So pleased that the paperback version of Les fiancées d’Odessa is out!
“Avec un talent de conteuse qui emporte le lecteur, elle signe un roman narquois sur l’économie des rapport humains, tout en laissant juste un peu de place à l’espoir.” -Le Monde
“Un premier roman très réussi qui va à rebours des clichés.” -Causette
Today, I am delighted to interview Carmen Bugan, the author of Burying the Typewriter, a memoir of growing up in Ceausescu’s Romania. I first heard about the book through Susan Tiberghien, the director of the Geneva Writers’ Conference, who raved about Carmen and her memoir. The book is available in English in both the U.S. and U.K., and the two covers, seen below, are striking. I’d love to know which you prefer!
You have lived in Romania, the U.S., the U.K. and now Switzerland. What took you to England? And later to Switzerland?
In 2000 I went to University of Oxford to do doctoral research in English literature. My monograph Seamus Heaney and East European Poetry in Translation: Poetics of Exile is published this January and is based on my DPhil. During my studies I met my husband, who was a fellow student in the same college as me. After I completed my studies I stayed on as a Creative Arts Fellow in Literature at the university. In 2009 my husband received a research position at CERN and so we moved to Geneva in 2009 with our first child. Our second child was born in Geneva.
For three decades, your father was under surveillance by the Securitate, the Romanian secret police. His file contained 18 volumes and nearly 1,500 pages. Can you talk about how you felt when you read it?
I am developing what I call ‘an archival identity’. Very recently we were also given access to my mother’s files, which contain also mine and my sister’s. I am reading strange things about myself – about what I ate in 1985, when I went to sleep in the 1986 in the evenings, I am re-reading the yearly letters my father and I exchanged while he was in prison, and I am reading the transcripts of interrogations suffered by both of my parents. It is shattering: the language of the oppressor, the intimidating person, and that of the oppressed, of the intimidated, as it is the language of those who spied and reported on us, as is the language used to detail all of our daily lives. The government has created identities for us and I am struggling to fight my way to clarity form all the surreal mess of these files.
Was it difficult to write about your family? Can you talk about the process of writing the book?
This was planned as a memoir from the beginning and I spent a considerable amount of time working out tone, voice, and the structure of the book. I received my father’s files after I wrote the book and those formed the appendix. But while some memories came as prose, many came as poems and I wrote a book of poems at the same time as I wrote the memoir. I wrote these books fairly quickly around 2005-2007 and then worked on them until the publication in 2012–so it was a truly very long process.
The buried typewriter is such a powerful image. Did you always know that you wanted to be a writer, or did the desire to write come later?
I still love typewriters and that typewriter did indeed stir the writer in me. But I also love the feel of pen and paper and much of my writing starts as journal work. I knew that I wanted to be a writer in the deepest sense of the word when my father was in prison and I was writing poems to the pictures of him hanging in the hallway and on the bookshelves. The poems had a healing effect on my mother and sister, and in particular the poem I wrote the day my parents had their trial for divorce–they were forced to divorce because of my father’s anticommunist activities. That poem is in my book Crossing the Carpathians and the story of that poem and its first draft (in Romanian) is in Burying the Typewriter.
What advice would you give to someone interested in writing memoir?
I think writing a memoir is a very personal journey and the decisions such as how to approach such personal material as the story of your life are also very personal. Some people choose to write in third person, for example, to distance themselves from the material, while some prefer to write in the first person because they feel very strongly about sharing themselves. But whatever decisions one needs to make, the important thing to keep in mind is that in the end this needs to be a book–a work of art, and that needs considerable working at it.
What books are on your nightstand?
The Music Room, by William Fiennes, a book of poems by Lucian Blaga.
A book about living on both sides of the Iron Curtain.
Today, I am thrilled to interview Cara Black! The author of the Aimée Leduc mystery series, Cara is one of the kindest writers in the Parisian community. I will never forget her thoughtfulness when she spoke at a writing workshop full of unpublished writers. She was so warm and encouraging, her words gave us participants weeks of motivation and positive energy. Since then I have seen her speak at several venues, and each time, I learn something new about Paris. In fact, I subscribe to her newsletter because it is full of great information and gorgeous photos. If you love Paris, you should sign up, too.
I’m not the only Parisienne who thinks Cara is great! Last June, she was awarded Medaille de la Ville de Paris. In her books, she shares many different regions of Paris with readers, from the Marais to Chinatown, from Passy to the Bastille. Cara serves up a perfect slice of Parisian life in each book.
