I’m pleased to introduce a new section on my blog, where occasionally I will feature interviews with some of my Writing from the Heart “alums.” Today’s post features novelist Renee Canter Johnson.
Renee participated in her first writing workshop with me in Essoyes in the fall of 2010, an experience she wrote about here. From her first somewhat hesitant–though gutsy–steps toward making her writing public, she has taken off! She has won awards for her writing, been a visiting writer in residence at Noepe Center for Literary Arts on Martha’s Vineyard twice, and has attended additional writing retreats in Italy and France. Bonjour Paris, Storyhouse, and Study Abroad have published her articles and essays, and she maintains two popular and very active blogs: http://writingfeemail.com for sharing her travel experiences, and random insights, and Renee Johnson Writes , which features her journey as a writer.
Though she is kept quite busy with a full-time job; homemaking and spending time with her family; promoting her books; and continuing to write new work, she agreed to take the time to answer a few questions about her writing career via e-mail.
JH: When did you first know you wanted to be a writer?
RCJ: I wrote my first novel, in pink ink on lined paper, when I was nine years old. Living through the main character, becoming the person in the story, was nearly as fulfilling for me as the actual experiences might have been. What followed was a stream of journaling, bad—seriously bad—poetry, and novels pieced together from the notes I scribbled on scraps of paper and old notebooks. But it was my personal secret. I didn’t tell anyone about this habit.
JH: How would you describe the path from when you first had the desire to be a writer, to when you became a published author?
RCJ: It was a gated pathway through a secret garden. Although a college professor had praised my work, even invited me to join the creative writing club she belonged to, it was the 1980s, a time for start-ups, dot-coms, excessive everything. Writing as a form of career wasn’t suggested or encouraged, except as a hobby. I suppose it was this lack of respect for the craft that caused me to hide my writing compulsion, and I allowed access to it to no one until my son left for college and I ran away to France to participate in Writing from the Heart in Essoyes, under your direction. When I first slipped an excerpt of my writing to you, I was really nervous about how you would respond. I was first shocked, then relieved beyond measure, when you validated my scribblings. The confidence you instilled in me was all I needed to pursue my writing with unending fervor.
JH: What do you love most about writing?
RCJ: My favorite thing about writing is creating life where none existed before. When I’m journaling or writing essays about my own life and travels, I’m documenting proof, and truth, of my existence. When I’m writing novels, I’m acutely aware that I am giving birth to words and worlds which didn’t exist on the planet before my characters were called into being and given tasks. Writing also helps me to make sense of the world around me, to work out conflicts—internal and external—through my characters and their issues.
JH: What is hardest about it?
RCJ: For now, the hardest part is finding blocks of time which I can dedicate solely to writing. With a full-time job, a home and husband, and animals to care for, I have found the only time frame in which no one bothers me is from 4:30 am to 6:30 am. Yes, this is often difficult. But it works.
JH: What is the most surprising thing you have learned about it, along the way?
RCJ: The most surprising thing about writing is when people tell me how much they enjoyed reading one of my novels or blog posts. For someone who hid her work for decades, it is still amazing to know people actually want to read what I’ve written and then enjoy it.
JH: What advice do you have for other aspiring writers?
RCJ: Aspiring writers are likely already writing, so I’d say to them to remember that it is not the acquisition of a publisher or agent which makes them writers, but the act itself. They are writers, and must keep reading, writing, attending retreats and workshops like Writing from the Heart.
JH: Can you tell us a little bit about your two published novels?
RCJ: Acquisition, my first published novel, is a spicy contemporary romance with layers of mystery and intrigue. The hero, Reece Jordan, and the heroine, Amanda Lassiter, both have a lot at stake, and they often clash in the office of the building supply company Amanda’s Chicago based firm is in charge of acquiring. Faced with the dilemma of doing the right thing, or that which will guarantee her promotion, Amanda discovers that nothing is quite as it seems.
The Haunting of William Gray is my second novel with The Wild Rose Press. A Southern American Gothic, it takes place in Georgetown, South Carolina, an important historical town that is often overshadowed by its two neighbors, Myrtle Beach and Charleston. Listed among the most-haunted cities in the United States, its roots reach back further than the Revolutionary War. Within a backdrop of Spanish moss, old seafaring wealth, and a spooky old house on a privately owned island, William Gray seeks evidence of the ghost he believes is haunting him by employing a photographer, Madeline Waters, to capture the image. A single shot of the apparition is all he needs to prove he isn’t losing his mind; and the promised private journals of the first William Gray, the sea captain who built the house, are hers, to complete her thesis, if she succeeds.
JH: What is the one thing you wish you could have known much earlier in your life as a writer?
RCJ: To respect the muse instead of hiding it beneath the sofa cushions, and then to have confidence in the resulting work.
