An Interview with M. L. Longworth, Author of the Verlaque/Bonnet Mystery Series

M. L. Longworth. Photo by Greg Salvatori.

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:

JH: The story of how you came to live in Provence, which you tell on your blog, is a charming tale in and of itself. What combination of luck, determination, and/or courage do you think accounts for such a wonderful outcome?

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?”

JH: You’ve lived in Provence for 18 years now, right? What do you love most about life there? 

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.

JH: You grew up in Ontario, and before moving to France you lived in California. What do you miss most about American life? 

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.”

September 8, 2015 at 11:05 am Leave a comment

An Interview with Mark Pryor, Author of the Hugo Marston series


Mark Pryor in a Parisian café, working on the sixth book in his Hugo Marston series.

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.”

August 24, 2015 at 10:29 am Leave a comment

A Full Circle of Franco-American Friendship

JacquesEtBetsabee 1984

Jacques and Bethsabée in Essoyes, 1984. Photo by Janet Hulstrand

We first met our friend Jacques in the fall of 1978 when we were hired to pick grapes for champagne in his family’s vineyards during the harvest, known in that beautiful language as la vendange.

Jacques was born in 1940, during the Nazi occupation of France. We didn’t know this until much later. We were young, we were Americans, and to us World War II seemed in the far-distant past, though at that time it had only been over for a little more than 30 years and was not so distant to the French.

In 1978 Jacques was a man in the prime of his life, with a beautiful young wife, a baby daughter, a thriving business. He was what my mother used to call “pleasantly plump,” a slightly rotund man with kind, dark eyes. The stump of a cigar was always in his mouth and there was almost always a twinkle in his eye.

A farmer who loved poetry and the cheerful, folky music and ironic lyrics of Georges Brassens, Jacques welcomed us into his world with open arms. When the harvest was over he invited us—the only three Americans who had worked in the vendange—to stay on in the old stone house, simple but comfortable, that had served as a bunkhouse for us and the other grape pickers, for as long as we liked. His wife, Josette, invited us to share a Sunday meal with them at which, over a period of many hours, with their enthusiastic urgings-on and their refusal to take non for an answer, we ate ourselves nearly to the point of explosion: it was an extravagant, wonderful gourmet meal which none of us will ever forget.

We took Jacques up on his invitation to stay on in Essoyes, lingering for a week or more. During that time he took us under his wing and showed us around. He drove us high up into the hills, back into the fields of vines, where we were able to more thoroughly enjoy the beautiful vistas than we had been when we had been doing the backbreaking work of the harvest; and he took great pleasure in the fact that we appreciated the beauty of the land as much as he did. He took us to processing facilities, showed us the pressoirs that crushed the grapes, explained the painstaking process of creating champagne, so much more complicated than that of other wines. He brought us to the graves of the Renoir family in the village cemetery, where we paid homage to these world-famous local artists, while dreaming dreams of our own imminent—we hoped—artistic adventures.


Renoir grave, Essoyes, 2015. Photo by Janet Hulstrand.

As we ate, and walked, and drove, we had deeply satisfying conversations, mostly about politics and current events, but about other things too. Like most Americans we were half-surprised and half-ashamed to learn not only how much more the average Frenchman knew about world politics than we did—but how much more they knew about some of our own domestic issues too.

When finally, reluctantly, we decided it was time to return to Paris, Jacques drove us to Dijon, about 100 miles, and deposited us at the train station. Along the way we talked about politics, about life, and listened to Brassens as the lush, green hills of Burgundy went by outside our windows.

A couple of years later we returned to the States, to New York City. Before we left, Jacques offered to store the old gypsy caravan we had been living in outside of Paris in one of his storage sheds, a perfect solution to what could have been a difficult problem. The roulotte was moved to its new home in Champagne and we returned to the States knowing that it was in good hands, and would be waiting for us when we were able to return.

