You just published a book called Playing with Dynamite: A Memoir. Why did you decide to write a book about yourself? Did you do jail time or recover from addiction or walk on the moon or something?

First of all, I never intended to write memoir. Like many writers, I started with autobiographical fiction. I wrote a novel about a teenage girl growing up in Detroit who embarks on a quest to find out who her father was and how he died. It’s remarkable how many memoirists say they started by writing their story as fiction, but it didn’t work, so they finally had to tell the whole truth. That’s what happened with me.

Lesley_M_M_Blume_Everybody_Behaves_Badly

This week on the Otherppl with Brad Listi podcast, a conversation with Lesley M. M. Blume. She is an award-winning journalist and a writer for Vanity Fair magazine, and her new book is called Everybody Behaves BadlyThe True Story Behind Hemingway’s Masterpiece The Sun Also Rises. Available now from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Get the free Otherppl app.

Listen via iTunes.

Room 32

By D. R. Haney

Nonfiction

adhered

The idea, I thought, was a simple one: rent for a night the West Hollywood motel room where Jim Morrison lived on and off for three years, hold a séance with a few friends, and afterward throw a party. It seemed a fitting homage to Morrison, a party-hardy mystic who believed himself possessed by the spirit of a Pueblo Indian he had seen as a boy while traveling through New Mexico and happening upon the aftermath of a deadly accident. Indians scattered on dawn’s highway bleeding, he famously wrote of the incident in “Newborn Awakening,” his poem set to music by his band, the Doors, seven years after he died. Ghosts crowd the young child’s fragile eggshell mind.

What’s the difference between New York City and Paris? “New York is fried, Paris is baked,” Baldwin tells us. When he leaves Brooklyn for a two-year stint in Paris, he hopes for more of a contrast than that. What he finds is that the world is smaller than even Disney could have imagined. “The Great French Dream didn’t sound much different than the Great American Dream, only with More Vacation Days.” Even the costumes are the same. “Hey, is it me,” he asks, “or did Parisians ditch berets for Yankees caps?” All the Parisian men he knows dress like him, in jeans. Shockingly, two-thirds of his ad agency colleagues lunch on McDonald’s (albeit in courses, with chicken nuggets serving as the entrée). Even the president at the time, Nicolas Sarkozy, is an American-style leader, all flash and bling.

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.

Anna was a metaphysical meteorologist. Could always predict whenever my heart’s weather was nearing rain.

Jen was born under the sign of an electric guitar. She could turn me up. Turn me on. Did anything but turn me down.

Doris took everything that wasn’t nailed to the floor or superglued to my conscience.

Kelly would cage me. Let me roam wild in her heavy-petting zoo.

Fiona was my judge, jury and executioner. She never inflicted a painful death; more like the death of all my pain.

Certain things about certain women I’ve known…

Ashley was a blizzard in a box.

The summer before we stole the car from the English electrician, our friend who arranged for us to pick grapes in Southern France, Eve, gushed from her perch in the 107th Street bistro, glass of wine in hand, fresh-faced and rested from what we would later learn was an extended stay at a sanatorium.

“I’ve spoken to the Madame, and her grapes are definitely growing,” Eve’s smoky laugh tinkled imperceptibly in the noisy bar. “She’s very excited to host you girls in Provence this fall. Oh, I wish I were going,” Eve lamented politely. “I’ve got to finish this semester, though. I’ve got to finish something.”

I admired so many things about Eve: her frosty hair and lined face seemed worldly at 20, as did her dry pride in the social nuisance of finishing college in four years. Add the fact that she kept disappearing, keeping my travel partners and I guessing about the grape-picking gig, and she quickly became just the right type of mysterious to me. One week I’d bump into her on the crowded city campus, finishing a blue cigarette by the Pan statue before our creative writing class. “See you upstairs in a minute,” she’d said with a weary smile. But when her empty chair persisted for that day and days after, Eve’s power only grew in my mind. She was living an urban, Cheshire life and I couldn’t think of anything more romantic.

I longed to break out of my suburban girl’s shell. Besides working as a hostess in a dingy, Upper West Side jazz club, I lived a fairly sheltered life for a twenty-one-year- old, commuting by bus from my parents’ house to Columbia University, scrunchies in my ponytail, buried under books in the magnificent library after lectures. I had no social life to speak of since relinquishing my cool magazine internship (I couldn’t afford not to be paid). New York was all around me, but I hardly felt like a city girl.

According to Eve’s pitch, if I was willing to take a semester off and fly to France, I could work the harvest for a few weeks and stay with Eve’s family friend, Madame Beauvert, who prevailed over acres of what would become Cotes du Rhone. My imagination conjured not backbreaking work, but lavender fields and nearby Mediterranean beaches; and Paris. I could live in France instead of read about how Ernest Hemingway and Henry Miller did. So I withdrew from the upcoming fall semester and bought non-refundable plane tickets in cash, my first two major decisions made without parental consent. With a few hundred dollars saved from drunken tippers, I boarded a plane with a borrowed backpack and an elevated feeling that I was both finally living and pulling off a stunt meant for other, more privileged people.

But once seated and angling into the air, I felt sweat seep into the armpits of my Putamayo dress. In retrospect this onset of in-flight panic, prompted by fears of a future ruined while sipping free champagne on Air France, stood to reason. I had had no direct contact with Madame Beauvert. Our “plans”, arranged through Eve, had no confirmed dates of beginning or ending. I had no credit card, and of the three of us traveling, my college-level French was by far the best (I had gotten a B- in Conversation).

