Interview: David Collins – a Paris based novel in the works
Welcome to the ‘MyFrenchLife™ Member Interview Series’. Enjoy interviews with savvy Francophiles from all around the world capturing their passion secrets and tips, all about their favourite places in France, from Paris to Provenceand elsewhere in France.
As you read these interviews you’ll become immersed in the individual member’s ‘French Life’.
Learn why France is so special in their eyes & how they came to be so passionate about France.
Discover so much more about France in the process and
also you’ll personally benefit from the tips & discoveries these savvy Francophile frequent travellers generously share.
Introducing David Collins
I grew up in a cookie-cutter house in Rhode Island not easily distinguishable from the hundreds of other houses on streets that stretched in every direction.
Through high school, I attended Catholic schools where nuns, and later Christian Brothers, punished any attempt to step out of line, literally or metaphorically. Mine was the world Malvina Reynolds wrote about in “Little Boxes” (1962). Stifling.
When I began to study French, another world opened to me.
First, perhaps, came the music of the language. Then came the architecture, so different, so very different from anything I had ever seen and so much more beautiful to a young man looking to break away.
Then too, I came of age in the sixties when France’s ‘Nouvelle Vague’ dominated the art house theaters. Add to all that my youthful discovery of Rimbaud – Je dis qu’il faut etre voyant, se faire voyant – and I was off to the races.
Parts of all that, of course, I left behind as I grew older. But parts stayed with me, changed me forever.
Hitchhiking in France in the summer of 1968, my wife, Jean, and I spent a few hours driving through les montagnes noirs with a French priest. In the course of time, we got to talking about the way the Catholic Church wanted to reach into and control every aspect of our lives. The priest had a simple answer:
The Pope, is in Rome. We are here in France. He cannot tell us how to live.
That’s all it took. I admired that independence of thought, ultimately made it my own. And decided the French had found a way of living I wanted to emulate.
My first visit to France
Jean and I made our first trip to France in the summer of 1968.
I was 23; Jean was 20. Very young, very impressionable.
Before France we had spent a week in England and, with the threat of a railroad strike hovering over us, took the last train to Dover, and hopped a ferry to Ostende.
I still remember the signs at the first campsite in France warning us not to walk on the beach because of the mines still buried in the sand!
From there we made our way along the northern coast to Mont St. Michel where we camped by the causeway (don’t think you could get away with that these days).
We’ve been back many times, but that first view lives in memory.
From there we made our way to Paris; got a ride as far as Versailles and then took the Metro into the city. Like Mont St. Michelle, that first glimpse was, what would Rimbaud say, something about – le bouleversement de tous les sens !
We came into the city at the Place St. Michel where our first glimpse of Paris was the Place with the fountain at its center, across the Seine our first glimpse of Notre Dame. I have loved that place ever since.
Of course, this was the summer of 1968 and the CRS vans at the Place St. Michelle often blocked our view. Over the next week, we befriended a few French students, marched with them in the evenings to demand change, scattered with them when the tear gas began to fly. Those first days in Paris were, to say the least, exhilarating.
Best discovery during that week in Paris? George Whitman and his magical bookstore, Shakespeare and Company.
And on that trip, we began a custom that has persisted to this day.
Each time we’re in Paris, my wife snaps a photo of me standing in front of Shakespeare and Company – and we’ve been back somewhere in the neighborhood of twenty-five times. I just wish I could find all the photos!
Tell us how your career & your ‘French life’ became entwined – any surprises?
I began my academic life as a Shakespearean.
My wife taught French and I found myself often in France, especially in Paris. I needed something to keep me out of trouble and began researching the lives and works of American writers in Paris.
That led to two courses I taught for years before retiring: American Writer in Paris and Paris Noir (co-taught with a professor of French).
I enjoyed those courses immensely and began writing a book of walking tours: ‘Parisian Places, American Faces: Walking the Left Bank with American Writers, 1919 to the Present’.
Some day I’ll actually finish that book!
My first book came out two years after I retired from teaching: ‘Accidental Activists: Mark Phariss, Vic Holmes, and Their Fight for Marriage Equality in Texas’ (University of North Texas Press, 2017).