A few years went by: we kept in touch, sending Christmas cards and letters to Jacques and Josette from time to time. Then one year at Christmas-time we returned to France for a visit. This time they invited us to stay with them for a few days in their home. The baby we had met when we worked in the vendange was now six years old, and there was another baby. Jacques and Josette had moved from a small modern apartment on the edge of Bar-sur-Seine to a huge ancient stone house on a cobblestoned square in the center of the town. We had a wonderful time with them once again, and when we left we told them we would be back in six months, believing it ourselves. “It’s so much nicer here, and so much cheaper to travel than in the U.S.,” we said to each other. (And at that time, it was.) “Might as well save our money up and come back here as often as we can. They speak French here, and the food’s better.”

But life has a way of getting in the way of travel plans, and it happened to us too. We became very involved with our life in New York and it was hard to get away. We became busy with graduate studies and artistic careers, family obligations, and the daily challenge of making ends meet in New York. One sad day we heard through a mutual friend that Josette had left Jacques. We kept writing to him from time to time, but eventually our correspondence, which had always been one-sided, dwindled away.

Finally, nearly 14 years later, we found ourselves back in France again. We had been given the opportunity to create a study abroad program in Paris. So one weekend we took a drive into Champagne. Sunday afternoon, as we were heading back toward Paris, my husband suddenly turned off the main road and drove into the town of Bar-sur-Seine. As if it were only weeks ago, not years, he guided the car straight to the plaza in front of Jacques’s house, and parked. We went to the door and knocked.

Why is it that after long absence from cherished friends, so often the main emotion we feel just before seeing them again is fear? What is it that we are afraid of? That we won’t be remembered? That we won’t be loved anymore? That somehow in the intervening time, something important has been lost, or destroyed? As we stood there waiting, my heart pounded, and I felt unaccountably nervous.

Whatever my unspoken fears were, they were laid to rest when, a couple of minutes later, the heavy wooden door swung open, and there stood Jacques. He was heavier than before, and he had more gray hair than the last time we had seen him. But the ubiquitous cigar, and the twinkle in his kind eyes had not changed. And although it had been many years since he had seen us, and we were no longer two young lovers, but a forty-something couple with a baby and a four-year-old in tow, he knew us instantly. He smiled his shy, crooked smile, and held out his arms—“Steve!” he said—and caught him in a warm embrace.

Then he stepped aside from the door, waved us in, and made his way to the cave, as he had done every other time we had visited him. He brought out one of his finest bottles of private-label champagne, and opened it. He took out the crystal flutes, and poured the beautiful, bubbly liquid into two glasses—he himself did not drink the stuff, or at least he never had with us. We toasted each other, toasted friendship, and dove back into conversation as if we had never been apart.

As we sat drinking the champagne, Jacques turned to Phineas, our four-year-old, and offered him a piece of chocolate. I expected him to refuse the offer: this was a child who did not like sweets of any kind. And at first it seemed that he would, as usual, decline. But on this occasion, something moved him to depart from his usual habit. Perhaps it was Jacques’s gentle demeanor. Perhaps he realized he was in for a boring time, listening to adults converse in a language he did not understand, and was thus more open to diversion. Whatever the reason, after a moment of hesitation, he held out his little hand, and Jacques pressed a square of chocolate into it. He took the piece, put it to his mouth, and took a tenuous bite. Then his face brightened, a shy smile of pure pleasure broke out, and we all laughed. “He’s never had chocolate before,” I told Jacques. “He doesn’t like candy.”

If this story were not true, what happened next would seem too contrived, a cheap sentimental trick designed to bring tears to the eyes of the coldest reader.

But it is true, and this is what Jacques said. “I had my first piece of chocolate when I was four too,” he told us. “An American soldier gave it to me when they came through town in the liberation.”

American friends—and even strangers—often ask me if it’s true that the French hate Americans. I have never hesitated in answering, and the answer is always “No.”

Of course, there are many more complicated and nuanced answers to this question that can be given. But I can’t think of a better way to encapsulate the essential nature of the relationship, the deep and lasting friendship between our two nations, than a Frenchman’s precious memory of his first taste of chocolate as a little boy, a gift from an American soldier, the memory of that gift, and that moment, savored and treasured. And then the favor returned, passed back again, to another little four-year-old boy, an American, half a century later.

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 D.C. , and “Writing from the Heart” workshop/retreats in Essoyes. Jacques Roger, her first  friend in Essoyes, would have been 75 years old today. 


