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.”