Erik Larson speaks at the Carter Center about his latest book, THE SPLENDID AND THE VILE: A SAGA OF CHURCHILL, FAMILY, AND DEFIANCE DURING THE BLITZ. Photo Credit: Michelle Havich

The Splendid and the Vile

Posted on March 2, 2020

When author Erik Larson moved from Seattle to Manhattan a few years ago, he thought about how the September 11 attacks were a profoundly different experience for New Yorkers than they were for those who witnessed the horrors unfold from afar. His musings led him to think about another attack on a hometown — London during the Blitz of 1940-1941 — and how the locals might have endured it. The more Larson wondered about the impact of these assaults, especially on the newly minted prime minister, Winston Churchill, his family and his friends, the more he realized he had the topic for his next book.

“I…quickly came to realize that it is one thing to say ‘Carry On,’ quite another to do it,” he writes. And in The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, And Defiance During the Blitz, Larson paints a fresh portrait of Churchill in his first year as prime minister, showing readers how the cigar-chomping leader taught the British to carry on and be brave in a time of unspeakable horrors. Using diaries, archival documents, and once-secret intelligence reports that were recently released, Larson tells the story of this time in novelistic detail, illustrating the day-to-day experience of the British people, as recounted in part through Mass-Observation Diaries.

Larson said he didn’t know about Mass-Observation until he embarked upon this book, and I certainly didn’t know about it either until he brought it up. I jotted it down as he spoke, making a note to myself to look into it further. The backstory: Mass-Observation was an organization launched in Britain a couple of years before the war and it enlisted volunteers to keep daily diaries about their lives. The diarists were encouraged to be as specific as possible in their entries, and they were sometimes even given prompts to guide their daily accounts. The goal was to help sociologists better understand British life at that time. Larson deftly used these diaries to bring the thoughts, dreams and fears of ordinary Britons to life. Of all the things that kept me glued to this book this past weekend (and there were many, many things), I particularly enjoyed his deft use of these diaries.

One diarist wrote that if she had to spend her whole life with a man, she’d choose Neville Chamberlain, Churchill’s predecessor.

“But I think I would sooner have Mr. Churchill if there was a storm and I was shipwrecked,” she added.

She got her storm and her wish.

The morning after Larson spoke at the Carter Center last week, I got up at 5:30 a.m. to sift through the online database of Mass-Observation diaries, finding in it a treasure trove of people of different genders, ages, marital statuses and professions right at my fingertips. I thought about how amazing it was to have all this there, and wondered how many countries have done something just like it. This is the kind of stuff you want when you’re writing a book, and it’s the kind of stuff Larson always finds to make his magic. I really enjoyed The Splendid and the Vile; it unfolded like a movie. And I especially enjoyed meeting Erik Larson and hearing him talk about his craft.

 

Resilience and The Art of Resistance

Posted on January 27, 2020

A few years ago, I spent my days delving into accounts written by Nazi resisters of all stripes. Some of them were women, most of them were young, and all of them were willing to risk their lives to stop the oppression and hate that were slithering across the European continent. It’s also safe to say they were all put into positions where they were forced to be resilient.

Sometimes these fighters drew strength from their faith in the cause, or their faith in a higher power that would guide them when things got tough. Other times, these men and women were empowered by the knowledge that they were not alone, that others were suffering alongside them and they, too, shared their beliefs.

And then there’s 98-year-old Justus Rosenberg, who chalked his resilience up to a confluence of circumstances that allowed him to keep going when times got hard.

With The Art of Resistance (William Morrow), Rosenberg offers a poignant account of his time as a young resister in France during World War II. Born in Danzig to Jewish parents, Rosenberg recounts his early memories of Nazis coming through his town, tormenting and insulting local Jewish residents and businesspeople. Upset, one day Rosenberg tells his father about what he’s witnessed in town, to which his father counsels him not to be concerned because “that’s what they want probably.” Once his father realizes how dire the situation has become, he and his wife decide to send Justus to France for his own safety, and for one of the best possible educations he could get in Europe. In turn, they would do what they can to get to Palestine. Once Rosenberg is nestled in Paris studying literature, the Nazis launched their war on the continent. Rosenberg, like so many other young and idealistic students of the time, decides that he must “do something” to fight this and he embarks on a daring four years as a courier, a cog in the wheel of the American Emergency Rescue Committee (which ferried several prominent Jewish artists to safety), a recruiter, an intelligence officer, and then a warrior in the ragtag maquisards, so named for the scrub in which they hid. He says he survived due to luck, an ability to detect danger, his skills learned as a guerrilla fighter, and the appearance of the right people at the right time.