To celebrate the launch of Cara Black’s latest book, Murder Below Montparnasse, her publisher Soho Press is offering a “killer” trip to Paris. Do sign up for your chance to visit the City of Light with author Cara Black!
Cara, your first novel Murder in the Marais was published to great acclaim in 1998. Can you talk a little bit about how publishing has changed since then? How has your role as an author changed?
Yes, Janet publishing has changed a lot since Murder in the Marais my first novel was published. And it’s changing and evolving all the time. But to me, the author’s role, then as now, is to write the best book possible and the one she or he feels compelled to write. All the marketing and social media to spread the word has now been added onto that plate. Yet, from the beginning my husband who worked in bookstores and owned one, encouraged me to spread the word in the way he, a bookseller and his bookseller friends, like to hear about a new book. That’s always been a golden rule – engage with booksellers who can hand sell your book – and easy for me since I know a lot of them and like them. They’ve become friends. Now it’s still about that, sadly less so since we have fewer indie bookstores, but it’s also about making yourself available to readers and getting the word out through the internet (not every writer feels comfortable with that). People google everything and it’s almost imperative from one’s publisher’s stance that a writer needs to be visible in an internet universe. But given that, it’s still about writing the best book possible, do your best with the social media and let your enthusiasm show about your book, why you wrote it and how the story captured you so much you had to write it down.
Can you tell us a few of your favorite Parisian places where you have done your research?
There’s so many! Some highlights: visiting the reservoirs at Passy and seeing where the French Gestapo interrogated suspects, touring the ghost stations of the Metro with Julian the RATP expert who knows everything you ever want or wanted to know about the Metro, climbing on the rooftop of 36 quai des Orfèvres – the Police Prefecture – with a homicide detective from Brigade Criminelle – beyond cool – long mornings in the archives in the Marais. I met a ninety-year old woman who grew up on the Canal Saint Martin and lives in the building she was born in. I spent one afternoon with her listening to her stories about a past Paris: when horses pulled the barges up the Canal and she saw their steamy breath in the winter, how she smelled the leather factory next door when she walked to school. Wonderful stories of everyday life in a life spanning two World Wars up to the modern day and what she makes of the Internet. I’ve gotten to know a man who lives in the Marais and was a young Résistant, 14 years old at the time of Libération and seen an Occupied then Liberated Paris through his eyes. It’s the people who share their stories, their life that I’m privileged to meet that makes my research so much better.
I loved the story you told chez Karen Fawcett about long-distance research, when you and she corresponded while you were writing your first books. Can you talk about some of the connections and friendships that have been created thanks to your work as a novelist?
Oh yes, it’s evolving continually. Friends introduce me to friends who introduce me to their friends whose uncle’s dentist lives in a specific quartier that I’m researching etc. You know that’s how it is in Paris, Janet. I just met a female detective this trip who shared about her investigations when we met for coffee in Place St Georges – it was very cool and so was she, but she wouldn’t let me take her picture. But I find police, cafe owners, the folks in the Mairie, etc. will talk if you take them for a drink, lunch. They welcome a chance to help ‘you’ to get it right. Everyone likes to talk about their work, so it’s tapping into what they value or how they make a living and here’s their chance for someone to get it correct not like the movies or the télé they always say. There’s also a pride Parisians exhibit about their City that’s wonderful and even a kiosk vendor can talk your ear off about the way the street used to be and the history if you show enough interest. I belong to the Historic Society of the 10eme arrondissement. Have become good friends over the years with one of the members and his family, his son stayed with us during the summer. He brought a bit of Paris with him. Even the Brigade Criminelle detective came for dinner chez nous when he was in San Francisco it was so fun and I got to ‘show’ him off to my French neighbors!
You are an amazing public speaker, and I especially enjoyed hearing about the genesis of Murder at the Lanterne Rouge. Were you always a strong speaker, or was it a skill you had to cultivate?
