Today I’m pleased to interview Joanna Walsh, a writer and illustrator I have admired for a long time. I first discovered her work on the walls of the Parisian bookshop Shakespeare & Company. We got to meet over coffee and talked about our favorite authors, Paris, and the pleasure of writing and editing.
What brought you to Paris?
It was somewhere I didn’t know anybody.
What keeps you coming back?
Friends, work, croissants, the way the winter light hits the top stories of the buildings.
Are you a different person in a different country?
I don’t think so, but perhaps I’m a different person in a different language. When I speak French, I’m especially frank. That’s partly because of the reputation the French have for being ‘franc/he’ but it’s also, of course, down to my French being a lot more primitive than my English.
How do your artwork and your writing fit together?
They don’t really. Most of my artwork is illustration for newspapers, books etc. It is usually in response to something written, and plays with the words and ideas in the text, and the gaps between them. When I’m writing, I’m usually putting words together in a way that leave these gaps for the reader. Writing isn’t just saying what is: it’s more like making a kind of structure that can be experienced by the reader; a structure with an uneven surface. There are points at which I want to be deliberately obscure, or ‘fail’. There are also holes I don’t anticipate when writing: I don’t think reading is a one-way process by which the reader only receives information from the writer.
There are a very few writers who are known equally well for their visual artwork. I love Leonora Carrington’s writing and paintings, but I find it almost impossible to write something and simultaneously think about how (its texture? its rhythm?) could be interpreted visually. That said, I am writing a children’s picture book for Tate, which I will also illustrate. I originally submitted it as text-only, so I didn’t think about providing the illustrations while I was writing it.
You have written a book about hotels. Can you talk about how you came up with the idea, the research, and how the book evolved?
When I started writing I did some work as a hotel reviewer. It was a way to practice writing things that had to make sense, to a deadline. I was also fascinated by the glamour of these places where I could never afford to stay, and by the kind of desires they seemed to meet. It was only after I hadn’t done any reviewing for a while that I realised I had also been visiting hotels in order to escape something to do with how I was living, that wasn’t working. Freud’s 1919 essay, Die Unheimlich, he talks about the unpleasantnesses of home. Tracing the meaning of heimlich (‘homely’ but also ‘private’ or ‘secret’), he finds that the word contains its opposite: everything that is, in the English translation, ‘uncanny’. This is a good introduction to his ideas about psychoanalysis in which frightening things are, similarly, hidden inside unexceptional things: repressed desires are converted into symptoms each of which, he says, is a “substitute for an instinctual satisfaction which has remained in abeyance”. My book is an essay on the uncanniness of hotels, and home, and also piece of self-analysis. Visiting hotels was a symptom, perhaps…
What books are on your nightstand?
This week: Nell Zink’s The Wallcreeper, a brilliant and mordantly funny story of sex, drugs and birdwatching. Felicitas Hoppe’s Picnic of the Virtues, a tiny sample of the surreal, playful, disturbing stories by the German author that make me want to see more of her work in English translation. Then there’s a pile of books I’m half-way through, or books I haven’t quite finished: maybe about 30 of them.
What’s the best advice you have ever received?
I like it when people give me bad advice. It makes me stop and think: no, I don’t agree, and then I have to think about what I do think.
I recently finished work on a big illustration project for Shakespeare and Company, and I have a number of projects I can’t really talk about until they’re confirmed. I have a feeling that, early next year, I could be making a decision about what I’ll be doing for the next few years, which is an interesting thought.
What a treat to interview Kyoko Yoshida! She is the author of Disorientalism, a wonderful collection of short stories that plays with English and forces the boundaries of the reader’s imagination. In addition to writing, she is also an award-winning translator and a professor of literature. We met for coffee in Paris and talked about books, translation, travel, literary festivals, war brides, and baseball players. She and I met thanks to Jane Camens, founder of the Asia Pacific Writers & Translators Association, who works tirelessly to connect writers.
Kyoko, what brings you to Paris?
We visit France almost every year. My husband is from the department of Loiret in the Loire Valley region. He teaches African-American Literature at a Japanese university and right now he is doing a research on the triangular trade in Paris. I’m lucky to be able to tag along. We’ll be here till late September. I am working on a translation project right now and am hoping to finish my first draft while in Paris.
Why do you write in English? Is it a choice or does it come naturally? What are the challenges of writing in a foreign language? What are the rewards?
The short answer is: because my mother cannot read it! The long answer is: this came as a result of series of coincidences, but in the end, it is my personal choice. I always liked to recreate whatever objects that fascinated me, and telling stories (in words and pictures) was one of those activities I always liked. Meanwhile, when I started to learn English at age 11, I was struck how the grammar structure was radically different from the Japanese language. It was an opening to a different system, a different world. My first experience in writing a story in English was as an exchange student in Hudsonville, Michigan, at Mr. Burgraaf’s creative writing class. He read one of my stories aloud in class, commenting it is “almost publishable”—imagine what it does to a 16-year-old ego! Later when I enrolled at a graduate creative writing program at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, it was the time to learn, through experiences, the real chasm between “publishable” and “almost publishable.”
Writing in English has always been difficult for me for different reasons at different times of my life. When I first contacted writer and professor Thomas Bontly in Milwaukee, he told me to come spend a year to improve my English to begin with. I was born and raised in Japan, never spent time abroad till I was 15, so English is an acquired, foreign language to me and will remain so. I am getting better at it, still working on it, but now I live and work in Japan in my native language environment. This now poses me another type of challenge because your native language is far more invasive in your mind than a second language.