JH: What’s next for Renee Canter Johnson? Any new books in the works?
I’m still blogging at my two websites, http://writingfeemail.com for random observations, photography, and travel pieces, and http://reneejohnsonwrites.com for a more focused insight into my journey as a writer. There are four novels in the works at the moment. One, an international suspense story, is finished, and has just been submitted to my editor at The Wild Rose Press. Its sequel is in the works, as is a young adult novel, and a Christmas novel. Stay tuned for updates on how they are working out!
Janet Hulstrand is a writer, editor, and teacher of writing, and of literature. She divides her time between the Washington D.C. area and Essoyes, a beautiful little village in the Champagne region of France, where she offers Writing from the Heart workshops several times a year.
I haven’t managed to collect my thoughts about what happened last Friday in Paris yet, enough to know what to say. Like so many others, the news has me stunned, saddened, reeling.
But it felt wrong to leave the home page of this blog still stuck on last Wednesday’s post, a post about honoring and remembering past French losses: painful losses to be sure, but losses somewhat softened by the passage of time.
So I decided to use this space to share a few of the thoughts my family and friends have shared in the aftermath of the dreadful events of November 13 in Paris.
In the first 24 hours of the crisis, my son Phineas posted this note on Facebook: “During my childhood, my family would go to Paris every summer. I learned to rollerblade there, spent hours in parks and cafes with my dad and brother, collected bottle caps in front of the Eiffel Tower, participated in exchange programs, and have gone back to visit multiple times. I consider Paris to be just as much my home as I do New York, D.C., and St. Paul. I’m an American, but I feel confused and devastated, as I can only imagine so many French people are feeling right now. Sending prayers to everyone affected by tonight’s horrifying acts of terrorism. #IAmParis #StandWithParis.”
Later that day, Stevie Borrello, one of the students who participated in the Queens College (CUNY) literature class I teach in Paris each summer, posted this note on her page:
“Almost two years ago, my life changed when I traveled abroad for my first time – and on my own. I landed in a city where I had no knowledge of the language or customs, yet I had a feeling Paris was where I needed to be. Its history was constantly prevalent, like a heartbeat under the cobblestone streets. And it was through that history that I learned of all the tenacity and perseverance of the French people. During several moments in its history it seemed as though Paris would not survive, so much so that Germany was once so close from completely destroying the city during World War II. But Paris was stronger and continued to stay alive. Now, when I hear and witness this tragic moment in Paris history I feel my heart shatter. Yet I cannot let the pieces fall apart, because I know I must stay strong and support the people of Paris. Because, as history shows, Paris has fought and been determined not to fall into pieces and become a sentimental moment in history. It continues to show that tragedy is temporary – not forgotten – and that maintaining the beauty and resilience of the city is worth every amount of energy it takes to persevere. Tonight, I pray for Paris and am grateful that my friends there are safe. You are all in my thoughts as I support and hope that Paris will cope and grow from this tragedy.”
Yesterday, as new violence erupted in St. Denis, came this post from my friend David Downie, author of several wonderful books about Paris, a post that, at least to me is comforting for the sense of historical perspective, and thus calm, he evokes: “Here’s how I like to think of St-Denis: not terrorists and France’s first female suicide bomber, who blew herself up a couple of hours ago during a SWAT-team raid on the terror cell’s hideout in St-Denis… but art, history, architecture, civilization… the French Revolution did a number on the basilica and its royal tombs, but St-Denis as a place and an institution and a many-sided symbol survived, just as this lively suburb and indeed all of Paris will survive and thrive and continue to love life, liberty and the pursuit of something akin to happiness… Joy, happiness, positivity, productivity and all life-enhancing states of being are what will defeat the sad, ignorant, brain-washed, hateful, misguided nihilistic individuals behind the continuing attacks… soon they, like the Jacobins with their pikes, sledge hammers and guillotine, or the brutal Napoleon III and occupying Nazis, will be gone, piles of dust and bad memories, blips on the very wide screen of this very old, very deep, very complex city and civilization...”
And this morning, another friend, Gary Lee Kraut, editor of France Revisited, published an extraordinarily wise and beautiful essay, directed toward “those (re)considering coming to Paris,” but good for everyone to read. You can read it here.
The motto of Paris, since at least 1358, has been Fluctuat nec mergitur, which means “Tossed about but not sunk.” It suggests a gritty endurance that is also historical fact.
Whatever lies ahead, there is comfort–and strength–to be drawn from that.
Janet Hulstrand is a freelance writer, editor, and teacher who divides her time between the Washington D.C. area, and France. She writes frequently for Bonjour Paris and France Revisited, and each summer she teaches “Paris: A Literary Adventure” for the education abroad program at Queens College of the City University of New York. She also teaches literature classes at Politics & Prose bookstore in Washington D.C., and Writing from the Heart workshop/retreats in Essoyes, a beautiful little village in the Champagne region.
