Interview with Francine Prose, April 16, 2014, on occasion of publication of Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932
Interviewer: Rob Neufeld
(See review of novel)
A: Being able to write that book, it was enormously helpful for her to keep sane in that incredible, horrific situation.
Q: How important is being creative to a person’s identity?
A: Speaking personally, I don’t know who’d I’d be if I weren’t writing… During difficult times in my life, I have thought, how does anyone who is not a writer or an artist get through them? Because it’s such a help, you can do something with this lesson, and you can somehow make it wider than yourself and help other people.
Q: You’re a special case in terms of creativity, but what about somebody like Lou Villars?
A: You know, the book was difficult to write, but there were many moments when I had a wonderful time and I was so immersed in that world, that time, and who those characters were, I was kind of hearing their voices. I didn’t step away from it to see how many currents ran through the book and connected the various characters. I knew they were connected because they all lived in Paris in the 20s, 30s, and 40s, and because many of them were artists. Later, they were connected by the French Resistance, and what they did or didn’t do during the occupation. Within the last few days, I’ve been thinking that one of the things that a number of them have in common is that each one of them wants the thing they can’t have. Lou wants to be a professional athlete, it’s what she’s good at. She wants to be an auto racer, it’s also what she’s good at. Because she’s a cross-dresser, she is unable to compete and be in races and try out for the Olympics. So, all those energies and that spirit are frustrated and gets channeled into something much darker. The baroness, who supports the arts and supports the photographer, she has money, friends, connections, a glamorous life. She’s also in love with the photographer, and that is unrequited. Everyone desperately wants something. It is a kind of parable of creativity, because every time you write something, you think, this is going to be whatever—War and Peace—and then it’s not. But you write something else that you think is better than what you would have written.
Q: Early on, Natalie [Dunois, the biographer in the novel] poses the question, “What is the mystery of evil? How does evil come about?” I’m going to be trying to figure out what this book is saying about that.
A: Well, I think it’s insoluble. That was one of the reasons I wrote the book. I’d seen the photograph of the person I call Lou, and had read that she had worked for the Germans during the occupation. Then I found out that she’d been an auto racer and athlete, and that she’d been forbidden to compete because she was a cross-dresser. She’d gone to the Berlin Olympics as a special guest of Hitler, and been recruited by Hitler and become a spy. And she’d been a torturer for the gestapo, and then she was assassinated by the resistance in 1944. You know, what a story! At the heart of that story is: What can make a person do that? It was a challenge because I wanted to make her character sympathetic in a way. I thought one way to do it—and this is partly why the book expanded from whatever I had imagined in the beginning—I thought, well, we meet her as a child and she’s not an evil child, she’s a child who’s not particularly loved or paid attention to. Then she grows up and realizes that her sexual identity is not mainstream. Fortunately for her, she finds people who accept her and among whom she can live comfortably. She falls in love, she’s not loved back, and little by little, whatever her goodness or decency or morality is, it’s chipped away, and she falls prey to the attractions of people who say “we value you, we respect you, we treasure you, work for us; and in addition, we’re going to help you restore France—we know you’re a patriot.” So all these things go together to create this character. Very few people start out their lives saying “I think I’m going to be evil by the time I’m an older person.” In the end, it is a mystery…I can remember being in high school and being assigned to write a paper on why Iago is such an interesting character. It’s because evil is so mysterious, he’s so mysterious.
Q: One of the answers I find in this book is that people have an identity they want to fulfill and they’re stopped and go in screwy direction. Isn’t Lou a major example of that, always being betrayed or usurped?
A: There have been beautiful works of history written about what happened in the 20s, 30s, and 40s that drew people to fascism, totalitarianism, and Stalinsm, and a lot of it was resentment or privation or shortages; or the German people being told that they’d been stabbed in the back at the end of World War I. These negative emotions are built up and encouraged, and they take over a person and dismantle whatever moral armature that person had in the beginning and turn that person into something else. The joy of writing something that plays over 20 years was that I could watch these characters develop. I really had a sense of watching.