But at the same time, this strangeness of English is the attraction for me. In the beginning years of my writing in English, I used to experience actually this physical fatigue in my brain after writing for a few hours. It was a distinct physical sensation as if you worked out a different, rarely used part of your brain muscles. I loved that sensation. It is a great way to mess up with your brain in a creative way. Writers have to make their language foreign even if it is their native language. By writing in a second language, I am playing with a foreign material, and that way, I am skipping the estrangement process. Another thing I like about writing in English is that I cannot afford to get pretentious or grand. I just write what I can write. Writing in English allows me to write about trifling things, negligible things, irrelevant things. I like that.
I love that you dedicated your collection of short stories to the city of Milwaukee! Why Milwaukee?
Thank you for asking! Because Milwaukee and people I met there made me the writer that I am today, and I just can’t name everyone there. I was there from 1996 to 2001 at the graduate program in English at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. It’s just amazing how much time and energy these writing professors are willing to spend for their students, sometimes sacrificing their own creative energy. And they didn’t even question my desire to write in my awkward English. They went through my text line by line, like it was the most natural thing to do. They encouraged me to keep writing. I owe them so much. First Thomas Bontly took me in as a visiting scholar. Sheila Roberts was my advisor, and John Goulet encouraged me to read challenging texts. Ellen Hunnicutt gave us many practical advices but at the same time she taught us those rules are meant to be broken as well. Gordon Weaver showed us that after all you have to make up everything.
And then there were my graduate colleagues from the workshop. I met some wonderful writers and made great friends there. We just kept talking about reading and writing and storytelling. They taught me as much as the professors did and they keep me going as my colleagues. When we meet once in a while, the first thing we still talk about is our writing. Acknowledging each other’s desire to write founds the basis of our friendship, and that is a relationship based on mutual respect. I believe the pedagogical essence of creative writing is ethical in that we have to respect each other’s wish to write.
Milwaukee is a literary city. It has a strong poetry scene and wonderful independent bookstores, Woodland and Pattern and Boswell’s to name a few. People attend readings. Its many used bookstores downtown are underappreciated. It is the only major city that I’ve ever been to that features a serious used bookstore inside the airport.
People in Milwaukee as well as the city nurtured me to write, so the first book was decided to be dedicated to Milwaukee. And of course, I met my husband there.
You teach American Literature at Ritsumeikan University in Japan, work as a translator, and just had your first book published. Where do you find the time? What do these different hats (teaching, translating) add to your writing?
All these things are connected closely as you can imagine, and yet they compensate with each other. Reading encourages me to write and writing trains me to become a better reader. On the other hand, while you craft your textual voice on page all by yourself, you get to use your actual voice and body working with students. I think for many writers, teaching is a wonderful way to meet and work with people. You can’t deal with imaginary people only all the time.
Writing is a solitary practice and translation is, to certain extent, but you have an immediate text to translate, an author to listen to. I also translate because I get to work with wonderful poets and playwrights as co-translators and it is like taking free lessons from masters in playful English.
I am a slow writer and not a most productive type of person around, so the way you describe what I do makes me sound like another being! College professors are lucky to have summer months to work on their projects. Without that, many of us will just give up teaching. We need that time to balance our sense of purpose in life. During the semester, I barely manage to write fiction, but without the suffering of writing fiction, I will be unhappy. So I try. Deadline helps, of course, though fiction writing rarely comes with a deadline.
Many of your short stories have been published in literary journals. What advice would you give to a writer interested in submitting their work?
Persistence. I collected 56 rejections before I had my first story accepted. It was a great way to learn through experiences how literary magazines operate, too. After that, I wasted less in postage by responding to the calls for submissions in literary journals. When you receive a “nice rejection,” make sure to respond as soon as possible with another submission.
I also served ‘The Cream City Review’ from Milwaukee first as assistant fiction editor and eventually as co-editor in chief. When you first look at piles and piles of manuscripts, you may feel discouraged, but actually plowing through the slush piles gives you a sense that the real competition is not that fierce as it seems. You’ll come across some good examples and lots of bad examples. You’ll learn to appreciate concise cover letters—introduce yourself, don’t hesitate to mention your past publications, but don’t try to explain your story; be brief. Working for a journal, you also learn that luck play a role, too. Once we were under the editor in chief who’d absolutely refuse to publish any story that has to do with baseball. That never shows up in the submission guideline, like, “Please, no baseball story.”
What is the best advice you have ever received?
You get to choose your reader line by line. We don’t have to please everyone, we don’t aim to. Everyone may read your first line, but after that, line by line, you get to narrow down the type of reader you’d like to take along till the end. John Goulet told that to us. I think we tend to see it the other way around, that we lose readers line by line. But if you look at it this way, you know that you have control over your prose and the course of narrative. It is also a relief to be aware that you are not writing for everyone.
What books are on your nightstand?
Mostly fiction. Two or three novels that I’ve been reading for pleasure and teaching. Several anthologies of flash fiction and short stories for random readings when too tired to read a novel. Recent purchases that I may or may not finish reading.
Right now, I don’t have a nightstand in the Paris apartment, and in my kindle I have Monique Truong’s The Book of Salt (a Paris novel), Rivka Galchen’s new collection of short stories, and satirical novels such as George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World—because of the course I’m teaching in the fall semester.
I’ve been talking about this historical baseball novel that I mean to write. Set in the 1920s in Japan. I’ve done so much research on the history of Japan-U.S. exchanges in baseball and baseball novels in general, I wrote a monograph on cultural representation of baseball even before I finish my novel. It is very challenging for me, because my stories tend to be surreal and absurd but I want this novel to be historically accurate.
