It’s pretty simple, really.

You know and I know there’s only a handful of possible ways to deal with any given issue we find ourselves vexed by.

Oh sure, we try to get creative, stay open-minded, think outside the box. But where does that get us?

I’ll tell you where. Frustrated, alone and afraid, in the midst of a seemingly endless morass of options, feeling buried in the vastness of it all.

Well, have no fear, I’ve done some calculating and found virtually any quandary can be solved with one of the following pieces of advice.

Have a look. Take your pick. You won’t be sorry.

Expatriates, I’ve found, don’t necessarily get along. Meeting someone from home who’s navigating the same foreign country as you are can be a source of mutual suspicion or rivalry just as often as it’s a springboard to friendship. Other times, there’s only that superficial common ground to briefly stand on, making it all the more apparent you likely would have nothing to do with one another back on native soil.

But then there are those moments that you do find a fellow expat, someone you wish you’d known back home before you left for this new place, and the person can become a long-lost life raft.

The sun above Paris was a mid-July clementine. I bought copies of Le Monde and the Herald Tribune at a kiosk and climbed the stairs to my new office on the Champs-Elysées. For three hours, I mugged at a laptop, trying to figure out how the e-mail system worked. My fingers were chattering. I spent long, spacey minutes trying to find the @ key. They’d given me a keyboard mapped for French speakers, with the letters switched around.

For the rest of the day, strangers approached and handed me folders, speaking to me in French while I panicked inside. A sentence would begin slow, with watery syncopation, then accelerate, gurgling until it slammed into an ennnnnnh, or an urrrrrrrr, and I’d be expected to respond.

Somehow, carrying the snails falls to me. With the boatload of wrapped presents and scarves and gloves that will be lost within eight steps out into the street and small children who may likewise need carrying and possibly be misplaced in a momentary panic, I hoist two stacked platters of Burgundy snails.

They have been prepared in parsley and garlic butter to be recooked at my in-laws’ house. It’s more than a little dumb that I’m arriving with this particular dish because I’m the only one of the group not from around here. Not only not from Burgundy, where I helped pull these snails out of a dewy meadow this past July and where their cold weather preparation is the crowning regional specialty, but I am not of this nation. I’m not of this culture or even this particular coterie of exempted taste buds. The only thing I ever did with snails, before landing abroad, was proceed at their pace.

There is a place with roller coasters and wave swingers surrounded by champagne vineyards.

It is a two hours’ drive.We leave first thing in the morning because my daughters buckled themselves into the car soon after the break of dawn like precocious, barrette-wearing roosters.I hop behind the driver’s seat with a bottle of water and a disc of complied songs about summertime.The empty two-lane roads trace the swerve of the first track:Surfin’ U.S.A.

Through pasture and low forest, the white sun burns off the fog and the sheep would own the land if they could pull their faces out of the grass for even a second.The boulangeries in the unassuming villes have already sold out of pain au chocolat.My wife remarks that several weird, distant cousins live in a town we pass, but when, for God’s sake, would we ever find the time to visit them.In the backseat, the girls mouth the refrain “inside, outside, U.S.A.”

 

I live in an apartment in Dijon, France that is centrally located between the train station and the original Maille mustard shop where tourists come to sample the sinus-clearing condiments that the town is famous for.Our home is situated off a pleasant side street that remains quiet even during the bustling hours of the week.We have a view out of our third-floor window onto the gothic Saint-Benigne cathedral with the gold, red and green roof tiles traditional to the Burgundy region.

In the foreground of the cathedral, stands a slightly newer stone building.It’s a residence like ours, but one that also houses the offices of a psychotherapist and a dentist, both on the ground floor.Its north side is covered in lush green ivy.

This building was also, once, the headquarters of the Gestapo.

On March 3, which happens to be my father’s birthday, Totally Killer was published in French. Three weeks later, at the invitation of my publisher, Éditions Gallmeister, I flew to Paris to kick off a five-day, two-city book tour.

I expected to visit a few librairies, attempt to read from François Happe’s superb translation of the book without my tongue falling out, and be back in my hotel room by ten every night. I expected to get a lot of reading done. I expected to take long hot baths. I expected to see the sights. I expected no one to have read the book. I expected to be pretty much ignored.

Let’s just say my expectations were exceeded in the best possible way.

I was too busy meeting booksellers, inscribing books, decrying capitalist exploitation, and trying to remember the difference between envie de and besoin de to pay much attention to Twitter. (Plus, Twitterific didn’t work on my iPhone. #twitterificfail)

So here, then, a month late, are tweets I would have tweeted were I tweeting while in France. (Note: My brain does not have a 140-character counter, so if some of these run a touch long…c’est la vie.)

 

 

PREMIÈRE PARTIE: PARIS

 

1. Mardi/mercredi, le vol

 

Can the contrast between the point of departure and point of arrival be more stark than Newark to Paris direct? The City of Lights from the City of Raw Sewage.

 

* * *

 

Boarding the plane, the pre-flight stress behind me, I’m suddenly overcome with emotion. It hits me: I’m going to France—fucking France!—on a book tour! Me! Somewhere my French teacher is smiling. My English teacher, too.

 

* * *

 

No one’s sitting next to me! Cool. I can totally stretch out.

 

* * *

 

This Whiskey Brothers podcast is funny.

 

* * *

 

Air France is not stingy with the vino. Or the Champagne.

 

* * *

 

The flight attendant and the pilot speak French (duh). I shall have to break out my un peu Français soon. Zut alors!

 

* * *

 

Philippe, my editor, meets me at the airport. He identifies himself by waving around a poster of the Totally Killer cover. There is a French word for the kind of cajones it requires to wave around a poster of a gun at an airport. That word is chutzpah.

