Q & A with John Pearce, Author of “Last Stop: Paris”
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.