Today, I am delighted to interview Marie Houzelle, author of the fabulous novel Tita. Marie’s work has appeared in the Best Paris Stories anthology, Narrative, Pharos, and Van Gogh’s Ear. Marie and I met many years ago through Alice Notley’s workshop at the British Institute. Over the years, we have shared chapters. When I read her book, I was blown away. Witty, wry, and clever, Tita’s young voice capitivated me from the first page. Tita poignantly portrays small-town life as well as the end of the Catholic church’s grip on France, revealing cracks in society that a decade later become the riots of 1968. A rare novel written in English that gives a real taste of French culture. I cannot recommend it enough!
You were born in the south and now live just outside Paris. What brought you to Paris? What keeps you here?
I grew up in a small southern town. Staying there never felt like an option. I liked Lézignan and defended it when attacked, but I was going to study in a city, live in a city.
Before I was thirteen my father had died; soon my mother moved to Toulouse to work, and we followed her after a while. The summer I was seventeen, I met my first husband at an international work camp in Bavaria. He was a Parisian.
Paris, at first, felt incongruous, flawed; and intriguing. Or was it marriage? Pregnancy? After a few months, we moved to Berlin and, for me, the charms of an unknown language. When we came back to Paris after two years, I started relaxing into the city – it helped that my work often kept me away from it.
I settled in Ivry with my second husband, a painter. I had three children by then, and our family needed more room than we could afford in Paris. It was quite an adventure – with more than we could afford to borrow, we each bought a loft without windowpanes, floors, electricity, plumbing, or inner partitions and started from there. He had skills and grit; I had nothing, but I was game, and I learned (a little). We both loved Ivry – not exactly at first sight, but as soon as Lucien began running into old friends and we made many new ones. Ivry is exuberant and tranquil, intensely artistic, and very international. I enjoy staying in Brooklyn, Harlem, the West Village, Berkeley or Amsterdam, but I’m always thrilled when I come back to Ivry – and Paris.
I was captivated by Tita’s voice. Can you tell us about writing Tita?
I already had quite a few short pieces about children, written haphazardly at various times, when Shakespeare and Company announced their first Paris Literary Prize. I liked the idea of a novella and, starting from these pieces, I tried to write one. I sent out a few chapters to the competition, but didn’t get on the short list. Meanwhile, my novella was growing into a novel. Some of my friends read three different drafts between early 2011 and May 2012. The text seemed to grow from the inside, slowly and rather naturally. That’s when Laurel Zuckerman, who’d read many chapters (we were meeting every week in a café, with Nicola Keegan) told me she wanted to publish it. I was glad that she liked it, but not sure it was ready. So I went on fiddling with the structure and with sentences for about a year before we signed a contract. After which I started copy editing with the invaluable Linda Healey.
Tita’s voice was clear to me from the beginning, and her individual adventures were fun to write. The problem was the general shape. I had more and more chapters, and I kept moving them around. I was never quite sure what order worked best. Actually, after the editing was all done, Laurel asked me if I could move what was chapter 3 to the beginning, and I agreed without giving it much thought. My reaction would have been quite different if she had asked me to move a comma.
Tita is fascinated, even obsessed, by Catholic rituals. How did this obsession come about? How does it relate to the themes of your novel?
For Tita, Catholic rituals are captivating. With incense, flowers, stories, music and pageantry in a resonant Gothic church, they are feasts for all the senses. They link her very limited experience with a long history and a wide world. Latin, particularly, creates an esoteric effect: Tita wants to pierce its mysteries.
Around the middle of the novel Tita notices that, although she still enjoys her mother’s cuddles, she no longer needs them. She soon feels the same detachment from Our Holy Mother Church, as if the two devotions had complemented each other: when one is gone, the other wilts. This happens after an accident illustrates the pitfalls of her attachment to her mother.
Can you talk about singing in a chamber group? Does it color your writing?
Right now, I’m working on five musical projects: lieder (Schubert and Weill) with pianist Georgia Smith for the end of April; a short religious piece by Montalbano (early Baroque) with harpist Nicolas Hette, that will be performed in May with Carissimi’s Jephte, where I sing in the choir; a Frescobaldi song with viola and harpsichord for mid-June; and a MicroOpéra by Jean-Michel Bossini, for the end of June, with an improvisation group led by Irène Lecoq at the Ivry conservatory.
These pieces are in German, Latin, and Italian. I translate (freely) all my solo songs. Composing these translations crystallizes the direction of a piece; I enjoy speaking them out to the audience before I sing.
Music and writing? Music feels easier, especially when the score is already written; scarier – the voice, the body might flounder at any time; reassuring when you know how to practice; and wonderfully sociable. Chamber music means listening and responding to other instruments, bodies, intentions; at its best, it’s a unique sensual-mental experience.
Writing: times of quiet intimacy with words, phrases, sentences, paragraphs, which I also treat as music.
What books are on your nightstand?
La Prisonnière (Proust, always); Joanna Walsh, Fractals; Kristin Espinasse, First French Essais; Lydia Davis, Can’t and Won’t (in my Kindle); Pansy Maurer-Alvarez, In a Form of Suspension.
What is the best advice you have ever received?
From another singer: if you make a mistake, don’t worry about it and botch the rest of the piece. Just go ahead, stay in the moment and in the music.
When did you begin writing fiction? Why do you write in English?
Like Tita, as a child I used to write musical plays for my friends. In my teens, nothing but political songs and leaflets. My first narrative fiction was destined for my younger daughter, Mathilde, who liked comic strips (and the bedtime stories I improvised) but refused to read actual books. She was pretty critical of my efforts. So was I.
I kept scribbling, especially in public transport, about what was going on around me. Usually not in French, because people tend to glance at your notebook.