You’re too kind. Speaking to strangers I think for anyone is tough and it certainly was for me at the beginning and even now. Still feel a touch of nerves. But I’ve got two things going for me: this chance to share what I’ve discovered about Paris and my experiences writing about Paris which is real and what a lot of people want to hear about. I’m no Paris expert but I’m curious, want to learn and like to explore which hopefully armchair readers can do in my books. My mother always told me ‘be yourself’ and Oscar Wilde added a caveat to that great saying ‘…because everyone else is taken’. It’s great to have a chance to share my research exploits the good, the bad, the funny and the ugly. Which often end up in my stories. Talking about finding a window to describe this part of Paris, this time and the issues facing Paris and French society are concrete in my writing process. Every book has been a journey through a part of Paris for me – what I learned and how all this affects my characters is harder to explain but that’s when I turn to the audience and say time for Q+A
When people think about the Parisian literary scene, many people think of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, yet there is a thriving community of writers today. You are a big part of the literary scene here, can you describe a writer’s world in Paris today?
Thanks for saying that, Janet, I think you’re more plugged into the literary scene than I am. Sadly we’ve lost Odile’s bookstore and Penelope’s Red Wheelbarrow in the Marais but yes, the community is vibrant from what I experience especially through the American Library events, Shakespeare & Co, the efforts of Laurel Zuckerman and WICE. In a way, it’s feeling more salon-oriented these days or maybe it’s always been. Karen’s dinners and writing workshops attest to that. The Irish Cultural Center hosts events, too. I went to a Yeats poetry reading there that was wonderful. I think people are hungry for books, the written word (in any format), to hear how writers write and will support whatever venue whether it’s book groups, talks at alumni associations, or via Expat forums.
What are a few of your favorite haunts here?
Place des Vosges, the Palais Royal, Batignolles and the street market on rue de Lévis, any weekend brocante and vide grenier, a no-name wine bar in Popincourt, le Baron Rouge for oysters near Marché d’Aligre, the villas (small cobbled alleys near Parc Montsouris in the 14eme) like Villa Seurat where Henry Miller and Anais Nin lived. Those are the tip of the iceberg but I love the weekends of ‘open studios’ in the different quartiers when you can visit and meet artists in their ateliers! Especially in the 14eme which I learned had whole streets built with ateliers for artists.
What books are on your nightstand?
The Occupation by Ian Ousby. It’s often overlooked but I’m re-reading it and find it even more fascinating the second time.
Cop to Killer – a riveting police procedural set in Bath, England by my friend Peter Lovesey. No one gets the atmosphere and quiet wit of the English quite like Peter – highly recommended.
A series I picked up (wonderful informative series of historic booklets) Un Nouveau Regard sur le Patrimoine Parisien (all free from the Mairie in the 9eme and there’s more than 30 of these with maps, a walking route, Velib’ stations, explanations etc – amazing info and GRATIS from the City of Paris publications) I’m reading the one right now ‘Le Paris de Fréderéric Chopin’ The Mairie was so generous I took the whole set (almost 2 kilos) and sent them home.
Murder Below Montparnasse which comes out March 5, 2013.
I met many amazing authors at Festival America and am delighted today to interview Steven Sampson, who was so passionate about the novels he presented there, it made me run out and buy the books. Originally from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Steven studied literature at Harvard and journalism at Columbia, then worked in publishing in New York. In 1994, he came to Paris, where he studied literature and Yiddish and received a doctorate for his work on Philip Roth.
In addition to writing for the La Quinzaine littéraire, he is also the author of three books: Corpus Rothi. Une lecture de Philip Roth; Côte Est-Côte Ouest. Le roman américain du XXIe siècle, de Bret Easton Ellis à Jonathan Franzen; and Corpus Rothi II. Le Philip Roth tardif, de Pastorale américaine à Némésis.
What brought you to Paris ?
It was always my dream to live in Paris. I first came here in 1977, when I took a semester off. But I wasn’t ready to stick it out then.
What keeps you here?
The dream. Plus I write in French.
Congratulations on having three books written and published in French! Will you tell us a little about your writing process?
Anybody looking to me for advice is in big trouble. My “success” in publishing nonfiction stems from the fact that it’s merely a strategy for procrastinating on my novel.
Likewise, you write for La Revue littéraire, L’Infini and La Quinzaine littéraire. Can you tell us a bit about this work?
I’m very integrated socially, partly because I avoided Americans for a long time.
It’s actually easier for me to write in French than in English; I feel inhibited in my native language.
My break with regard to publishing in French reviews came with two articles, both on Philip Roth. One, “Exit le fantôme”, was a commission from Les Editions Léo Scheer, which also edits La Revue littéraire. They originally rejected my book Corpus Rothi but asked for an article on Roth’s most recent book at that time, Exit Ghost.
