For the re-release this week of David Downie’s “Paris, Paris: A Journey into the City of Light,” Broadway Books has offered to give away copies to three lucky blog readers. Details on the giveaway at the end of the post!
Of course I wanted to know more about the writer behind this collection of essays. After a quarter century in Paris, veteran author and journalist David Downie has plenty to say about the City of Light…and a whole bunch of other things, too!
You describe yourself as an “accidental Parisian,” meaning that you didn’t necessarily set out to make Paris your home. After 25 years here, however, part of your identity must now be wrapped up in Paris, even though you’re American. Can you elaborate on this feeling of being an “accidental Parisian”? What has kept you in Paris for so long? (Will you stay?)
Before moving to Paris my world was centered on the San Francisco Bay Area and Italy—Rome, Milan and Padua. My mother is Italian, I spent a few crucial years as a child in Rome, my second language – actually my mother tongue – is Italian… I fell in love with Italy as a boy and with France as an adult.
In the early 1980s I moved back to Italy after finishing graduate work in Italian literature at Brown University. After a couple of years and a roller-coaster marriage to an Italian artist I needed a change of scenery. So I headed to Paris to stay with friends. That was in Oct 1985. I had such a wonderful time – it was maybe the fourth or fifth time I’d been to Paris – that I decided, what the hell, I’ll move here and rent a maid’s room and write the Great American Novel – about Italy! I did. Luckily it wasn’t published.
At the end of the year I’d given myself I met a certain Alison Harris, an American born and brought up in Paris and Rome… and the rest is mystery. Alison and I have been together since 1987. That’s the main reason I stayed; it must be said that we spend about half the year in Italy, working on books, articles or photo shows.
Will I stay on and on in Paris? Probably. I don’t have anywhere else to go! Who can afford San Francisco? Or New York? I still find Paris about the best big city to live in – and I’ve lived in a few: SF, various parts of SoCal, New York, Providence and Boston, Milan, Rome.
As to feeling or not Parisian: I started out in the 1970s as a total stranger to Paris and the French language. Since then I’ve become a French citizen (I’m a dual national – I will never give up my US passport!); I’ve gotten married here; and dealt with the taxman and social security, hospitals, morgues and so forth. The whole nine yards. Of course life here has shaped me. I still love the city, and enjoy it, at times more than ever. But it’s home. I’m at home here, meaning I see the good, the bad, the sublime and the ridiculous. In a way, I’m glad I had few expectations when I arrived. Rome was my childhood passion. Paris I could take or leave. I took. I also gave back. The French government ought to give me a pension for all the books, articles, guidebooks and free PR I’ve done for this country!
I love the introduction to your book where you note that the word “paris” is actually the plural of the word pari – a bet, risk, challenge, or wager. What do you see as the challenges of living in Paris? (And then the pleasures – we risk in the hopes of reward, right?)
See above for part of the answer. The challenges are manyfold. No matter how long you live here, if you arrived as an adult you will never fully understand the underlying reasons for certain types of French behavior—the seemingly petty and maddenning aggressiveness, for instance. The posing. The mal-dans-sa-peau unease of this people said to be so full of joie de vivre. Forgive my skepticism. Perhaps they do enjoy life. But Parisians are also tied up in knots, are pernickety, difficult, quarrelsome, and famously tight-fisted—this is a gross generalization, naturally. We know some who are wonderful, relaxed, generous, full of smiles and warmth, etc… They are our friends, all three of them. I’m joking, of course. My statement goes with and against many stereotypes. It’s useful to know what the stereotypes are, so you can go beyond them and laugh with life (and not laugh at it, cynically).
As a Californian with a Roman mother, someone who grew up in the sun, surrounded by postive, mostly cheerful people (sometimes maddenningly cheerful and false), the Parisians are a constant challenge! And the language. English is sui generis and I’m glad I’m a native speaker. Italian is beautiful, logical, phonetic. French is torture; it mirrors French society and mores, and of course French history. I spent years trying to master it. Some say I have. Perhaps. What I really enjoy is being able to give it back to the Parisians, especially the functionnaires who run the often nightmarish bureaucracies.