Ten years ago, I was in Alice Notley’s magnificent weekly workshop, trying to write non-fiction stories; I was so obsessed with truth I ended up with nothing but questions, for which I couldn’t find the right shape. Unwillingly, as a last resort, I defected to fiction. What a relief!
I’m not sure why I write in English. Or why I mostly sing in German and Latin. Last week, I felt like writing in Dutch, I had such a good time trying to pronounce it. French? I’m not fond of the word écrivain, not to mention écrivaine. While I feel quite comfortable with writer.
I teach creative writing to French university students. What advice do you have for them concerning writing in English?
Feel free. In a new language, you can be a new person. Don’t try to write either correctly or “like a native speaker”. English is a welcoming language. Many countries, no Academy. Enjoy it.
Two novels I’ve been working on for quite a while and am still (or again) excited about. One of them has music at its center.
I’m thrilled to interview a recent arrival in Paris, the brilliant writer and editor Shannon Cain, author of The Necessity of Certain Behaviors and coeditor of Powder: Writing by Women in the Ranks, from Vietnam to Iraq. She is the recipient of a Pushcart Prize, the O. Henry Prize, and a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. Her work has appeared in ‘Tin House,’ ‘Colorado Review,’ ‘New England Review,’ ‘American Short Fiction,’ and ‘Southword: New Writing From Ireland.’ She was the 2011 Picador Guest Professor in Literature at the University of Leipzig and has led writing workshops at Bennington College, the University of Arizona and Arizona State University. Shannon also works as a private coach, manuscript consultant, and workshop facilitator. She is an insightful reader and a great leader, and I feel very lucky to take part in one of her workshops.
What brought you to Paris?
I’ve been trying to get to Paris for 25 years. I finally managed it because at age 50, I find myself without external responsibilities: my marriage(s) ended and my child grew up and went to college. I have a psychic/spiritual connection to France that I can’t really explain. My family lived here when I was 13; my father worked for an American corporation that transferred him here for 3 years, but we left after a year because his alcoholism caught up with him and he was fired. Interestingly, the family story is that we left because the French were mean. It took me years to piece together the truth. We ended up in Tucson, Arizona, where I went to high school and college, studying French as my primary subject. At 17, I did a summer abroad program; at 23 I spent Spring Break here with a hot French boyfriend; at 35 I came back on vacation; and at 45 after my last divorce I came back again and spent a month. All those years I was telling myself I’d live here some day, but I had no idea how I’d manage it, immigration-wise. Many years ago I married a man who was born in Italy; I had a vague hope of snagging an EU passport through him. But then we divorced. I always thought I’d just show up on a tourist visa and just wing it, like so many others do. And then I discovered that France instituted the “talents et compétences” visa, which I understand basically as this country’s version of the brain drain system. If you have a PhD (which I don’t) or have achieved a certain level of competence in your field (which apparently I have), then you’ve got a good shot at getting into the country. Mine was awarded specifically in the arts, but academics and scientists and engineers and businesspeople are also eligible. To be considered for the visa I was required to put together a dossier, including an artistic project, for consideration by the French Consulate in the U.S. It’s a (renewable) carte de longue séjour, which means I can stay for 3 to 6 years. After that, if I’m still in love with Paris, I figure I’ll apply for citizenship. I have however promised my 19-year old daughter I’ll come back to the U.S. when she starts having babies. She in turn has promised me she’ll wait at least 10 years. Which is, I know, the kind of deal that makes the Universe chuckle.
How has the transition to living and working in France been? What are the challenges? And the rewards?
My visa allows me to work in France, but only in my approved field, which is “création d’oeuvres de l’ésprit.” Beautiful, huh? So far, however, I’ve just been continuing the work I did in the U.S. as a freelance manuscript consultant and writing coach. I started doing this work nine years ago, in anticipation of leaving the U.S. some day…I needed a job I could do anywhere. Happily, that plan is working out.
The reality has exceeded the dream, frankly. Apart from the streams of urine in the streets (seriously, dudes: what the actual fuck?), Paris has lived up to my expectations. My apartment search was amazingly painless–I got very lucky, finding a place after only a month–and because I was warned at length about the stunning bureaucracy of this country, I’m able to be pleasantly surprised when my interactions with the government actually get me somewhere. I was also prepared for the social permafrost that allegedly resides just below the politesse of the French, but instead I’ve found warmth and welcome. I slipped right into existing communities of likeminded folk, both native and expat, and after only 2 months here I find myself among several circles of friends. The only problem I’m encountering is that so many people here speak such competent English and are so eager to practice that it facilitates my laziness around fixing my incredibly rusty French. My best teachers so far have been French children.
Did you have any specific ideas of what you wanted to write when you came here, or did you just decide to take the stories/ the novels/ personal essays as they come?
I’m working on two different projects: one is a novel about a group of polyamorous U.S. Air Force pilots, which is great fun; it’s a very political and very sexually explicit examination of love and war and sex and violence and family and friendship. The other is the project for which I was awarded the visa, which is a book of autofiction based on my happy adult sex life and my sexually traumatic childhood. Autofiction is a genre that came out of France in the 1970s; it’s a fascinating mixture of fiction and nonfiction, akin to autobiographical fiction but with the important distinction that it overtly refuses to claim either genre, forcing the reader (and writer!) to grapple with the ambiguities of truth versus imagination.
You have an amazing career, from the award-winning short story collection The Necessity of Certain Behaviors to editing anthologies, teaching at terrific MFA programs to creating a writers’ retreat in the desert. Already in Paris you have created a wonderful community of writers. What motivates you?