The other one, “Le Rouge et le Porte-Noir”, had a similar genesis. L’Infini, which belongs to Gallimard, is both a book imprint and a revue, run by Philippe Sollers. He rejected Corpus Rothi but members of his inner circle told me I should try to write something shorter for his revue. Whence my article. I gave it all I’ve got.
And once I’d acquired a certain reputation with my articles, people wanted to take another look at my book.
Coming at the language as an outsider, I don’t share the preconceptions of writers who grew up in the school system here. As one of my editors said, I “deconstruct” the language, as though it were a puzzle, and then reassemble the pieces. To me, language is music, and my music in French tends to be concrete, with shorter phrases, lots of puns – some of them cross-cultural – and fewer declamatory sentences.
In writing about American literature, I underline the importance of literary models, particularly the Bible. And I try to counterbalance what I perceive to be the excessive attention paid here to the “political” aspect of a work by talking about its symbolic structure.
How does living in a foreign country affect your writing?
Living in a foreign language gives you a certain distance vis-à-vis English, which I like. But it has has also corrupted my use of my native tongue, both because the French speak a deformed version of it, and because the local language has invaded my brain.
What books are on your nightstand?
Alain Pauls, Le Passé; The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides, because I’m planning on interviewing him next month for La Quinzaine; and three books by Robert Pogue Harrison: Forests; Gardens; and The Dominion of the Dead.
What is the best advice you have ever received?
Paul McCartney: “Don’t carry the world upon your shoulders.”‘
My novel about an American in Paris obsessed with Philip Roth. I’m writing it simultaneously in English and French. The two titles are What Roth wrought and Ce que fit Phil.
A friend recently asked where I find such interesting people to interview. I learned about Kristin Duncombe through Lizzie Harwood, one of my favorite writers who also has a keen eye as an editor. Lizzie wrote to tell me how much she enjoyed Kristin’s memoir Trailing, which chronicles the experiences of a “trailing spouse” as she follows her Doctors without Borders husband to the frontlines of disaster and disease in East Africa. With Lizzie’s encouragement, I contacted Kristin and loved reading about her journey. I hope that you will, too!
In addition to being a writer, Kristin holds Masters degrees in Social Work and Public Health and has twenty years of experience working as a therapist. She divides her time between Paris and Lyon, working with individuals on a wide variety of issues including Third Culture Kids and the emotional development of children and adolescents in transition, sexual health, substance abuse, self-esteem and eating disorders. From 2008 to 2012, she was the Director of the Counseling Program at the American University of Paris.
What brought you to France?
The search for home. I am a “chronic” expat – someone who has lived outside of my passport country, the United States, for most of my life, first as the child of a career diplomat, then a “trailing spouse” with Médecins Sans Frontières. At a certain moment in my late twenties when I was living in East Africa, I started to crave roots and geographic stability. Thus began a complex negotiation with my Argentinian-Italian husband (who also has a serious case of wanderlust) to find a”compromise country” where I could park myself with our (then two year old) daughter. We bought a little apartment in the 11eme arrondisement while we were still in Uganda (we signed the papers that made us the official owners at the French Embassy in Kampala!) and honestly, once on the ground in Paris, leaving again was never a consideration. That was twelve years ago.
Your memoir Trailing chronicles your experience as a young American trailing spouse. What would you like readers to take away from your story?
One of the most important things I hoped to accomplish in writing Trailing was to normalize the identity crisis that strikes so many women when they agree to follow a spouse on his career path. This really is the unspoken “dark” side of many expat experiences, that often gets covered up by the glamour of an international assignment. There are some tough psychological realities that come with frequent international relocation, especially for the member of the couple that does not get to step straight into the neatly pre-packaged existence that comes with a job (structure, purpose, community, social contact, sense of efficacy, financial independence, etc). For the “trailing” spouse charged with creating a new life out of thin air, in a country/culture that is not hers, the anxiety and loss of identity can be daunting. This is a huge “elephant in the living room” in the expat world, that is rarely talked about. There are few books by/about trailing spouses, and the ones I have seen tend to focus more on funny anecdotes about cultural mishaps etc. I wanted to write a book, based on my experience as the daughter of a trailing mother, and then as a trailing spouse myself, that spoke frankly about what makes “trailing” difficult, and what can happen if these issues are not addressed proactively. It’s important to clarify that not every accompanying spouse will go through an identity crisis. It’s always case by case. Three important variables impacting my personal story, for example, were a debilitating sense of physical insecurity after being violently carjacked, the fact that I went into my trailing marriage already struggling with a sense of rootlessness after a childhood travelling, and the discovery that bicultural marriage brings its own set of challenges.
