Tuesday, May 2, 2023

Q&A with Cécilia Saint-Denis



Cécilia Saint-Denis is the author of the new book Flashbulb Memories: Short Stories on the Roller Coaster of Parenthood and Family. A consumer science researcher and consultant, she lives in Westfield, New Jersey.


Q: What inspired you to write Flashbulb Memories?


A: When we were in the process of applying for our green card, one morning my husband told me, “You can’t work right now, but you certainly can write.” He knew I had been willing to bring to life a couple writing projects.


One of them was a manual about my professional consumer research field. I started with that project as I found a publisher interested right away and published that book in 2018, which was a very technical book.


Yet, in my mind I had another dream. As I wrote the preface of that professional book, which was more of a personal little story about my son, I realized how much I enjoyed writing stories. And that is how it all started.


One of my friends, in my hometown, Westfield, mentioned there was a writers’ group that would gather in a coffee shop a couple times a week. I got intrigued and stopped by one morning (I had left the corporate world and was doing independent consulting; therefore, I had more time for myself). I felt embraced by warm welcoming smiles.


The group is composed of very different personalities, writing different genres. Some write poetry, some write murder mysteries, some write memoirs. Some are already published, some aren’t yet. At my very first session there, I ran into Eva Natiello, who has now published several books, among them The Memory Box, an enthralling New York Times bestseller.


I sat there and during our first writing break, I said I had all these personal notes and ideas of stories in my head that I wanted to put down on paper but was somehow stuck into how I was going to structure everything (when we moved to the USA, I started writing a newsletter to narrate our life abroad to family and friends).


Eva looked at me and said, “Just write!” “Don’t overthink things, just write, you’ll have time later to think about structure and all.” And that is what I did.


Our group works following a pomodoro technique--we write 30 minutes, then take a 10-minute break and write again for 30 minutes. That discipline and accountability was the most efficient motivation and inspiration.


Beyond that fertile ground for writing, the inspiration came from the message I wanted to convey: most moments in life are tiny pearls that we should enjoy. Many moments we go through seem insignificant yet remain engraved in our memories and become unsuspected milestones in our lives and in the family history.


At the time, bitter or difficult moments seemed insurmountable, but they pass and somehow are overcome to give way to sweeter moments.


When you are a young parent, it is more difficult to put things into perspective. I know as a young parent, I used to believe that exhaustion would last forever but it doesn’t. Personally, the most difficult transition in terms of tiredness was to go from one child to two, especially if they are very close in age. You feel you are never going to sleep again.


But these moments are extremely ephemeral. I wish someone had told me so I could take a step back and enjoy more. In my personal experience, welcoming a third and then a fourth child felt smoother as we started to understand how time flies and realized how important it was to take advantage of it.


Each stage of parenthood has its charm in a multitude of ways. Early childhood has nothing to do with adolescence. When kids become teenagers, parents sleep more. I mean, except, when kids go out of course, and you just pray for them to make good choices.


But at that point, they become adults in the making, who yearn for independence, and therefore seem ungrateful. But we have to accept that their choices are no longer ours to make. As parents, we can't help but continue to have an opinion and to guide, but the relationship switches to a peer relationship.


In the end, all parents I have encountered do the best they can at all times, based on their circumstances and history.


Q: How was the book's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?


A: All the stories are rooted in real situations but for the most part, as they unfold, they drift towards fiction as I was looking to highlight the humor and the poetry of the situations.


For the longest time I debated between first person and third person. But as I was writing, I naturally adopted the third person as I wanted to both detach myself from them and make them more universal so that any reader could immerse themselves and even identify with the characters.


For that same reason, I decided not to name the characters either, feeling it could be anyone, any couple, any parent, any kids.


The title came to me for the same reason I opted for the characters to be “nameless.” In my mind the very nature of the stories is to feature memories, short moments in time, that can be a little blurry on the edges. The idea I have of “flashbulb memories” is moments in time that remain very vivid, but everything around is cloudy.

Q: How did you decide on the order in which the stories would appear in the book?


A: I took a writing class with an amazing guy called Tom Jenks (founder of the literary magazine Narrative). Through that class, we did a lot of peer-editing and Tom gave us extensive individual feedback.