The war memorial in our little village in Champagne is much like the war memorials found in every little village in France I’ve ever been in: on three sides of the base are carved the names of those who gave their lives “pour la France” during World War I. And on the fourth side, the names of those lost in World War II.
The German invasion of France in 1940, just 22 years after the end of World War I, was achieved with stunning speed. And forever after the French have endured shallow, frivolous jokes about that defeat, which was of course anything but funny.
Today on my Facebook page I shared a tweet from Gérard Araud, French Ambassador to the U.S,, reminding us all of the massive loss of life France suffered in both World War I and II (“Per capita, French casualties were 30 times higher than the US ones during WWI and 5 times higher during WWII….”)
One of my Facebook friends, Thierry Boussard, responded to the Ambassador’s tweet, adding:
That context can be read in the long lists of war dead that every little village in France suffered in World War I. More French soldiers died in WWI than American soldiers in all wars put together. The French lost a whole generation of brave young man defending their country against a ruthless invader. The survivors were nicknamed “the broken faces”. This explains a lot about what was to happen in WWII. This shows how educated one is when one makes “white flag waving” jokes about the French army.
It is an eloquent rebuttal to all those “white flag waving” jokes, and a poignant reminder of the terrible human toll that World War I wrought, particularly in France.
Today I attended the Armistice Day commemoration in our little village. It began at the mairie with the presentation of the flag, and proceeded to the war memorial in the place de l’église. There each of the names on the memorial was read aloud, and after each name “Mort pour la France!” was shouted. A proclamation from the Minister of Defense was read, and flowers were laid at the base of the statue.
From there the défilé proceeded to the cemetery, where solemn tribute was paid in the section dedicated to the war dead, and more flowers were laid.
Tonight, just as I was wondering about when or why or how Armistice Day came to be known as Veterans Day, quite by chance I came across this quote by Kurt Vonnegut, from Breakfast of Champions.
So this book is a sidewalk strewn with junk, trash which I throw over my shoulders as I travel in time back to November eleventh, nineteen hundred and twenty-two.
It was during that minute in nineteen hundred and eighteen, that millions upon millions of human beings stopped butchering one another. I have talked to old men who were on battlefields during that minute. They have told me in one way or another that the sudden silence was the Voice of God. So we still have among us some men who can remember when God spoke clearly to mankind.
Armistice Day has become Veterans’ Day. Armistice Day was sacred. Veterans’ Day is not.
So I will throw Veterans’ Day over my shoulder. Armistice Day I will keep. I don’t want to throw away any sacred things…
What I witnessed this morning in our village was simple, dignified, moving.
And yes. It was sacred.
Janet Hulstrand is a writer, editor, and teacher of literature based in Washington D.C. She spends as much time as she can in France.
Dorothy James is a writer, editor, and translator. She was born in and grew up in Wales, has spent significant amounts of time living in Vienna, and currently lives in New York City. Most recently, she is the author of two mysteries set in Vienna, A Place to Die, and A Place to Live, and of the blog My Place for Mystery. While her mysteries deal with serious topics–even beyond the murders in them–they are also wonderfully witty, sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, and fun to read.
During her academic career, Dr. James taught German language and literature at the University of London and the City University of New York, and English language at the University of Saarbrücken in Germany. She has published books and articles on German and Austrian literature, including one on the Vienna of the 19th century playwright and actor, Raimund and Vienna, as well as many articles on the teaching of foreign languages. She has also published short stories.
Here is our interview, conducted via e-mail:
JH: First of all, can you tell us how your charming, poetry-writing, Viennese Chief Inspector of Police, came by his name? And a little bit about his namesake? Also, was there a real-life (or fictional) model for him, a starting-point, as it were, in creating his character?
DJ: Giving my Viennese police inspector the name of Georg Büchner was a quirky thing to do, and some of my Germanist friends objected to the implied disrespect, since the actual nineteenth-century Georg Büchner is an icon of German literature and of German revolutionary politics.
How did this iconoclastic name-appropriation take place? I was sitting in my little attic apartment in Vienna and amusing myself with the idea of writing a murder mystery. What shall I call the detective, I asked myself, and I began to picture the way he would look. Tall, thin, I thought, with an intelligent face and a twinkle in his eye. Into my mind came a student I had known many years before, not Viennese but German, though I met him in Paris, rejoicing in the unlikely name of Georg Büchner. It really was his name, this young man, a student of sociology who liked to talk politics, literature, philosophy, walking through the streets at night. Seeing before me in my attic this friend of my youth with his famous name, I wondered how he would look now, years later, and whether if I ran into him now, would he walk through the streets of Vienna at night, talking? I saw my Inspector Büchner, carrying his famous name into middle age and keeping the quizzical view of life, the political-literary bent, the thin, intelligent face of that young sociologist, namesake, and admirer of the great Georg Büchner.
