One of the great things about going to readings is seeing readers connect with writers. When Penelope Rowlands came to the American Library, her fans were there to greet her – and what a treat to see them ask questions and hear what they enjoyed most about her anthology Paris Was Ours!
What brought you to Paris?
I first moved there after college with my boyfriend, who was then working in film in New York City. We’d gone to Bard College in New York State together and there fell in love with the movies of the French Nouvelle Vague. I think we truly expected to fall in with directors we idolized, such as Truffaut, Godard, Eustache, and Chabrol. We were also just after adventure. Like all of our college friends, we headed into Manhattan to work after graduation. Detouring to Paris promised something more exotic.
What keeps you coming back?
It’s paradoxical. Even after all these years, I’m still attracted to the otherness of life in Paris; being there is constantly stimulating. Yet I also return to it as if I’m coming home. It’s the city I’m most familiar with after New York and I’ve known some of my Paris friends for decades. The city feels like the other half of my life. It’s home, and yet not, and I find that deeply inspiring.
How did you decide to put an anthology about Paris together?
A couple of years ago I began to wonder why Paris had marked me so much. I’ve lived all over the place, including England and California, and yet I feel more Parisian than anything else. I wondered how many contemporary writers from around the world felt the same way. I wanted to look at the transformative effect of living in the City of Light.
What were some of the challenges?
I put the book together quickly and on a tiny budget. I was touched by how many well-known writers (Joe Queenan, Judith Thurman, and Stacy Schiff, among them) agreed to contribute in spite of the … um …modest paycheck involved. I also wanted to include a wide range of people, with different nationalities and levels of fame. So, it wasn’t evident, as the French say. I still lie awake wondering about texts I couldn’t find or writers I neglected to approach.
What have been some of the rewards?
Paris Was Ours is a book that makes people happy, somehow, and that’s so gratifying. I think that, because it contains such a wide variety of experiences and voices, many people can identify with it, at least in part. Also, asking writers to weigh in about Paris turned out to be an up. They were universally enthusiastic about doing so.
Did you have a favorite essay?
“Deal with It,” Patric Kuh’s essay on learning to cook in a Parisian restaurant, really moved me — perhaps because, like him, I’d grown up with two passports and parents of different nationalities. (I never knew, as a child, whether I belonged in my mother’s America or my father’s England.) The city Patric describes is the Paris I first knew, that is, very foreign seeming and tough. I admire his piece for the way it pulls you so deeply into another world. And I see more in it with every reading.
What advice would you give to writers interested in setting their work in Paris?
To really spend time in the city and to try to see it without prejudice. One of my goals with Paris Was Ours was to show Parisian life as it really is, good and bad, rather than as people wish it to be. The challenge in writing about Paris is to avoid the clichés. Drown out that accordion music! Forget Piaf!
What is the best advice you have received?
About writing? I guess to keep at it. There have been quite a few times when I was on the verge of giving it up altogether because it’s such a tough way to make a living. But I’m glad I never did. It’s not a reasonable life, of course, but it’s still wonderful. You get to reinvent yourself each day while doing work that you love. So, I’ll take it….
What books are on your nightstand?
I’ve just started David McCullough’s The Greater Journey, and I’m excited about it already, and I’m deeply savoring James Wolcott’s electrifying memoir, Lucking Out: My Life getting Down and Semi-Dirty in 1970s New York. There’s also a Harvard Classics edition of writing by early Quakers – they were amazing – that I dip into from time to time, as well as a memoir by Maisie Houghton called Pitch Uncertain, that I just finished and found truly charming…
I’ve developed a passion for early American history. Who knew? I sure didn’t expect it. But I grew up in an old New York family with a grandmother who regaled us with stories about our ancestors and their friends in the city. I’m now working on a proposal for a book about a little-known episode in the life of one of the Founding Fathers. I’m so hoping it will fly…. Wish me luck!