Author reading from That Paris Year at W.H. Smith’s in Paris, 2012
The Next Big Thing
What is the title/working title of the book?
The title is That Paris Year.
Where did the idea for the book come from?
The genesis for the book, which centers on the experience of five young women who go from Southern California to attend the Sorbonne in 1962-63, came from my own experience doing just that. It was such a multi-faceted awakening that when I came to write about it, the most natural way seemed to express the multiple experiences through the lives of many characters—although one narrator tells the story.
In addition to the remarkable education that comes from “voyaging abroad” (one of the expressions that runs through the book), and from experiencing the world through communicating in a new language, other significant changes generally come to people at the age of 20. There are the great questions of love, finding meaning, discovering a life path, separating from one’s parents (in this case mothers) and of finding one’s identity. For these young women, who lived in such close proximity emotionally to each other at this time, I was interested in exploring how their shifting identities influenced each other’s.
Also, for me, landscape is very important, and I wanted to see how the duel landscapes—the left-behind California and the newly discovered France—influenced them, and how their views of those places changed with their own changes. I wanted to express the ways in which the exterior landscape reflected the interior one.
What genre does your book fall under?
It is literary fiction, though I have noticed that sometimes it’s classified as a memoir. This confusion has led to some amusing moments when I get asked about “true” events in the book that actually took place only in my imagination.
What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?
This is a fun question to think about. In truth, since there are many characters in this novel, I have at this point gone only far enough in my mind to cast the five young women, and I chose these actors with the caveat that you imagine them at 20. For J.J., the narrator, I imagine Elizabeth McGovern; for the blond, cool beauty of Jocelyn, Cate Blanchett; for the wild redhead Evelyn, Nicole Kidman; for the deep and mysterious Melanie, Lost star Elizabeth Mitchell; and for the brilliant, plain, complex Grace, René Zellweger.
What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?
When five young co-eds set sail on a rusty boat in the summer of 1962 determined to enroll in the Sorbonne, what they lost was more than their virginity, their bad American accents, and their beloved clichés about “meaning”; what they gained, as they traded notes, clothes, dreams, loves and identities was the gift of geography — the tectonic shift that occurs upon discovering that place, native or adopted, is an integral part of who we are.
How long did it take you to write the first draft of this book?
Would you believe about 30 years? That included years in graduate school, marriage, children, working, and decades of putting it aside altogether. The first draft finished at last, with some dedicated time finally set aside to work on it, and excellent editing, the second, much revised draft took about two years.
Who or what inspired you to write the book?
Besides my experience and discovery of Paris, writers whose language and ability to weave complex stories that move easily through time zones and varied landscapes—in particular Proust and Lawrence Durrell in The Alexandria Quartet–influenced me a lot. I was also inspired by other writers on Paris, such as the poet Apollinaire and Durrell’s contemporaries in Paris, Anais Nin and Henry Miller.
What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
In an era of e-books and cheap paperbacks, this book is a visual and tactile treat for old-fashioned book lovers. With an original painting of two young women in Paris by Gregory Robinson on the cover, quality paper, French folds and reader-friendly layout and print, it is a pleasure to hold. More than one bookseller has told me, “A book like this is so rare these days.”
Was your book self-published or represented by an agency?
No. It was published by a small literary press in Bethesda, Maryland, near Washington, D.C. It was acquired by publisher James J. Patterson, whom I knew personally, and edited by Rose Solari, whom I also knew, and her team of editors at Alan Squire Publishing. They have collaborative arrangements with other literary presses and organizations both in the U.S. and the U.K. So, the best of both worlds—wonderful editing and attention to detail, but with a broad scope of connections and networks.