‘Landfalls’ by Naomi J. Williams: Author Interview (+ GIVEAWAY!)

Landfalls FSG coverI first encountered Naomi Williams’ work when I ran across her essay “Routine? What Routine?” on the blog of her publisher, FSG. In that essay, she copped to a writing schedule that struck me as thrillingly refreshing – she has none.

The prevailing wisdom is that one must write every day. Of course, if one can manage it, that would be a rather enviable routine. But not everyone is wired to follow such dictates (though I *do* look forward to weekly writing dates through my new venture WIP).

I found her admission of a haphazard process – “Every morning I wake up and make it up as if I’ve never done it before” – strangely reassuring. Yes. My. How I relate.

I soon started reading her blog, which proved just as delightful and fresh, dotted with humorous anecdotes and sparkling with breezy smarts. Then I discovered her debut novel came out in early August; I knew I had to get my hands on it.

“Here’s a fair question,” she opens in a post explaining the book’s origins, “How does a middle-aged American woman with no experience at sea come to write a novel about 18th-century French mariners?”

Indeed. How does that happen? And what’s this about a French connection? A perfect excuse to reach out and ask if I could feature her on the blog. Happily she agreed!

Landfalls takes the Lapérouse expedition – a real voyage that left Brest in 1785 with high hopes of circumnavigating the globe before vanishing – and brings the story to vivid fictional life. It is, quite simply, one of the best books I’ve had the pleasure of reading in a very long time.

Warm, witty, humane, moving, it is a remarkable novel – one that had me chuckling in some places, crying in others, and all the while shaking my head and marveling at the author’s deft, delicate touch. I sailed through its pages – the prose so elegant! so skilled! – and immediately returned to the beginning of the book with a desire to reread it as soon as I had finished. I can’t remember the last time I did that.

Naomi J. Williams was born in Japan and spoke no English until she was six years old. Her short fiction has appeared in journals such as A Public Space, One Story, The Southern Review, and The Gettysburg Review. In 2009, she received a Pushcart Prize and a Best American Honorable Mention. Naomi has an MA in Creative Writing from UC Davis. Landfalls is her first novel.

I’m thrilled Naomi is here on the blog today. I’m also thrilled to have a free copy of Landfalls to send to one lucky reader. Giveaway details are at the end of the post.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

I love the backstory of how you came to write Landfalls – a mislabeled vintage map gifted to you for your birthday led to your discovery of the Lapérouse expedition. That in turn sparked your idea to tell a bunch of stories each from a different place along the route and about a different crew member. What an ambitious plan! How does one go about approaching such a daunting task in the beginning – and staying with it? Lituya Bay map

I think a good dose of ignorant bravado might have been at work here. When I first came up with the idea, I thought it would take maybe two years to write. Ha! Then when I actually started it, I thought, okay, maybe it’s more like a five-year project. Wrong again. But in a way this project felt more doable than a “regular” novel with one setting, one narrative perspective, and one through-line. That seemed — still seems — quite daunting to me. I approached each chapter like a short story. Writing one short story didn’t seem impossible. Then after I’d finish one, I’d just start on the next. And I proceeded in that piecemeal fashion for the better part of a decade.

And about the map that started it all: It’s a map of Lituya Bay in Alaska, and it’s from an English-language atlas of the Lapérouse expedition, and yes, it’s a really weird map that suggests, more than anything else, the female reproductive system. If you want to read more about how I ended up with it and all of that, I tell that story in some detail at my blog.

Your exploration of each character’s inner landscape was as impressive and profound a world-building as the vast scope of the physical geography you covered. The richest portraits emerge – everyone from the ship’s captain to a Russian translator to an indigenous woman on the Solomon Islands and numerous others. Could you talk about the process of inhabiting so many different perspectives and places? Did you focus on one character at a time? Outline the links between the chapters?

I didn’t really outline links between chapters — not on paper or in any visible way, at least. With the result that most of the work of revising with my editor consisted of trying to make those links more visible, making the whole thing more novelistic and less like a collection of discrete stories that didn’t always talk to each other.

But about the characterization — usually in the research a sort of personality would emerge about the historical figures I was reimagining. There would be a letter or report or anecdote reported in a journal or something that suggested traits — fussiness, pretension, anxiety, optimism, etc. — that I’d then expand on.

