John Pearce is a part-time Parisian who lives happily most of the the year in Sarasota, Florida. He worked as a journalist in Washington and Europe, where he covered economics for the International Herald Tribune and edited a business magazine. After a business career in Sarasota, he now spends his days writing a series of thrillers set in Paris. The latest, “Last Stop: Paris,” released in December, was a finalist in Shelf Unbound Magazine’s “Best Indie Book of the Year.” It is a sequel to “Treasure of Saint-Lazare,” which gathered enthusiastic reviews, and was chosen the best historical mystery of 2014 in the Readers’ Favorite contest. Pearce also blogs at Part-Time Parisian. This interview was conducted via e-mail.
JH: You’ve just published “Last Stop: Paris,” the second in a series of historical thrillers you’re writing. Can you briefly describe the situation that your protagonist, Eddie Grant, faces at the beginning of this book?
JP: Eddie’s had some tough breaks, if you can say that about somebody who’s very rich and lives in Paris. His wife and young son were murdered in their Paris apartment ten years ago, and his father died under mysterious circumstances the same year, all because some unknown madman convinced himself they knew where to find a Raphael painting that’s been missing since the end of World War II. (The part about the painting is true, and it’s still missing.)
Eddie learns in Treasure of Saint-Lazare who did the actual killing, but he isn’t able to find out who was behind it. When Last Stop: Paris opens, he’s happy in his passionate relationship with Aurélie, a Sorbonne professor. They arrive at a typically elegant cocktail party, and it’s there he gets the first hint that the evil genius behind the murders is active again. When a couple of Russians try to run him down on Boulevard Saint-Germain he’s sure, and from there he’s on the chase.
JH: You spent much of your life as a journalist, writing about economics for the International Herald Tribune, editing a business journal, and working as a police reporter, among other careers. When and why did you decide you wanted to write fiction, and was it a difficult transition? What are some of the particular challenges–and maybe the special joys–of writing fiction after a long career in journalism?
JP: I started in journalism as a wire-service reporter, first covering the Civil Rights movement in Mississippi, then economics and finance in Washington for Associated Press. I met my wife Jan in Washington, where she was covering the same beat for the Washington Post.
Even though I went on to write for and edit magazines, I was basically a short-form writer. Believe me, it’s a long step from 800-word news articles to 80,000-word novels.
We owned a business in Sarasota for almost 20 years, and when we sold it I decided to take a shot at a novel. I learned almost immediately that I didn’t know enough about the form to handle it, so I pulled back and created my own home-study course in novel writing. Blogs like yours were a very important part of that.
To me, the most fun part of writing a novel is the pure act of creation, the chance to build your own world. I have the opportunity to mine all the ideas that have come to me during our annual two-month stays in Paris and our other travels through Europe. For Last Stop, I also drew on the time we lived in Germany, which is where my wife and I wrote for the International Herald Tribune and edited [separate] magazines.
JH: What is the hardest thing about writing a thriller? What is the most fun?
JP: The story concept is the hardest part, hands down. Then comes the first page, because that sets the direction of the entire story.
The most fun, to me, is creating a sense of place. Paris is the most important one, and it appeals very strongly to American readers, but I like to explore other places as well.
If you look at the map that opens Last Stop, which marks each of the cities where the major action takes place, you’ll see what I mean. I’ve seen every region I wrote about except the port of Burgas, Bulgaria, for which I thank Google Earth.
JH: Who are some of your favorite authors? And what are you reading now?
JP: Every writer, and I’m no exception, has to read in his own and similar genres. In addition, I read literary fiction and nonfiction, plus a lot of journalism, which is a great source of ideas.
To start with nonfiction, right now I’m re-reading The Big Short, by Michael Lewis, about the banks’ shenanigans that nearly crashed the economy. Last year I read Piketty’s immense tome, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, the economics blockbuster.
One of the most impressive nonfiction books I’ve read recently is When Paris Went Dark, by Amherst professor Ron Rosbottom. Jan and I met him at a party in Paris last summer. She had read the book, which I’d bought as research for a future novel. He read my novels and gave me great blurbs for both. I’m both proud of and grateful for that.