August 18, 2015 at 6:17 am 2 comments

An Interview with Cara Black, Author of Murder on the Champ de Mars


Cara Black is the best-selling author of 14 books in the Aimée Leduc mystery series, all set in Paris. This very popular series (more than 400,000 books in print!) gives her the chance to indulge her love of all things French through required frequent trips to Paris to do her research. (Don’t we feel sorry for her?) It has also delighted readers around the world, and in multiple languages–her books so far having been translated into German, Norwegian, Japanese, French, Spanish, Italian and Hebrew.

While researching her books, she has posed as a journalist, trained at a firing range with French policemen, gotten locked into a bathroom at the Victor Hugo Museum, and gone exploring in the sewers of Paris shortly before she was scheduled to appear at a formal dinner party. (You’ll have to go to her website if you want to know how that turned out…)

I recently asked Cara to answer a few questions via e-mail about her latest book, Murder on the Champ de Mars, before we discuss it in my upcoming Mysteries of France class at Politics & Prose bookstore, and she kindly obliged.

Here is that interview.


JH: Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions, Cara. First, for readers not familiar with your work, can you explain just a little bit about how Aimée Leduc–the fashionably-attired, intrepid Parisian private investigator who is the heroine of your novels–came into being? 

CB: Aimée Leduc was born from my love affair with Paris and my desire to be a Parisienne. I think a lot of us have an inner French girl, or think we do – at least in my case – struggling to get out. I had a story to tell in my first book, Murder in the Marais, but I needed a woman who would be strong, feisty, vulnerable, good with computers, fashionable, and who would solve crimes wearing high heels. She’d have a lot of traits that I saw in my Parisienne friends: she would be loyal, fashion-conscious, would have a well-mannered dog–unlike mine. She’d know how to order haute cuisine, yet would pull no punches with a corrupt flic [a French policeman]. She also needed to be an outsider, because I knew I couldn’t write as a Frenchwoman. I can’t even tie my scarf the right way :-) So she grew up half-American, half-French.

JH: You’re going systematically through all the arrondissements of Paris, with each new mystery being set in a different one. How and why did you choose to focus on the 7th arrondissement for your latest novel, Murder on the Champ de Mars? 

CB: The 7th arrondissement is a very special part of Paris – almost a different world – home to the upper echelon of the social strata, full of the elite from government, expats, wealthy folks, and a closed society of the old ancien régime families. It’s well known for all the Ministries and the established, tight-knit groups who live and work there. It intimidated me. But it also presented a wonderful challenge–how could I break in and discover that world, how could Aimée get her pointed shoe in the door?

JH: Your mysteries often offer a peek at some of the many ethnic communities that make up the population of Paris. This time we get a tiny peek into the world of “les gitanes,” or the Roma people. How did you decide to weave the story of a young manouche (gypsy) student into the story this time? And were you able to get inside the real world of the Roma at all in the course of doing your research? If so, what did you learn there?

CB: The idea came from my friend, a musician who loves Django Reinhardt, the gypsy who became famous playing his guitar in Paris. He kept telling me to go hear gypsy jazz in Paris in the place where Django had played. The clincher came while I was researching Murder in Pigalle, my previous book. I’d come across other clubs and the place where Django had lived.

I was confused when French people referred to the Rom (French-born gypsies), as opposed to the Roma (Eastern European gypsies), and I wanted to understand the difference. But both the Rom and the Roma are a closed world to outsiders for many reasons– prejudice, racism, their culture, and the Holocaust, which they call porjamos–and this pinged a bell in my head. The more I learned about them, the more I felt that there was a parallel to the closed world of the elite living in the 7th arrondissement. These (Rom) gypsies intermarry among themselves to keep the status. This reminded me of the 7th arrondissement, where many of the families–some aristocrats–also make alliances by marriage. Even though these two cultures and societies were at opposite ends of the social and economic spectrum, so much resounded for me. I researched at a gypsy cultural center and met a Rom, who agreed to speak with me. He was/is a Christian Rom, related to the Reinhardt family. His story of becoming a born-again Christian, which Django’s first wife had become, intrigued me.