JH: You have a distinguished academic career behind you, studying, writing about, and teaching German language and literature. How did you decide to set out on your relatively recent work of writing murder mysteries? What are the unique challenges of writing fiction, especially mystery-writing? Did you turn to any particular writers of mysteries as role models in this venture?
DJ: I lived the academic life for many years, teaching, researching, writing, but there came a point when I wanted to write purely for pleasure: to entertain, not to educate. I was not a murder mystery aficionado, but I had sometimes read murder mysteries for fun, the Lord Peter Wimsey novels of Dorothy L. Sayers, for example, though I share her misgivings at the idea of using murder to entertain. (She gave up writing murder mysteries in the Second World War and turned to translating the medieval Italian of Dante!)
I did, however, launch into my first murder mystery, A Place to Die, for fun. Rather rapidly I realized that it was a bit of an illusion, this “writing for fun.” Yes, I did want to entertain, I wanted even to be funny, to make people laugh sometimes, but I could not altogether break free of a lifetime of trying to convey serious ideas, searching and researching into, through and behind what seemed to be surface reality. And so it happened that my murder mysteries are, I hope, fun to read, but they are in their way serious inquiries into certain aspects of living and dying.
The unique challenge of writing fiction, any fiction, as opposed to writing critical-historical analysis, is that you have to create a good story-line, believable characters and a plausible background so that the reader eagerly turns the pages of the story, and does not feel assaulted by the ideas that are inevitably going through the author’s head.
JH: You grew up in Wales and went to school there, then to universities in London, Munich, and Vienna. At some point later you made a move to the U.S., where you have become a long-time New Yorker. Then, for the first decade of the 2000s, you lived on and off in Vienna. Which of these places now feels most like “home” to you? And what do you appreciate most about each of these places?
DJ: “Home” for me is, was, and always will be Wales. The nineteen years I lived in my parents’ house are indelibly imprinted on my psyche. I have never felt so completely “at home” anywhere else, with all the warmth, security, and love that this expression implies. Also all the traumas that one spends one’s life trying to emerge from. We lived in small valley towns in the South Wales coalfield (as it was called then), in close communities of chapel-going people. My father was a Baptist minister who had started life as a coal-miner at the age of thirteen. Seen from the outside, this was a narrow community, but inside there was warmth, love, support, poetry, music, a lot of singing, and it was undeniably home. Breaking away from it was necessary, inevitable, painful, and guilt-ridden. I have spent the rest of my life in big cities.
I wanted the anonymity as well as the diversity and the excitement of the city. But since I left Wales, “home” is something I carry in my own head. I am quick to adapt and to create patterns of living in new places, and I have become absorbed in the life of the cities in which I have lived. An expatriate, however, does not easily grow out of the role of outsider and observer. When I go back to Wales, I still feel more of an insider there than I do anywhere else. Though in fact I belong more after all these years in New York City than in the Welsh valleys of today.
JH: You made a decision to study German language and literature not too long after WWII. Was that decision prompted by a particular incentive of some kind? And how did you overcome any feelings you might naturally have had in going to study in a country that had so recently been “the enemy”?
DJ: I did not consciously make a decision to study German language and literature per se. As a girl in school, I knew early on that my great love was for reading and writing, and since I knew that I would always read and write English, I wanted to be able to do this in other languages too. The other languages offered in my school were only French, German, Latin, and Greek (not even Welsh!). The best teacher, far and away, of any of these languages was the German teacher. He organized exchanges between us and German schoolchildren and schoolteachers, so that by the age of sixteen I had already spent a summer with a German family, and we often had teachers from Germany staying with us at home. My father had been a chaplain in the Second World War, and had survived the channel crossings of D-Day, the advance across the Rhine, and a year or two in the Army of Occupation. He was more than ready, as was my German teacher, to put the horrors of war behind him and look to a new era in Europe. So, yes, as you put it, the Germans had recently been “the enemy,” but a decade is a long time when you are young, and when I began seriously to study the language and literature of Germany and Austria, a decade after 1945, thoughts of the war were not very much in our minds as young people. I have thought a lot more about it since. At the time, I was, for example, enormously excited and grateful after getting my first degree in London to receive an Austrian Government Scholarship to study in Vienna for a year. This was purely and simply a dream come true.
JH: One of the things I love about your mysteries is the way you weave contemporary social issues into the plot. I also love the very thoughtful, thought-provoking reflections that precede each chapter. In your first mystery, “A Place to Die,” the main themes explored in this way were issues of old age, death, and dying. In “A Place to Live” you focus on themes of housing and immigration. What was the inspiration for each of these books? And why did you decide to set them in Vienna?