And here’s a surprise!
I am currently working on a novel set at Shakespeare and Company in Paris. Aspiring jazz musician comes to Paris to escape family troubles and meets an aspiring writer trying to get over a love affair gone very wrong.
…”They settle in as Tumbleweeds at Shakespeare and Company until, bit by bit, the past begins to catch up with them and they find themselves in a desperate struggle to survive. Touches of Cara Black and Mark Pryor, of Diane Johnson and Jake Lamar, and a whole lot of Lousie Penny who tells great stories but always foregrounds the humanity of her characters… “, but you’ll have to wait a while for the completed book since I’ve written only 200 pages, half of the story.
More on my Paris passion
Back in 1956 James Baldwin wrote,
Paris is old, is many centuries. You feel, in Paris, all the time gone by.
He contrasted that with New York, the quintessential American city. In New York, Baldwin claimed, everything is “very high and new and electric – exciting.” You feel there, he asserted, “all the time to come. There’s such power there, everything is in such movement” (‘Giovanni’s Room’). Power is attractive, even seductive. So is “new and eclectic–exciting.”
But there is much to be said for what is old, what has endured for centuries and has embedded in its stones the kind of solidity we never really feel in America because our country is so new.
My Paris persona – do I have one?
Everyone knows the world’s best film line: “We’ll always have Paris.”
For those of us who have been there nothing could be more true.
For those of us who have been there many, many times, it’s true in a somewhat different, more complicated way.
We have to stop and ask ourselves: “Which Paris do we or will we have?” – Is it the Paris we’re walking through at the moment? – Or the Paris we visited ten years ago? – The Paris we saw on our first visit, perhaps decades ago?
That’s true for ourselves as well. As the years mount, it’s hard not to realize that our bodies can’t do the things in Paris they did ten or twenty or fifty years ago. Walking eight miles through the city takes a bigger toll these days than it did when I was in my twenties. But at the same time, it’s hard to be in Paris and not feel at times like the young man who went there with his new wife when the world was young and everything lay before us like a field filled with brilliant flowers waiting for us to take our pick.
My favourite arrondissements
Over the years my wife, Jean, and I have at one time or another stayed all over Paris. For years we gravitated to the Fifth and Sixth arrondissements, the area where we’d been in our earlier lives.
The best apartment we ever rented was on the rue de Rennes, just above the FNAC store where, on one occasion, I found that my way back to the apartment was blocked because there had been a bomb scare. (This was the summer a bomb exploded in the Metro near the St. Michel station.)
We walked through the Place St. Michel that evening on our way to a concert at the Sainte-Chapelle and I still remember the smell of cordite in the air.
More recently we’ve gravitated to the Marais where, we’ve decided, the food is better!
My favourite places to eat
Only on rare occasions have we eaten at the legendary restaurants for which Paris is famous. When we first arrived in 1968, we quickly found a student-oriented place on the rue de la Harpe where we could eat for a dollar each including a glass or two of wine.
We’ve always preferred the smaller, and we think more authentic neighborhood restaurants. One stands out in my mind.
I was in Paris on assignment to do an interview with Diane Johnson (Le Divorce, Le Mariage, L’Affaire) for the AWP Chronicle. She and I talked through the morning and by lunchtime were nowhere done with my (too long) list of questions. She had an appointment to meet a friend and invited me to come along, but I was working up material for an article on the Ile Saint Louis where my wife and I had stayed for a week the previous winter. Diane and I agreed to continue after a long lunch break and I went off to talk with shopkeepers on the Ile Saint Louis.
When I got to the upriver tip of the island, I found a small cafe, can’t even remember the name, where I settled in for lunch. Ordered cassoulet and had perhaps the best cassoulet I have ever been lucky enough to eat. I have been in Paris several times since then, but have never gone back to that cafe. I think I’m a little afraid to tamper with that memory.
Strolling in Paris
If I have a favorite walk in Paris it begins at Shakespeare and Company and takes me along the rue de la Huchette into the Place St. Michel, then into the smaller, quieter Place St. Andre des Arts, and finally along the rue St. Andre des Arts, once a path connecting to the abbey of St. Germain.
