Paris Author Event: Penelope Rowlands and David Downie

So many Americans dream of writing about Paris. But how is it possible without falling victim to clichés and worn-out themes, as common as all of the Bateaux Mouches on the Seine?  On Wednesday, November 16th, Penelope Rowlands and David Downie shared their thoughts on writing about Paris at author event at the American Library in Paris.

Penelope Rowlands is the author of the recent anthology Paris Was Ours (Algonquin, 2011) and David Downie is the author of the newly reissued Paris, paris (Broadway, 2011). I was thrilled when I heard that both of these authors would be making an appearance together. I read Penelope’s book before I ever dreamed that fate would bring me back to Paris, and I read David’s book after I learned it would.

In a packed room at the American Library at the feet of the Eiffel Tower, Penelope and David shared their insights on writing about Paris. The upshot of their remarks? If you dream of writing about Paris, don’t dream about selling your work.

Penelope joked that her agent cringed at her book proposal, and said, “the only thing I like is the title.” But Penelope persisted. She thought it was important that her anthology of Paris essays be broad and diverse, and not just about the upper one percent. She scrambled to find voices that would portray life in Paris “beyond the accordion music.” Although she hates to pick a favorite, she is proudest of the essay by the homeless woman who doesn’t aspire to be a writer. (Kind of refreshing, actually. Like a waiter in L.A. who doesn’t want to be an actor.)

 David Downie’s book Paris, paris is a collection of essays he wrote over a period of ten years for other magazines and newspapers. When he gathered them together, he didn’t set out to write a book that would “sell,” and in fact, the first edition was sold to a very small publisher. But because the book so beautifully captured the surprises of Paris — from its underground art nouveau toilets to the history of its cobblestones — Broadway recently reissued it as a part of their Armchair Traveler Series. When someone from the audience asked David what made him so “quirky,” he said that he considers himself a renegade reporter who loves to ask a lot of the “wrong questions.” And apparently, the wrong questions often lead to the right answers, and a really good book.

During the Q and A we had a lively discussion about Americans’ perception of Parisians. As Penelope said, there is just something about Parisians. Whether it’s the way they dress, the way they cook, or as David said, the “plucky” way they love to disagree, Americans are just fascinated by them. And so we dream and read and write about Paris.

The audience included other notable writers, including Diane Johnson, the famous chronicler of the expatriate life in such books as Le Divorce, Le Mariage and L’Affaire, who also wrote the introduction to Paris Was Ours.

If you haven’t already, you really should pick up a copy of Paris Was Ours and Paris, paris at your local independent bookstore. Buy one for yourself, and an extra for the armchair traveler in your life. I highly recommend them.