I also had huge luck via Martine, my friend’s sister-in-law, who was a retired nurse living in Essonne, a suburb outside Paris, where there is a big population of Rom. Martine had done home health care in the Rom community when the other nurses in the clinic refused to treat them. Martine took me to visit some of her former clients. They spoke to me, and let me come into their caravans, which were spotless. This only happened because Martine had known them for years, and she introduced me. These amazing introductions enriched my story, and I’m eternally grateful for Martine’s patience.

JH: It is clear in your book that Aimée is not prejudiced against gypsies, and has no patience with those who are. There is so little understanding of these people and their history, and misconceptions abound. What, in your view, is the most egregious of the misconceptions? And how can people learn more about this culture, beyond the myths and stereotypes?

CB: True, and it’s sad. Before I started writing this book, I read the seminal work Bury Me Standing by Isabel Fonseca, about the Roma. Even though it’s two decades since Fonseca’s book came out, I’d recommend it to get a sense of their world, where the prejudice stems from, and the history. The first thing that I learned is that Rom are citizens born and living in France, with French nationality. The Roma, who unfortunately most tourists see begging and pickpocketing in the Metro, at the Eiffel Tower, etc., come from Eastern Europe. Of the Roma, not to condone the petty crime, it’s important to know that many of the children you see have been sold by their families to handlers in Europe. I’ve heard many stories about how the kids are kept in warehouses in the suburbs and brought in vans to Paris by their handler, and told to “bring back 300 Euros tonight or be beaten.” These young Roma are virtual slaves: they have no education but in stealing, and it becomes a circle of crime. No one claims to have answers for this problem. The French Rom have their own culture: family ties are vital, and they tend to live together in a house, where they cook, and in caravans, to sleep in. Many are now semi-sedentary, meaning that they work–often in the markets caning chairs, working as traveling salesmen, roofers, musicians–and they only travel once or twice a year. 

JH: Murder on the Champ de Mars is dedicated to Romain Gary who, you say, “introduced me to the rue du Bac and espresso.” Can you tell us a little bit more about that intriguing allusion?

CB: I met Romain Gary on my first visit to Paris. I’d read his novel, Promise at Dawn, during a high-school summer, for a book report. I became enthralled with his prose, and his story, and I wrote him a fan letter. Remember when we used snail mail and stamps? He kindly wrote me back, a very sweet letter thanking me, and his return address was on the envelope: 108 rue du Bac, in the 7th arrondissement. Well, brash, naive 18-year-old that I was, I “dropped in” on this Prix Goncourt-winning author, thinking “Why not?” To his credit, and with amazing generosity, he took me for coffee to his local café on the rue du Bac,  introduced me to espresso, and gave me a cigar. He smoked cigars. 

JH: What’s next for Aimée? And which arrondissement will your readers have the pleasure to visit vicariously in your next book? 

CB: Aimée’s next investigation, Murder on the Quai, takes place in the 8th arrondissement. She’s back on the Right Bank, discovering another world behind the Champs Elysées: the night life, and the darker side, where there’s still lots of history.

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. Murder on the Champ de Mars is one of the selections that will be featured in her next class at Politics & Prose, “Mysteries of France.”

August 15, 2015 at 7:14 pm Leave a comment

Bonne anniversaire, Maurice!

Maurice, notre bien aimé doyen du village, in 2011

The purpose of this post is to wish a happy ninety-sixth year of life to the wonderful doyen of our village on the occasion of his 95th birthday.

Our oldest citizen is thankfully in good health and good spirits. His cheerful, gentle smile brightens everyone’s day whenever they see him, as he makes the rounds of the village shopping for bread and groceries, always ready with a kind word, often with a mischievous quip and a twinkle in his eye.

A few years ago, he kindly took the time to share with me some reminiscences of his long life. Apart from time spent in Paris in his youth for professional training as a coiffeur, and a few months in the South of France at the time of the invasion of France in 1940,  Maurice Goyard has been right here in Essoyes, living through good times and bad, personal and collective, wartime and peace. 

Here are a few excerpts from my interview with him, in June, 2011.

JH: Where and when were you born, Maurice?

MG: I was born in Essoyes May 27, 1920. I am now the oldest citizen in the village. I was born in a house that has since been torn down. The house was close to the first bend in the road that comes down from the church. There, from where you can see the hotel Canotiers.