I knew before I came here that I’d want to put together some kind of workshop, and when I arrived I found several already in existence. But none catered specifically to really talented and accomplished writers…which has been a specific focus of mine for the last 2 or 3 years. I wasn’t surprised to find this was the case; it’s true in the U.S. also. Despite the proliferation of MFA programs, there isn’t much support out there for writers once they’ve finished their graduate studies. I was stunned, however, to discover just how many writers in English here were looking for exactly this kind of thing. I got lots of applications and found maybe half of them to meet the standard I was looking for, and lo and behold they were all women. I used to direct a feminist independent literary press in Tucson, so it seemed natural and right to me that the group be modified to include women only.
I’m motivated by social change. Before I started writing seriously, I worked for 20 years with a variety of social justice NGOs focused mostly on women’s empowerment. I think gathering women together to support the telling of their stories and the creation of their literature is a political act. I identify first as an activist and second as a writer. This has made me a little bit unpopular in certain literary circles, but that’s okay. I’m out to change the world, and writing is just my most recent vehicle toward that goal.
What is the best advice you have ever received?
This oldie and goodie by Goethe has always given me courage: “Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.”
What books are on your nightstand?
A brilliant autoficitional novel by Ruth Ozeki called A Tale for the Time Being and the stunning Life Drawing, a debut novel by my grad-school buddy Robin Black.
I’ve been invited to be the featured reader this coming Thursday, August 21 at Paris Lit Up; I’ll be reading from that polyamorous fighter pilot novel. I’ll also be facilitating PLU’s monthly workshop at Shakespeare and Company, which isn’t so much a critique group as it is a let’s-get-together-and-write group. That one meets from 12:30 to 2:30 on the first Sunday of every month. I’m also teaching a seminar on autofiction at the American Library in Paris on October 11. Most excitingly, my darling kid arrives next week to spend a month with me before she starts her sophomore year in college. But mostly I plan to spend the fall sitting on the balcony of my new tiny apartment in the Marais, writing and reading. La vie est tellement belle!
Looking forward to attending the literary festival Lire en Polynésie in Tahiti from June 5th to June 8th to talk about Moonlight in Odessa with writers and readers from all over the world. I feel very lucky that my first novel has resonated with so many readers and that I’ve been able to take part in so many conferences, festivals, and readings.
What a thrill to interview Chantal Panozzo! She’s not only a gifted author, she is an insightful blogger and one of the founders of the Zurich Writers Workshop. Chantal is also a generous networker who brings readers and writers together. The topic of her new collection of essays is one that many of us can relate to: moving to a foreign country and all the changes that it can entail, from building new careers and learning a language to accepting challenges and finding unexpected rewards. I can’t wait to read her book!
What took you to Zurich?
My husband had a work opportunity back in 2006, so we took it, not wanting to think “what if?” for the rest of our lives. We expected the assignment to last three years, but now we’ve been here almost eight. At first, as I discuss in my book, I was not only a foreigner to the Swiss, I was a foreigner to myself. Overnight I went from career woman to trailing spouse. Needless to say, I had an identity crisis. But as soon as I accepted that I would need to redefine myself, things improved. I got a job (surprisingly, as an English copywriter in a Swiss German advertising world—although the experience involved multilingual direct mail and meetings at strip clubs). Since my new job was not as creative as my American one had been, I began writing essays and taking writing courses, and in 2010 I stopped complaining about having no English-language writing support in Zurich and co-founded the Zurich Writers Workshop. Sometimes if you find something is missing, you have to create it yourself.
What keeps you there?
Great chocolate. Work-life balance that cannot be found in the States. Public transportation that works—I have not owned a car since I moved here eight years ago. And the great outdoors—I live in the center of town right across from a department store, but I can be running in the woods—or along a beautiful river—within five minutes.
Can you tell us about your memoir?
Life in Switzerland. The not-made-for-TV version.
Whatever one should know about Swiss life, I learned the hard way. So I try to make Swiss life a little easier (or at least a little funnier) in my essay collection titled Swiss Life: 30 Things I Wish I’d Known.
What should one know about Swiss life? Well, how about the fact that you can be hired in one language and fired in another? Or the realization that your Swiss neighbor is not coming over to chat—she is coming over to clean your gutter? Or the reality that cheese is a homeopathic treatment—for lactating boobs?
Swiss Life: 30 Things I Wish I’d Known is a collection of both published and new essays in which I discover that whatever I thought I knew about the land of a certain storybook mountain girl, I had a lot to learn about the real Switzerland, you know, the one on the world map.
What were some of the challenges and rewards of writing it?
This particular collection took seven (mostly wonderful) years to write. Some of the pieces in the book were published in magazines and newspapers over the last six years. I came to love the format of the personal essay and I’ve probably written close to 100 of them by now. The challenge was to put a group of essays together in a book that showed my character changing in the same way a character would in a traditional memoir. So I wrote a traditional memoir first. 392 pages. But then I put it aside in favor of this format. It just felt right to me. But it took a lot of revision, even of the existing published essays, some of which are barely recognizable based on their original version. The biggest reward was learning how to dig deeper emotionally while also giving the experiences I’ve had a universal message.
In addition to writing your book, you are a copywriter, freelance journalist, and maintain two blogs, Writer Abroad and One Big Yodel. You also founded the amazing Zurich Writers Workshop. Where do you find the time? Where do you find the inspiration?
Um, I’m insane? I don’t know. I have a two-year-old daughter too. But I think that when you love everything you do, you find the time to do it no matter how sleep deprived you are. I remember when my daughter was only three weeks old and I was asked to write a travel article on Zurich for an inflight magazine based in Asia. They were only giving me one week to do it. I looked in the mirror and saw the bags under my eyes and thought, how can I possibly take the assignment? But then I decided not to think that way. Instead I thought, how can I not take the assignment? Motherhood isn’t an excuse for me. I love what I do and I’m going to do it no matter what.