 

* * *

 

Philippe is wearing a hip t-shirt, jeans, cool glasses, and a corduroy blazer. I am wearing a hip t-shirt, jeans, cool glasses, and a corduroy blazer. This is the first clue that Philippe and I have a lot in common.

 

* * *

 

“There has been a change in the schedule,” he tells me. From the level of apology in his voice, I’m certain the TV interview (which I’d bragged about on Facebook) has been kibboshed—but no. “The interview with Radio RFI is off. She really wants to do it, but she can’t, because they are on strike.” Bienvenue à France!

 

* * *

 

I haven’t slept since Monday night New York time, and it’s now Wednesday morning in Paris. No way I make it through the day without a serious power nap. But what hotel will check me in at nine in the morning? Fortunately, Marie-Anne, my publicist, has thought of this, and arranged for me to check in early. This is the first clue that Marie-Anne is really kick-ass at her job.

 

* * *

 

Snowing in New Jersey, but 68 and sunny here. Paris, je t’aime.

 

* * *

 

The Hotel de la Sorbonne is a small and quiet inn right across the street from the eponymous French university. The Pantheon is a block away. I can walk to Notre Dame from here, easy. Of more exigent importance, there is a bed. J’ai fatigue. J’ai besoin de zzzzzzzzzzzzzzz…

 

 

 

 

2. Mercredi, l’après midi

 

 

There’s a bookstore every other block here. I’m not even exaggerating. There are more bookstores than bars, seems like. And in almost all of them, there’s my book, often in the window, usually prominently placed, sometimes with a note of endorsement from the bookseller.

 

 

 

* * *

 

Let me reflect on the enormity of that for a moment: My book is in almost every bookstore in Paris. I honestly don’t even know how to process this.

 

* * *

 

Also of note: how often the word art is used here. So many buildings, museums, streets, shops, all with art or arts in the title.

 

* * *

 

The streets of Paris are named after writers. In New York, city of bankers, the streets are either numbered or bear the surnames of the aristocratic dead.

 

* * *

 

I meet Marie-Anne and Philippe for lunch at a restaurant hidden above a cinema that is said to be owned by Catherine Deneuve. I have a double espresso.

 

* * *

 

Marie-Anne reminds me of my friend Ruth. This means nothing to you (unless you’re Ruth; hi, Ruth!), but to me, it means I can relax and let her do her thing. Both Marie-Anne and Ruth are really really good at Getting Shit Done.

 

* * *

 

Marie-Anne walks really fast. I walk fast, too—I lived in New York for ten years; I don’t mosey—but wow, can she fly.

 

* * *

 

Craig Johnson” sounds funny when spoken with a French accent. (Craig is the author of Little Bird, also published by Gallmeister).

 

* * *

 

To the 16eme Arrondisement, and the broadcast headquarters of France24, a relatively new cable news network in the manner of CNN. “There are 23 million viewers,” I’m told. That’s how many Facebook fans I have, give or take 23 million.

 

* * *

 

I’m getting my makeup done (!) when a production assistant comes in and tells me that the show has been revamped. “Elizabeth Taylor just died,” she said. “I don’t know if you knew that.” I didn’t. My first thought: Duke should write about that.

 

* * *

 

Katherine Nicholson—Kat—is the host, and she will be interviewing me. She’s very nice. She tells me she just finished the book, and she really liked it, especially all the pop cultural references.

 

 

* * *

 

Forgot to mention: Kat is British. For some reason, after a day of calibration for French and French-accented English, a British accent sounds almost like a different language.

 

* * *

 

Kat does two takes. On one, she pronounces the “r” at the end of “Killer”. It sounds cooler when she drops it: totally kill-uh. They go with that one.

 

* * *

 

Eight minute interview gone in the blink of an eye. I manage to sit still and not use “like” or “uh” too much. Also, my hair looks good.

 

* * *

 

“There’s one thing about the book. I didn’t want to say it on the air,” Kat says. I’m all, uh-oh. She says, “The phone on the cover? That’s from the mid-90s, not 1991!”

 

* * *

 

Back to the hotel to rest up for the party at Philippe’s apartment.

 

* * *

 

Writing the first TNB postcard. I hope this works…

 

 

 

 

3. Mercredi, le soir

 

 

Marie-Anne fetches me at the hotel. We cab across town, to Montmartre, Pigalle, and the 18eme Arrondisement. The hip part of town.

 

* * *

 

The cab stops in front of Le Moulin Rouge. I mean, there’s the fucking windmill, right there! I feel like I should burst into song. Hey sisters soul sisters gotta get that dough sisters…

 

 

 

* * *

 

Philippe and Anne, his wife, have a to-die-for apartment. Super-high ceilings, spacious rooms, oversized windows overlooking the side street where they live, huge bookshelves teaming with books, and really cool art on the walls.

 

* * *

 

I am looking at the books on Philippe’s shelves. It is clear to me why he bought my book, as we have the same exact taste in books. It’s like someone has teleported my bookcases to Pigalle. (I suspect Richard Cox).

 

* * *

 

Todd’s “Taylor Mix,” the one on the first page of Totally Killer, is playing on the stereo.

 

* * *

 

I meet Oliver, my publisher. He is carrying a box of wine into the vestibule. And not a case of wine—a cardboard box full of wine, in which the bottles are stacked one on top of the other, like socks. Talk about an entrance!

 

* * *

 

Philippe whips up quite the pasta salad.

 

* * *

 

“We don’t publish books we like,” Oliver tells me, patting my back. “We don’t have time for that. We put out ten books a year; we only publish books we love.”

