Author Essay

Good for Book Clubs

What makes a writer tick? How do they form the stories that change a reader’s life? From what they love to read, to their writing process, to ideas for their next book – you’ll get exclusive behind-the-scenes peeks at the literary life.

Author Essay Good for Book Clubs

Home is a Moving Target

Brendan Jones, author of The Alaskan Laundry, wonders if home is something you build, or if it’s something you’re born into.

Home, of course, is a moving target. Coming back east to visit family in New Jersey and Philadelphia—flying over the Navy Yard, picking up a soft pretzel in a brown paper bag in the Philly airport concourse—over the past few years it’s hard not to feel as if, on some level, my wife and I are coming home when we bring our daughter to see her grandparents. Then again, we live on a World War II tugboat in Sitka, Alaska. Our daughter first helped butcher a Sitka black-tailed deer at eight months. She’s definitely an Alaska girl, although we do encourage her Rocky look. Yo, you looking at me?

The conceit of my novel The Alaskan Laundry, which takes place both in Philadelphia and Alaska, is that the 49th state is an industrial-sized washing machine on continuous cycle, allowing all those who come to the last frontier to get clear of their checkered pasts. Such a project is impossible, as I came to discover at the age of 19, when I first arrived in Alaska, and spent nine months living in the woods.

Author Essay Good for Book Clubs

Paris: Never the Same Place Twice

When I visited Paris when I was eight, I was enthralled by how old everything was. My grandmother’s apartment in the 17th—her entire life, really—was a glimpse into another era. I loved the tiny, rickety wood and wrought-iron elevator in my grandmother’s ancient apartment building (into which my father had once carved his initials as a child). I was dumbstruck by the centuries-old buildings and the gold-domed Invalides. In the gilded cafes, I gaped up at the ceilings, painted with ethereal clouds and cherubs, as I sipped hot chocolate from fancy cups. I loved getting dressed up and going to gleaming brasseries that appeared unchanged after over a hundred years in business. I loved how tradition reigned in all things, even the formal (albeit slightly interminable) Sunday lunches complete with heavy platters of leg of lamb. I’ll never forget the care with which the silver candlesticks were placed perfectly symmetrically back on the dining room table with the help of a ruler after being polished; or my grandmother’s labeled boxes of Hermes scarves, each identifying the season for which it would be most suitable.

When I was eighteen, it came time to venture beyond the confines of old-world Paris. Swathed in scarves and head-to-toe black, I headed off to the Latin Quarter to read great French books and scribble fervently (and, to be honest, a little endlessly) in my journal from cafés where legendary writers had done the same.

Author Essay Good for Book Clubs

Life at Two Speeds: A Parisian View of America

Food is always the first place to start when talking about the differences between Paris, where I grew up, and New York City, where living for a few years changed my life. The subject has been written about many times, how serious the French take their food and drink, how much Americans have to learn about French cooking and French eating and French everything. But I knew none of this when I first began living in New York as a Frenchwoman in her twenties, there to sell my uncle’s wine. It’s often like this: you cannot see your own culture clearly until you are taken out of it. So the first time I went out to dinner with my new friends in New York’s East Village was a shock, and only then did I realize what everyone takes for granted as the French attitude toward dining.

I should say first that things are always changing; the rules about what is “French” and what is “American” are lines that shift even if it’s hard to see in the moment. From my vantage point, I can see French culture receiving little injections of what could be considered American—the pace of life, at least in Paris; the way of doing business; even snacking between meals, which the French never used to do. As a Parisian who feels a little American herself, I may be doing my own small part. I believe in blending. In life, as in wine, it’s frequently an improvement.

Author Essay Good for Book Clubs

Carving Out a Place to Write in Paris

I had been to Paris often as a girl, on vacations to visit my mother’s family. Other Americans might swoon at the buttery croissants, the perfect foulards, the flower and cheese shops. But I knew Paris. Paris was shop-keepers who slapped children’s hands. Paris was sitting still for hours at the dinner table while my grandfather scolded me for using the wrong fork. It made me feel very French, to not love Paris.

Three years ago however, as I prepared to move from New York to Paris in order to write a book, I found myself suddenly awash with romantic visions. I imagined I would sit in the same chairs as Hemingway, be invited to join literary salons, stroll cobblestone streets that would leave me blinded with inspiration. I pictured myself at a round bistro table on a café terrace, an overflowing ashtray by my notebook, while French waiters gave me free café crèmes, simply because I was a regular, and they loved me. There was really no limit to my fantasies, no matter how much I told myself I knew better.