DJ: I set my murder mysteries in Vienna many years after my student days there when I returned to Vienna from the U.S to conduct an NEH summer seminar for American professors. This was a great excuse to acquire an apartment there, and I kept it for a number of years. It was then that I had the idea of writing murder mysteries “for fun” and it was only natural to set them in Vienna because I was there, living in a little attic apartment on the outskirts of the city. And so I dreamed up Inspector Büchner and invented a story set in a fictional retirement home in the Vienna woods. At that time, my parents and the parents of my contemporaries were dealing with all the problems of old age and dying, and during the time when I was writing the novel, my own father grew very old and died at the age of 97. So the problems of old age, which had their amusing side when I started the novel, became deathly serious to me by the end. Hence my reflections on old age, death, and dying. When later I thought of writing a sequel, I wanted a more optimistic title than “A Place to Die,” and so began “A Place to Live.” I had myself then found “a place to live,” in Vienna. That was in 2008. But again, the writing of the book extended over some years, and in that time my questions regarding “a place to live” became more than merely personal ones, as the growing immigrant population of Vienna created new and urgent political problems in the city. Since I finished the novel, these problems have reached crisis proportions with the recent influx of refugees and the attendant rise of the extreme right-wing, whose party, the “Freedom Party,” won 31% percent of the vote in the elections last month in Vienna. I did not think when I started the novel that these frightening political developments would cast such a dark shadow over its end.
JH: How long did it take you to write each of these novels, and what kind of research was required? What did you love most about writing them, and what was most difficult?
DJ: Each of these novels took a few years to write, because I was doing other things than writing during that time, but in any case, while I tend to write very quickly in spurts – chapters, sections – I need a lot of time in between for my thoughts on what I am writing to sort themselves out. I did research for both of them, but not quite in the way I used to do research. I used to spend days and weeks and months in libraries. Writing the novels, I did look up a lot, of course, mutatis mutandis on the Internet, but I also read the daily newspapers, from Der Standard in Vienna, the Berliner Zeitung in Berlin, to the newspapers written and distributed by the homeless on the streets of both cities. I walked a lot through the streets, sat in cafés, and listened to people talk. I loved doing this, but you ask what I loved most: I loved sitting at my window in my attic with a pen in my hand and a blank page in front of me. I no longer had the sensation that an academic critic was looking over my shoulder. I knew I could let my pen carry me wherever I wanted to go.
JH: I can’t help but notice that the end of “A Place to Live” leaves plenty of room for the story to continue. Will we have the pleasure of meeting Inspector Buchner and his unlikely sidekick, Eleanor Fabian, again? Please say yes! (Or at least, please don’t say no!)
DJ: Thank you for wanting another one! I don’t know. I probably cannot set another novel in Vienna, because I have given up my place to live there. Can these characters be transported elsewhere? Could Inspector Büchner crop up in New York City? Well, why not? That’s the great thing about fiction. All doors are open.
Janet Hulstrand is a freelance writer, editor, and teacher based in Washington D.C. Her articles have been published in Smithsonian and the Christian Science Monitor, and she writes frequently for Bonjour Paris and France Revisited. Each summer she teaches “Paris: A Literary Adventure” for the education abroad program at Queens College of the City University of New York. She also teaches literature classes at Politics & Prose bookstore in Washington D.C., and Writing from the Heart workshop/retreats in Essoyes, a beautiful little village in the Champagne region. She is coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home, and is currently working on her next book, “A Long Way from Iowa,” a literary memoir.
As I prepare for my next “Writing from the Heart…in the Heart of France” workshop/retreat, and think about some of the thoughts the participants who are coming to work with me here have expressed, it occurs to me that one of the most important underlying questions when it comes to approaching our writing is: Does it really matter? (For many, a perhaps more direct, more honest way of stating this question is: Does anyone really care what I have to say?)
Two of our greatest writers have had excellent things to say on this subject. “That is part of the beauty of all literature,” said F. Scott Fitzgerald. “You discover that your longing are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.” James Baldwin expressed a similar thought this way: “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.”
“I believe that if one of us cares enough to write something, someone else will care enough to read it,” says Julia Cameron in The Right to Write: An Invitation and Initiation into the Writing Life. “We are all in this together, I believe, and our writing and reading one another is a powerful comfort to us all.”
Then there are the closing words in Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, one of the texts we use in my workshop. “So why does our writing matter, again?” Lamott’s students ask her. And her answer is:
“Because of the spirit…Because of the heart. Writing and reading decrease our sense of isolation: they feed the soul. When writers make us shake our heads with the exactness of their prose and their truths, and even make us laugh about ourselves or life, our bouyancy is restored. We are given a shot at dancing with, or at least clapping along with, the absurdity of life, instead of being squashed by it over and over again. It’s like singing on a boat during a terrible storm at sea. You can’t stop the raging storm, but singing can change the hearts and spirits of the people who are together on that ship.”
