Q&A with David Downie, author of “Paris: City of Night”
David Downie is a native San Franciscan who moved to Paris in 1986, and who now divides his time between France and Italy. He is the author of more than a dozen nonfiction books, including the bestselling and critically acclaimed “A Passion for Paris: Romanticism and Romance in the City of Light,” “Paris to the Pyrenees: A Skeptical Pilgrim Walks the Way of Saint James,” and “Paris, Paris: Journey into the City of Light,” now in its 10th printing. He is also the author of two thrillers, and his travel, food, and arts features have appeared in more than 50 print magazines and newspapers worldwide. I have often used David’s books in my classes, and he has always been most generous with his time, several times chatting with my students about his work from wherever he is.
David recently took the time to answer my questions (via email) about his thriller, “Paris: City of Night,” which I chose as this month’s selection for a book group I am currently leading at the American Library in Paris. (You can read other posts about his work on this blog here and here.)
Janet Hulstrand: First of all, what inspired you, a writer of mostly nonfiction, to take on the challenge of writing a novel? And why a thriller?
David Downie: Actually I wrote my first novella when I was 18, and concentrated my efforts as an aspiring writer on producing short stories, novellas, and novels, until the age of perhaps 26, when I finished graduate school and had to make a living. Essentially I stopped writing for a number of years, wound up in Italy, and did white collar work to survive.
One of the better jobs I landed was press secretary (or some such thing) for the commercial section of the South Korean Embassy in Milan. I also wore the hat of researcher and did market research, and wrote up lots of boring reports about all kinds of outlandish products. I became a very low-grade industrial spy, I guess. On the side, working through an agent, I translated a zillion things from Italian into English—technical reports, market studies, and so forth. And I worked for a big Italian publisher, checking and repairing translations of novels from English into Italian, corresponding with authors, that kind of thing. Then I pitched a few stories to magazines and newspapers and started getting assignments. In 1986 I moved to Paris and tried again with fiction, but I couldn’t get any traction—my stuff was too bizarre and “un-American.” The New Yorker wrote me some very flattering rejection letters, though.
All this to say, fiction is what I was passionate about from the start. As to why I chose to write a thriller, that was mainly because I grew up watching Alfred Hitchcock movies and his TV show, plus Perry Mason and all the cop show classics from the 1950s, 60s, and early 70s. I also read everything by Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and so on. I was weaned on crime novels and thrillers. For example, Graham Greene has always seemed to me to be an excellent writer, despite or perhaps because he wrote across genres and therefore could not be classified. There is nothing wrong with writing a book that has a plot, as long as its characters are well developed. Strangely, Paris: City of Night did not start out as a political thriller but rather as a mystery, what the English call a “cosy.”
JH: Can you introduce us, just briefly, to the protagonist of “Paris: City of Night?” Who is Jay Grant, and how would you describe him in a couple of sentences?
DD: Jay Grant is a bilingual, bicultural Franco-American with an unusual family background, a professional photographer who, facing the realities of the digital marketplace, decides to specialize in vintage photography and become a photo rep. He’s a complicated guy with lots of psychological baggage and family issues—he knows his dad was a spy, for instance, and he’s not entirely sure what kind, good or bad, if clear demarcations can be made in that world. Jay is an unwitting, though not entirely unwilling, avenger. He’s got a crooked, jagged, scarred personality but is fundamentally benign. I suppose you’d have to call him an anti-hero, not a hero.
JH: What is the hardest thing about writing a novel, and also, what are the particular challenges of writing a thriller? What was the most fun about it?
DD: Writing is hard, no matter what kind of writing you do. A novel is like a whale, it takes a huge breath, dives down and swims, and surfaces far away, blowing out steam and water and probably small fish and detritus too. A short story is a porpoise. The novella comes in halfway between. Some writers are made for the whale ride, others are porpoises, and still others are the proverbial rari nantes—the lone swimmer in a vast sea. The endurance required to successfully write a novel is considerable. I’m not sure I have it, but I’ve given it my best try more than once, and I’m trying again now after many years of nonfiction writing.