You are a psychotherapist who specializes in working with trailing spouses. Can you tell us a bit about the challenges that people who move to France face?
Honestly, I think the biggest challenge that confronts the trailing spouse in France is that everyone around her – from happy people on the ground to people back home – are so enamored with the idea of Paris and/or France that she feels like a heel for feeling depressed and displaced. Remember, it can be hard to move to a foreign country, especially if you don’t speak the language, and hard to not have any structure in your life (especially if you had to retire your professional existence to accompany your spouse on mission.) But the common response when one moves to Paris is “You’re sooooo lucky you get to live in Paris! What’s wrong with you? How could you ever feel unhappy in Paris?”
You wrote “I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to identify what provides a sense of meaning and purpose in our life.” Could you give a few ideas about how to do that?
This is, of course, a very personal question and the answer will be different for each person. There is no formula for finding meaning and purpose. In an ideal world, every human being would have the opportunity to pursue projects that generate a sense of inspiration and efficacy. For the trailing spouse, the first step is to find out what are the possibilities in this new context. Is she allowed to work in the host country? Are there relevant professional experiences available? What does she like to do for pleasure? Are there people/groups/institutions with the same interests that she can get involved with? Is her spouse supportive of her goals? Does she feel insecure? If so, what are the issues she needs to address within herself to help her get mobilized toward creating a rewarding life, even within the limitations of her current context? This is not an exhaustive list of questions, but a sampling of how the discussion usually begins when someone comes in to address the adjustment difficulties she’s facing.
How has your training as a psychotherapist helped you as a writer?
Actually, I think becoming a writer may have helped me more as a psychotherapist. Or maybe I have simply discovered how closely the roles overlap. I think my identity as a therapist informs the way I write, the way I think of a story’s arc, and the angle that I find relevant. I am fascinated by how people make decisions, how they push their own life story forward. Writing my first book and learning to trim the fat of all the extraneous detail has helped me sharpen my focus when I work with clients on being proactive in the unfurling of their life stories. I tend to be very behaviorally oriented as a therapist, and believe that while the past is informative and instructive, rarely is it necessary to fully grasp every detail of the past in order to move forward into the future in a more adaptive way. I think the same goes for storytelling. A story is boring if the character just keeps doing the same thing over and over. What makes for a good read is when we get to see a character evolve. Guiding and witnessing that process, whether in writing or therapy, is the exhilirating common denominator.
Can you tell us a bit about the process of writing the book?
About six years ago a scare with melanoma sent me into a tailspin of death anxiety and “my days are numbered”- similar (but not as awful) as the night I thought I was going to be murdered in a carjacking in Nairobi, Kenya, as detailed in the book. This second real mortality check infused me with a sense of urgency to tell my story. My story was about what had happened to cause me, an otherwise independent young career-oriented woman, to abandon all my plans to “trail” a man to the frontlines of disaster and disease in East Africa — and how I finally made the transition back from “dependent, accompanying spouse” to “independent, leader of my own life spouse”. After writing an original draft of the book, I secured a NY agent who escorted me through a series of polishing re-writes, and then he got the manuscript to the desks of seven senior editors at major NY publishing houses. All seven editors said some variation on the same: Fabulous read, great story, but not “universal” enough — not “enough” women would relate to the “trailing” theme. What?! These “positive rejections” incensed me because of all the things I believed in about the book, the one I most believed in was just how universal the story is. What woman hasn’t at one time or another compromised her own needs and aspirations for a relationship?
The agent and I parted ways, as he (very unhelpfully) told me that if these “Big 7″ wouldn’t go for it, no one would. Well I refused to give up, and started looking for a small independent press. I got an offer from a Minnesota-based publishing house – but there was a condition: I had to be willing to spend a year touring across the USA to promote the book! No matter how much I dreamed of publishing Trailing, this was an impossibility. My husband travels all the time for work, my kids are small, and I hate flying! It was a true values clarification moment: I desperately wanted to see my book come alive, but not, as it turned out, at any cost. I sat on it for almost a year, and then, with the prodding and encouragement of friends and family, I decided to publish the book myself, completely on my terms. I used a professional publication service and several months later, after approving covers, interior layouts, final tweaks etc, I launched the book! Refusing to take no for an answer, or compromise what works for my family just to get the book published, became the perfect metaphor for what I had to work out as a “trailing spouse-” how to make the life I wanted happen, regardless of the limitations surrounding me. Six months post book launch I am delighted to report that the book is doing extremely well. The biggest gift is in the steady trickle of emails from women around the world who thank me for daring to tell the story and to discuss the “dark side” of expat life.
