|Eleanor Brown, photo by Joe Henson, NYC|
Eleanor Brown is the author of the new novel The Light of Paris. She also wrote the novel The Weird Sisters, and she teaches writing workshops at The Writers' Table and Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Colorado.
Q: The Light of Paris was based on your grandmother's experiences. How much of Margie's story was inspired by your grandmother, and what did you see as the right mix of fiction and history?
A: The very skeleton of Margie’s experience – going to Paris and deciding to live there over her family’s objections and getting a job at the American Library in Paris – was true of my grandmother, but everything else is invented.
Real life doesn’t quite work as a story as it happened – we have certain expectations of stories, so it’s much easier just to pluck out the interesting bits and make the rest up to turn it into a satisfying tale!
Q: What additional research did you need to do to recreate Paris in 1924?
A: Probably less than I thought – I found out after I wrote the book that Paula McLain didn’t go to Paris until after she wrote The Paris Wife, for instance.
But I did do lots of research. We went to Paris, where I took a list I’d made of places she mentioned and went there myself. When I wrote, it was wonderful to be able to call up the experience of actually standing in a room at the club where she’d stayed. For details, I went first to my grandmother’s letters, but I also consulted multiple historical sources.
The smartest thing I did was buy a Paris guidebook from 1924. Not only did it help me correct my grandmother’s atrocious spelling, but it (and my grandmother’s letters) gave me the words people actually used at that time instead of relying on how we think people talked.
Q: You also have a second protagonist, Margie's granddaughter Madeleine, whose story takes place in 1999. How did you decide on the book's structure, and did you make many changes as you went along?
A: I just loved the story I invented for Margie in 1924, but it raised more questions than it answered, so I had to bring in her granddaughter.
How do choices we make reverberate through our families? How do we become the people we are? What stories and secrets do families tell each other? Margie’s story asks the questions, Madeleine’s answers and tries to make sense of them.
Margie’s story came pretty easily – I had to do more work on Madeleine’s, partly to make it align with Margie’s, partly to make her change of heart very clear. So every other chapter there were lots of changes!
Q: One of the novel's main themes is the importance of creating art. Why did you choose to have your characters be a writer and an artist?
A: The novel is really concerned with living the life you want to live, and creativity is such a fantastic example of that. Creativity is something you do because it matters to you, not because it pays the bills or makes you look fabulous on Instagram.
You do it because you want to, whatever form it takes – writing, painting, crochet, cooking.... You do it because it makes you happy, because it feeds your soul and makes you a better person.
Both Madeleine and Margie are happiest when they are making their art, but that’s really just a symbol of them living the life that’s authentic to them.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m editing an anthology that collects true stories about Paris from bestselling authors who have written books set there. It’s great fun to share other people’s Paris experiences – they’re so similar, but so different. And I’m working on another novel, and teaching, which I just adore.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I’ll be traveling to support The Light of Paris this summer – do come say hello! And I happily call or Skype into book clubs if you’re reading The Weird Sisters or The Light of Paris (because it would be weird for me to call in when you’re talking about someone else’s book).
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. For a previous Q&A with Eleanor Brown, please click here.