Can it be said any better? I really don’t think so. So I’ll just leave you with that thought.
Janet Hulstrand is a freelance writer, editor and teacher based in the Washington D.C. area. Each summer she teaches “Paris: A Literary Adventure” for the education abroad program at Queens College of the City University of New York. She also teaches literature classes at Politics & Prose bookstore in Washington D.C., and Writing from the Heart workshop/retreats in Essoyes, a beautiful little village in the Champagne region.
M. L Longworth was born in Toronto in 1963. In the early 1980s she studied art history at York University in Toronto. Then, in 1989, as newlyweds, she and her husband bought a van, drove across the United States, and settled in San Jose just before a major earthquake. Two years later they moved to Santa Cruz, where they lived until, on “one fateful day,” Mary Lou decided to experiment with a new-fangled invention called the Internet, by typing in the words “France-Computers-Jobs.” She found a job vacancy for a bilingual (French/English) Webmaster in a little town near Aix en Provence. Her husband got the job, and 18 years later, they are still there.
Mary Lou is the author of a wonderful series of mysteries featuring Antoine Verlaque, an Aixois judge, and his on-again, off-again law professor girlfriend, Marine Bonnet. She graciously consented to answer a few questions via e-mail as I was preparing for the class I am currently teaching at Politics & Prose bookstore in Washington D.C., in which we will be discussing “Death at the Chateau Brémont,” the first in her Verlaque/Bonnet mystery series.
Here is our interview:
MLL: It is certainly a combination of all three, but with lots of naïveté thrown in! It was luck that I found a job posted on the newly-invented Internet (at least to us) in 1996, which advertised a job in the south of France for a webmaster who was bilingual French-English, and who had Silicon Valley experience. My husband fit the bill, and still has the same job. Luck, too, that we were both born in safe countries during peace time, and had plenty of chances for education. Yes, we were determined to have adventures, and to give our daughter, who was four at the time, a bilingual education like my husband had. It does take courage, and now when I look back on it, I ask myself, “How did we do that?”
MLL: I love French values: sitting down to a good meal with friends (that can last six hours) is still more important than having a big car. The pace of life is slow: mandatory six weeks holiday, with many long weekends thrown in. The French value culture, too, and I’ve overheard many conversations between teenagers, or shop girls, about the latest art exhibitions they’ve seen. I love the food and wine here, of course, and that food is seasonal. You don’t eat asparagus in December. I’m not even sure you could find it. Perhaps in a big hyper-marché, which are sadly popping up on the outskirts of our cities.
MLL: It may sound clichéd, but I miss the fact that in North America if you are determined, hard-working, courageous, and a bit lucky, you can make it. In France too much still depends on the university you went to, or your last name. I miss Tex-Mex food, too.
JH: How and why did you decide to make the transition from writing nonfiction to writing fiction? Was it a difficult transition? And what do you like most about each form?
MLL: Turning to writing fiction was kind of like your first question: a combination of luck, determination and courage. After years freelancing I got tired of submitting article pitches to magazines and newspapers; I’d wait weeks, or longer, for an answer, and it was often negative. I realized I was pitching articles that were interesting to me, as a European, but not to an American reader. I was out of the loop. But my articles had lots of descriptive passages about scenery, and food and wine, so I began a novel. The most difficult part of the transition from non-fiction to fiction was the dialogue: it took lots of rewrites to give conversations a natural flow and sound. I then read an article where Roddy Doyle spoke of spoke of the long hours and many revisions he put in over dialogue, so that gave me courage. He’s a master: one of his recent books, “Two Pints,” is just a conversation between two friends in a pub.
JH: You teach creative writing at NYU’s Paris campus. What do you think is the most important thing for young writers who are developing their craft to know? What is the most important thing you try to impart to young writers?
MLL: I am very lucky to teach at NYU (there’s that luck again!). I stress good, clear, communication and what Hemingway called those perfect sentences. The reader has to be able to understand you! Observation is important too. The millennial generation is often accused of being “tuned out” so I take the students around Paris, and have them write about what they are looking at, in detail, whether it’s a painting or a building, but not as an art historian, but how each student sees it: what it means to them. The results are outstanding. The students also write a memoir. They finally have permission to write about themselves, and use “I”! It’s a tricky one, because they can’t get too self-absorbed, otherwise the reader will lose interest. This assignment leads them to find their voice. So often young writers think they have to use another voice, one that’s not their own: they imitate other writers, or try to sound academic. These freshmen, who come from all over the world, are such interesting people, and I want to hear their stories, their words.