A: After a certain point, they took on a reality for me, and I was watching them. And, you know, situations change so drastically. The bright, glittery, free world of bohemian Paris, with those cafes, got very, very dark suddenly when the Germans invaded in June 1940. All of us like to think that if a certain thing happened, this is how we would behave and this is what we’d do; but I think nobody really knows what he or she would do until the thing happens. So, it was interesting to me, and again unpredictable, because I made up a certain number of these characters. Some of the characters that you would not have predicted would become very active in the French resistance did, and others just did nothing. People surprised themselves and everybody else.
Q: Which one of the characters developments did you find most surprising yourself?
A: I was surprised that the baroness would become a resistance heroine. She had money, she was used to just getting what she wanted in the way that the super-rich are. There is the scene where she is recruited to work on the resistance and she says something like, “I was just waiting for someone to ask.” Writing it, tears popped into my eyes. Later, a friend said that he had had the same reaction when the two women in the novel are recruited into the resistance. What I wanted was that reaction when people are called to heroism in a way that they hadn’t expected; and they answer that call.
R: That’s powerful. And that was a nice moment of tension when Ricardo [encounters the baroness and] thinks, “Okay, should I trust this person?”
A: I know. She gets out of the metro because the Germans have been blowing cigar smoke in her face, and she finds him standing in the street and he just happens to be there and she knows exactly what he’s asking of her and what he’s talking about. I know I wrote this moment, but I felt when I was writing it as if I were observing it, and I thought “That’s so beautiful.”
Q: How much do you connect with current social issues?
A: I was reading a history book about France between the wars, and I call up a friend of mine about a paragraph that listed the things that were told to people to sway them toward the right wing government—you’re being excessively taxed, your jobs are being taken by immigrants, you can’t raise your children in the way you want, your children are not going to have a better life than you—all the things that we’re hearing now. I remember saying to my friend, “What does this sound like?" And she said, “Is this contemporary?" And I said “No it was from 1936.”
Q: I suppose one question for the reader is, “Which character am I?”
A: (laughs) Well, you’re speaking to someone who strangely is all of them.
Q: You know they have these things on Facebook now that have become very popular—you know you answer nine questions and you say….
A: Which Emily Bronte character are you or whatever.
A: It’s like those tests that used to be in women's magazines—What kind of girlfriend will you make. Ugh.
Q: Popular culture is a huge force and that goes along with the propaganda that you’re talking about. I thought it was very interesting that the Joan of Arc story played such a big part. It appears on page 12 or something, very early. And then you play with it in so many different ways. How early was that connection in your writing this novel?
A: Early. I just started in this sort of formless place of knowing that I wanted to write about that photograph and that woman and that photographer; and very early on, I thought: Oh, the whole idea of nationalism is figuring into this book pretty heavily and I think it’s hard to think about French nationalism without thinking about Joan of Arc. Plus I was a big Joan of Arc freak when I was a in high school because she was this heavily empowered girl. She’s so beyond Pippy Longstockings in terms of female empowerment. And then she was a martyr in a very dramatic way. When I was a kid, there were all these films: Ingrid Bergman; Jean Seberg. I was very taken with her as a character and it was easy to put all that into my character. You know, there is this scene where Lionel [one of the major characters and narrators] takes Suzanne to go see the Dreyer movie, “The Passion of Joan of Arc.” I’ve watched that movie probably a dozen times. It was fun to talk about ir from his point of view because he just doesn’t get it. It’s fun to talk about something you love from the point of view of someone who can’t figure out why anyone would possibly like it.
Q: Every one of your narrators was fun to read, interesting to read.
A: Thank you so much.
Q: So how old were you when you were into Joan of Arc?
A: Ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen.
Q: How did that express itself then? Did you cut your hair short and stuff like that?
A: (laughs) My hair was short. I had no choice about it, because of Italian movie stars. I think I was a junior in high school, we had to write a term paper, and I wrote about the various representations of Joan of Arc in literature. So, it [that interest] stuck around for a while.
Q: Take me back to the moment when that photo inspired you.
A: When you’ve known a photo for a really long time and then find out something about it that you didn’t know, it’s almost like finding out about something about a person. It was startling to me.