The common denominator of all the feedback I got from my peers (including those from my local writers’ group) and Tom was I needed to organize the stories in a way that made sense and that would maintain the reader’s attention through a common thread.


It quickly became obvious to me that the very nature of the stories leads to the fact that they can’t follow each other in a chronological order. I also felt that unfolding events in a chronological way would have made the process more boring. I wanted to keep the chronology blurry but without losing the reader along the way.


This is why I decided that the preface would introduce the different milestones of the family history with some back and forth. Then I wanted the reader to dive into the founding element at the center of the family history, which was the move to another country, to then go back in time and move along the timeline in a more natural way.


Q: What do you think the book says about moving to a different country?


A: The French are often described as a hard-shelled fruit, difficult to break through, but once it is done, friendship becomes solid and lasting. The Americans are described as a peach--the surface is soft, it is pierced very quickly, but the heart, the core, is much more difficult to penetrate.


There is inevitably both a lot of truth in this image and a lot of clichés. Even if there are common traits, there is not an archetype of French or American but as many personalities as individuals we cross paths with. That may sound cliché as well. Yet it is true.


America is a melting pot of nationalities; everyone is both proud to belong and fit in but also proud of their origins. It is common to drive by houses displaying multiple flags. France is also a melting pot. Yet, there is less of this historical pride in claiming loud and clear one’s origins.


Nowadays, cultural differences tend to be less drastic. Wherever we live in this world, we are surrounded by people who come from elsewhere, people are constantly moving from one end of the world to the other and cultures intersect more than they used to.


In my stories, I describe how in their everyday life immigrant parents adapt to the subtle cultural differences they face trying to ultimately make the most of both worlds. The undeniable “can do better” French motto which pushes individuals to challenge themselves to be the best version they can be and the “can do” American attitude which pushes individuals to move forward even though it may not be in the most perfect way.


I feel in the end there is much more mutual admiration than animosity between peoples. In the case of France and USA, there is a deeply rooted historical friendship and a lot of respect and understanding.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I started working on another book set in the world of immigrant teenagers, different backgrounds, arriving into the USA and growing into adults. It is a subject very close to my heart.


My mother is Mexican (with family emigrated in the USA), and my father is French. I grew up moving from Mexico, to France, to the USA, then France and so on and so forth due to the hazards of life. My intention this time is to write a novel, which is a much more ambitious undertaking, but I'm holding on!


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: The lovely illustrations are the creation of an extraordinary artist, Stephanie Weppelmann. I have known Stephanie for years. We have always connected on many levels although we have never lived in the same country and have seen each other in person only on rare encounters in NYC or Paris.


She has traveled the world with her family, just as I have. Lately she lived in Austria for several years and now she lives in Germany.


For a little bit of background, she is the daughter of my very first boss when I started working in the food industry in 1995. He was one of the most exceptional human beings I have had the privilege to encounter in my life, and I consider myself extremely lucky to have had him as a first mentor in the professional world.


Since his youngest daughter was my age, he introduced us, and we somehow stayed in touch since. She is just as extraordinary and kind as her dad.


We always kept in touch, exchanging thoughts about our lives abroad, about our kids growing up in culturally diverse environments. One day I told her I was very interested in seeing what she thought about my stories and what would her vision in terms of possible illustrations be.


We both grew up in France reading the oh so classic Le Petit Nicolas, a series of French children's books created by René Goscinny and illustrated by Jean-Jacques Sempé. These childhood stories are full of magic, humor, sweetness. As the reader turns the pages, the characters come to life through the illustrations that come along unexpectedly. Naturally, we both remembered those stories and thought of creating a similar flow of stories and illustrations.


I sent her a couple of my stories to begin with. And when she sent me her first drawings I was conquered. In an incredible way, she had captured with her marvelous drawing skills and delicate touch exactly the vision that I had in my head as I was writing.


For me it was almost troubling but in a good way to see how she totally got me, and our mindsets were alike. But I really think it is due to our lifelong epistolary connection and the fact that we are both moms of the same age and generation, in tune with living abroad and accommodating to cultural differences.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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