Interview with Joanna Biggar, author of That Paris Year
Vera Hamady: You were in Paris in September and you sent me this beautiful card where you wrote “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” (more things change, more they stay the same). Can you expand?
Joanna Biggar: You can take that to mean many things: Paris, but also the picture of the flappers in the twenties in a café. It is just such a wonderful women’s picture. I said in my novel that Paris is a woman and I do think that there is a strong woman’s essence to it, as opposed to London, which I find a really masculine city.
VH: Did you find the women as beautiful as in the post-card?
JB: Oh, yes, beautiful, stylish with a strong sense of themselves. I think I like that. There is a confidence, like they know who they are. The sense of beauty is so pervasive and when you look at women in your own age group or older women, they are still beautiful. They have a sense of confidence and style by accepting who they are, but not necessarily trying to be younger or coquettish. Many years ago when I was in the south of France I wrote a piece about this because I was so interested in the fact that women who were my age, not like the women in Paris of course where they are still stylish, but the older women, dressed in these floral dresses and old ladies shoes and pushed their shopping carts. It was as if at one point, they accept that they are an old lady, and take that role on. But it is quite different in Paris where there is a still dignity, style and a sense of knowing who you are. It’s the opposite of the Hollywood idea of everybody getting a facelift and trying to look 25 although they are 50. This is accepting that there is a beauty and a dignity to age. I like that and I find it pervasive in Paris.
VH: How did you feel being in Paris and writing a travel essay for a forthcoming anthology to be published by Left Coast Writers?
JB: It is interesting that you should mention that because I just finished writing it. What I reflected on a lot is, ok, now I’ve been going to Paris for fifty years. It has been a love affair for me and I admit that. I was in Paris the entire month of September and the first time I arrived when I was young, I arrived in September. So, the sensations of that season and the beauty were very imprinted in me. And what I tried to write about this time was the sensation that when I step back in there, it is like opening a door and I am in that place again and I connect to that spirit. It is not like looking back on some other younger self. When people do that, there is a lot of nostalgia about it or maybe regret or something bittersweet. It is not that, it is that I am that person. When I open the doors, I am still that person. It is not all wonderful and beautiful, but simply reaching the person that you are at the core, not somebody you were just in the past and have closed the door on. I found a quote by Madeleine L’Engle that I like a lot. She said that the wonderful thing about aging is that you never have to stop all the other ages that you were. You carry that with you, then you add another and you expand.
VH: Is the travel essay about you?
JB: Yes, it is about me. It is going to be published in the new travel essays on Paris in the summer by Left Coast Writers. Travel essays are what we call personal essays, it is a special kind of genre. You try to capture something about the place that is personal, your resonance with that place. The book is part of a series called Wandering. We are wandering in Paris.
VH: Your novel That Paris Year came out two years ago. What did you learn since the publication of the book?
JB: I felt very good to finally do it after having worked on the book for so long, and left it alone for so long. It was this ongoing project that was never finished. There was a lot of satisfaction in it. I credit my publishers with this, but I am very happy with it. It is physically a very beautiful book—the print, the layout, and the quality of the paper. Certainly, the whole process of having a book out and doing readings is an interesting learning curve in itself. You learn a lot from the kinds of questions people bring to it. One of the things that I find surprising about it is that it involves these women characters, and it is very much a woman’s experience. I thought that it is very easy to pigeonhole it as a women’s book, which it is. But interestingly, I found that a lot of men have read it and seem to like it for various reasons. One of them being that secrets of young women are somehow revealed.
VH: If you had to summerize the book what would you say it is about?
JB: I can answer this in two ways. There is a kind of plot. So, it is about these 5 young women who come from Southern California as strangers into Paris at a particular time. They encounter in its splendor and in its misery, this other incredibly powerful and seductive culture and place. They cope with that in various ways. They have each distinct personalities, so they have different kinds of encounters there. Their experiences are varied but somewhat based on where they are in their lives and where they come from. In the larger sense, the underlying things are those of self-discovery and how a lot about this process in your youth comes about when you are in a foreign place. You are forced to confront who you are, where you came from in the face of a different culture. And I was very interested in the concept of how women, young women in this formative period, when they are very close shift their identities with each other. They kind of inter-merge their identities a lot. Another underlying thing is their relationship with their mothers, which don’t come out very well at this age. All of them are fairly contentious. I was speaking to college students last year about that point—this idea that when you are young you are not going to turn into your mother at all cost. But over time, it works itself out, and you reconcile with your mother—even become her. Also, of course their relationship to love/romance and how it plays out is tremendously important for their formation.
VH: Is romance the theme of the sequence of That Paris Year?
