I’m excited to interview Sara Tucker, a writer that I met in Fontainebleau at the annual Christmas fair, which features my favorite bookshop Reelbooks. Sara is the author of the memoirs Our House in Arusha and An Irruption of Owls, and the editor of Blue Fountain, a collection of prize-winning stories by the Crossroads Writers Group. As the founder of Korongo Books, she helps writers, both novice and professional, independently publish their own work. She divides her time between Fontainebleau, France, and her native Vermont. Today, Sara and I talk about writing, books, and her time in the Serengeti and Vietnam.
What brought you to France?
My husband proposed a winter in France over breakfast one morning. We were living in a drafty six-bedroom Victorian-era wooden house in northern New England; it cost a fortune to heat. His family had a fully furnished flat in Fontainebleau that nobody was using. The apartment was a ten-minute walk from the chateau and a three-minute walk from the forest. It was a pretty easy choice to make.
What keeps you here?
Family ties, affordable health care, and inertia. When my mother-in-law died, the flat became ours. I am now the proud owner of a 1960s-era mink coat, a feather boa, and a black lace shawl from Le Printemps that dates to the nineteenth century. There’s a library full of rare books, a 100-year-old stamp collection, and a gigantic wooden trunk that I’m afraid to open. It’s easier to stay here, surrounded by plaster Cupids and silk-flower arrangements, than to figure out who else might want a houseful of family relics.
Your memoir Our House in Arusha starts with you leaving a comfortable life in New York, including a job in publishing and a man that you loved, to live in the Serengeti. Can you talk about sitting down to write the book?
I was a journalist; I had never written anything longer than 4,000 words. I had never heard the term “narrative arc” before. The story I wanted to tell was a memoir, and real life doesn’t come with narratives arcs or any other type of literary structure; you have to invent it. To complicate things, I didn’t start off writing a memoir. The book began when a French safari guide told me a bizarre story about escaping from a Zambian jail. I began asking him questions and taking notes, and pretty soon I was writing a book. But that book never came together, in part because the narrator’s voice was inauthentic—it was the French safari guide’s story, told in his voice but ghost-written by me, and the story had a kind of hollow feeling. So after a long struggle, I put the manuscript aside. Meanwhile, the safari guide and I fell in love and got married in Tanzania. Two years later, we moved to the States. I wrote large parts of Our House in Arusha on a commuter bus in a fit of nostalgia for the life we had left behind. The story is about three traumatized people—the safari guide, his young son, and me—who are trying to put their lives back together again in a foreign country where they are in constant danger of being deported. Little did I know how relevent this theme would be in 2018.
With members from seven countries and stories set from Madagascar to Columbia to France, the Crossroads Writers Group sounds great! How did you find each other?
The writers group is part of an anglophone society called Crossroads, which is based in Fontainebleau. The writers meet once a month in somebody’s house to discuss their works-in-progress. The leader of the group, Connie Lindgreen, asked me to come and talk to them about independent publishing. I have a little business, called Korongo Books, which helps writers publish their own work— everything from cookbooks to poetry to family histories. They retain the rights and receive all the royalties. Blue Fountain is exceptional in that it is mainly fiction.
What were the challenges editing the Blue Fountain short story collection?
Working with a dozen different writers could have been a logistical nightmare, but Connie was our point person and she is very organized. She was so helpful that I gave her the title of coeditor. The thorniest issue that came up was whether to use British or American punctuation. Believe it or not, that was an emotional subject. Another problem was how to manage the royalties. Korongo isn’t a publishing house; it’s more of an atelier. We give writers the tools they need to publish their own work, and they take it from there. The final step is to upload a PDF to an online publishing platform, such as CreateSpace or Ingram Spark. But the Crossroads Writers’ Group doesn’t exist as a legal entity, so Korongo took on the role of publisher. It meant we had to do a little marketing just to recoup our investment, and we are not exactly set up to sell books. Fortunately, we have a wonderful anglophone bookshop in Fontainebleau, called Reelbooks, which has done most of the selling for us.
What were the rewards of working on the anthology?
I love doing anthologies. The first anthology I edited was a collection of stories by the members of a senior center in Vermont; it was a way of honoring the elders of that small community and giving them a bigger voice. I feel the same way about Blue Fountain, and about all the books that pass through Korongo. Stories build and strengthen connections between people. Blue Fountain is the writers’ gift to the community that brought them together.
What books are on your nightstand?
I’ve just finished Glory in a Line, by Phyllis Birnbaum, about the life of the Japanese artist Foujita; it’s research for a book about my French family. Foujita figures in the life of my husband’s maternal grandparents, an American painter and a French model who met in Montparnasse in the 1920s. Now I’m reading The Sympathizer, a novel by Viet Thanh Nguyen. The war in Vietnam overshadowed my growing-up years, and I visited the country for the first time last summer. It was a pretty emotional experience.
The ebook edition of Blue Fountain will come out as soon as I finish formatting it. I’m collaborating with my stepson, Thomas Texier, on a photo essay about the clothes in his grandmother’s wardrobe. And I’m working on the third book in a trilogy that started with Our House in Arusha and continued with An Irruption of Owls, which is set mainly in Vermont. Volume 3, which is set in France, is taking longer than I thought it would, but isn’t that always the case?