WAG: What inspired you to write French
My mother had retyped the magazine stories
she had written about our trip to France and had
bound them for my sister as a Christmas present
in the early 1970s. The manuscript sat in the trunk
for more than twenty years until my sister casually
mentioned it to me one day. Out of curiosity, I
read it. Although it wasn't publishable as it was,
I thought it had potential—especially because
of the success of Peter Mayle's A Year In Provence.
What was more important, I knew
my mother would have been delighted to see the book
in print. She would have loved to do signings and
answer questions for WAG and generally ham it up.
In the introduction you write,
"I chose to write this book from my mother's
point of view and in her voice because that was
the only way the story made sense to me." Was
this a decision you had come to before you began
writing? The voice is so natural that the reader
quickly forgets it is written by a son "impersonating"
his mother. How difficult was it to assume that
I had three choices to make before I
began writing. First, I could have done a third-person
narration, but that seemed clumsy to me. Second,
I could have told the story through my own four-year-old
eyes. Faulkner might have pulled it off, as he did
with Benjy in The Sound and the Fury, but,
hey, Faulkner's Faulkner. That left writing in my
mother's voice—the easy way out. I had in
front of me her literary output, and because I am
an adaptive writer (read: no style of my own), I
soon picked up the rhythm and cadence of her prose.
I also had the benefit of knowing her for thirty
years, so I was familiar with the way she wrote
My inability to deliver a unique
style is both a curse and a blessing, probably caused
by my early days as a newspaper reporter and as
an advertising copywriter. In those fields, a distinctive
voice is anathema, while the ability to mimic gets
the bonuses. Even today, when I am working on a
project, I hesitate to read good writers for fear
of picking up their styles. One day I'm knocking
out staccato Hemingwayesque sentences; the next
day, each paragraph is two pages long. (Thanks a
lot, Faulkner.) I'm just glad I laid off Poe and
Joyce while writing French Impressions. The
results would have been catastrophic.
I tried to get the tone right
and to keep it right throughout the book. That was
difficult because I found that—naturally—my
personality kept seeping through. Piles of good
copy never made it into print because the tone was
I would like to say that it was
spooky to write in my mother's voice, but it really
wasn't. I thought of the work as both a challenge
and a way to finally get her story in print--a kind
of memorial, I suppose.
Frustratingly, there were gaps
in the narrative that were impossible to fill. My
mother's sometimes cryptic diary entries drove me
up the wall: "Remember the hilarious story
about the blue hat and the sheep" and "Mme.
Duchamps, how I hate her!" What the hell did
those references mean? No one will ever know; they
are gone forever. So I stuck to the material that
was published and unpublished and added the family
stories I had heard all my life.
Oddly, when I was four years old,
I had to interpret for my mother. Fifty years later,
I'm still interpreting for her.
Although in many respects your
family became part of the neighborhood, in other
ways throughout the book it is apparent that your
mother in particular remained steadfastly, confidently,
and unashamedly American—clearly influenced
by the recent experience of World War II. In the
end your parents' decision to return to the U.S.
after a year, rather than stay in France, came about
because, as your father states it, "I don't
want my kids to be international kids. I want them
to be Americans." From your own perspective,
how do you feel about your parents' decision? Do
you wish you had had more time in France to build
your own memories of the experience? Do you think
parents are more comfortable today with shuttling
their kids around the globe?
Of course, I had no say in the decision
to return to the US. Five-year-olds in those days
tended to defer to their parents' wishes—at
least on important matters. But having known many
"international kids," I can say without
hesitation that I would never want to be one of
them. They are people without a country, without
a culture, and without any idea how to get along
with Americans. The word "clueless" was
invented especially for them. They can speak eight
languages, but they know no slang in any one of
them. They have seen the great art of Europe, but
not Yankee Stadium. And they dress funny. If you
act like an adult when you're twelve, what do you
do when you reach sixty?
Although I may have missed an
opportunity to become an "international kid,"
I had a happy enough childhood in the United States.
(I am writing about those years in a manuscript
tentatively called, Susie, Sadly, and the Black
Torpedo of Doom.) Even with the Americanization
of the world, I think parents should think carefully
about ripping a kid away from his roots. Ten years
in Yemen may be a great adventure for an adult,
but for a child it can be traumatic. The poor kid
will never again fit in—anywhere.
At the end of the book Mary writes,
"Since our return, people had often asked me
if I would spend a year in France again, knowing
all I know now. That was easy to answer: No."
Yet the lighthearted tone of the book belies this
answer, suggesting that even the misadventures in
France had a certain madcap quality of adventure.
Were there more negative details in your mother's
writing that you chose to leave out of the book?
In reading my mother's diaries, I found
a certain amount of angst. She missed her family
and her friends and the life she had left behind.
For her, the most difficult part of living in France
was the isolation. Her poor grasp of the language
made her feel like a child again, bewildered by
what was going on around her. Just to hear someone
speak English made her happy. I downplayed the negative
elements of the trip because they were minor, and
chose, instead, to concentrate on the high points.
You write at the beginning that
"all this took place in the dim days before
television, jet travel, women's liberation, and
the New Coke." It was also a time before American
culture colonized the world. Do you think the kind
of experience your family had in France is even
possible any more?
I think it would be impossible to have
the kind of experience we had in 1950—at least
in France. As much as they try to fight it, the
French are becoming more and more Americanized.
On my last trip to France, I stopped in an obscure
southern town to get my laundry done. The assistant
Laundromat attendant listened to my garbled French
for a moment, then said, "Your laundry will
be ready at five o'clock. You may pick it up then."
Her English was better than that of her counterpart
here in New York. And this was in a village of about
six hundred people. And they had a Laundromat!
To experience the total strangeness
of a culture, I think you would have to go to parts
of Africa or Asia these days—places where
Big Macs are a rarity and the Colonel hasn't given
the chicken finger to the local cuisine. That's
getting harder and harder to do because people around
the world, like it or not, love all things American.
Once the Soviet Union relaxed its ban on Elvis and
blue jeans, it was finished as an empire. France
had better watch out.