 

* * *

 

The apartment begins to fill up. The Gallmeister crew: Oliver, Mary-Anne, Katarina (who is from St. Petersburg), and of course Philippe; Anne; and twenty or so Parisian booksellers.

 

* * *

 

I am expecting them to regard me as an arriviste. I am expecting them to regard me with suspicion. I am expecting them to make for the wine and the cheese and ignore me entirely.

 

* * *

 

I can’t believe how many of them have read the book! I can’t believe how many of them like it! I can’t believe how much French I can understand!

 

* * *

 

When your work is being complimented, your fluency jumps up a notch right quick.

 

* * *

 

One of the booksellers, a beautiful and hip woman named Sophie, is wearing the coolest ring I’ve ever seen. It’s basically a jagged piece of broken mirror on a ring. I want to get one like that for Stephanie! I compliment her on the ring, in my best French, which falls somewhere between “un peu” and “repeating ça va over and over.”

 

* * *

 

In France, it is against the law to sell a book for less than a slight percentage less than the price listed on the jacket. (Talk about prix fixé!). What this means is, a mega-box-store—or an Amazon—can’t kill off the indies by selling books at enormous volume discounts.

 

* * *

 

What this means is, indie booksellers are protected by the government from huge monolithic corporations underselling them into extinction.

 

* * *

 

Vive la socialisme!

 

* * *

 

“That would never fly in America,” I say. “To us, capitalism and the free market must be defended against all opposition—even if said opposition is The Good of All Humanity.” In the USA, our motto is shareholders über alles.

 

* * *

 

The French government is like the Lorax, and the price regulation is an edict protecting the Truffula trees/bookstores from the brutal ax of Once-lerian capitalism.

 

* * *

 

“Once-ler” is almost an anagram of “Olear.”

 

* * *

 

I ask Philippe and Katarina what Oliver’s last name is. “Gallmeister,” they say, and they both laugh at me.

 

* * *

 

I ask about politics. Everyone knows who George W. Bush is, and that he is an asshole, but Dick Cheney is more of an unknown. I enlighten them.  “He is a walking example of eminence grise,” I say.

 

* * *

 

Q. How do you make a Frenchman make a face like someone just broke wind? A. Ask how he feels about Sarkozy.

 

* * *

 

Q. How do you make a Frenchman flee in horror? A. Ask about Marine Le Pen.

 

* * *

 

If Sarah Palin were French, blonde, smart, dignified, classy, able to connect with a broader group of people, and the daughter of a perennial far-right political candidate, her name would be Marine Le Pen. Sarko is toast and she’s running; people are afraid.

 

 

 

* * *

 

I keep waiting for some other writer to show up. It’s hard to believe these people are here for me.

 

* * *

 

I give a short speech. I thank Philippe and Anne for hosting, and Oliver and Marie-Anne for coordinating. I thank the booksellers for coming. I tell them it’s an honor to be here. I tell them I love France. Then Oliver makes a few jokes, and the party continues.

 

* * *

 

I ask Sophie where she got the ring, explaining that I want to get one for my wife. “My friend made it,” she says. “When are you going back? I can see if she can make her one.” But Sunday is too soon.

 

* * *

 

So Sophie—lovely, amazing Sophie—gives me her ring to give to Stephanie! (I offer to pay for it, but she won’t let me). “My friend will make a new one, and she’ll be glad someone is wearing it in New York.”

 

* * *

 

Sophie, you are awesome.

 

* * *

 

Oliver doesn’t believe me. He (sagely) makes sure the gift is really a gift and not a translation error.  He makes sure I’m not making a…what is the French word for faux pas?

 

* * *

 

I met Emmanuelle, my sub-agent, who is directly responsible for me being here.  God bless you, Emmanuelle.

 

* * *

 

The others are sitting in a circle, all but Oliver smoking, arguing about the future of books, publishing, the price fix law, literature in general, in France. I’m tired, and I’m not fluent to begin with, so I only understand a few words here and there, but it’s fascinating to watch them talk.

 

* * *

 

The (friendly) argument is mostly between Oliver and a man named Sebastian, who has an incredibly expressive face. He gesticulates liberally as he makes his points. I love watching him talk.

 

* * *

 

The party winds down. Wednesday night, and I don’t get back to the hotel room until 2 am.

 

 

 

3. Jeudi, l’après midi

 

 

I sleep till noon. Longest uninterrupted sleep I’ve had in quite some time. A few hours to walk around the city before the radio interview.

 

* * *

 

Everything comes with salad here. Croque madame, steak frites, escargots. Salad is like the French French fry.

 

* * *

 

The waiter is furious for no apparent reason (fortunately, he’s not furious at me). I would totally watch a reality show that just filmed French waiters at work.

 

* * *

 

The architecture in Paris is homogeneous, much of it built in the same style, at the same time, and imposing in its unquestionable beauty and ostentation. Like every building in the city is wearing a tuxedo. The same palette: an off-white, faded by the elements and yellowed by cigarette smoke.

 

* * *

 

That’s why the Eiffel Tower is so amazing: it couldn’t be more different than the prevailing architecture of the city. It’s like this roller coaster-like monument to science fiction dominating the skyline.

 

* * *

 

Notre Dame looks like a spaceship. It does.

 

* * *

 

Lots of students milling around. No one is fat, and no one is emaciated. Healthy figures, devil-may-care coiffure, black and gray and dark blue clothes, funky glasses, cigarettes going. I love it.

 

* * *

 

No one smokes inside restaurants or hotels, but outside, smoke ‘em if you got ‘em. Even Zidane, arguably the greatest French athlete, smokes.