My travel partner, Mae, shook her head. “We’re in the right place at the right time,” she said, as one who had the glorious trait of worrying about nothing might. Mae was my age but Southern. She waited tables and lived alone in her mother’s Washington Heights apartment, and one of those circumstances made her as fearless as a secret agent.

Kay, our party’s third member, agreed. “Traveling is one of the good things in life,” she soothed, and because Kay was an artist and daughter of a tragically famous New Yorker, I believed she knew more about life than I.

We lugged our bags through the chaos of Orly airport, amid the human-smelling crowds and sexy, overhead announcements. Not one familiar face, sound or scent. Nothing to read, study or intelligently discuss. Someone stepped on my foot, but I didn’t care. I glimpsed a crepe stand and while waiting for a taxi, my fears became small and ornamental. That safe state in which I had lived, that of dissatisfied longing, had gone. I leaned my head out the window, feeling the urge to make a mark strike my face like raindrops on headlights.

For weeks, Paris was wet. We walked over puddles in our black city shoes and red lipstick, exploring old cathedrals and desecrated cemeteries that, while lovely, didn’t match my visions of sun, wine and the Mediterranean Sea. I had imagined there would be an obvious beginning by now, the pop of a cork, a magnanimous “welcome” from Madame Beauvert and ensuing directions of how to get to our new jobs at her palatial estate. Mae tried calling Madame Beauvert once or twice a day casually, as if it didn’t matter, and Kay echoed Mae’s cool calm about money more easily than I, sketching leisurely in the Left Bank tabacs. She had already finished college, and since Mae had no real intention of going back, the two of them shared a drifter’s context perfect for long afternoons in the Latin Quarter. I was alone with my urgency.

In order to not worry about money during the day, I tried evoking what I imagined would be Eve’s demeanor, smoking and ordering water and coffee to keep from wanting to eat more than camembert on baguettes. At night, I counted my remaining francs and dollars, about 150 total, and imagined myself as Eve, sitting by the statue of Pan, Greek God of the Wild, awaiting a change of fortune.

It was as if I had inadvertently said a prayer.

“Hi Madame Beauvert? My friends and I have arrived in Paris.”

“Sorry?”

Mae cleared her throat and spoke loudly into the youth hostel pay phone.

“We came from New York to work on your vineyard? For the harvest? For faire le vendage?”

“You are American?”

“Yes. Our friend Eve said she had spoken to you about our arrival. We’re here to pick–”

“I have men from Spain and Portugal to do that.”

“I see. Eve had said–”

“I am not well. I cannot take care of three girls. I’m sorry. Please enjoy Paris. Tell Eve I’m sorry.”

*

A few days earlier, a nun in a church vestibule where I had waited out a rainstorm had looked at me with pity. I scanned the wall full of nanny job postings, but her stare reminded me I didn’t belong, so I grabbed a few free publications like Libre Paris and France/USA, and covered my head across the street to the post office. In line for postcard stamps, two classifieds had caught my eye.

1. Join a crew of hot air balloon professionals for a two-month race across Europe. No experience necessary.

2. Restore a medieval farmhouse in the Provence countryside. Light construction/electrical experience preferred. Room and board.

My parents’ postcard, Dear Mom and Dad, Paris is beautiful never slipped down the mail slot that day; the line for stamps was too long and the message felt untrue. But now, this morning after Madame Beauvert refused us, the sun cracked through gray clouds while Mae fed the phone franc after franc, finally reaching the medieval farmhouse (the hot air balloon line buzzed a constant busy).

“You can do construction?” the male voice asked.

“Let’s just say I know how to use a hammer,” Mae replied.

“Let me talk to him,” I grabbed the phone. Picking grapes had slipped through our fingers, but a medieval farmhouse in the French countryside, and the grand adventure I now felt entitled to, would not.

“I’ve helped build my grandfather’s shed,” I lied into the phone without the least bit of regret. “I’ve carried wood, I’ve worked in gardens. I’ve even dug a ditch.”

“You did all of this in New York?”

“Upstate New York. It’s very rural. But we can tell you about it when we meet. How do we get there?”

Within one hour, our bags were packed. I amended my parents’ postcard message, Dear Mom and Dad, Paris is beautiful. We’re taking the train to Provence this afternoon but I was so excited, I forgot to drop it in the mailbox.

End of Part 1

Ellen Sussman’s fourth book, FRENCH LESSONS, just came out to rave reviews.  People magazine gave it four out of four stars, a ¾ page layout, and the title of People Pick. You may already know Ellen from her first novel, On a Night Like This. Or perhaps you’ve picked up the two anthologies she’s edited: Bad Girls:26 Writers Misbehave, or Dirty Words: A Literary Encylopedia of Sex. Ellen’s writing is witty, engaging, and always sexy.

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.

Bruce Chatwin held that there are two categories of writers, “the ones who ‘dig in’ and the ones who move.” He observed: “There are writers who can only function ‘at home’, with the right chair, the shelves of dictionaries and encyclopaedias, and now perhaps the word processor. And there are those, like myself, who are paralyzed by ‘home’, for whom home is synonymous with the proverbial writer’s block, and who believe naïvely that all would be well if only they were somewhere else.” I like this notion, but have no opinion about its veracity. I do, however, hold that when I read Chatwin I can detect the shuffle of his restless feet traversing ancient causeways, just as, when I read Melville, I smell salt air.

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.”