JH: So, not in a hospital…

MG: No, at the time women gave birth in the home. Even my wife gave birth to our two daughters at home. The doctor came to the house, there wasn’t much in the way of maternity hospitals then.

JH: And your daughters were born when?

MG The first one, the one who was killed in a car accident in 1965, she was born in 1945. She was killed in a car accident the 29 of July, 1965.

JH: That’s so sad. And the other?

MG: The other one was born in 1947. She’s a grandmother now. She lives in Chatillon. I go there most Sundays.

JH: Do you have any brothers or sisters?

MG: No, I was the only child. You’re a little bit spoiled when you’re the only child. When there are two, it’s the second one that is spoiled.

JH: What was your childhood like?

MG: Oh, life is a lot easier now, isn’t it?

JH: Is it? How so?

MG: We only had meat on Sundays, we only had oranges at Christmas, two or three oranges in our Christmas sabot. That’s all. We only ate fruits at harvest time. We didn’t buy fruits back then, when I was a child.

JH: So what did you eat?

MG: We ate what we could grow in the garden: potatoes, all the vegetables we could grow…we lived on what we could do ourselves. When I was a boy, we only bought meat, and we only ate meat on Sundays. Everyone had chickens, we gathered eggs, and almost everyone had poultry. It was a different life from now.

JH: Was it better?

MG: Oh, it’s surely better now, but we were used to that life. Now the young ones, at 18 they have a car. I had my first bicycle when I got my certificate d’etude, at the age of 12. That’s at the end of primary school. And for a gift, most of the students would get a bicycle after they got their certificate d’etude.

JH: Did you continue your studies after that?

MG: For two years. Then I went to Paris to do my apprenticeship as a coiffeur.

JH: Really? At the age of 14? And where did you stay in Paris?

MG: I stayed with friends of my parents. They had a son who was about my age. And his father was a policeman in Paris. They boarded me for two years.

JH: And then you were a coiffeur?

MG: Yes, then I came back to Essoyes and I began to work. My father was a coiffeur for men, so I started a salon for women. The business did very well. I had an employee, and I had clients from Troyes, Bar-sur-Seine…a big clientele.

JH: Yes, they came from a long way…

MG: Yes, I had a very big clientele. It’s true that my work went well. Then every year I did a stage in Paris.

JH: To learn new things?

MG: Yes, to learn new techniques in the métier, to learn about new products we could use. Then I got married during the war, in 1943. I was 23 years old.

JH: And how did you meet your wife?

MG: My wife worked in the post office in Essoyes. She was from Loches [the next village over]. I didn’t have to go far to find her! Then she quit her job at the post office and I taught her the métier. I taught her coiffeur.

JH: So you worked together then. Was that good?

MG: Yes, then I also had three other employees. One for me and two for women. My wife did professional training also. But I taught her the ABCs of the métier….Look, I’m so happy, I found these photos of my mother, very young. And my father too. Look how pretty she is! My father, he fought in the war of 14-18, and then he died relatively young. My mother lived to 94. But my father, only 67 years, because his lungs were injured during the war. The German army used a gas that destroys your lungs, and it wasn’t reparable. My father was gassed twice, and his lungs were affected. That gave him a lot of complications. He died, not really because of that, but that contributed to his death.

JH: Can you tell me about the war of 1939-45?

MG: Yes, in Mussy there was a resistance unit. I was involved in it, but I wasn’t in the forest, I stayed in my home. The plan was to join the American troops to liberate Troyes. But unfortunately the maquis was denounced, and they were attacked by the Germans before the liberation. When they attacked I hid, because I knew if I didn’t I would be automatically shot. Then when the Germans went away again, I came back, and we joined the Americans troops, to liberate Troyes.

JH: You were there at the liberation?

MG: Yes.

JH: That must have been so joyful!

MG: Yes, there were about 10 of us from Essoyes…

JH: And what was that like?

MG: Oh, when we saw the Americans arrive, everyone was so happy..,They gave out chocolates, candy, oranges, all the things we hadn’t had. It was wonderful. Wonderful!.

JH: I’ve gone to the little museum in Mussy. It’s impressive. 1100 resistants in the forest. What did you do when the Germans came?