As soon as I arrived, I set about finding the café that would become my café. I settled on the closest one, on the corner: a large brasserie identical to all the others that lined the extra-wide Grand Boulevards. The street was a main axis, and the cafés along it catered to a high-turnover of tourists and businessmen on lunch breaks. The decor was black and modern and slick, the menu was printed in both English and French, and they served food at any hour of the day. Now that I have a better understanding of the nuances of French culture, I blush to think that I was ever naïve enough to believe this particular café could be mine.

Author Essay Good for Book Clubs

Chris Pavone’s Favorite Place to Stay in Paris

I’ve stayed in more than a dozen hotels in Paris, scattered across eight different arrondisements in all sorts of circumstances—with my family and by my lonesome, on a honeymoon and on a European book tour, as a sanity-restoring getaway from my life as an expat trailing spouse in Luxembourg, on a tight budget and a weeklong lease and one money-is-no-object night.

If you’re hoping that I’m about to reveal an inexpensive secret, I’m sorry to disappoint. All my low- and midrange hotels featured at least a few of the expected drawbacks, maybe even all of them.

On the other end of things, I’ve stayed in exactly one of those super-luxury grand hotels on the Right Bank that form a red-carpeted zigzag across the rue Saint-Honoré, from the Meurice at the Louvre out to the George V; they’re all similarly priced, these places, which is to say exorbitant.

Author Essay Good for Book Clubs

My Years in Provence

It is safe to say that starting a new life on the European continent, particularly in an old house, is a literary genre of its own. Indeed, since a certain English gentleman chose to write about twelve months of his life in a certain corner of France, it’s bloomed into a sort of pan-cultural archetype. It spread to the movies with films like Chocolat, which added Johnny Depp and confectionery to the mix; not a bad idea, I feel. You are, I am sure, familiar with what I call the Mayle Literary Cycle: the protagonist, real or fictional, moves to a European country (usually southern), introduces us to a certain number of quaint rural types, eats a lot of good meals, and learns that life really is better when it contains quantities of red wine, olive oil, goat cheese, and—depending on the author—love, sweet love. Now I am certainly in favor of red wine, olive oil, goat cheese, and sweet love, in approximately equal amounts, which is to say, lots. But I didn’t come to Alba for any of that. In fact, twelve years ago, when I arrived, I often wondered why I had come here, trying to write a book about my grandparents and their mysterious, war-torn marriage in a decrepit stone house in an isolated medieval hamlet on the northern edge of the south of France.

Author Essay Good for Book Clubs

Expat Life and (Not) Going Native in France

I’m sitting in Paris, in this biodynamic and organic wine bar (Complètement BIO! Pas de sulfites!), having an extra glass of wine just because I’m in town for a meeting and I’m on my own tonight and why not? I’m reading an Aleksandar Hemon article in an old New Yorker, about how he absolutely owned Sarajevo, he felt like the geography of the place was imprinted on his soul. And then he happens to be out of the country when the siege begins, and then he doesn’t go back for ten years. He’s losing the geography of his youth and unwittingly overwrites it with Chicago, which happens to be the place where I imprinted….

All the places in his story are my places, and at any moment, I might have seen him walking down the street any time. We overlapped five years, years during which he was engaging, and I was disengaging.

And I know it’s the three glasses of wine, and Hemon is an awesome writer, but I feel absolutely melancholy about what I’ve given up in leaving Chicago. And yet I can’t quite imagine moving back. When I visit, the geography of my youth is gone, only the street grid remains. Which is sort of what he says, too.

Author Essay Good for Book Clubs

Making the Perfect Cheese Plate

Not long ago, I was at my local Whole Foods where I (oddly enough) stood perusing the stacked cheeses. Nearby, a couple hosting a dinner party was clearly perplexed, flummoxed, even upset. “Is this any good?” they asked, holding aloft a lovely round of artisan-made goat cheese covered in a fine coating of ash. They frowned. Such moments are precisely why I wrote The Whole Fromage. Though I had a long history as a cheese-eater, there was a time when I, too, was mystified by such strange and wonderful “new” cheeses. Yet I found in researching my book that just a bit of cheese knowledge goes a long way, and that acquiring can be not only fun, but very tasty. You can have an even easier—though no less flavorful—time doing the same, as I’ve done most of the legwork for you. The following steps will make you a cheese aficionado in record time.