Q: So you had known this photo for a while and then something led you to look into the history of it.
A: I saw a wall text with a reference to who she actually had been. I mean, I’m a big Brassai fan; I have all these Brassai books. And then I went back and looked at this photo and went, “Wow.”
Q: You’ve written so many books on so many different subjects. You’re novels are wildly inventive. You sometimes throw out details or allusions that are just crazy unto themselves. I imagine that if you lived a thousand years you would still have novels to write.
A: (laughs) Let’s hope. From your mouth to God's ear on that one.
R: (laughs) One can tell that a tremendous amount of work goes into one of your books—that’s a huge commitment.
Q: I had no idea how big it [Lovers at the Chameleon Club] was going to be.
Q: At some point you took this lifelong interest in Brassai, and you were at an exhibit of his photos...
A: Yes, at the National Gallery in Washington.
Q: And that was soon before you started the novel?
A: No! It was at the end of 1999, the beginning of 2000 that the show was up. I didn’t start the novel until about 2007, 2008. It stuck in my mind all that time, it just didn’t go away. But I was doing other things. I couldn’t think of how to go near it—it seemed too big. And then I just started writing.
Q: Wow. I count twelve major characters and several other secondary characters. How do you create a constellation of characters?
A: You know at one point—I think it’s in reference to the evil police chief—I say that there are certain people who show up in your life, and they just keep showing up. They’re not necessarily people whom we’ve chosen to keep hanging out with. These characters are all interconnected in very strange and complicated ways. There is just this web that ties them together; and, in a way, the characters would appear when I needed them because a part of the puzzle was missing—for example, the owner of the cross dressers’ club [Yvonne]. Who was she? I had to invent her and she becomes connected to the other characters in various complicated ways. They all were created as needed. I found out I was discovering as much as creating.
Q: Different characters seem to represent different things—Lionel, the desire for sex and fame; Suzanne, sex and empathy; Gabor, art; and Lily, freedom from boredom. It’s balanced, like a mobile.
A: Absolutely. But, again, some of it felt so accidental…I felt immersed in a world that wasn’t my world; and that I was channeling voices that weren’t my voice; and that I wasn’t myself—whatever that means—while I was writing it. That was the great pleasure of working on it—the freedom to be other people.
Q: There’s a part in the book when Nathalie, writing, hearing a stone falling into a well.
A: (laughs) Yeah.
Q: I don’t know why, but whenever authors say, “I hear voices,” they end up apologizing to audiences. No, we want you to be that kind of person, you know? We don’t consider you crazy, that’s what you’re supposed to be—you’re a writer.
A: I don’t know, what can I say? I was listening to Beethoven’s late quartets a lot and thought, Oh, I’ll just make Nathalie listen to it. All of my problems, I just passed them off onto the biographer, so I was kind of free from them. In her case—you know, there are many instances in which she’s not that good a writer, so the freedom to write badly or over the top on purpose was great!
Q: (laughs) That’s hard to do.
A: I know. It’s always fun though. All those voices saying, “That’s a terrible sentence, how can you put that in the book?”—this time, the voices said, “That’s a terrible sentence, it’s perfect.”
Q: It’s bold to write about the Holocaust in the way you did. Nathalie’s book, it can’t get published, it’s politically incorrect.
Q: In some ways, you are in the same position as Nathalie because people want you to write certain things about it.
A: Another issue that I think I should address, there’s this wonderful review forthcoming in the New York Times Book Review from Edmund White, but he thinks the book is politically incorrect because I’m suggesting that decadence—which includes cross-dressing—pre-disposes people to fascism. In fact, I feel that I’m saying quit the opposite—that she [Lou] is not allowed to do what she wants to do—to be an athlete, to be a cross-dresser—and that resentment, privation, and frustration are the things that turn people towards totalitarianism. It is important to me to make that distinction.
Q: When you said he’s talking political incorrectness, I did not think the follow up would be about cross-dressers; I thought that it was going to be about the way you portray people such as Armond and even Hitler.