What books are on your nightstand?
My husband laughed when I told him about this question. He is constantly shocked by the huge pile, that just keeps growing, next to my side of the bed! Every night he says “are you going to read all fifteen of those tonight?” and I reply, “As a matter of fact, yes!” I love a big stack of books: it makes me feel safe. So what’s in the pile right now? I’ll just list the top of the heap:
Smashed: Story of a Drunken Girlhood by Koren Zailckas
Heartburn by Nora Ephron
The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch
and a big bunch of half-read New Yorkers.
I’m currently working on a novel, something that came to me this summer when I was camping on Cape Cod, and was spurred by the arguments I was hearing on every corner I turned, about the Fifty Shades of Grey series (Those books are sooooo good/hot/steamy or Those books are sooooo stupid/contrived/tacky) All this polemic made me think about what kind of story I would find sexy, steamy, interesting, etc, and the book that I’m working on is the answer. I’ll just give a little teaser: it’s the story of a middle aged woman who finds herself in the throes of her own personal sexual revolution. I need to learn how to say that without turning fifty shades pinker!
Wishing everyone a safe and happy Thanksgiving! I am sharing a few photos taken on the trip to Cognac. Hope that you will enjoy the fall colors!
It has been great to have Moonlight in Odessa out in French and to be invited to so many book fairs. I have been on a literary Tour de France, starting with a reading in at the Cadran Lunaire bookshop in Macon, Burgundy; then the Salon du Livre in Alençon, Normandy; the Salon du Livre in Paris; Festival America in Vincennes; the Fête du Livre in Saint-Laurent-sur-Saône in Ain; and now the European Literature Festival in Cognac on November 17th and 18th, where I am looking forward to seeing writers such as Marina Lewycka, author of A Short History of Tractors in Ukraianian, and Andrey Kurkov, author of The Penguin. If you are in the area, I hope to see you there!
Rosemary Flannery is the author of Angels of Paris: An Architectural Tour through the History of Paris. Over the years, Rosemary and I have talked about our writing and research, and I am thrilled to learn that her book is coming out on November 6th! Rosemary studied French at Columbia and studied Méthodologie de l’Architecture with Professor Claude Mignot, an authority on Parisian building façades, at the Sorbonne. While at Columbia she co-produced and hosted French Encounters, a public-access television program on French culture produced in conjunction with the French Embassy. In 2005 she created and produced The Art Beat, a weekly cultural magazine for Paris Live Radio, an internet radio station; several of her programs were picked up by BBC World. She works as a writer, artist, and also gives tours of Paris museums and neighborhoods.
What brought you to Paris?
I first came to Paris in 1977, while working as a model. I had always had the feeling that France was my destiny, before ever coming here. I loved everything I read and knew about it: the food, the culture, the literature, the art movements which took place here, the fashion, the history . . . for me it seemed that all roads led to Paris! I returned to the States after a year, finished up my degree in French language and literature, and began working for French companies, so I came often on business. I moved here in 1989.
What keeps you here?
I feel that I belong here, that this is home.
Can you tell readers about your book?
My book is about angels in architecture, found all over Paris. I was amazed by all the depictions of angels in architecture, all throughout Paris. The first one I noticed was a giant angel atop a column at the entrance to the Parc Montsouris; then I began to discover them everywhere. I began to photograph them, thinking I would perhaps make cards with photos of angels (I had a card business with scenes of Paris I had designed at that time). But I became intrigued by the different types of angels, and the various artistic periods they reflected. I had the somewhat mystical idea that Paris is protected by angels. They also seemed to be part of the intrinsic beauty of Paris. Little by little angels seemed to fly more and more into my path – sometimes friends pointed out ones they had seen, but mostly I found them myself by looking up, down and all around. Once I went down a ‘wrong’ street and found an angel designed on a door grill. After that I found two others of that type. And I was astonished to find a duo of baby angels holding the seal of Paris, across from the Hotel de Ville!
How long did it take you to gather the photos and to do the research?