 

* * *

 

I have a man-crush on Zidane. (In English, this would be a good joke, but I’m not sure how to convey the subtlety in French, so I keep it to myself.)

 

* * *

 

At the pharmacie, I find a bottle of Klorane, the best shampoo on earth. Score!

 

* * *

 

My cell phone rings, startling me. Unknown caller. Who the hell is calling me? It’s a man’s voice. I panic; I’m sure it’s Oliver, and I’ve overslept and missed the radio interview.

 

* * *

 

It’s Nat Missildine, ringing from Dijon!

 

* * *

 

He has an ever-so-slight French timbre in his voice. This pissing-in-the-violin stuff is a ruse, I think; he speaks French just fine. He is—and this will come as a shock to no one—very nice.

 

* * *

 

“Don’t tip the waiters!” he says at the end of our chat.

 

* * *

 

Off to do the radio interview!

 

* * *

 

Odile Barski, my fellow radio guest, is incredibly elegant. She wears red fingerless gloves and a matching scarf, and her bearing is downright regal. She would be a perfect Lydia Murtomaki in the French film of Totally Killer.

 

* * *

 

I resist the urge to make a “Are you Banksy?” joke to Madame Barksi.

 

* * *

 

Odile says she’s read my book and she really enjoyed it. Is she just saying that to be nice? Something tells me no. Her IMDB page is a mile long—even longer than Duke’s.

 

* * *

 

This is a live broadcast, in French. I will have a translator, who will whisper in my ear as Tewfik Hakem, the affable host, speaks. She will then translate what I say as I say it. So I should talk slowly. No pressure.

 

* * *

 

Tewfik is around my age. He’s wearing jeans, a white t-shirt, and a sweater vest. He says he likes the book and is looking forward to discussing it.

 

* * *

 

“We will play Elvis Costello for you at the end of the segment,” Tewfik says.

 

* * *

 

Okay, this whole translation thing is VERY hard. You have to actively not listen to the person talking to you, making eye contact with you, and instead listen to the person whispering in your ear.

 

* * *

 

Why is it that at any live event, I always feel the need to burp really loud? A Tums, a Tums, my kingdom for a Tums!

 

 


 

What’s really difficult about this is, I can understand French just well enough to get what Tewfik is saying. Which means I have to just ignore him and tune him out to make this work. This would have been easier if he were speaking Japanese.

 

* * *

 

We are just talking about thrillers. All around the world, ambassadors from countries are communicating this way about nuclear arms and ceasefire treaties. I have a whole new respect for diplomats.

 

* * *

 

Tewfik seems to have really enjoyed the book.

 

* * *

 

Phew, that’s done. And here comes the Elvis: photographs and fancy tricks, to get your kicks at sixty-six…

 

* * *

 

“Fathermucker” does not translate into French. Hanging out after the broadcast, Tewfik asks me about my new book. “It’s called, what, Motherfucker?”

 

* * *

 

Back to the hotel, to interview with two bloggers. Or, as they are called in French, bloggeurs (accent on the second syllable).

 

* * *

 

Nicholas interviews me for his blog. He asks about The Nervous Breakdown. He thinks it’s great. He would like to do something similar in France.

 

* * *

 

I am explaining the inherent problem with the capitalist system: that it is finite. Its success depends on worker exploitation, and one of these decades, we’ll run out of workers to exploit. And then where will we be? Nicholas nods in furious agreement.

 

* * *

 

Marie-Anne and I walk to the bar where we will meet a group of bloggeurs. This involves going past Notre Dame. And going past it really quickly, because she walks really fast, as discussed. Did I mention it’s hot today? It’s hot today.

 

* * *

 

The event is on the second floor of a bar called Étages. I order a Champagne cocktail, because they have them, and because that’s what Victor Laszlo ordered at Rick’s Café Americain.

 

* * *

 

Louis Renault, one of the greatest characters in the history of cinema, and speaker of some of the best-known lines (“I’m shocked, shocked,” “Round up the usual suspects”): a Frenchman.

 

* * *

 

“Speak French if you can,” Marie-Anne says, as I introduce myself to the assembled bloggeurs (there are about a dozen, I think, who were good enough to come out).

 

* * *

 

“Oh, do you speak French?” asks Laurent, one of the bloggeurs, whose English is terrific (he worked in New York for awhile). “Un peu,” I announce.

 

* * *

 

Wow, a lot of the bloggeurs have read the book! And everyone who’s read it seems to have enjoyed it.

 

* * *

 

C’est vrai—je parle Français maintenant. That’s right. I’m getting’ my French on.  Somewhere, my high school French teacher is cringing.


 

* * *

 

You know the guy who wins for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars and goes up to the podium and thanks the Academy in painfully slow and stilted English? I have enormous sympathy for that guy right now.

 

* * *

 

What I’m doing is, I’m trying to use English words that sound like they might be cognates, and pronouncing them like Maurice Chevalier. I just used the word erudite. The bloggeurs were impressed.

 

* * *

 

Talking about the new book—I defer to Philippe a bit here—I have to use the word motherfucker to explain the title. Fortunately, no one seems offended.

 

* * *

 

You know what this is? This is a book club meeting. The Totally Killer book club meeting. How many American novelists can claim that the first time they visited a book club to discuss a book they’d written, it was in Paris and they had to speak French?


 

* * *

 

The bloggeurs are great! I hope they write nice things about me. (Mental note: Google yourself in French when you get home).

 

* * *

 

The bloggeur party ends, and we head for a late dinner at a small, busy restaurant a few blocks away. Laurent joins us. The waiter looks like he walked out of a movie from the 1970s that Duke would write a TNB post about. He has the best glasses ever.

 

* * *

 

I love watching the waiters.  I really want that reality show.