MG: When they came to attack the maquis, they came very early in the morning, about 5:00 in the morning. My wife and I had rented a little house near the bookstore, where there’s a painting salon now. At 5:00 in the morning I heard trucks, and a lot of noise, coming from the direction of Vendeuvre. And I said, “Oh no, what’s going on?” We looked out the window, and it was the Germans. I said, “Oh no, they’re going to attack the maquis.” So I went, first to my parents’ house, then I went and got several of my friends. We snuck out of town and got to Loches, and then we went to a farm near Landreville. And then from there we went to Fontette. I think there were six of us in all. One of them had a child, he was worried about his girlfriend and their baby. We told him, “Don’t go back, they’ll shoot you.” But then, when we weren’t looking, he started back toward the village with his friend. When I realized they were gone, I jumped on my bike, and went looking for them. But what did I see? These two young guys, all full of bullets. These two friends who just wanted to go back to the village to look after the girl and the baby. So the rest of us waited in Fontette for a week, we waited to be sure there Germans would be gone before we went back. It was no laughing matter…

JH: No. No.

MG: It’s a good thing the Americans came. We were really under the boot of the Nazis.

JH: What was it like when the Germans first came? At the beginning of the war?

MG: Well, I got out of here. I had a car, well, I had a client who had a car. Her husband was mobilized and she didn’t know how to drive, so she said, “If you want to drive…” We went to the south of France and stayed there for 6-7 months, until the line of demarcation was made, then things calmed down a bit. So then we came back to Essoyes. Everything had been pillaged, by the Germans and others too. There’s a prison in Clairvaux, and all the prisoners escaped. So in my bed I found a prisoner’s striped shirt. And the house had been pillaged.

JH: Did almost everyone do the same thing? Go somewhere else?

MG: Those who could, but there were a lot who couldn’t. My parents stayed in the village. But they didn’t have any problems. If one didn’t try to resist…the Germans, they were “relatively correct.” Except what they called the “shock troops,” the SS…The regular army, they were like everyone else. But the SS, the so-called ”elite troops”…they were really bad.

JH: And so, when the liberation came, there was such joy…

MG: At the liberation, yes…

JH: And what was it like when the Americans came?

MG: Oh, people welcomed them!

JH: I think there’s a celebration every year in Troyes, isn’t there?

MG: Yes, maybe in Troyes but also every year in Grancey, where the maquis were…

JH: And after the war?

MG: Afterward, life returned to something like normal, we still had ration tickets to buy food, but gradually things got back to normal. Because the Germans had taken everything, potatoes, anything we had, they took and sent to Germany. In the country we were able to manage, in the city it was harder. My parents were okay, with the butcher they had a pig. But one risked being sent to prison for that, it was the black market… Oh it was no fun, no fun at all, for about 4-5 years…

JH: To return to the subject of school. What did you study?

MG: I went until I had the certificate d’etude. We learned quite a bit in school. We studied algebra. But not languages, that was in secondary school. I wasn’t so good at academics, I just wanted to be a coiffeur.

JH: And school was from 9:00 to noon, then two hours for lunch, then four more hours of school? And what did you do then, after school?

MG: We played “au bi,” silly games…soccer…

JH: “au bi”…What is that?

MG: It’s a triangle, a big thing that you have to get as close to as you can, kind of like playing boules now. These games have disappeared…

JH: It’s kinda sad, right?

MG: Yes, because now the kids, they get in fights. At three years old they have a bicycle, 16-17 they have a car. But life changes, right?

Janet Hulstrand is a writer, editor and teacher of writing and literature based in Silver Spring, Maryland. 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 D.C. , and “Writing from the Heart” workshop/retreats in Essoyes.

May 27, 2015 at 1:33 am Leave a comment

V-E Day, As Experienced by a French Child

0) - img082 — PHOTO de CLASSE 1942-43

Guy Prunier (indicated with arrow) with his classmates, 1942-43

May 8 marks the 70th anniversary of V-E Day, the day that Allied forces formally accepted the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany. Needless to say that was a big event, and an important date in world history. This post offers a microscopic view of this major world event by asking a simple question: How was V-E day experienced by an eleven-year-old boy in a little French village (Les Riceys, l’Aube) who had lived nearly half of his short life in a France that was suffering “under the Nazi boot”?