I love walking slowly through the Marché Buci, smelling the vegetables, the sausages, the cheeses, and then making my way for a block on the rue de Seine, until I come to the rue Jacob, finally turning up the rue Bonaparte to the Deux Magots.
That walk cures a lot of ills. I don’t feel confined on those narrow little streets. I feel protected.
Best purchase ever
Our first trip to France (1968), buying backpacks, pup tent, mini-gas stove for cooking, travel by ‘le stop‘, ran us about seven-hundred dollars for two months. That was the era of Europe on $5-a-Day and life was cheap.
We laid down fifty of those dollars one Sunday at the Place du Tertre for a painting of the Moulin Rouge (where we have never actually been). We didn’t know the night club, and couldn’t have come near affording it, but we like the look and feel of the painting.
We shipped that painting home and I think the shipping company dragged it behind the ship. By the time it arrived in the USA (months after we had returned) the frame had been broken, and part of the paint had been scratched away.
Horrified, we took it to a restorer at the Rhode Island School of Design who gave us an estimate for repairs…
Five-hundred dollars, ten times what we had paid!
Way beyond the range of what grad students living on the salaries of teaching assistants could afford, so we declined. Later, we found a woman who worked in an art store who restored our painting for a much more modest sum. Pretty much the cost of materials. That painting, unframed, hung about this or that couch in apartments all through grad school. When we got real jobs and bought a house, we finally had it framed. Fifty-one years after buying that painting we moved to a newish house, had the painting reframed, and it hangs now over the fireplace here.
Truth to tell, it’s not the best painting in the whole world. But it has been with us for a lot of years and will, barring some natural or unnatural catastrophe, be with us to the end.
For that reason, I think, I prefer the older parts of Paris, the Latin Quarter and the area around Saint-Germain-des-Prés, the Marais, where the buildings tilt and lean against each other, occasionally shedding bits into the streets. They make me aware, make me think thoughts that don’t come in other places.
In the years since we’ve bought a lot of paintings and prints, but nothing is going to replace that piece from the Place du Tertre in Paris.
Most memorable experiences…
There have been too many memorable, joyful experiences to count, but here is a sampling…
Hosting student tours: As a college professor (I taught English) I took student groups on month-long trips to England and France some ten times. We covered a lot of turf in both countries, but we always had five or so days in Paris. A good amount of time, but hardly enough to introduce students to all Paris had to offer. Our days were long and often involved a lot of walking. ON three of those trips I took one of my children, always the year they were eleven. I wanted to instill that love of France and Paris in the next generation. One night after a more than usually long day, my son and I were waiting in line to be seated at a restaurant somewhere between the Boulevard Saint Germain and the Seine. The line wasn’t moving nearly as quickly as I thought it should, my feet hurt so much I thought I might scream. Finally, I just sat down on the floor. Not so long after that, a waiter came by, asked me in French if I was OK. I told him I really was fine, described my day shepherding thirty-plus students about, and told him how much my feet hurt. He had spoken to me in French; I replied in French. Minutes later, my son and I were seated. When the same waiter came by to take our orders, I asked him if I had caused a scene by sitting on the floor and apologized if that had been the case. “No,” he said, “no problem. The secret is that you spoke French to me. We take care of our people.” Fifty years after my first French class, my French is still a long way from fluent. But I have always found that making the effort went a long way toward making a friend.
Perhaps another story from that year so long ago.
Strawberries on the Place Maubert: My son, my students, and I were staying that year in a hotel on the Boulevard Saint Germain right across the street from the market at the Place Maubert. My son and I were back in our room at the end of another long day. I wanted a few minutes to relax. He looked out the window at the market and wanted strawberries. I didn’t want to ride the rickety old elevator back to the rez-de-chaussée, cross the street, and plunge into the market. Nor did I want to let an eleven-year-old with limited French make the trip alone. But he persisted and I finally gave in. I watched him as he crossed the street, stepped up to a stall in the market, and bought his strawberries. That was the bittersweet day I realized how quickly he was growing up. Years later, I wrote about the experience, in an essay I called ‘Strawberries on the Place Maubert’ which was published in ‘The Hawaii Review’. Sooner or later, I’ll be gone. But my kids, I realized, will go back to the places we first visited together. The tradition will continue.