Novels can sprawl all over the place—look at War and Peace or even Huckleberry Finn, which is relatively short but meanders like a river. When you write a thriller you have to plot out every event, every move, every word, you have to weave in clues and help the reader find the way, making discoveries and feeling rewarded as the action plays out. The threads of the story have to come together smoothly and tightly, like a net closing on unsuspecting prey, otherwise the reader feels cheated. Also, you must be sure to maintain the suspension of disbelief. The pacing is key. Readers these days have very little patience, the concentration span is generally very short. I don’t pretend to have succeeded in this thriller but the challenge was huge, and I thoroughly enjoyed the game. I also enjoyed getting revenge on people I know—some of the characters are drawn from life at least in part. Killing bad guys is great fun!
JH: How did the story of “Paris: City of Night” start for you? Was it with a character? A situation? Something about Paris?
DD: The story came to me because I woke up one morning blind in one eye. I have posterior ischemic optic neuritis. The color drained from my right eye as the optic nerve died. It was terrifying but also fascinating. Seeing became a challenge. I was also deeply involved at the time as my wife’s sometime photography assistant. I’d become fairly proficient with lighting. It was highly technical stuff—this was in pre-digital days. The irony is I could no longer stand light. I am totally photophobic, so that work became torture for me. The whole process of understanding light and the functioning of the eye and brain and the camera became an obsession. I read volumes about photography and the history of photography, and I discovered some amazing stuff. “Paris: City of Night” started out as a murder mystery about a historical character from the world of photography—it was a character-driven cozy. I worked out a convoluted plot and stuck to it. The pace was slow. The writing was lyrical, mimetic, as if it had been written during the heyday of romanticism.
I had already written one crime novel, La Tour de l’Immonde, which came out in French, and was published in Paris. I had the English-language version of that novel as laid out by the publisher, who was looking to sell it in America. I took the page proofs to New York and flogged them. Vintage had a crime novel and thriller line at the time. The editor really liked the French novel but said it was “too French” for the U.S. market. So I said, I have this other story, and she said “Write me a treatment.” I wrote her a very detailed treatment of the novel I had started—about 90 pages blow by blow, with plenty of dialogue. She said “Great! Now write me four chapters.” I wrote her four chapters. Then I waited and waited, and while I waited I kept writing. By the time I had finished the book the editor had gotten divorced, quit her job, and left New York. The new editor didn’t like my new book—“too French” he said, “Very strange, nice writing, but not for us…” So I decided to totally rewrite the novel, introducing new characters and “Americanizing” it. That’s the main reason it is so complicated. I found an American publisher in the end. It took years, and I got too many rejections to count. My work really doesn’t fit into any of the classic genres or schemes. I am the rari nantes…
JH: What are you working on now? And will we have the opportunity to see Jay Grant in a future book of yours?
DD: I’m finishing the copyediting of A Taste of Paris: Journey Through the Culinary History of Paris, a nonfiction romp from Caesar’s table to Ducasse and others. And I’ve just started plotting and writing a new novel. It’s a work of literary fiction, a “serious” undertaking, and God knows if it will ever be published. I don’t want to jinx it so will say no more. Jay Grant might come back, though to be honest he’s not the kind to vote for Trump, and will definitely not fit into the world of corporate publishing that lies ahead for the next four or eight years. But maybe I’ll turn him into some kind of progressive political avenger, and kill off a few reactionaries… fantasyland!
Janet Hulstrand is a writer, editor, writing coach, and teacher of writing and of literature who divides her time between the U.S. and France. She leads book groups at the American Library in Paris, writing workshops in Essoyes, a village in the Champagne region, and teaches “Paris: A Literary Adventure” each summer in Paris for Queens College, CUNY.