What books are on your nightstand?
Right now I’m reading Quiet by Susan Cain. I highly recommend it for all writers since most of us are introverts. All through my childhood, my teachers told my parents that I was too quiet, as if being quiet were a bad thing. But this book combines a lot of research and personal experiences to demonstrate that even in an extroverted world, introverts are very valuable to society and should be celebrated rather than expected to act like people they are not.
I also have a copy of ‘Brain, Child’ magazine on my nightstand, which I love. Almost the entire magazine devotes itself to personal essays.
What is the best advice you have ever received?
We read an essay my freshman year of high school. Its theme was that it’s better to aim high and fail than to not aim high enough and succeed.
A year ago I set aside the first draft of a novel to focus on my book about Switzerland. So I plan to return to the novel once I catch my breath and see what state it is in now that I’ve had a decent break from it. But I know I also won’t stop writing personal essays. Eventually, if I move back to the States, I hope to write another book of essays as a companion to this book—American Life: 30 Things I Wish I’d Known, perhaps? Because if I ever find myself in the U.S. again, I’m sure to see my own country as I never have before. And it would be fun to explore that in writing.
I am thrilled to interview Lizzie Harwood today! We met over ten years ago in Paris at a course at the British Institute, where I immediately fell in love with her prose. As a writer, Lizzie has an amazing scope – screenplays, personal essays, short stories, memoir, and a novel coming soon. She is also an insightful editor who has started her own business, Editor Deluxe. Her keen eye and perceptive comments have helped many writers improve their manuscripts. I have many pages with Lizzie’s beautiful handwriting in the margins, encouraging me to go deeper with her thought-provoking questions and comments.
What brought you to France? What keeps you here?
I met my love at a dinner in Paris on the 21st of September 2001 and moved back here, after vowing never to live here again. (I’d spent a year and a half here in 1999 and only learned about five words of French!) After constantly moving all my life I found that I actually stayed put for longer than 3 years at a time once I came here. Not by design, must be something in the water.
You are an amazing writer and editor, and you have received great feedback from your clients. How did you decide to start your business, Editor Deluxe?
That’s a huge compliment, thank you, Janet! I love reading, and editing came out of that. I love writing my things too, of course, so I know how it feels to be on the other side – receiving sketchy feedback from reader services on our book babies can be soul-destroying. I wanted to be the kind of editor that writers can trust not to rip apart the guts of their work, yet help them move through the highs and lows of writing books to make them as awesome as they can be.
What have been the challenges and rewards?
Like anything it’s getting word out to those who understand that a quality editor can’t charge $5 per 3,000 words or we’d be on the streets. It literally takes 100s of hours to properly edit a book that the author intends to pitch to traditional publishing professionals or to self-publish. But then the rewards (for me) are in seeing authors launch their book armed with a well-written book, and even a beautiful interior layout that I can also do, plus loads of tips about book marketing and promotion that I’ve gleaned. Book publishing is so exciting today but authors need to spend a little on a quality editor and a beautiful book cover. And let go of the words to then focus on marketing in a way that won’t burn them out. Authors need their own cheerleading team. I’m so happy when I can help in this way.
You have an international clientele. Can you tell us a bit about some of the projects you’ve worked on?
I’ve been working on some fabulous books recently. Lots of Americans who live all over the world. I love how Americans have the confidence to take on self-publishing and it’s something that many of us of other nationalities (I’m a Kiwi/Canadian/Brit) can emulate.
Jennie Goutet just launched her memoir, A Lady in France, which I edited. It’s a heart-breaking and then warming story about grief, depression, loss, faith, with France as a sort of Gatsby’s green light beacon bringing her through to the life she has today.
Chantal Panozzo lives in Zurich and has a hilarious essay collection Swiss Life: 30 Things I Wish I’d Known coming out in May 2014, and her stories go beyond what it’s like to move to Switzerland to encompass what it’s like for any of us who have expatriated ourselves for love or career and find ourselves outside our home culture and yet never able to fit in completely to our adopted home.
And then author David Scott who moves between Singapore and Beijing has a wonderful spiritual novel coming out very soon also: The Longest Distance, part rollicking globe-trotting chase, part love story, it’s a meditation on philosophy’s masters, our inner voice, our questions about what we are on this Earth to do and what love truly is. It’s been an eye-opening honour to work on that novel. I call it Eat, Pray, Love with a guy!
What is the best advice you have ever received?
It’s not been said directly to me, but through the medium of articles and writers writing on writing… the clearest and most important advice I’ve gleaned is to keep failing, keep writing until what you are doing finally makes sense, clock up the 10,000 hours of writing you may need to do to become a genius at it, but also don’t be afraid to start showing your work. Get it out there in as many forms as you like. Be what you envision as a creative person by acting as if you are already the writer/illustrator/famous author. It’s all the negative self-talk that holds us back.
What books are on your nightstand?
Oh, I am a total nightmare about stacking up books: currently reading Alice Munro’s Dear Life, Morrissey’s Autobiography, A.M. Homes’ May We Be Forgiven. Stacked up beside them is: Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, Watching the Door by Kevin Myers, Come on Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All by Christina Thompson, The Whore of Babylon by Warren Roberts. And a load of ‘classics’/modern classics that I like to reread or finally read: Paul Auster’s The New York Trilogy, The Stories of Raymond Carver, Katherine Mansfield’s The Garden Party and Other Stories, Philip Roth’s The Human Stain. Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks. Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon. Plus A Long Walk Home, a memoir by Judith Tebbutt about surving Somali pirates for my local book club!