The other big challenge of living here is making a living. Paris is expensive. I’ve lived off my writing for 25 years. It’s tough. Nowadays I also give custom walking tours of Paris, since I’m an unabashed walkaholic and am insatiably curious about history, art, architecture, urbanism and the scrum of Paris life. Some also claim I’m a natural performer. That’s probably not true. I know very well when I’m putting on an act.
You divide “Paris, Paris” into three sections: Paris People, Paris Places, and Paris Phenomena. Can you share with us a personal favorite of each?
It’s cruel to ask a writer for his or her personal favorite anything. Without wishing to seem immodest, I am proud of all my Parisian word-children. But if pushed, I would say that in the People section the acid portrait of Pompidou seems pretty accurate and manages to be entertaining to boot; in Places, I am torn, because the Seine chapter seems to capture much, but so does the Ile St-Louis, and that odd chapter about Montsouris and Buttes-Chaumont, which are very strange places. For Phenomenon, it would be the chapter about Paris 1900, the Janus City: it also expresses much of what I feel about the cult and business of nostalgia, and its flipside, i.e. the wise habit Frenchmen and women have (and Italians too) of looking back and forward simultaneously. One of the expressions so dear to Americans is “and he never looked back.” That’s idiotic. We must look back. We need to remember the past, to learn from it, to love it, to respect it. The present is simply a continuation of the past; the future is the present a few moments from now. Europeans (and Asians and Africans) are much wiser than we when it comes to time, history and identity (though I am very much opposed to the politicization of the “French identity” by President Sarkozy).
Travel writer Jan Morris calls your book “perhaps the most evocative American book about Paris since A Moveable Feast.” High praise! Hemingway’s book focused on his years in Paris as part of a large group of expatriate American writers. Do you find there is still an expat literary community in Paris? What does being an American writer in Paris mean to you today?
That’s many questions in one! I enjoyed Hemingway’s book. It was heavily edited and published posthumously, as you know. But my books on Paris – the ones that have really fired me – were not written by Americans. They were written by Frenchmen and women. The 19th-century authors are still alive in spirit, and their haunts are still here for our delectation. I do know a few expat writers in Paris. Some are American, others English or Italian. There might very well be an expat literary community in Paris today, but if it exists, I’m not part of it. The world has changed a great deal since Hemingway’s day. People live on the Internet. No one has time to sit in cafés all day, unless they’re working on their computer or BlackBerry. (I do not own a BlackBerry nor would I own one or an I-something either). Restaurants are ridiculously expensive. Even compared to the 1980s, when I first arrived, Paris is vastly different.
I’m a writer, period. Not an American writer in Paris, or an expat. I just happened to wind up here. And I’m unconcerned about nationality and passports. The more of them the merrier. It’s freedom of expression and lifestyle that interest me. So far, Paris has been very good at granting those, and it probably satisfied the needs of other writers too, which is one reason why they continue to come.
Your essays are more than simple vignettes about Paris – they are chock-full of information and history. What is the role of research in your writing? Do you start with certain facts first and then try to weave a narrative, or do you make a discovery on one of your many walks around the city and then dig deeper to find out more? Please describe your writing process in general.
Describing the process would take several pages, in part because the process changes constantly. I have a horror of formulaic writing. Paris also imposes itself on the writer; the city and its inhabitants dictate the way I research and write. But generally speaking, I over-research whatever I am writing about. I read, I interview, I visit and re-visit. Then I go back and ask the questions all over again. Usually it’s the second or third time around that people divulge the interesting stuff. What I love is the chase, the hunt, the search for clues, for tidbits, for the pearls lying in plain view on the sand (that’s an image I’ve lifted from Gianbattista Marino, the 17th-century Italian poet who made his fortune in Naples, Rome and Paris).