 

* * *

 

Casting the French movie of Totally Killer (which would go down in Paris instead of New York). Marie-Anne wants Jude Law as Asher; Philippe and I shoot this down. I propose Romain Duris. “Too short,” Philippe says. But he looks the part.

 

* * *

 

“Sara Forestier would play Taylor,” Marie-Anne says, pronouncing the surname like it’s the Subaru model. “Sara Forester? She’s French? Because she sounds like she’s from Wisconsin.” “No, no, she’s French.”  She shows me Forestier’s picture on her iPhone.  I’m sold.

 

* * *

 

“Do you want wine?” Philippe asks. Mais oui! I’m in France, for Pete sake! Wine me!

 

* * *

 

Steak frites! And more salad.

 

* * *

 

It’s almost midnight, and the evening comes to an end. Laurent says, “You know, your French is better than en peu.” I tell him I’m using that as a blurb.

 

* * *

 

Last night at the Hotel de la Sorbonne. Tomorrow, after petit-dejeuner with my friend Melissa (“Breakfast is the new drinks,” she’ll tell me), it’s off to Lyon for the Quais du Polar Festival International and more adventures.  But it is already clear that Éditions Gallmeister is formidable, magnifique, superb, and other not-false cognates, and that I lucked out with my publisher.



 

Next time: La Deuxième Partie…The Kings of Lyon.



 


Du Point G

By Greg Olear

Travel

A week from today, I’m traveling to France to support the release of the French-language edition of Totally Killer (or, as it’s called en françaisTotally Killer).

In Paris, in addition to the usual dinners with booksellers and bookstore appearances, I’m being interviewed for France 24’s TV program « Le journal de la Culture », Radio RFI’s show « Littérature sans frontières », and Radio France Culture’s show « A plus d’un titre », where the other guest will be acclaimed French screenwriter and novelist Odile Barksi.

Then it’s off to Lyon, to the Quais du Polar Festival International (polar is how the French say noir, noir being, to them, plain old black), where I’ll sit on two panels with the likes of Sylvie Granotier, Marc Villard, Peter Robinson, Arne Dahl, Dominique Sylvain, and my fellow American Megan Abbott.  Oh, and I almost forgot: another TV interview, for Lyon 1ère.

All this, despite the fact that a) my Q rating can be roughly calculated by subtracting Barack Obama’s Q rating from Kim Kardashian’s Q rating, and b) my French, despite nine years of classes in junior school, high school, and college, can charitably be described as un peu. (There will be a lot of ça va-ing and pissing into violins).

I’m going into detail here not to brag (although it is pretty fucking cool, no?), or to hawk the livre (same imprint and same translator as Tom Robbins; yours for the low, low price of €22,90), but rather to explain how I came to visit Amazon.fr, and how this visit confirmed something I’ve long suspected—namely, that France is way cool. (Or, as they say in French, cool).

* * *

Totally Killer is one of those novels that straddle genres. In the U.S., it was decided to shelve the book in the Mystery section of Barnes & Noble, although the book is not a mystery, in the Agatha Christie sense of the word. Gallmeister, my French publisher, is marketing it as a noir thriller—a distinction bookstores make in France that they don’t tend to here.

For the French release, I was hoping for one of those classic noir covers featuring a pair of shapely gams. The main character in Totally Killer, after all, is a sexpot assassin, the 23-year-old Midwestern love child of Lady Brett Ashley and La Femme Nikita; why not stick her, or some close approximation, on the jacket in a short denim miniskirt?

Instead, Gallmeister went with that other noir staple, the gun. And when I say they went with it, they really went with it. The cover shows a handgun pointed directly at you. It’s kind of jarring, until you realize, as my wife pointed out, that it sort of looks like a parking meter. The cover is arresting, yes, but I was really jonesing for something sexier…until my visit to Amazon.fr, when it became clear that my publishers are all genius.

* * *

I visited the site (as we authors tend to obsessively do, Skinnerian rats that we are) to check my sales ranking. On release day, the book checked in at a healthy 5.089 (which is how they write 5,089 in French; the comma/period switcheroo is one of those cute Continental things they do, like put a slash through the 7 and eat snails). For a guy who never hit four digits on this side of the Amazonian pond, not too shabby.

Next to my own ranking, I was given the option to Voir les 100 premiers en Livres. So I voired. The number one book in France was a 30-page political pamphlet called Indignez-Vous!, by the former French resistance fighter and longtime advocate for human rights and peace, Stéphane Hessel. (The number one Amazon book in the U.S. that day? That would be Harry Potter: A Pop-Up Book: Based on the Film Phenomenon. This is why the terrorists hate us.)

Scrolling down the list of French bestsellers, I noticed a slender volume at No. 25 entitled Qui a peur du point G ? : Le plaisir féminin, une angoisse masculine. On the cover is an erotic yet tasteful black-and-white photograph of a naked woman, her pudenda partially obscured by the sort of shapely gams I wanted on my own jacket. Customers who bought that—and there were plenty—also purchased, the site informed me, a little tome entitled Le secret des femmes. Voyage au coeur du plaisir et de la jouissance. The naked woman in the erotic yet tasteful black-and-white photograph on the cover of that book has nothing obscuring her pudenda—and an impressive tuft of dark pubic hair.

As I browsed through the books, I realized why Gallmeister went with the violence over the sex. Unlike here, where we conceal our bodies but proudly flaunt our firearms, in France, every third book has a naked chick on the cover. So Totally Killer totally stands out!