My novel. This year. That’s a promise. It’s done and I’m currently pitching it to traditional publishing professionals but if it’s not for them then I’m self-publishing.
And I’m putting up a series about crafting your story and outlining it before you start (or after you’ve banged out a first draft) on my website.
Plus offering a Writer’s Mentoring Package, which is like having a personal trainer for your body of writing. Low monthly cost for high-end results for muscular book projects!
And very importantly, connecting with fellow writers! My kids have been so little that I’ve had no time for writing workshops and getting out to book launches or reading events, so that’s due for a change now that the littlest one is turning three.
It is my great pleasure to interview Rebecca Brite, a colleague from the Ecole Polytechnique! She teaches a class on American cinema that I would love to take. After work, it was such a treat to talk to her that I am sad our school year is already over!
In addition to teaching, Rebecca leads a cinema discussion group, gives walking tours of Paris, writes, edits, and has created an app for anyone who loves Paris and history. I hope you will enjoy reading her answers and getting to know this amazing Parisienne.
You’ve been in Paris since 1980. What brought you to the City of Light?
Originally, it was one of those stops you had to make if you came to Europe. I didn’t have a particular interest in France or Paris. But a colleague at my newspaper in the US had headed up the automation project for the International Herald Tribune and recommended some people there for me to contact. I did, and thanks to that, I later went to work for the IHT.
What keeps you here?
Love of Paris, great health care – and the freedom to be an outsider. Here, I don’t need an excuse for not exactly fitting in.
How did you decide to begin the cinema discussion group?
The idea dated back to late 1984, when Milos Forman’s “Amadeus” came out here. I was amazed at how many of my friends thought it was a biopic, telling some kind of truth about Mozart and his life. It’s a great movie, based on a great play, but has little to do with historical reality. I thought then, people need something like a book group for movies, where they can get some background and engage in informed discussion. It took 10 years for the idea to bear fruit. The first meeting was in February 1995, the film (only one in those days) was Kenneth Branagh’s “Frankenstein” … and I was the only person who showed up.
But we now have a core group of around 10 people, some of whom have been coming for a very long time, dating nearly back to the second, more successful meeting. And we’ve never missed a month – we meet even in August and December, when much of France grinds to a halt. I’m proud of that, and delighted that so many people who have come to the meetings say how much they enjoyed seeing films they probably would not have gone to had it not been for the group. We now discuss 3 to 4 films a month.
Tell us about your American Revolution in Paris app.
Lire et Partir, the walking tour association I belong to, was approached by Blue Lion Guides, a Franco-Italian tourist app company, whose publisher, Antonio Ca’ Zorzi, had been looking for a tour on the Founding Fathers in Paris to turn into an app. Lire et Partir does literary walking tours, with readings from or about the people and places concerned – the Founding Fathers tour is a bit different from its usual offerings. Antonio liked it, so the three of us who had developed the tour wrote up our spiel, Antonio suggested some additions, and then he packaged it all with pictures and some background documents.
It’s available for iPhone and iPad and can be read or listened to – I recorded the text – either from an armchair at home or while walking to the sites on the itinerary in the 6th and 7th arrondissements of Paris.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to create an app?
Find a publisher! We didn’t really have to do anything except write and record the text. Antonio took care of the rest, including finding photos and getting rights for them, where needed. We’d never have known how to do it on our own. We even received a small advance, and will eventually get some royalties, we hope. Too many app publishers expect you to give them your material for free, “for the exposure.”
What is the best advice you have ever received?
I left university twice, not really sure what I wanted to do. After the second time I dropped out, I was working the night shift in a carpet factory, babysitting a giant machine and rapidly getting very bored. An acquaintance – I no longer remember who, alas – said something like, “You know, you should try journalism. A lot of mavericks end up there.” Enrollment at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln was about to close; I signed up for its highly respected journalism school and never looked back.
What books are on your nightstand?
Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine from May 1999, Jean Giono’s Prélude de Pan, a 1928 Cosmopolitan magazine collection of stories by people like Ring Lardner and Fannie Hurst (handed down from my mom, who was born in 1928 and died last May), the 2012 Bloom Where You’re Planted guide from the American Church in Paris (I’ve been asked to update the tourism section), The Wallet of Kai-Lung by Ernest Bramah, and – oh, my plan de Paris. I wondered where that had got to.
Many ideas in the hopper for tourism and teaching, such as a tour of movie locations in Montmartre (my neighborhood) and a class on gender and development. But I’m a terrible procrastinator (see above: 10 years from idea for movie group to first meeting; also this questionnaire, which you sent me 2 months ago), so it’s anyone’s guess when I’ll get around to them. I hope that two of my usual annual editing gigs, for the Louis Vuitton City Guides and the UNESCO Education for All Global Monitoring Report, will be starting soon. As a free-lancer, though, I can’t count on anything, even jobs like these that I’ve done for 10 years or more. Fortunately I seem to thrive on what the French call précarité.
Today I am thrilled to interview two of the organizers of the Geneva Writers’ Conference, authors Daniela Norris and Katie Hayoz, and to present a behind-the-scenes look at the work and rewards of organizing a successful conference.
Daniela is a former diplomat, turned writer. She’s been involved with the Geneva Writers’ Group since 2007 first as a member, later as a steering-committee member and now as Assistant Director for the Geneva Writers’ Conference. Her stories, articles and essays have been published in numerous newspapers and magazines, and her first collection of short stories, ‘The Year Spring Turned into Winter’ was out in 2008. Crossing Qalandiya – Exchanges Across the Israeli Palestinian Divide, co-authored with Shireen Anabtawi, was published in the UK in 2010, and her upcoming book On Dragonfly Wings: a skeptic’s journey to mediumship, will be out from Axis Mundi in May 2014. I first heard about Daniela’s book at Shakespeare & Company, where the events organizer raved about it.