Rosenberg’s story is compelling and important, especially in a tumultuous time like ours when there is hatred, intolerance and a lust for unchecked power. Then as now, as long as these things exist, there will be heroes, and Rosenberg is certainly one of them as readers will see in this engaging book.

Netgalley provided me with a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. This is my honest opinion.

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”

Posted on January 10, 2020

I spent a week in Little Rock, Arkansas last July, working with David Montague on the book we’re doing about his mother Raye. Raye was a Hidden Figure of the U.S. Navy, known for being the first person to design a ship with a computer. But she was also a well-known, and beloved speaker to all manner of groups about engineering, doing well in school, and her truly remarkable life.

David and I spent part of that week holed up in his office at the University of Arkansas Little Rock talking and going through some of his mother’s papers, photos, and personal effects. As we shuffled through folders and photo albums, multiple copies of the following quote from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland fluttered to the floor:

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”

“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.

“I don’t much care where –,” said Alice.

“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.

“—so long as I get SOMEWHERE,” Alice added as an explanation.

“Oh you’re sure to do that,” said the Cat, “if only you walk long enough.”

Some people walk and walk and walk in life, only to go in circles and ultimately nowhere at all. Sometimes it’s because they haven’t had enough guidance and support. Sometimes it’s because they’ve simply quit because the effort felt too daunting. Raye Montague, from a very early age, had an idea of the direction she wanted to walk – engineering – and didn’t stop walking until she reached her destination. Along the way she faced her share of trials and tribulations, but she never viewed them as a roadblock. She saw them as challenges that she needed to overcome so that she could keep going, achieving, and ultimately bringing others along with her on her journey. Yes, she was an engineer in the male-dominated Navy, and it was inspiring that she was able to achieve all that she did during her career. But for me, engineering is not the entire story.

What fascinated me even more than the artform Raye learned to master on the job was her unbelievable resilience in the face of all manner of obstacles and odds that weren’t necessarily in her favor. She lived a life aware of these factors, but undaunted by them as she pressed ahead and onward.

Raye’s life is a fabulous case study about what it takes to overcome challenges, bounce back from failures and heartbreaks, and press forward…somewhere…even in hard times. David and I are looking forward to introducing his mother to you in the not-too-distant future. In the meantime, I’ll be sharing some stories and studies here from time to time about resilience — what it is, why we need it, how we develop it, and more. The World Health Organization has made resilience a top priority in 2020, and researchers are finding that it’s an increasingly important factor in our health and wellness. This is some writing I originally trotted out on Substack, but I found it difficult to keep it going at that spot, primarily because it was one more place to log into and maintain. Still, I wanted to keep looking at the idea from time to time, so I decided it would be best to do it here.

Let me know if you have any questions or stories you’d like to see on the matter. In  the meantime, I’ll keep poking around and share anything interesting I find.

 

Baking the Poilane Way

Posted on November 25, 2019

I had mentioned I wasn’t much of a baker in the last post. Any of my prior attempts at bread making have resulted in dense, chewy stuff that lingers in your gut like a boulder. When I heard that Apollonia Poilane was releasing a new cookbook that demystifies some of the secrets of her family’s world-famous bread bakery in Paris, I resolved to buy the book to see if I could replicate some of Poilane’s beautiful rustic sourdough boules, each one of them the circumference of the average hug.

To do this, you build a starter with 2/3 cup of lukewarm water, 1 cup plus one tablespoon of all-purpose flour, 1/3 plus two tablespoons of whole wheat flour, and 1/4 cup of Greek-style yogurt with live active cultures. Poilane acknowledges that her grandfather never would have used yogurt in his starters, but she makes a case for it in this recipe because it jump-starts fermentation and begins to give the dough its slightly sour taste. She also recommends using King Arthur brand flours in the recipe because they have a similar texture to the specially ground ones she uses in her family’s bakery. Combine these ingredients by hand until they’ve become the texture of chewed gum, then cover the bowl with a kitchen towel and set aside in a warm, draft free place for 24 hours.