I also ended up pouring a lot of myself into the characters. The uptight, meticulous scientist in the chapter set in Macao, a guy who feels put-upon and ill-served by life and everyone around him: there’s unfortunately quite a lot of me in that character. The more anxious the character, the easier I found him or her to inhabit. The commander, Lapérouse, was challenging, as he was by all accounts a really genial, even-keeled (no pun intended!) individual. Unflappability is not a quality I understand.

The real historical facts and the scenes you put on your fiction writer’s cap to create melded so seamlessly together. How did your extensive research incite/inform/intermingle with your imagination in bringing these stories alive?

Continue reading ‘‘Landfalls’ by Naomi J. Williams: Author Interview (+ GIVEAWAY!)’

Write-in Paris (WIP) !

Boulevard Voltaire. Photo by Sean Fitzroy.

Boulevard Voltaire. Photo by Sean Fitzroy.

Closed shops with handwritten notes on their shuttered doors announcing vacation, emptier streets so tempting the urge to walk in the middle of them sometimes overtakes. Cafes are even more relaxed than usual. Linger, linger.

But crowds still appear in parks with picnic baskets and blankets to watch outdoor movies. Sunny enough this year, too, for Paris Plages (ends this Sunday). The tourist sites must be packed, as well, though I haven’t been anywhere near those for awhile.

It’s August in Paris. A slow, delicious month. Counterintuitively to some, it’s my favorite one. I love working during this time. Less pressure in the air as others holiday, I feel as if I’m getting ahead.

Corner cafe. Photo by Michele Filgate.

Corner cafe. Photo by Michele Filgate.

I’ve come up with an idea, friends, and I’m excited to share. I hope you will join if you can.

Starting in September, I will begin hosting “write-in” sessions in my home. Not a workshop. Not a class. Rather “communal scribble sessions in the City of Light.”

So often, the biggest challenge in writing is the most basic of steps: sitting down and staying there to do it. I think a lot about why it’s so hard to keep one’s butt in the chair – resistance, doubt, distractions, fear.

I know I’m not alone. It’s a solitary act, writing. And yet we, writers, are a tribe.

What if I created a community specifically to foster collective creative energy in a supportive environment? Offered a cozy space to focus on projects, our concentration on solo work buoyed by a group?

WIP websiteI’ve launched Write-In Paris (WIP) and would love for you to take a look. Think of it as a weekly date with your writing in good company. Consider it a membership to a writer’s gym – only this gym is always super fun with like-minded souls. You’ll commit to your writing practice and it’s a promise you’ll want to keep.

I’m looking forward to the rentree now. I can’t wait to put WIP into play!

Please visit the Write-In Paris (WIP) website for full details on schedules and pricing. Then, I hope you sign up!

Thoughts? Ideas? I welcome your suggestions of how to make WIP great and how to spread the word. Thank you!

Aeroflorale Flying Greenhouse Machine! (Do you Believe?)

A canicule across France this week with temperatures topping 100 degrees. People may be near hallucinating from the heat, but certainly I did not hallucinate this.


Today, I lunched along the Canal de L’ourcq at an impossibly cute venue (possible post later) with friends from NYC passing through town. After, despite the chaleur, I decided to stroll my old ‘hood while they went in search of air conditioning.

As I approached the Villette, I saw first one, then another adolescent jump into the canal. Green, and with bits of garbage floating in it, the questionable nature of the water proved no deterrent for energetic teen boys needing to cool off.

I don’t wilt easily in heat, but I was feeling faint and knew it was time to head home. How happy I was to cut through the park and come upon a scene!

First view AerofloreYou can see for yourself the immense installation, an industrial-chic structure adorned all around with plants.

Several people in khaki uniforms were scaling and rappelling (!) from it, and naturally, a small crowd was gathered.

Qu’est-ce que c’est ce truc? I wondered who I could ask what this thing was, but I waited patiently in the sun to learn more.

One of the uniformed people was making a show with a separate contraption. Affixed to the contraption were regular party balloons, which it seemed he wanted to launch into space using the strange device. After much ta-do and several turnings of wheels…a cord snapped and instead of being launched, the balloons stayed right where they were.

actor aeroflorale

“That’s never happened before!” he said.