JB: No, I think that I am going to return to this maybe in a third volume, when they are middle-aged. Interestingly, in the second book, they are grown up. But in that volume, none of them has a family. It is unusual, some of them have been married and divorced, and some of them have relationships. But they are not in that particular space. It is about twelve years later.
VH: What do you like about the creative process?
JB: That is a great question. I wish I had some profound answers that I could just snap out but… I suppose that the creative process is the counterweight to all that is quotidian and mundane and dispiriting about life as it just rolls out if you don’t have creativity. Imagine life without the arts, or life without any spirit. To enter that is to enter into kind of a magical space. It is transformative. Not everybody has that impulse I guess, but for me I can’t imagine life without it.
VH: You have many loves—France, Africa…
JB: Yes, I do. But Africa is unlike France where I have been going for 50 years now as often as I can. I often think back about my first arrival and I wrote it in that little essay too that I did about Paris. I’d been hitchhiking so I arrived with a truck driver I picked up in Belgium. And he was smoking Gauloises, which I quickly picked up too. He dumped me off on a street corner in Paris. It is always amusing to think back at this arrival. Paris kind of entered my bloodstream– or France, I love other parts of France too. I have to go back and feed that as often as possible.
For Africa I was there only once but for an intense four years and I have not returned. I would like to now. I have been interested for a long time in going to Namibia and I would like to go to South Africa where I didn’t want to go back then, but now it is a different world. I did this trip with two other women, my heroic trip starting in Mali for 2,000 miles down the Niger River. It all started from a book, of course, it’s where all things start for me. And it was a book by someone who was then a Frenchman and a fantastic writer. His name was back then Sanche de Gramont. He was quite a wonderful writer and an adventurer. He has written a book about taking this journey down the Niger River, which was called in the native languages the Strong Brown God. That was the name of his book. He documented this incredible trip he took, so I read that book and I said to myself, I am doing this. At that time, my sister-in-law was a curator at the Field Museum in Chicago and an English friend of mine who lived in Ghana wanted to go, so the three of us met in Bamako and we started our journey, partly on bush taxi, partly we walked . We ended up on that river boat, exactly the same one as Sanche de Gramont had been on, an old rust bucket. We took canoes, we took whatever. We started in Bamako and we followed the river, 2,000 miles into Niger. We had incredible adventures, even having to go through the desert as part of contraband in the back of trucks. Sanche de Gramont, by the way, made a very interesting conversion. He left France behind, became a Californian and changed his name to Ted Morgan. He wrote things from here with his new American name. We always thought that we would return and cross again. We would like to cross the river the other way. We followed the river west to east. But we want to cross from say Timbuktu across into North Africa—an impossible journey now because of war.
VH: How did writing change you?
JB: From the time I can remember when I was a child, I knew that I wanted to write. I started doing it extremely young and always loved it. I loved it in school when I had to make things up and I was imaginative. I think that it just has always been a part of who I am. I feel that something is lacking if I go too long without doing it, I get too busy, or I have not kept up with it in some ways. But the thing that has changed over time has been what I have written. My early writings were very academic. I had the sense that I wanted to write novels, or do something more creative, that I might have the skills to do it, but I thought that I didn’t have much to say. Later on I became a journalist, that was my job and it took up my life in a way. I didn’t have much psychic space to do more creative work, but that balance is always a struggle. I think that every artist has it. You have your day job, you have to support yourself. How do you carve out that space?
VH: What advice would you give to writers?
JB: If you are serious about doing it, you need to keep at it, keep writing frequently even if it is a little bit every day. If you get too far away from it, it is always harder to restart. You don’t need to have an agenda. Oftentimes I think that when you come to a roadblock about something you are writing, fair enough, put it aside, but let it be in your subconscious, let it percolate, move on, do something different, and then come back to it. See if by coming back to it, you have some new insight, some fresh start or maybe you decide that you would not like to do this, but if you can’t go in one direction, go into another. There is one statement by Picasso that I always really liked: “If you can’t use red, use blue.” If you can’t go into this direction, go into that one, and see where it takes you.
VH: Do you have a wish for 2013?
JB: To finish my second book. After all the travelling I have done, I am happy to come back to that writing space again and write in a less distracted way. I am really loving that.
Joanna Biggar is a writer, journalist, and teacher who has published fiction, poetry, books, personal and travel essays and feature articles in hundreds of newspapers and magazines. She turned twenty in Paris, where she was a student at the Sorbonne, and went on to earn degrees in Chinese language and French literature. Since then she has chaired a school board in Ghana, traveled solo to remote regions of China, worked as a journalist in Washington, D.C., and taught inner-city school students in Oakland, California, where she lives. She is married, has five adult children and seven grandchildren, who love books. A member of the Society of Woman Geographers, her special places of the heart remain France and the California coast.
Featured image: Maurice Branger / Femmes à une terrasse de café