Guy Prunier, now an 81-year-old retired sound engineer living in Mussy-sur-Seine, can tell us. “On the 8 of May 1945, I was alone in our house. My father was at work, and my mother had gone out with my brother and my little sister. It was a beautiful day and the windows onto the street were open. Suddenly all the bells in the three churches of Les Riceys began to peal at once, which both startled and worried me. Then I started to hear gunfire, which made me even more worried. Pulling together all my courage, I went to peek out of the windows, and I saw that everyone was in the streets, some waving hunting rifles in the air, everyone laughing and embracing, many with tears in their eyes. The war is over! they were shouting. That’s what I remember.”

The wartime memories that Prunier has preceding this date are scattered, but intense. “The war was during the time I was seven until I was eleven. So obviously I didn’t really participate in the events, but for four years I lived through it, and it has left me with very powerful memories that have marked me for life,” he says. “I remember the sight of German soldiers parading through the streets, goose stepping, singing their songs of war. I will always have this image in my mind, and I still have a negative reaction when I hear German spoken.” He pauses, looks sad, and adds, “I can’t help it.”

He goes on, “My family didn’t suffer particularly under Nazi occupation, other than the general shortages that everyone suffered from. I remember how my mother had to work so hard to feed us, clothe us, keep us warm. In the beginning of 1943, my father was sent to work in Germany in a factory in Hamburg for several months. He didn’t dare disobey for fear of reprisals. He did get special permission after my baby sister was born to not return to Germany, but after that he went underground and later the Gestapo was looking for him. He hid for a certain time in a little cabin in the vineyards, and I would ride to him on my bicycle and bring him food. Needless to say, I made those trips with my heart in my mouth, terrified of being stopped and searched…I was barely 10 years old.”

The liberation of France of course had come earlier: the liberation of Paris on 26 August 1944; of Troyes, capital of l’Aube (the département where les Riceys is located) on August 21; and Mussy-sur-Seine, the village where Guy Prunier now lives, on September 2, just a month after the Maquis Montcalm–a Resistance unit of approximately 1200 fighters who had hidden in the forest between Mussy-sur-Seine and Grancey-sur-Ource–were chased from their camp, and the inhabitants of the villages subjected to brutal reprisals by the Nazis. But that is another story, and one that the adult Guy Prunier has devoted much of his retirement years to researching, documenting and sharing with the public. Each year on the anniversary of the escape of the maquisards from the forest, Prunier leads a hike through the forest, following their trail. He is also the founder of the local Chemins de Memoire, and the keeper of the collection of wartime and Resistance artifacts in Mussy-sur-Seine.

mussy guy prunier photo 2

Guy Prunier, 2014, telling the story of the escape of the Maquis Montcalm from the forest outside of Mussy-sur-Seine.

Like Prunier’s personal recollection of hearing the bells peal, and seeing the villagers rejoice on a beautiful day in May, the story of the Maquis Montcalm is just one small piece of a larger story of the French resistance and its role in the liberation of France. And that is a story for another day. Stay tuned!

Janet Hulstrand is a writer, editor and teacher of writing and literature based in Silver Spring, Maryland. 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, and also teaches classes at Politics & Prose bookstore in Washington D.C.  

May 3, 2015 at 4:10 pm Leave a comment

Book Review: David Downie’s “A Passion for Paris: Romanticism & Romance in the City of Light”

Cover Nov 4 2014

Paris Paris: Journey into the City of Light is the book I almost always recommend when someone asks me which book they should take to Paris if they can only take one. This delightful collection of essays is full of fascinating background information about the city—particularly rich in historical and architectural detail—and enriched by the lively, personable, and idiosyncratic point of view of its author, David Downie.

Now—especially for those who are interested in the romantic reputation of the city and/or its 19th century history—there is a second volume you need to bring on your next trip to Paris. But why wait until then?

As other reviewers have already pointed out, A Passion for Paris: Romanticism & Romance in the City of Light is “intrepidly researched” (Booklist); offers “encyclopedic knowledge of the city and its magical story” (Kirkus Reviews); and is “wickedly humorous…exquisitely told…a must-read for true Paris lovers” (Harriet Welty Rochefort).