Upon closer inspection, I noticed something else: Qui a peur du point G ? : Le plaisir féminin, une angoisse masculine is loosely translated (by me, and therefore possibly wrong) thus: Where is the G-spot? The woman’s pleasure, the man’s anxiety. Again, this book, by an OB-GYN named Odile Buisson, was ranked No. 25 overall on French Amazon, and it appears to be a guidebook for men on how to propel their women to more profound and satisfying orgasms!

Needless to say, this is not the stuff of a U.S. best-seller. If American males are moved to read a book at all—and they’re generally not, marketing studies have found; they’d rather watch golf, NASCAR, or Fox News on a 52-inch plasma TV—the cover photograph would not involve a sexy, nude female body, but rather a bloated, pink male head, usually one belonging to a Tea Party zealot who insists Obama is a Kenyan-born Muslim.

Furthermore, the very notion that American men need some sort of sexual GPS system to satisfy their lovers is, ahem, un-American! (It reminds me of an old joke:  French guy, Italian guy, American guy having breakfast. French guy says, “Last night, I made love to my wife five times, and in the morning, she said I was the best lover on earth.” Italian guy says, “I made love to my wife nine times, and in the morning, she said there was no lover like me in all the land.” They ask the American guy how made times he made love to his wife last night. “Once,” says the American. They ask what she said in the morning. “Don’t stop,” says the American.)

The inconvenient truth is, we live in a country whose residents tend to scoff at the French because they’re too busy making love and drinking fine wine to focus on important things, like warfare and Charlie Sheen. But France has a lot to teach us. To wit: There’s nothing shameful about naked bodies. Labor unions are good. Everyone should take off the entire month of August. Oh, and I almost forgot: a travers son témoignage, le docteur Odile Buisson révèle ainsi certains mystères du point G, la fabuleuse anatomie du clitoris ou encore l’incroyable complexité de l’orgasme.

Couldn’t have said it better myself.

Not long ago, the following sentence was entered into the personal literary canon of my household:

“She is m’ennerve because she is toujours trying to cache my doudou.”

It’s an even larger mess and a more resplendent marvel when you hear it.

The line was uttered by my four-year old who wanted to say that her sister is “getting on her nerves because she is still trying to hide her favorite plush toy.” But instead she spoke this one sentence from the two languages she has yet to fully unbraid. I stood over her at the time, ready to respond “Quoi?” before reminding myself to stick with English and leave her mother to the concerns of the tongue with all the accents.

The waiting room of the Côte D’Or préfecture de police has but one open seat.It’s beside a mustached older man in a knit cap holding a green passport.Around the intimate space of plastic chairs arranged to allow for the minimum amount of leg room, I see other green passports along with various shades of red.Mine appears to be the only blue.  I don’t get the sense that any one member of this colorful international coalition desperately wants to obtain the brown passport emblazoned with the words République française.But this is what has brought us together.

We are not expectant, we’re resigned.Whether we think procuring the right to stay in this country is just a matter of procedure or whether we assume it’s almost pointless to try, we wait for our number to be called.I’ve torn “46” from the machine at the door.I sit down with it and my own renewed doubt about my prospects here today.

Incognito was a California fusion restaurant, steaks and sweet potatoes cooked with expensive wine and Asian seasonings, so pretty much anything flew for dessert. Upon landing the job, Esmerelda introduced a menu of fried green tea ice cream, eggplant tiramisu, papaya gelatin, Japanese plum cakes, cardamom shrikhand, and, on Sundays, raspberry fortune cookies with home-cooked haikus rolled up inside. Her profiteroles were made of thousands of choux pastry strips woven together, layered squirts of Swiss chocolate cream oozing within; her handmade ice cream was cool on the spoon and warm in the mouth, thick as mashed potatoes; her apple pie cracked with ripe fruit and fresh cinnamon, a dash of saffron spicing the crust.

I was twenty-three years old and working at a dead-end job when my boyfriend, a graduate student, was offered a chance to do a semester abroad in Paris. This boyfriend spoke no French and had never been abroad, whereas I spoke some French and had spent one week in Paris the year before. This made me something of an expert. Not for nothing had I slogged through all sixteen French tenses in college, including those used to demarcate actions intended, actions completed, and fleeting actions long anticipated whose ultimate execution leaves you feeling strangely hollow.

The semester abroad came with a small stipend but nowhere to live and so it fell to me to find us an apartment to sublet. Every morning I combed the classifieds atop our tiny hotel bed and called every listing only to find the apartments already rented. Unfortunately, I was not making a very good first impression, confusing as I did the word l’annonce (which means “an advertisement”) with the word l’avertissement (which means “a warning”). This confusion would come to seem fateful.

I hardly remember the first weeks, considering all that would come later, except for the cold and the dwindling money, the sense of impending doom, the consistently bad water pressure. After days of costly phone calls, only one option remained. L’avertissement read:

5th, M. Jussieu. Flexible availability. 2 rooms, 26m2 furnished flat w/ bathtub, American kitchen, 800 €/m. 5-6 months.

(The “American kitchen” is local terminology for a studio-sized kitchen nook without proper counter space or an oven; in other words, small, like America.)

I called the landlord immediately.

“Bonjours, j’appelle au sujet de l’avertissement de immobiliers,” I began.

“HELLO?! DO YOU SPEAK ENGLISH? PARLEZ ANGLAIS? HELLO?”

“Oh, yes, hello, I speak English.”

“SO, YOU DO SPEAK ENGLISH? DO YOU? SPEAK ENGLISH? GOOD. THIS IS MARGUERITE DELUCA.”

(It’s important to note that while I will shortly abandon the practice of writing her words in all capital letters, Ms. Marguerite Deluca will in fact continue to speak in all capital letters. Every single word she says.)

Only a few hours later, I would find myself face to face with Ms. Marguerite Deluca.