The next day, take all but one cup of the starter mixture, put it into a new bowl, and then add 4 cups of all-purpose flour, 3 1/4 cups of wheat flour, 1 1/2 tablespoons of active dry yeast, and 2 3/4 cup of lukewarm water with 1 tablespoon of fine sea salt. Combine those ingredients until they are smooth, then knead the dough on a lightly floured surface. Put the dough back into the bowl, cover it with the kitchen towel and wait 45 minutes. By then, your dough should increase in volume, and maintain its shape when you touch it with the back of your hand. Take a colander, line it with a well-floured kitchen towel, and then flatten the dough on a lightly floured surface to 2/3rds its size, working the dough until it becomes a smooth ball. Put the ball of dough smooth side down into the lined colander, and then cover it with a kitchen towel for two more hours. After that time, the dough should increase in size, and continue to maintain its shape after you touch it with the back side of your hand.

Twenty-five minutes before baking, preheat the oven to 475 degrees and place a 12-inch Dutch oven inside. When the oven is ready, remove the Dutch oven carefully, open it, and then flip the dough into the pot with the smooth side facing up. Score the dough with a knife (you can do any sort of design you want, from letters to leaves, to a simple X). Cover the pot and bake for ten minutes, then remove the lid and continue baking until the crust is dark brown and caramelized, about another 45 minutes to an hour.

When the bread is done, turn the loaf out of the pot, stand it on its side, and knock on the bottom. It should sound like someone is knocking on your door because they could smell this amazingness from your oven. Instead of cutting right into the loaf, let it sit and cool for an hour underneath a kitchen towel. Stored in a paper bag or wrapped in a towel, the bread should keep for one week.

The first fermentation, followed by the hit of yeast has so far proven to be exactly how to make the perfect loaf of bread. See:

You can adjust this recipe with different flours, or add-ins like walnuts and dried fruit. Once you get the loaf baked, or at least the dough going, you need to decide whether you want to maintain the starter, or cast it aside. Maintaining it is a near-daily ritual of throwing away a cup of the starter, and mixing it with 1 cup of all-purpose flour, 1/2 cup of wheat flour, and 1/2 cup plus two tablespoons of lukewarm water. Over time, the starter deepens in flavor, depending on the time you’ve spent feeding it and the ingredients you’ve been using. But if you can keep it up, it’s a good thing to have on hand as the weather gets cooler and you need something substantial to go with your soup, salad, or charcuterie.

For more on Apollonia Poilane and her family’s bakery, check out Lindsay Tramuta’s interview with her on episode 42 of The New Paris Podcast.

Dispatch from Someone Who Has Just Hit Send

Posted on November 11, 2019

Recently, I had lunch with a friend who I’ve known since college. We did the usual catching up about kids, spouses, jobs and our mutual desire to own an Airstream and cruise the country taking in the sights. And then she asked me to tell her about the book I’ve been working on with Raye Montague’s son, David, for the past year. The details tumbled out of my mouth in a sea of “and then this happened…and that happened…and the learning curve was steep and the deadline felt so tight, even though I turned in the book early, and…sometimes it felt so hard, but I learned so much and grew so much and I’m so grateful and wow.”

Amazing storytelling, I know.

The book has been with our editor for more than a week now. We have yet to get his feedback, other than to know that he really wanted to bring a story about an engineer to market, as he came from a family of engineers himself. Our agent sent us a very kind email about the manuscript. That has given us a little wind in our sails.

Things are good. Life is good. I am happy with where we find ourselves at this moment, with this book. There is more to do, of course, but I am grateful for where we are. I’m following an interesting path right now and, fortunately for me, it’s not all that dissimilar from following my heart. Although I did go back to school to study one particular aspect of history that fascinated me, there are a lot of other things that fascinate me too. Working on this book has taken me on a journey I couldn’t have expected, and it has been for the best. I’m excited in a way I haven’t been for some time about whatever comes next, storytelling wise.

So, I’m just curious: Is there any path you’ve followed that has, in some people’s eyes, meandered, but made perfect sense to you, either at the time or in retrospect? What was it and how did it make you stronger, and put you on the road to becoming the person you are today? Or, did the path you began to follow take you somewhere you never could have imagined possible? If so, what was it? I’d love to hear about it. Don’t hesitate to leave me your account in comments, or email me from my contact page.

Also, now that I’ve come out from underneath my manuscript rock, I’d love to answer any questions you may have for me. Please don’t hesitate to reach out!