The prerequisite: a visit to Shakespeare and Company A visit to Shakespeare and Company is a requisite part of a visit to Paris. On another trip to Paris with students, I settled in one night at the front of the store with George Whitman. We talked books when no customers were checking out, I browsed books when he was busy. And while I browsed, I watched and listened to George out of the corner of my eye. George had a reputation as a crusty old guy. At one point when he finished with a customer, I was leafing through a novel by Alan Furst set in Paris. “You don’t want to waste your time with that fluff,” he said to me. And then he proceeded to tell me what I should be reading. But the best part of the night came in a moment when I watched George interact with a child, and the veneer of grumpy old man dropped away. I watched, and I listened, and I later put it all into another essay, ‘Shakespeare and Company, Three Ways of Looking at a Legend’ which came out in ‘The Chariton Review’. I don’t remember what day of the week I put that essay into the mail (this was way before the days when everything happened electronically!) I do remember that three days later I was talking with a student in my office and the phone rang. On the other end was the editor. He couldn’t wait to tell me that he wanted to publish the essay. I’ve had a lot of essays accepted for publication over the years, none so quick as that one.
Closerie des Lilas: For another of my favorite experiences in Paris, I wasn’t even in Paris. Strange, yes? A few years after that experience with my son, my older daughter accompanied me and another group of students to Paris. At some point, I took her to the Closerie des Lilas on the Boulevard du Montparnasse to show her the seat at the bar where Ernest Hemingway presumably held forth. A decade or so later, she spent a semester studying in France. She and a friend went to the Closerie des Lilas and sent a picture that triggered another of those revelatory moments.
Off-spring of Francophiles – following in the footsteps? Sooner or later, I’ll be gone. But my kids, I realized, will go back to the places we first visited together. The tradition will continue. By the time I sat down to write an essay about my older daughter’s return to Paris, my younger daughter was studying there.
Notable Exhibitions I’ve experienced
Jean, and I, were passing by the Hotel de Ville one day when we noticed there was an exhibition about Paris in the movies: ‘Paris au Cinema: La vie rêvée de la Capitale de Méliès à Amélie Poulain‘. The catalog from that one is still on my shelves.
Another exhibition, one I didn’t get to but produced a good story: I’m an avid jazz fan and, predictably, have friends who are avid jazz fans as well.
I was walking along a sidewalk one day, passing a barbershop, when I noticed a poster in the window advertising an exhibition and conference on ‘Jazz in Japan’.
One of my friends had published a series of interviews with American jazzmen who played in Japan, a series so well received there that many had been translated into Japanese. And so, I thought to myself, I have to get that poster for my friend.
I stepped through the door and asked the barber at work in the nearest chair if he would sell me the poster. “No,” he said, “they are put there by a company that comes by and rotates them each week.” But he wanted to know why the poster meant so much to me.
I settled in as he worked, told him about the work my friend had done, and how much he would enjoy having the poster. The barber listened, nodding here, asking a question there.
The story of jazz in Japan finished, he and I continued talking, drifting from topic to topic until he had finished with the customer. I began to excuse myself, headed for the door, but the barber got there before me.
He took the poster from the fame and handed it to me.
“For your friend,” he said. “You have earned this for him.”
Any tips for readers?
Learn a little French!
It will make your life in France ever so much easier, not because you’ll be able to do everything in French but because the people you deal with will appreciate your effort and reach out to you.
France is so much more than Paris
So many places to love in France!
We spent a summer living in Tours while my wife was taking a course for Foreign Teachers of French.
The chateaux, the wines, the countryside!
I’ll always love Paris, but in recent years I’ve more and more learned to love smaller cities, especially in the south of France.
I wish we could afford to buy and fix up a place there in the vein of Peter Mayle’s ‘A Year in Provence’.
Thank you David, I found it fascinating to find out more about your ‘French life’. You are, I’m sure, an inspiration to many other members. Judy
What is your ‘French life’ dream? Where is your favourite part of France? Please join the conversation in the comments section below.
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