JH: Your latest book, “The Mystery of the Lost Cézanne,” has kind of a dual plot, in which Paul Cézanne himself is one of the characters. What made you think of doing this, and what was it like digging into Cézanne’s past?
MLL: I studied art history at university, and Cézanne was born in Aix, so it’s only natural that I’d get around to writing about him. I love reading about history, and so the research was fun, and I enjoyed the challenge of giving two 19th century characters voices. There’s much written about Cézanne’s gruff personality, and I wanted to explore perhaps a softer, kinder side of him.
JH: What’s next for Verlaque and Bonnet? Your readers I’m sure will be eager to know…
MLL I’m writing book six, and there’s a lot in store for Verlaque and Bonnet. They keep evolving as a couple, and I’m happy to report that their relationship keeps getting better and better. Not so on the job front though…
Janet Hulstrand is a writer, editor, and teacher of writing and literature. She writes about France for Bonjour Paris, France Revisited, and on this blog. She teaches “Paris: A Literary Adventure” in Paris each summer for Queens College, CUNY; classes at Politics & Prose bookstore in Washington DC; and Writing from the Heart workshop/retreats in Essoyes, a beautiful little village in the Champagne region. “Death at the Chateau Brémont,” the first in M. L. Longworth’s Verlaque/Bonnet series, is one of the selections that will be discussed in her current class at Politics & Prose, “Mysteries of France.”
Mark Pryor grew up in Hertfordshire, England. After working as a newspaper reporter in Essex, where he covered the crime beat as well as international stories, he moved to the United States, “mostly for the weather.” There he studied law at Duke University, and graduated “with honors, a lot of debt, and one helluva wife.” He is currently an Assistant District Attorney with the Travis County DA’s office in Austin, Texas, where he lives with his wife and three young children. “The Bookseller,” the first in his popular Hugo Marston series, was published in 2012, and has been quickly followed by five more mysteries, most of them set in Paris. Although he is a pretty busy man–with his work as a prosecutor, three young children, a new book (“Hollow Man”) about to be released, and the work on his next book well underway–Mark graciously consented to answer a few questions via e-mail as I was preparing for the new class I will be teaching at Politics & Prose bookstore in September, in which one of the books we will be discussing is “The Bookseller.”
Here is our interview:
JH: You grew up in England, you studied journalism and law in North Carolina, and you now live in Austin, Texas. What made you want to write a series of books based in Paris?
MP: I love the city – I just got back from a research trip (yes, I know, it’s a hard life!). It’s so visually beautiful, so easy to walk. (I measured: my wife and I covered 50 miles there last week). I love the café culture there, too, the people watching. The more practical truth is that I set The Bookseller, my first novel, in Paris because it was while walking alongside the Seine that I had the idea for the book. Maybe if I’d been in Rome or Johannesburg, the series would be set there. I’m very happy about this, of course: see aforementioned research trip!
JH: You have a pretty interesting “day job.” What was the path that led you toward becoming a prosecutor? And when did you first know you wanted to be a writer? Do the two have anything to do with each other, or are they just two very different parts of one very interesting life?
In truth, I was sort of fishing around for a career a little later than most (in my late 20s) and looking to get out of journalism, and had always been interested in things criminal (err, not in that way). I decided to go to law school when I was living in North Carolina, with an eye towards joining the FBI. That didn’t happen, quite the opposite: I found myself working for a fancy law firm in Dallas, and after three years realized I was hating it, wasting my time. I wanted to feel like I was doing something worthwhile, I wanted to be in front of a jury with the drama that entails. So I applied to the DA’s office and landed a job here in Austin.
As for the writing, that’s always been in my blood. I decided to take it seriously, though, about ten years ago. It’s a tough thing, getting published, but I felt like I needed to give it my all. After three novels that went nowhere, and several hundred rejections from agents, I finally got lucky!
There is a connection between the two things, I think: my interest in crime and police investigations. I remember reading Helter Skelter [about the Charles Manson case] and being fascinated by the personalities involved, the good guys and the bad guys, how the police and prosecution pieced together what had happened and made a case in court. Hardly surprising that I now write crime novels. Maybe it’s to further my quest to understand both mindsets.
JH: Can we talk about Hugo Marston, the ex-FBI, now-US Embassy-head-of-security protagonist of your Paris mystery series? To me Hugo is a very sympathetic character: he’s smart, brave, fundamentally decent, and yet he’s been, unfortunately– endearingly, somehow–unlucky at love (like so many of us)…How did you think him up?
MP: Good question. I didn’t build him in some Frankensteinian way, but he’s definitely a more organic assortment of people I’ve known. The strongest influence on Hugo is my father, from where Hugo gets his basic decency and his slightly reserved nature. I’ve also sprinkled in there the cowboy idea, not the gun-slinger but the steely-eyed sheriff who watches over his town in a calm, measured, and intelligent way. What could be better, a cowboy in Paris?!