A: Ohh, that was so much fun. You know, there is a book called Hitler’s Table Talk. Bormann wrote down everything that Hitler said at dinner for four years, or something like that. It’s shatteringly banal. It influenced that scene with Hitler. You could get him on the subject of his vegetarianism and he would just go on and on and on. It made that scene more enjoyable.
Q: I know that Jewish folklore has had an impact on your writing. Oddly enough, when Hitler said, “There are two possibilities,” I heard the Talmud in that.
A: (laughs) I know. Isn’t that wild? He used to say that all the time apparently. So again it was straight from history, but no one would ever believe it. You know, growing up in the 50s, just post-World War II, that horrible history was very much in the air…There is a wonderful scene in Don DeLillo’s novel, White Noise—the main character is teaching Hitler studies. One of my sons said, “Oh, it’s always Hitler studies in our house, Mom.” And it’s true in a way. Every time I think, “Okay, that is it. I’m not going back there,” you know, there it is.
Q: You’ve written a number of great children’s books based on Jewish folk lore. Did you find that playing a part in this book at all?
A: Not really. Those books came about in a funny way. The illustrator was a friend of mine, so he actually came to me with his stories and said this is what I want to do. So, it wasn’t as if I had found those texts myself. But my first novel [Judah the Pious, 1973] was based on a series of Jewish folktales. That novel is like a magical realist novel with Jewish themes…There’s no way not to be fascinated by it whether you’re Jewish or not.
Q: One of the little things that stood out for me in the novel was the story about how Darius, the chameleon, died.
A: I’ve got to say, I thought about that; and then I thought, okay, I can quit for the day, I’ve done a day’s work here.
Q: (laughs) That made you very happy.
A: That made me very happy.
Q: And the whole lizard/chameleon theme throughout the book, it was...
A: You know something, I knew it was in the book. There’s a moment near the end of the book where there’s a description of a photo that Gabor takes of a frog being eating by a snake.
A: That happened to me. I saw that in my garden.
Q: Oh wow!
A: Yeah, and my husband took a picture of it and we have it. The snake couldn’t move; the frog was so big, it was just this big standoff. I watched it for ten minutes. I called him; he came down from the barn. He watched it for ten minutes, and went and got his camera. Finally, we left, we were not going to save that frog. I showed it to this reporter and he said “Oh, it’s so amazing because it goes along with the reptilian theme of the book” And I went. “It does?” It hadn’t occurred to me that it had any relation to anything else that happens in the novel.
Q: I was wondering about how much it was related, but then when Lionel relates the conversation he’d had with Gabor about that image and about the nature of evil, I said OK!
A: (laughs) I have to give my editor, Terry Karten, credit for that because that paragraph in which Gabor explains how it fits in hadn’t been there. I somehow thought it was completely obvious, and she said, "Mmm, it’s not completely obvious.” And then I looked at it again and said, "No, it’s completely obvious only to me.” So I added that and I was very glad to do so because I
Q: Did writing the book, Reading Like a Writer, influence how you look at your writing as you’re writing?
A: It raises the bar. The bar was high for me anyway, but you write a book about how important words and sentence structure and diction are, and feel you’ve got to pay attention to it while you’re writing. It brought it even closer to the surface.
Q: Can you give me an example of an instance where you were editing your own writing, and you were thinking of your own standards, and said, “Oh, I gotta do this.”
A: You know, everything in that book probably went through 150 drafts—everything.
Q: I mean is that literal? 150?
A: I mean that’s literal. [When] I turned it in, it was about 300 pages longer because I had it in mind that all the characters had to take their turns, and there had to be an even rotation. A friend of mine read it and said, “You don’t have to do that,” and I thought, “That’s right,” so I just kept the sections in which the characters advance the story, whether it was their turn or not.
Q: If you were to publish one of those edited out sections as just an interesting gloss on the book, which one would you pick?
A: I can’t remember what they are.
A: I mean, that’s the joy of it, too. If someone put a gun to my head, I couldn’t tell you what I took out.
Q: That’s incredible. Well;, that’s it for now. It’s fascinating talking with you.
A: Alright! Thank you so much.