Sometimes I read something juicy in an old book or a newspaper and off I go. Sometimes I see something on a façade or in a shop window or museum. My mind is a mystery to me. That scares me. But my quirky character has provided me with a livelihood so far, so I won’t complain.
You seem like a rare breed these days: a writer who is able to make a living entirely from writing! Do you have any thoughts on the current changes in journalism and publishing? (The digital revolution, the rise of self-publishing, etc?) Are these trends affecting you in any way?
Nota dolente. You’ve touched a delicate spot. First, my wife and I live simply. We are minimalists. We hiked across France a few years ago and lived out of our little backpacks for nearly 3 months. I wouldn’t recommend the brand of perfume we brewed, but we confirmed our suspicions that 95 percent of what we own is unnecessary. And we own little. Very little. We live in a tiny apartment.
Alison’s priority is photography. She spends most of what she earns making prints or traveling and surviving in order to shoot film or digital images. I’m happy with crumbs and nuggets. What I value most is time—and peace and quiet. It’s not that we sacrifice. We wouldn’t want it any other way.
That said, the digital revolution has gutted the photography market: everyone is a photographer. No one wants to pay. The Internet is great—a wonderfully subversive way to exchange information and ideas—but it’s highly deflationary (and easily manipulated). That means it kills more jobs than it creates (and it’s a source of misinformation and disinformation). What applies to photography applies to writing. Print newspapers and magazines are dropping like the proverbial mouches. Internet publications—blogs, magazines—pay very poorly if at all. Publishers are struggling. People buy fewer books. Why would they? Everything is free on the Internet. This has warped the minds of many. Most people who aren’t in the writing or photography racket don’t realize they’re killing the geese who have laid all those delightful gilded eggs—the professionals who research and write (or photograph) useful and entertaining items, about the making of honey or the death of the honeybee, the glories of nuclear power and its dangers, the greatness of political systems (and the urgent need for their reform). And so on.
Technology is at the root of this revolution. But mainstream news and publishing are partly to blame for the current crisis. People have taken their interest and money elsewhere, because the mainstream is a reflection of the oligarchic world we live in. Experts are distrusted. Many readers want to consume and produce what they think of as spontaneous, unexpurgated, uncensored, “sincere” writing and photography. Bless them. Some of it is wonderful. But the world desperately needs experts and professionals who dedicate their lives to gathering and analyzing data, and present it in a succinct, enjoyable fashion. I’m not being very succinct so will stop.
Travel, food, and wine writing are your staples. Do you want to shine a light on how much hard work goes into your job or should we all just be jealous of how fabulous that sounds?🙂
You’re better off imagining that it’s all a lark. If people realized how much work goes into researching and writing books about food, travel, history and so forth – not to mention works of fiction – they would be horrified. And they wouldn’t believe you if you told them. For instance, it took me over 10 years to put together the essays in “Paris, Paris.” Each one represents weeks or months of research and writing. My crime novel “Paris City of Night” took me years to write (it includes a potted history of photography from Niepce onward, among other things). The “Food Wine” guidebooks I’ve done – three so far – are the fruit of 20 years’ worth of reporting. So let’s leave the illusion intact, and raise a glass to madness and freedom. No one told me to be a writer. Everyone warned me that it would be more than difficult. They were right. But I have no regrets.
Any advice for struggling writers?
Most advice is bad advice. If anyone can convince you that you shouldn’t fling yourself into the fray, then they’re right, you shouldn’t. Mozart said that, much more elegantly.
You might want to address that question to my editor at Random House: I’ve written a book about our madcap hike across France, and the manuscript is on his desk. In any case, I continue to write for a handful of dead-tree magazines and newspapers, and for electrifying Gadling.com (in theory I am their European correspondent). I have my blog (http://blog.davidddownie.com) and with Alison I run my custom tours operation (www.parisparistours.com). So I keep busy. There’s also another novel in the works. And a couple of travel and food books. A man I met in Barcelona hadn’t slept more than 6 hours a night for 10 years. He told me, deadpan, “Sleep is for my next life.”
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