionette. Which of the sisters is your personal favorite?
I think Antoinette too. It’s probably her sincerity that makes her more appealing. With Coco, you never know if you’re getting the whole story.
You are currently working on your third novel, can we get a sneak peek?
The novel I’m working on now takes place in Paris in the 1920s and 1930s and is told from the point of view of Coco Chanel’s best friend for over 30 years, a fascinating woman who was actually more famous in Paris at the time than Coco.