My favorite Paris book is still David Downie’s Paris Paris. He’s done a couple more since then, and they are outstanding as well. He really knows Paris, as does his wife, Alison Harris, an outstanding photographer who took the photos you see on my book covers.
In fiction, I’m a fan of Alan Furst. I started this journey by reading Graham Greene and John Le Carré, whose books are still on my Kindle. One book I’ve enjoyed recently is Stoner, a 1965 novel by John Williams that was recently revived by the New York Review of Books. I will read anything by Elizabeth Gilbert or Ann Patchett. Right now I’m reading Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.
JH: I’m interested in the fact that your novels–though much of the action takes place in Paris–cover a broad range of geographical settings–from Munich and Krakow to Sarasota and Miami. How do you manage to do that, and how much time do you have to spend in a place before you are able to render it with accuracy?
JP: We like to travel, and we like to spend time in the places we visit. It’s very seldom that we spend less than a week in a city, and frequently we go more than once. We frequently attach a research trip to the front or back end of our stay in Paris.
JH: You spend part of each year in Paris, and the rest of the time are based in Sarasota, Florida. What do you love most about each of these places? What do you miss about Paris when you’re in Sarasota, and Sarasota when you’re in Paris?
JP: That’s a core question. Phrased another way it could be, “Why don’t you just pick one and stay there?”
The short answer is that there are very appealing aspects of both. We’re Americans and want to feel that we live in the United States, but when we’re in Paris we’re completely comfortable there.
Sarasota is an arts city, but no one would say those arts are at the level offered in Paris, so when we’re in Paris we spend a lot of time in the theater, mainly ballet and opera.
Sarasota has the beach, too.
JH: What is your favorite neighborhood in Paris, and why is it? What is your favorite thing to do there?
JP: Our first and second years we stayed in Montmartre, but low on the hill, close to the cemetery. The third year we stayed in the 6th arrondissement, not all that far from Napoleon’s Tomb and Les Invalides. Later we discovered the 14th, a district that’s not a bit pretentious but has dozens–maybe hundreds–of good restaurants, and we just keep going back. We’ve rented there for five or six years straight, and will go back if we can find the right rental.
The 14th is home to Rue Daguerre, the well-known pedestrian street that’s wall-to-wall restaurants and food shops–I set a dramatic scene in Last Stop there–plus a bunch of parks, squares, and open-air markets. It’s in Montparnasse, Hemingway’s haunt. Last year, our apartment was around the corner from a hotel where Sartre and de Beauvoir lived for a time, and near her apartment overlooking the cemetery. One of their favorite restaurants, La Rotonde, is also one of ours.
Also, transportation is good. A zillion bus lines run across the Place Denfert-Rochereau, and the busy Line 4 métro takes us straight from there to the language school we frequent, Lutèce Langues, just across the river at Châtelet.
JH: Will Washingtonians have the pleasure of finding their city featured in any of your books?
JP: Jan and I spent a week in Washington last fall and I made some notes, but the city has changed so much it would be hard to mesh current facts with fond memory. I may take a close look at it, however.
While we were there, we spent a lot of time at Politics & Prose bookstore and in its café, and I see that you teach there. We lived up and down Connecticut Avenue well before P&P came into being, but we know the neighborhood and liked it–and we could walk to work.
JH: What are you working on now? Is there another Eddie Grant adventure in the works?
JP: There sure is. The next book, as yet untitled, will feature Eddie and Aurélie, and a group of new characters. I think it will open in Miami and move to Paris, but I’ve been known to change my mind. After that one is done, I have plot outlines for several others, including one featuring Eddie’s father and his time as a U.S. Army spy in Occupied France.
Thanks for inviting me to do this interview. I admire your blog and look for your tweets.
Janet Hulstrand is a writer, editor, and teacher of writing, and of literature. She divides her time between the Washington D.C. area, where she teaches at Politics & Prose bookstore, and Essoyes, a beautiful little village in the Champagne region of France, where she offers Writing from the Heart workshops several times a year.