I began taking the photos little by little from the 1990′s onwards, and then began seriously photographing them and organizing them sometime around 2008. I thought that perhaps I could organize a photo exhibition in the various mayors’ offices of Paris, and sell photos to raise money while working on the book; I also wanted to make a donation to a childrens’ organization in Paris. But the administration told me that I would have to form an association, which didn’t interest me, and also said that if I wanted to give money away, I should give it to them, to use for their patrimony renovation projects, but it was not what I had in mind at the time! Still, there were wonderful signs along the way nonetheless – one of the persons I met with was named Engel – angel in German!
The photos were challenging to do, as I cover 70 different angels in the book, and they are located in each of the twenty arrondissements. Some needed to be shot in the early morning, others in mid-afternoon, others just before sunset. Many – like the cherubs holding a lightening rod atop the Theatre du Chatelet, or the angels on the Sainte Chapelle spire or on the back of Sacre Coeur – are very high up, so I took to bringing a ladder with me around Paris along with a 300 mm lens, to be sure of getting close-ups in order to show all the wonderful details of the sculptures. I could hear people below saying I was mad, but then also, ‘quelle bonne idée!’ This is how I had ’eureka’ moments, like when I found dolphins’ heads around the angels of Val de Grace – a reference to the ‘dauphin’, Louis XIV.
How long did it take you to do the research?
I had the idea to do the book sometime around 2007. I wrote two sample chapters to include in a book proposal, and tested one of them, so to speak, by having the chapter posted in a popular blog about Paris in December 2009. I loved my project but wasn’t certain others would share my enthusiasm for the angels of Paris. In the end, the story was picked up by several other blogs, including Lonely Planet, which gave a sense of validation. I took some time to write a thorough book proposal and signed with a literary agent in May of 2010. Work began much more in earnest from then on, for the photography and the research. The research was very extensive, but so much fun to do, absolutely fascinating, with a lot of fantastic discoveries, such as finding an original engraving showing the angels of St. Nicolas du Chardonnet holding a cross and crosier in their little arms, instead of revolutionary pikes! The angels had been ‘armed’ by the revolutionaries.
Once I signed with my publisher – who was a dream to work with, and whose first name is Angela! – in February 2011, it was a very intense year and a half of research, photography and writing until completion of the manuscript and photos in July 2012.
How did you decide to organize the book?
I originally wanted to organize the book chronologically, with angels from the Middle Ages to the 20th century, as I am particularly fascinated by art history and the history of France, and the way that the angels reflect the ‘esprit du temps’. However Random House (the distributor) wanted it be organized by arrondissement, and there is a logic to that as well. The solution turned out to be organizing by period within each arrondissement.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to write a book about Paris?
My experience is with non-fiction, so in that case I would recommend writing a couple of chapters and testing the idea, if possible, by posting a version of a chapter in a blog or submitting it to a travel or Paris-based magazine. Taking the time to write a good book proposal is important also, as it helps to structure one’s thoughts and inspires other ideas.
What is the best advice you have ever received?
Take one day off a week, or at least a half-day off a week, no matter how much you love what you’re doing. It is so easy to be carried away by the passion of work! but exercise, eating well, sleeping and seeing friends are also vital.
What books are on your nightstand?
Art and Architecture in France, 1500-1700 by Anthony Blunt. A seminal
work, which covers everything during this key period in France: painting, sculpture, architecture, history and the personalities of the creators; it is a great read. I dipped into it while doing my research but now want to read it more completely.
Nobody is a Nobody: The story of a Harlem ministry hard at work to change America by Rev. Eugene S. Callender. A friend lent me this book, recently published. It is the inspiring story of a man born in Harlem of parents from Barbados who went on to become a key figure in the civil rights movement and served on special projects under five presidents. It is very moving to learn of the immense struggle and effort it took to fight racism.
For the immediate future, I will be promoting Angels of Paris and traveling to the US in December for book signings at Rizzoli, NYC and Barnes & Noble in Paramus, NJ; I also have a lecture and book signing scheduled at the Philadelphia Center for Architecture. In Paris, I will give a talk at the American Library on November 28th.
As for my next project, I would like to write a screenplay about life in Paris in 1860, the height of the renovation of the capital under Napoleon III and Baron Haussmann. I ‘met’ many different characters during my research – architects, sculptors, photographers, Haussmann, Napoleon III and others – and I could feel the energy of this incredible period, and what it must have been like to have lived during that time.