JH: It’s interesting that part of the plot of “The Bookseller” has its roots in WW II, in the still-festering wounds of the “civil” part of that war, in particular in the still-festering wounds caused by anti-Semitism and those who collaborated with the Nazis during the Occupation. I’ve seen this theme come up more than once in mysteries set in France. Do you have any thoughts about why that may be?
MP: One of the themes that runs through my books is the idea that you can never escape history, either your own personal history or the broader history of the place where you live. So, in The Bookseller I have a little of both. And the truth is, even today the shadow of World War II hangs over much of Europe, there is a sense of unfinished business in some ways. I just finished reading Bruno, Chief of Police by Martin Walker, a super book, and he takes on some similar ideas. Bottom line, those unresolved conflicts, the secrets that come out of any war, make great motivations for characters, make great subplots for crime writers.
JH: Who are your literary mentors? And what do you like to read just for fun?
MP: From my early years I’d point to Agatha Christie and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, for their genius plotting and my first real encounters with brilliant detectives. I see Hugo in that vein, not a hero who relies on shooting and fighting and chasing, but a man who uses his head to solve crimes and catch bad guys. More recently, I’ve paid attention to the way writers put words on the page, and I’m a huge fan of Alan Furst for the way he creates atmosphere, and Tana French for the literary quality of her books.
JH: Do you want to tell us something about your new book, “Hollow Man,” which is being published this month?
MP: For me, it’s something of a departure. It’s about Dominic, who is a prosecutor, a musician, and an Englishman living in Texas. He’s also a psychopath. His main goal is to hide his condition and lead a seemingly normal life while he pays off his debts and tries to make enough money to become a full-time musician. But he falls under the spell of a beautiful woman who convinces him to commit a crime that goes badly, and results in a murder. It’s still crime fiction, but rather than a traditional mystery it’s a real psychological thriller, a look into the mind of a very disturbed (but seemingly functional) person. I loved writing it, and so far the reviews have been great, so I’m hoping I can please a few readers with it.
JH: What comes after the launch of “Hollow Man”? Is there another book in the works? Do we get to follow Hugo on another adventure?
MP: Yes, right now I’m working on Hugo #6. It’ll be set back in Paris, about a murder, maybe even two murders, that takes place at the American Library, right close to the Eiffel Tower. I think the projected release date is June of next year, so I’d better get on with it!
JH: What do you love most about Paris? About England? About Texas?
MP: I just made my 14th trip to Paris, and I could go back tomorrow. I’ve mentioned a few things I love about it, but the main thing for me is the fact it’s such a visually beautiful city. Many major cities have beautiful old buildings, but in my view these days they are often marred by more modern construction which dilutes the sense of history that hits you so fully in Paris. From the winding streets of Montmartre, to the wider boulevards in the 7th arrondissement, there’s so much to see. And the food… I had the second best meal of my life last week. The best was on my honeymoon, also in France.
I don’t say much about England because I don’t feel like I know it any more – it’s been 15 years since I was there. Isn’t that something? Ever since my parents moved to a beautiful house in the Pyrenees mountains, that’s been my place to visit.
And of course Texas is so very different from both places. Austin, where I live, is my family’s kind of town, though: music, art, books, great food… and super-friendly people. I’m not wild about the July-September heat, but the rest of the year it’s a super place to live and raise a family.
JH: Do you have any words of advice for young (or even not-so-young) would-be writers?
MP: The first thing I tell people is to learn the craft of writing. It’s not rocket science, but it’s not a skill most people are born with, it requires a certain degree of study, of application. I’m reworking one of my early novels and when I see how far I’ve come, I didn’t realize how… well, how not great my writing was a few years ago.
The next thing is: don’t quit. I wrote three books before I wrote the one that got published. I queried hundreds of agents and almost every single one of them either turned me down flat or ignored my queries. My wife questioned my sanity a few times, subjecting myself to all the rejections, but I kept plugging along. And you know what? It’s worth it. It’s worth the writing, the rewriting, the “not for me” emails from agents. You’ll get some of those from publishers even when you’re represented. But seeing your books on the shelf at your local bookstore makes it all worthwhile. So my main advice is: don’t give up!
Janet Hulstrand is a writer, editor. and teacher of writing and literature. She writes about France for Bonjour Paris, France Revisited, and on this blog. She teaches “Paris: A Literary Adventure” in Paris each summer for Queens College, CUNY; classes at Politics & Prose bookstore in Washington DC; and Writing from the Heart workshop/retreats in Essoyes, a beautiful little village in the Champagne region. “The Bookseller,” the first in Mark Pryor’s Hugo Marston series, is one of the selections that will be featured in her next class at Politics & Prose, “Mysteries of France.”