More adjustments were made, and finally he freed the balloons from the machine with a scissors. He held the balloons aloft then let them go. They floated into the sky. The audience applauded.

(Um, that guy simply let regular balloons fly away. Is that really a feat?)Actor Aeroflorale

What’s going on here? I have a new question now, and I scan the crowd for someone who seems most likely to have answers. I see a white-haired woman speaking to a few teenagers. She’s nodding confidently. I scoot closer to her. She looks like one of those people who makes it her business to know other people’s business. Just the kind of person I’m seeking.

“…it was in Madagascar,” she’s saying, as I slide closer to her.

“No!” says a young woman. “That’s where I’m from. That’s far away!”

“And it will fly to Iceland next,” she continues.

Two young men laugh good-naturedly. “No, Madame. That’s not possible.”

“That’s what they said. I live right across the street. I didn’t see it one night. Then the next morning, it was here! It landed!”

“No,” look at it. “It’s decor, Madame. Decoration!”

Continue reading ‘Aeroflorale Flying Greenhouse Machine! (Do you Believe?)’

Gorgeous Greece

Hi friends,

I’m offering a little eye candy to start the week off right.

Akrotiri, Exterior Couple Shot
As some of you know, one of my family’s best (newish) traditions is planning reunions in foreign countries. I don’t get back to visit my folks nearly as much as I’d like, but meeting up in intriguing destinations adds a whole other level of magic to seeing each other again. We recently got a chance to create some more memories.

First evening's view

First evening’s view

Since living in Paris, I’ve met my parents in Prague, Portugal, and Istanbul (all of which were fantastic, the latter two particularly a dream). My favorite trip category is fit to overflowing now, because I’m adding a new one to the list.

We recently took an unescorted package tour to Greece, meaning a travel company booked all the logistics – hotels, transfers, ferry tickets – but we were on our own to explore each place as we wanted. It’s not how I usually travel, but gosh it’s nice to have someone else take care of all the details sometimes. With 3 stops in 8 days, though, we agreed we didn’t have nearly enough time to bask in our surroundings.

Oia landscape

Continue reading ‘Gorgeous Greece’

Hot Diggity: Sun Therapy & L’atypique

Rue Alexandre Dumas - springA surreal Sunday scene: I’m walking down Rue Alexandre Dumas, my familiar street made new when it’s washed in spring’s bright light. I fall behind two young French girls – they couldn’t have been more than 9 or 10 – on the corner near Conforama. One has an iPhone pressed to her ear, her blond tresses nearly covering the device. She’s speaking into it seriously, while her friend patiently waits.

When her serious talk is through she hangs up and becomes lighthearted again, and the two friends begin chatting and laughing. By this time, I’ve passed them, my long legs carrying me much faster than theirs.

Then, from behind me, I hear:

“I like the way you work it. No diggity, I got to bag it up, bag it up
I like the way you work it. No diggity, I got to bag it up…”

And the girls are singing along! When Dr. Dre starts rapping, they even keep pace with that, too.

A deep look of confusion has overtaken my face, then my lips spread into a huge grin, even while I’m shaking my head. How in the world do these little French girls 1) know this song twice as old as they are (1996, baby!) 2) keep up with the lyrics (do they have any idea what they’re saying?). I’m surprised and slightly disconcerted, too.

They cross the street and I lose the Blackstreet song and their voices rising to meet it. I continue on my way.

La Jardin de la Folie Titon

La Jardin de la Folie Titon

The lawn of the Jardin de la Folie Titon

We’ve been basking in a whole string of warm, sunny days. Sun therapy isn’t reliably available in Paris, but my, no better option exists if you can get it. The default belief that the sunshine won’t last (the sky here so much more accustomed to a palate of grays), promises outsized excitement with its appearance. Each day for a couple weeks now, it seems, I wake and look out the window. It’s sunny…again? I simply can’t believe the good fortune. It’s impossible to ever take for granted the sun.

Church near the jardin de la folie titon

I’ve been making daily trips to a neighborhood park – my destination when I ran into the rapping girls – and I even made a recent trip to my favorite Parisian outpost, Buttes Chaumont. Another flashback to earlier times. It had been so long since I’d seen the Sybil Temple above the lake, and laid on its sloping hills.

