Interview with Jane S. Gabin, Author of “The Paris Photo”

November 24, 2019 at 12:53 pm Leave a comment

Jane Gabin is a native New Yorker. She earned her BA at Queens College of the City University of New York and her PhD in English from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. As an independent scholar, she has participated in numerous academic conferences and lectured extensively in the United States and abroad, spending considerable time in England and France. An experienced teacher and educational counselor, she has taught at the high school, college, and lifelong learning levels. She taught most recently at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Duke University. She is a member of the Victorian Society of New York and the Alliance Francaise. She has published three  books with university presses–two on 19th century expatriate American women, and one on the musical career of the poet Sidney Lanier. “The Paris Photo,” which was inspired by the author’s discovery of a photo in her father’s papers after his death, is her first novel. This interview was conducted via email in November, 2019. 

Janet: What made you want to write this book? What was most challenging about it? And what was most rewarding?

Jane: I didn’t immediately say to myself, “Now this would make a great book!” I basically wanted to learn something new about my father. Who were the people in this photograph that I had found in his papers? Why were they important enough to warrant a group photograph? And why didn’t he ever show me this picture while he was alive? Aroused by curiosity, I first had to try to find the subjects of the portrait. I reasoned that since my father was gone, the other adults in the picture were likely also gone. So I concentrated on finding the boy. I realized that the chances of ever finding him, more than 60 years after this picture was taken, were slim.

TheParisPhoto_JSGabin

This is “the Paris photo.” S/Sgt Al Gabin visiting a French family in the spring of 1945.

But, unbelievably, I found him! Then I had two more challenges: to learn French, enough to communicate with my new friend. And to answer his question: Why didn’t we ever hear from your father after he left Paris? So for the first couple of years after my discovery, my discoveries were purely personal, and related to my need to learn more about my Dad.

While researching this, I had to discover more of the Parisian background. I must have read almost everything in English about civilian life in Paris under the Nazis. And then I roamed the streets of Paris, finding those memorial plaques every few blocks. I reached out to the Memorial de la Shoah, learned more there, and started to make connections with the Jewish community in Paris. Two years later, I had learned enough to present a paper on American soldiers and French civilians at a conference of the European Association of Jewish Studies, which met at the Ecole Normale Superieure. I began to think in terms of a novel some time after that. I knew I had a story to tell, but it was much more than just “a” story.

What was challenging was the decision of what to reveal and what to cloak as fiction. I decided that I wanted to change certain things. For example, there was that mystery of why my father never got in touch with the family he befriended after he left Paris. I could imagine why, but I could not know for sure. Also, I felt that by converting this to an “inspired by” fictional narrative, I had the freedom to inject certain other things.

The reception by readers has been the most rewarding thing.

Janet: How did you do the research for this book; what were your sources? And how long did you take to write it?

Jane: I did three different kinds of research: the armchair variety; talking to many people and hearing many talks; and exploring the streets of Paris. The research took about five or six years, and by that time I had decided upon the novel form. It took a year to write the first draft, and then it was edited, and I made changes, and it was edited again and I did another draft.

There is a bibliography in the book; there are many great sources for a description of civilian life in Paris during the Occupation. I saw photos of the food queues, for example, and read about them as well. I read about the Germans’ many rules for French citizens, and their longer list of rules for Jewish citizens. In New York, I heard French sociologist Sarah Gensburger speak about the labor camp within Paris itself – where all property stolen from Jewish apartments whose residents was deported was sorted. I also spoke with Professor Ron Rosbottom about his book, When Paris Went Dark, which was published in 2014.

There is a wonderful library at the Memorial de la Shoah, where I researched not only general topics, but specific information on the father and grandfather of my character Guy, who is based on the boy my father had befriended. I went to Drancy, where the Memorial has a branch museum, and explored the workers’ housing complex that was used as a prison during the Occupation. The door to the building where Guy’s father was held was standing open – so I went in.

And then, of course, there are all the memorial plaques on the streets, in courtyards, in front of schools. That told me an enormous amount about the reach of the Germans. And you know how doorways in Paris are usually locked? The door of the building where Guy and his family lived at the time my father visited was unlocked. Again, I went in to explore. Eventually, I was stopped by the concierge who wanted to know my business. I explained, in French, that my father had been an American soldier in WWII and had visited a family in this building. I didn’t even have to finish my speech – she immediately smiled and welcomed me to look around. People still remember that the Americans helped liberate the city.

JaneWithGuy

The author with “Guy.” She now returns to Paris every year to visit him.

Janet: You went about learning French quite late in life, simply in order to be able to solve the mystery at the heart of this story. Do you have any advice for others who are determined (for whatever reason) to learn a foreign language, and perhaps specifically to learn French, at an older age?

Jane: Ideally, one learns another language during the school years, and because of this, Spanish falls out of my mouth much more readily than French. But I had no choice: I had to learn French because “Guy” speaks very little English.

This is how I tackled needing to learn French quickly: my friend Sue gave me the Rosetta Stone program. Because its teaching is auditory, I started picking up the accent right away. After six months of study, I was confident enough to go into a shop or a library and say basic things. Naturally, I have an American accent and people can tell that I am having difficulty, because I am certainly not fluent. And I am better at reading than speaking, of course. If I could ever stay in France longer than three weeks, I would improve so much!

My advice would be to start with a program like Rosetta Stone, practice in a French-speaking group, and then go to France for 6 months. Listen to the radio, watch French films, and stay away from anyone speaking English!

Janet: What do you hope readers will take away from the story you tell in “The Paris Photo”?

I hope they will see that all actions have consequences, whether they are immediate or happen decades later. This is true both of small stories, and the larger ones. My father’s actions in Paris resulted in certain behaviors in “Guy” and in me. The Holocaust is the larger story, and its consequences are still being felt today; and they affect the behavior and the mindset not only of survivors, but of the next generation and the one after that.

When I began my search for the boy in the photo, France was – it seemed to me – a country with its share of problems, just like any other nation. By the time my book was published, there had been the Charlie Hebdo killings, the Hypercacher attack, and the murder of Sarah Halimi. The increase of anti-Jewish activities in France, and elsewhere, is indicative of a society in deep trouble. I would also hope that readers share my concerns and remain vigilant.

Janet: What are you working on now?

Jane: Another story set in – surprise! – Paris, and another one set in Manhattan. Plus a collection of short stories.

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 is the author of Demystifying the French: How to Love Them, and Make Them Love You, and is currently working on her next book, a literary memoir entitled “A Long Way from Iowa.”

Jane Gabin is the author of “The Paris Photo.” More information about the book is available here

Entry filed under: About Writers and their Work. Tags: , , , , , , .

A few wonderful days in Paris… Thanksgiving in France (2019)

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