Sharon Ann Wildey is a lawyer, ordained minister, conflict mediator, teacher, writer, and poet. She graduated from Indiana University with a BA in Forensic Science and a Law degree (JD). During her early years of practicing law, she found herself on the cutting edge of the “new” feminist issues of the era: equality in divorce, marriage, health care, sports, employment, and education. In 1980 she founded the Women’s Legal Clinic, which served the needs of women and children in four locations in Indiana. Later she joined a law firm in Chicago that specialized in complex litigation and space law, and also served as a conflict mediator for Cook County Circuit Court.
After she retired from the practice of law she obtained a Masters of Divinity from Chicago Theological Seminary, was ordained in the United Church of Christ, and developed a specialty in working with congregations that were in transition or had suffered traumatic events.
Sharon currently lives in Costa Rica, where she is building her writing career, following the path of her beloved Aunt Hellen Wildey Ochs. “Ann,” as she is known in Costa Rica, has published several books of poetry, and a travel/political/life blog called email@example.com. She also maintains a web site for abandoned parents at http://www.abandonedparents.net and two Facebook pages: Parents Abandoned By Their Adult Children, and Parents Healing From Estrangement.
Sharon’s five books of poetry are available online at www.sharonwildeypoetry.com. Her book Abandoned Parents: The Devil’s Dilemma, Causes and Consequences of Adult Children Abandoning Their Parents was published in September, 2014, and On the Mountain in the Morning: The Politics of Prose in Healing in 2015. Currently she is working on three more books: “Advices to Young Ladies, a Sequel,” “Abandoned Parents: Healing Beyond Understanding: Easing the Pain of Alienation,” and her autobiography. She mentors young women and men from a variety of professions and countries, and has also continued her work as a pastoral counselor.
Sharon participated in my Writing from the Heart workshop in Essoyes in the fall of 2010. She recently agreed to answer questions about her work, as well as the path that brought her to writing. JH
You’ve led a pretty interesting life, starting out in small-town Indiana, with stints in Chicago, and now Costa Rica. You’ve achieved success and fulfillment in several different careers–as lawyer, mediator, minister, writer. I’m happy to learn that you’re currently working on your autobiography because I think you have quite a story to tell. As you tell the story of your life, are you finding common themes that connect all the different parts of your life? What has been your most compelling drive? What has inspired you to do the various kinds of work you’ve done? And what connects the Sharon of today to the Sharon who started out as a girl in Indiana many years ago?
My story is very tense and often not pretty. I am not a bring-yourself-up-by- the-bootstraps person. I grew up in ugliness, both family and social. I lived in KKK country, which has now morphed into right wing religious bigotry. I struggled to become educated and to stand against all of that.
I am a person who has a deep sense of compassion–off the scale on most charts–coupled with an idealist sense of justice. This is a fatal combination, and people like me are sentenced to wander the world like the sacrificial goat, not only as a being illuminating the sins of the world but also as the reflector of truth on some scale. I find that I do not have to even speak the truth, people just sense in me something threatening. So I have found late in life, a slow burn so to speak, that writing about atrocity and hatefulness is my subject matter. People criticize me for this. My writing has been criticized as “moralistic” and “guilt producing” and a “rant.” All of which is true, I think. My religious friends wish that I could move on, close friends know that I can’t. I know that only on a minute scale am I important. On the grand scale I am nothing, and I have nothing to say. So there it is – my personal dilemma.
Can you tell us a little bit about the aunt who inspired you to write? What was she like? How and why was she important in your life?
My Aunt Hellen was my inspiration only after I was old enough to reflect on her interaction with me. Yes, she literally saved my life on a couple of occasions when my inattentive parents nearly killed me. And yes, she showed me a world where, because of the boundaries caused by my upbringing, I dared not go. She also was a hard-ass taskmaster for whom any imperfection, any slight error was damning. At the very end of her life she gave her approval of me. Women in my fraternal family have lived out the consequence of the violation of my great-grandmother who was raped and bore a child out of wedlock in a community of religious zealots. Her name was Rose Johnson. As a consequence of that my family lived in fear of social consternation and offset that fear with a hard-line Christian worldview that spread to all aspects of our life. I hope that generational legacy has ended with me.