Katie has been active on either the steering committee or the conference committee of the Geneva Writers’ Group, where she has helped to organize panels, workshops and readings. She also directs the biennial Meet the Agents event, is assistant director of the Geneva Writers’ Conference and was part of the editorial committee for Offshoots 12. Her young adult novel, Untethered, took second place in the Mslexia children’s novel competition, and she is currently finishing another novel as well as working on other writing projects. I still remember Katie’s fabulous reading, so witty and clever, from the 2006 conference, and it remains one of my best memories of all the readings and events I’ve been to.
I am a big fan of the Geneva Writers’ Conference because I drafted the first lines of my novel in the train while traveling to Geneva in 2006, met and pitched it to my agent there in 2008, and read from Moonlight in Odessa, the published work, at the 2010 conference. The atmosphere is warm and supportive, and I made great friends and contacts, learned a lot from the instructors, and the inspiration I took home from the weekend lasted months. I highly recommend to writers of all levels!
What are some of the challenges of organizing a writing conference?
Daniela: This is the first time I am an assistant director at a writing conference, so it is a learning curve for me – one that I am enjoying very much. Our objective is to accommodate all the GWG members who’d like to attend, while bringing in other writers from other places, too. The international ambiance is very important to us, as it reflects the spirit of the Geneva Writers’ Group – writers from all over the globe meeting in this multicultural, fascinating city.
Katie: Like any event, the biggest challenges arise out of things you can’t control – weather and instructor flights, unexpected emergencies and accidents, undelivered books or supplies, etc. A challenge specific to the Geneva Writers’ Conference is trying to please absolutely everyone. I’ve worked on several conferences with Susan Tiberghien, and Susan makes a Herculean effort to offer the best experience to each and every participant – from placing people in certain groups for optimal networking to personally responding to their needs. The atmosphere at the GWC is warm, supportive and encouraging, and we strive to keep it that way.
What are the rewards?
Daniela: Writing is a lonely occupation so it is always a pleasure to meet more like-minded people who are interested in reading, in writing and in anything book-related. While as organizers we might not have much free time to attend courses, we do get to meet many interesting participants and tutors and make friendships and contacts that will hopefully last a long time and help us to develop as people, and as writers.
Katie: To be completely honest, I volunteer to organize because I love the warm fuzzies I get during and after the conference. Yes, it’s a large amount of work beforehand. And no, organizers don’t always get to participate fully in the classes themselves. But it’s amazing to see 200 other people enjoying themselves, developing their craft and meeting other writers all because of something you helped to put into place!
Why should writers attend a writing conference?
Daniela: It is a wonderful opportunity to meet other writers (and of course, also agents and publishers) and to hone your craft. Like any other craft, writing improves with practice and I do not believe that writing talent is something one is necessarily born with. It can certainly be developed, and attending conferences also gives us as writers a more realistic view as to what to expect when trying to get our writing out there into the wide world.
Katie: I would add that there is such a sense of community among writers when they get together, it confirms for us that what we are doing is worthwhile and we are supported. Plus, it helps to hear others’ experiences – not just the big, splashy success stories we read about in the news.
Tell us about the first conference you attended?
Daniela: My first writing conference was Swanwick Writers Summer School in Derbyshire, in summer 2007. I met many wonderful people who’ve turned out to be good friends, and learned so much about writing, about editing and about publishing. No two writing conferences are the same so make sure you know where you’re going and what you want to achieve during a conference – is it learning to improve your writing? Is it developing a new skill or a new kind of writing genre? Is it networking? You can do all of these things and more, but it is important to prioritize.
Katie: I don’t specifically remember my first writing conference – when I was at university I worked in both the health office and the writing center and attended conference after conference with my jobs. But what I can tell you is that a good conference will do two things: 1. Make you sad it’s over, but… 2. Make you excited to go home and write! A writing conference should remind you why you love to write and get you to fall in love with it all over again.
What were your goals in attending?
Daniela: I wanted to learn more about the publishing process, as I had a couple of short stories published in non-paying publications but I wanted to become more professional about writing and to learn more about where and how to send my work out. Dozens of short stories and two books later, I can certainly trace the roots of these published pieces to that first conference I attended and to the confidence I gained there about sending my work out.
Katie: My goals would have been less about publishing and more about meeting other writers. Actually, the very first Geneva Writers’ Conference I attended was in 2004. There, three other women and I got to talking and ended up forming a small critiquing group. Though the membership has changed somewhat, that critiquing group still exists today! It has without a doubt been vital to the growth of my craft. And it started with a writing conference.
Tell us about the upcoming conference.
Daniela: The Geneva Writers’ Conference brings together over 200 writers from Switzerland,France, and the rest of Europe. We even had some people coming from theUS – and one wonderful writer made her way all the way fromIran! We hope to see her again this year.
There will be workshops about writing fiction and non-fiction, young adult and essays, poetry, panels about publishing and about social media, and much more. Meeting interesting people and networking is as important as attending classes, and there will be plenty of that, too. We hope to see you there!
Katie: We have a stellar staff of sixteen writers, instructors, editors and agents coming this year!There are four two-hour workshop sessions over the weekend, with Q & A periods in between. We also have moments for participants to network with each other and staff over cocktails and snacks, as well as two nights of readings. Plus, any participant or staff member can sell their books in the bookstore as long as they sign up ahead of time. It’s a conference for writers by writers to celebrate writing and all that goes with it.