Or Margaret Deluca, as she called herself both names indifferently. Marguerite was a mustachioed American woman of Armenian extraction, 70 years old, divorced. She had lived in Paris many years, but retained homes in the States and elsewhere. She was a “feminist,” by her own frequent labeling, and a “liberal,” though her political opinions seemed more like an amalgamation of personal grievances against celebrities (she loathed Madeleine Dietrich) and vague, incontrovertible assertions (she liked women, and the poor.)
Marguerite had decided to sublet her apartment in Paris for six months while she returned to the United States for a minor surgery. She had placed l’avertissement months before, but when I arrived that afternoon, she had not packed a single item or even booked a plane ticket—and she was still not sure she even was going. In the meantime, she was planning to go to Nice to “decompress.” (Marguerite spoke with a strange slang, combining the worst of many decades with her own irrepressible gusto and grating Boston accent. She might speak of something being “plastic,” then end a sentence with an enthusiastic “baby!” as in “We’re just working one day at a time, baby!”)
The coveted apartment had a front living room, a small bathroom, an incredibly American kitchen, and a separate bedroom. The building was graceful, lovely, and old. All the apartments had charming French windows with charming French shutters that made you feel like you were in that one Egoïste commercial.  However
Marguerite had saved every single item she had ever laid her hands on in the last twenty years. The filthy apartment was crammed with filthier garbage—spoiled food, mildew and mold, soiled underwear. It reeked of dust, urine, rotting wood, and that inexpressible but instantly recognizable smell of old person. Marguerite washed all her dishes in the bathtub. The bathtub was therefore encrusted not only with mold and grime, but with pieces of food. The bathroom shelf contained a Smithsonian exhibit on turn-of-the-century cosmetics: witch hazel languished next to lipstick still made with real whale blubber, while nail polish silently atrophied alongside safety razors that predated plastic and weighed 1.5 pounds each. Underneath the wretched sink, tubs of dirty dishes floated in their filmy water, propped up by a broken stool, a sopping wet piece of foam rubber, and two plastic tubs of assorted crap, all topped with the aforementioned soiled underwear.
The kitchen was a moldering closet piled high with unimaginable garbage. She had saved every food wrapper, every lid and jar. Piles of margarine tub lids—just lids—rubber-banded together. Half a dinner plate. The rest of the house was stuffed with magazines, newspaper clippings, clothing and shoes, linens, hats, plastic and paper bags, and just about every imaginable item, piled high on every surface, everywhere. There was an unwrapped bar of soap in the bed sheets; a jagged pane of broken glass; there were three conical piles of salt on the rug; there were rugs and posters stored flat between the mattress and box spring.
The rug was encrusted with every possible pollution. By her own admission, she never vacuumed it, preferring instead to sweep at it with an old dust broom. Once, she declared proudly, she had scrubbed the rug with hair shampoo from the bathroom.
Sometimes I put hair shampoo on it, to clean it. Instead of going to get carpet shampoo‘cuz how do you do that?!”
She then suggested I try “dyeing” the rug by pouring coffee on it.
We took the apartment.
Marguerite originally promised that we could move in on Sunday, then switched it to Wednesday. As Wednesday dawned, the new move-in date became Friday. And so it went, for weeks on end. Our budget depleted, we were forced to give up our hotel room and spend the interim days in a youth hostel, an experience like living in a homeless shelter, but without the free soup.

We spent our mornings assisting Marguerite with her excavations, running her errands, buying her croissants, carrying her packages, and taking her phone calls. Her dedicated pack of friends visited daily, crowding the apartment with boxes, trunks, and conflicting bits of advice. From time to time she would capture a young, guileless Canadian or Australian tourist and lure him back to our home to listen to her stories of Vietnam War protests and lovers lost.  All the while Marguerite fanned herself from her ragged folding chair, imparting bits of wisdom like, “Be careful what you drink. The other day I drank some soap, I thought it was olive oil.”

Our evenings were spent out roaming the streets, buying time away from the insufferable backpackers with whom fate had bound us, half a dozen not-so-young world travelers wrapped in filthy North Face polar fleece, ambling through one of the world’s most fashionable cities looking like it was laundry day at forestry school.

Weeks passed; at last we were installed in the apartment, paying regular rent, and still the recipients of regular visits from Marguerite. We had simply exchanged places, and now it was she who was staying at the Young and Happy youth hostel down the street. She still came over in the mornings, always without a call or an invitation, to “pack” for America. She would plop down in her broken wicker chair and tell me, “You can just start the water for some tea, and there are tea bags in the kitchen.”

And then, with a lordly gesture, “You can just take these suitcases next door.”

And what did Marguerite pack in these suitcases for her excursion back to the youth hostel? A duffel bag full of instant soup and moldy tangerines she had dug out of her own trash can.  “They’ll be alright if you peel them.”

Her last night in Paris, Marguerite arrived with a confused-looking young man in tow.  This handsome German boy was staying at Young and Happy with Marguerite bullied him into carrying some boxes to our apartment for her.  He came in, set the boxes down with the utmost care, and stood awkwardly in the corner, trying to figure out how long he was obligated to stay.

It was time for l’avertissement.

I led him quickly down the stairs and whispered to him in stilted German, “Whatever you do, avoid Marguerite.  Really, you must flee from her.”

“I think she is crazy.”

At that point, Marguerite threw a pair of boots down three flights of stairs.  One landed within inches of my head.

“Jesus!” I shouted in English.  “Why did you agree to follow her here?”

He replied honestly and a little sadly, with his halting accent, “I didn’t know where I was going.”

I escorted him back through the cobbled courtyard.