All of this is true, and is just a small sampling of the accolades rolling in.

A Passion for Paris is an extremely complex and sophisticated achievement, and very difficult to summarize. Forgive me for saying you really just have to read it if you have any interest whatsoever in France, past, present, or future.

I must confess that I approached this book with very little inherent interest in learning a great deal about this particular period of French history, other than my general curiosity about all things French. But such is my respect for and admiration of Downie as a writer that of course I wanted to read it. And such is his literary skill that I found myself instantly drawn in and not only interested, but mesmerized, by Paris of the Romantic Age as he has brought it to life.

Just a few of the many things I enjoyed learning about in A Passion for Paris: the personalities, lives, and loves of that great triumvirate of 19th century French writers, Hugo, Balzac, and Baudelaire, not to mention a great many other interesting characters of the period, and how they related to each other; how and why George Sand is such an important feminist figure; who it was that became known for walking a lobster on a leash in the gardens of the Palais Royal; and how the French came to have such an inordinate amount (from an American point of view) of fascination with and respect for Edgar Allan Poe.

As is usual with Downie’s work, it’s not just historical facts and information we gain. He is also most generous in sharing his always intelligent, often provocative ruminations on what all that history means–not only what it meant back then, but what it continues to mean for us today, and may continue to mean to humanity going forward. With Downie as our guide we find ourselves reflecting, for example, on fundamental differences between the nature of the French and the American revolutions—“France and America are children of the Age of Enlightenment and of revolutions,” he writes, and adds, “One major difference marks the infancy and adolescence of these revolutionary nations: America had George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, France Napoléon Bonaparte and Robespierre. From the American Revolution sprang pragmatic optimism and democratic continuity in a ‘New World’ with lots of room to roam, a place free from European historical baggage. From the French Revolution grew the cult of perpetual struggle and world-weary pessimism, the guillotine, and Romanticism, the ambiguous creature facing both backward and forward, like the ancient Roman god Janus. He is alive and well today in the heart of every French citizen.”

But I think what I love most about this book, as about all of Downie’s nonfiction works about France, is the way the reader is brought intimately into the adventure of his discoveries as he performs his intrepid research. We are spared, of course, the many hours of reading in dusty libraries he has done for us. But when he sets out into the Paris of today in search of its ghosts of yesteryear, he takes us along with him. We are there with him as he interviews the archivist at the Victor Hugo Museum, and the director of the Arsenal Library–a gathering place for such Romantic age luminaries as Dumas, Liszt, de Musset, Delacroix, Balzac, and Gautier—a place which, Downie tells us, “hasn’t changed much since the 1820s.” We are there with him as he sneaks up back stairways and into private courtyards in his furtive attempts to connect with Romantic heroes of the past, to look out the same windows they looked out of, gaze upon the same courtyards they would have seen. We are there with him in those rare moments when he is able to commune with those spirits of the past, and we benefit from his informed musings on them. And we are also there to enjoy his ever-present wit, and his incisive understanding and explication of French character, for both better and worse.

For me, though, I think the most precious thing of all about this book is this. David Downie has captured the essence of what remains in the Paris of today from her romantic past in a way that no one else has, or could. This work is strictly unique, a wonderful combination of rigorous research and the author’s lively, personal interpretation of what that research reveals. Downie has written about the foundations of Romanticism in Paris in such a way that if someone reads this book a hundred years from now they will learn about more than Paris of the 19th century. Perhaps even more important, they will learn a great deal about Paris of the early 21st century, as seen by an exceptionally curious, exceptionally intrepid American traveler, a masterful writer who has brought the romantic past of Paris to life for us in a richly complex, thought-provoking, inimitable way.

Janet Hulstrand is a writer, editor and teacher of writing and literature based in Silver Spring, Maryland. She writes about France for Bonjour Paris, France Revisited, and on this blog (you’ll find more posts on Paris here). She teaches “Paris: A Literary Adventure” in Paris each summer for Queens College, CUNY, and also teaches classes at Politics & Prose bookstore in Washington D.C. You can learn more about David Downie’s books, as well as his customized tours of Paris here.

April 16, 2015 at 11:49 am Leave a comment

Older Posts

Twitter Updates


Recent Posts


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,008 other followers