Chilling in Buttes Chaumont

Chilling in Buttes Chaumont

I usually stick closer to home, though; I like anywhere I can walk. Yesterday, on my way back from sunbathing, I noticed a shop, its window crowded with colorful clothes and vintage jewelry, shoes and boots. How is it possible to follow the same route over and over and still discover you’ve completely missed something right in front of you?

window of the l'atypique

“Are you open?” I peek my head into the door, already ajar. Sunday, sunny, open store? It did not compute.

Continue reading ‘Hot Diggity: Sun Therapy & L’atypique’

The Geometry of Love (+ Giveaway!)

GeometryFrontCover2015Last month the American Library of Paris hosted novelist Jessica Levine and her agent April Eberhardt. They had a spirited and honest discussion about the realities of today’s publishing climate and the relationship between writer and agent. I love hearing stories about how books make their way into the world; I appreciated both women’s candor immensely.

My interest was piqued about the book itself, too. The Geometry of Love centers on a love triangle: a poet with writer’s block is torn between a reliable boyfriend and a more passionate, but difficult old flame. How could I resist? I found Jessica after the event and asked if she’d be interested in visiting the blog.

Happily, she said yes! She also agreed to offer a free copy of her novel to one lucky winner. Giveaway details at the end of the post!

Jessica Levine earned a Ph.D. in English Literature at the University of California at Berkeley and has translated several books about architecture and design from French and Italian into English. She also writes a wonderful blog called Paris Regained. In it, she weaves stories from the two years she spent in Paris as a young woman with her thoughts on returning now, decades later, with her husband and two daughters for a sabbatical year. I’m excited Jessica is now part of Paris’ literary community and that she’s here today to answer a few questions about her writing.

The Geometry of Love explores lots of rich territory: love, intimacy, the struggle between heart and mind, and the nature and origin of creative inspiration and production. What compels you to write about these subjects?

My mother once said to me, “Life is hard for women. The trick is to make the right marriage.” I think there’s much truth in that, but one could add, “or not marry at all.” Love has been a fascinating subject for centuries, but for women, since the 1960s, the pull toward love has been set against an increased drive for autonomy. I have seen countless women—my family, friends, therapy clients—unable to figure out just how committed they want to be in relationship. They want intimacy and security, but freedom, too.

As for the creative quest, I started writing at the age of 12 and published my first novel in my fifties so, as you can imagine, I’ve had some obstacles, internal as well as external, along the way. My mother was a graphic designer and painter who saw herself as a failed and frustrated artist. Her self-disparagement left its mark on me, especially as her creative block eventually contributed to her alcoholism.

Author Jessica Levine

Author Jessica Levine

Creativity requires qualities—self-confidence, courage, spontaneity—as well as conditions—time, financial ease, mentorship or positive role models—that are not always available. It took me many years to overcome the destructive inner critic modeled for me by my mother. I should add that I have forgiven her for that negative inheritance, as I came not only to understand it but also to use it as a subject for my writing.

Your first book, Delicate Pursuit, was a nonfiction study of how Henry James and Edith Wharton used discretion to grapple with controversial topics and the influence the French literary tradition had on their treatment of risqué material. I wonder how this background informed your own novel, which deals with issues including infidelity, eroticism and presents some pretty frank sex scenes.

Continue reading ‘The Geometry of Love (+ Giveaway!)’

Keys to a Beautiful Heart

Newfound Journal screenshotThis week we’ve had sunny days, a spike in pollution (smog swallowed the Eiffel Tower), and today, an uneventful solar eclipse – from here it looked like any other gray Paris sky.

It is also the first day of spring. Let us celebrate what we can.

I have a small little thing to celebrate, too: publication of a micro-essay in a lovely literary journal.

Here’s a link to my short piece, “Keys to a Beautiful Heart” in Newfound Journal.

Enjoy your weekend!

paris (im)perfect?

Sion Dayson is paris (im)perfect. Writer, dreamer, I moved to France on – no exaggerating – a romantic whim. As you can imagine, a lot can go wrong (and very right!) with such a (non)plan. These are the (im)perfect stories that result.

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