“Why do you stay here?” he asked me.

“Because this is the only apartment left in Paris.”


(Havelock, NC)

I lay on the floor and watch her disrobe, her naked body, hovering over me. She starts the shower. She soaps her hair and I watch the lather run down her curvy body, a bit irritated by the moisture since it’s taking years off of my life.

I go to bed with her. I rest on her chest as she sleeps and slowly make my way towards her belly as she lightly snores. Life with her is good.

(Venice, CA)

I giggle, knowing that you’re back home, struggling to pay your bills, knowing you can’t see all the nudity. I don’t need to go to therapy, drink, even in moderation and I stay 214 pages all of my life while you count calories and exercise so you can keep your 32 inch waist.

You don’t see the tears that well up in her eyes when Gabe is heartbroken. Or how she giggles when Gabe describes the world around him, pulling her in, making her care.

She threw me across the room because some lover betrayed her. I smacked that fucker in the head. Damn straight. Don’t mess with my woman, even though she makes me mad because she dog-ears my pages. She makes up for it by smiling when she reads a moment of victory. Oh her sweet dimples.

(Nanterre, France)

Not all is well for me. Sometimes you really wouldn’t want to be in the bathroom with these people. I won’t even discuss the toilet, but a fat English bloke peed in the shower. And the sex, there are some things that if you witnessed them they would turn you off of sex forever.

I sat on his lap for a full five minutes and he just looked at your name on the cover, trying to figure out if he’ll look more French if he brings me to a cafe. Yes, DuShane, it’s French, now open me up.

(Houston, TX)

I remember when she took me off of the shelf, stroked by tender hands. I was like an orphan looking for a parent. A dog with his paw to the cage. Me, me, me, I yelled. When she took me to the cash register I felt like I sent a farewell note to you. This is it. This is what you wanted. Good-bye.

Then I snicker because you will be judged. They do those little star-thingies on those book websites. What you put me through, what you put all of us through for three years? Back when we were naked, when we had no spine. Those days you just sat there and looked at us, half formed, deformed, a few of us characters bloated like we were force fed popcorn and chili. That wasn’t fun, but you wrote your way through that time and now I don’t feel like farting as much.

(Cleveland, OH)

I just sat there, not a care in the world and then this two-year-old kid showered me with a bowl full of milk and Cheerios. Nobody read a word of me and down the trash shoot I fell. Four stories.

By the way, there is an after life, and it doesn’t involve a heaven or hell or ghosts bothering humans or anything like that. Wait a second.

What? Oh, I can’t tell him. That’s funny.

(Brooklyn, NY)

I’m at another writer’s house. He’s good. I mean, wow, the wealth of material. I’m up against his manuscript. I know I can’t call you, but maybe there’s some weird shit in the universe that will make it to your brain and into one of my younger brothers or sisters.

(Halifax, Nova Scotia)

I heard you might adapt me into a film. I wish someone would throw me at your head, what are you thinking? They’re going to change things around. And, have you seen some of these films? I’m with a woman who insisted we watch Eat, Pray, Love. Twice in a row! She brought me into the theatre bathroom after seeing it once.

Yeah, I got to go into the women’s bathroom and I know you’re thinking there are a bunch of bare breasted women applying makeup, comparing their front bottoms and splashing water on each other, but don’t get your hopes up too high on that idiotic fantasy. She just sat there, looking at her ugly mug in the mirror, actually thinking she was Julia Roberts, or that she could be Julia Roberts. We bought two boxes of Junior Mints and she ate all of them before the previews, of course, and I had to watch that crap film again.

I swear on my holy…..if you…if they….if Julia Rober-…..I will hurt you. Somebody place me on a computer I will one-star-thingie the shit out of you. Amazon. Barnes & Noble. Powell’s. Goodreads.com. Why would I care, we’re done, I’m home and you’re back in San Francisco doing whatever you San Franciscans do when you’re not writing or waxing your hipster mustaches.

And, you didn’t have that mustache when we started. Yeah, I’m calling you out on it to the world. You were fat. You were a fat bearded fuck. 234 pounds. I know, you go on and on about how you lost 50 pounds and the first 20 pounds were easy because they were heartbreak pounds. What was that pithy little sentence you wrote?

“Divorce is the number one cure for weight loss without a prescription.”

Actually, that’s not bad. And it was good to see you get healthy. Well on your exterior since we both know your insides are just rotting guts and you’re still a tormented artist, blah, blah, blah. I wish I could write your next book for you and call it, I’m Tormented, Help Me.

Forget what I said about Julia Roberts, you and I spent so much “quality” time together, you know what I’m talking about you delusional sod, that I now want Julia Roberts to play the role of Mom. Yep. If I could call your agent and sound halfway intelligent with the limited sentences you gave me, I’d find out. But I can only say sentences the way you wrote them. Let’s see:

“Did you touch her?” Page 8. Not going to work.

“Shitfaced.” That’s a sentence on page 142. You’re not too shabby on the internal dialogue stuff when Gabe says what he’s thinking.

Okay, flipping through myself. Hrmm. That feels kind of good. Flipping through my pages. Flipping through. Flipping through. Flipping through. Flip, flip, flip, flip, flip, I’ll be right back.

I’m back. All of a sudden I feel a little tired. I thought I broke something there for a second.

“It was a very Norwegian way to communicate something that hurt too much.” Page 62.

Look, you’ve given me nothing to work with here so you’re on your own. I’ll never speak to you again if the world knows my story through some starving, numbskull actors who rubbed the right people the right way to get into the-.

Rubbed. They flipped through my pages. Flipping through my pages. Flipping. Flip, flip, flip. I feel a bit light headed. I’ll be right back.