It’s a pretty upsetting topic that you cover in your recently published works: the abandonment of parents by their adult children. How did you come to have an interest in this topic, and what made you want to write a book about it? Is there a personal story behind this? And can you tell us a little bit about the books you have written on this topic?
I have said in the first book that I was searching for something to help me understand what happened to my family. That is as far as I have gone, and as far as I am comfortable going.
The purpose of the first book, Abandoned Parents, was twofold: first to authenticate the injury, and secondly to try to form some framework for discussing and perhaps understanding this phenomenon as a developing social issue.
The book has been criticized on two levels: the first criticism is that it is moralistic, and the second is that it is not very compassionate toward the adult children who abandoned their parents, since I suggest that there is never a good reason to abandon your parents. I think both criticisms are correct. In my defense, or by way of explanation, I believe there are obligations, both moral and ethical, that come along with being in human relationships. Historically this has been especially true of parents and children.
Secondly, I think abandoning your parents is an extreme decision. We seem to have lost the art of working around or through issues that arise in families, even those that are merely annoying.
The Abandoned Parent book has now sold close to 900 copies in a bit more than a year and continues to sell at the same rate each month. There have been 50 reviews of the book, all but one of them expressing heartbreaking gratitude. I have received more than 50 emails from people who claim that the book has saved their lives. And it has been translated into French.
On the Mountain is my personal journey through despair in prose. It is meant to be helpful to those who are focusing on their own wellness. It was helpful to me, and perhaps to others as well. I do not think it is limited to the abandonment of parents, but feeling abandoned does seem to be a constant element in woundedness.
The third book, due out soon, is to be titled “Abandoned Parents: Healing Beyond Understanding: Easing the Pain of Alienation.” In this book I am looking again at the aspects of the wound, defining it in ways that hopefully will give parents a better understanding of what they are feeling in body and mind. The book goes on to suggest a pathway to easing their pain. A fourth book will be written for the adult children who have abandoned their parents. After that, I will be finished with the subject.
The personal journey of writing book such as these has filled me with a feeling of gratitude that I have been able to help others. I am blessed to be able to reach out and touch people who are desperately broken. At the same time, to engage in this level of pain over a sustained period of time has taken a personal toll.
What wisdom I have on the subject I have put in the first two books, and it will also be in the third book. The abandonment of parents remains a mysterious event that is global in nature and completely unrelated to culture, education, class, race, or wealth. In cultures that are typically known for parent honoring, such as Japan and South American countries, the phenomenon is being found on a scale as deep as in the U.S. and Europe. There are no statistics, but it is said that everyone knows at least one parent who has this problem, and at least two parents who describe their relationship with their adult children as walking on eggshells.
You’ve also published five books of poetry. When did you first start writing poetry, what inspired you to do it, and what has writing poetry given you? Why is it important, to you, (and maybe to anyone)?
Poetry for me came out of the blue in the form of my poem titled “Mary.” It popped into my mind and I had to write it down. From that time on, poems have popped into my mind and I write them down. I find that if I have to edit much it doesn’t come out right as a poem. Another view of this is that traumatized people have difficulty with brain function in that the two lobes of the brain resist communication and often speech is impaired and separated from emotions. I believe that poetry for me and other poets often reflect our brain’s compulsion to communicate using symbolic speech in place of stories that have a beginning, a middle, and an end. But who knows where it comes from? It just is. I do not view myself as a great poet at all. I think I am a good poet, and for me it is irresistible not to write it all down.
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. This post is second in a series of interviews with past participants of Writing from the Heart sessions.
“My job is to create a wave of happiness around me….” Interview with an Essoyenne painter in pursuit of a beautiful tradition…
First in a series of interviews with “Writing from the Heart” alums, featuring their stories and their work…
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. On the fourth side, the names of those lost in World War II…