***

Some things I’ve been seeing and doing:

  • If you have the chance to hear Ta-Nehisi Coates speak about his new book, The Water Dancer, do not miss it. I saw him speak with Tayari Jones last week, and I could have listened to them both for days.
  • A former colleague of mine has a Twitter feed for Rupert, her sourdough bread starter, and you can typically find me drooling over the loaves she posts online. Bread lover and Francophile that I am, I recently purchased Apollonia Poilane’s debut cookbook Poilane: The Secrets of the World Famous Bread Bakery, because I am on a mission to recreate those beautiful breads here at home. I’m usually a terrible baker, but so far…so good. Knock wood, or at least the bottom of the boule…
  • Last Friday, I heard the Atlanta Symphony perform Tchiakovsky’s Violin Concerto in the morning, before seeing a member preview of Virgil Abloh: “Figures of Speech” at the High Museum of Art. Having moved back to town a year ago, I’m not sure if the ASO does matinees on a regular basis, but this one was packed, and I’d definitely go again if they put another on the schedule. The Abloh exhibit is worth seeing, in part because of his relatively new role as creative director of Louis Vuitton’s menswear line, but also because of the way he has made his mark across a number of creative disciplines. If you’re in Atlanta or nearby, check it out before it closes on March 8, 2020.
  • I spent part of a truly gorgeous Saturday at the Decatur Wine Festival with friends, where I lucked into a primo magnum of Cabernet, before heading back home to watch an LSU/Alabama game that pleased me to no end.

Some book news…

Posted on November 8, 2018

When I was in the midst of moving back to Atlanta, my agent contacted me about a story that really needed to be told. It was about an African-American woman named Raye Montague, who engineered her way out of the Jim Crow South to become the first person to draft a Naval warship design by computer. The idea was that I’d complete a proposal (quickly), and if it sold, help her get her memories down (again quickly; she was 83) so we could get what promises to be a marvelous and truly inspirational book about a Hidden Figure out to market. Over the course of the summer and into fall, I’ve gotten to know and truly love Raye and her son David, as I started working with them to create what was originally intended to be her memoir.

About a month ago, Raye fell ill and went into hospice. She died October 10, and after months of talking to her and getting to know her, my heart absolutely broke. Her son’s heart broke. So many people whose lives she touched…their hearts broke. Raye was brilliant, strong, inspirational and so goddamn funny. She was a great storyteller, which was a delight for someone like me. Now, her son David and I will be working together to co-author her biography, which is tentatively titled KICK LIKE THE DEVIL. It’ll be published by Chicago Review Press, just like my first book was, and I think I can safely that I and David – my friend David – are chomping at the bit to share the life of this amazing woman with you. Stay tuned…and thank you.

Photo: Warner Bros. Entertainment

How Dunkirk Brought the de Gaulles Together Before France Fell

Posted on August 1, 2017

Christopher Nolan’s World War II tour de force “Dunkirk” has captivated moviegoers and reviewers since its release on July 21. It’s the story of the harrowing, heroic rescue of 400,000 Allied troops from the French port city of Dunkirk after German forces stormed into the country. Nolan’s film focuses on the rescue mission itself, not the aftermath in France. In THE GENERAL’S NIECE: THE LITTLE-KNOWN DE GAULLE WHO FOUGHT TO FREE OCCUPIED FRANCE , I write about the havoc Dunkirk wrought on the French population, and how it brought the de Gaulle family together before their beloved country fell to the Nazis. Here is an excerpt:

***

If there was to be a last stand in France against the German forces that laid waste to the country, some military men believed that it would take place in windswept Brittany. Xavier waited for his marching orders that June in a home that teemed with family members. Armelle, her two small children, Genevieve, and Roger awaited the arrival of Xavier’s frail, eighty-year-old mother, Jeanne, who was fleeing German attacks on the port of Le Havre, not far from where she lived with her daughter, Marie-Agnes; son-in-law, Alfred Cailliau; and their children. Jeanne had been a widow since May 3, 1932, when her husband, Henri, died at age eighty-two. In the years after Henri’s passing, Jeanne’s health had begun to decline too, and she became consumed with seeing her sons before war separated them again.

It was not an easy feat, given the situation on the ground. The German Luftwaffe had begun bombing Le Havre on May 19, 1940, and continued their attacks for the next two evenings. British troops fired antiaircraft guns as Nazi planes dropped bombs on warehouses, factories, shipyards, and Le Havre itself. When large numbers of Dutch and Belgian refugees began arriving in the town by train, locals panicked and thought that the Germans were winning. A dark mood descended over the public as air-raid sirens became commonplace.

The bombing continued in June when the British began evacuating at Dunkirk. Not all troops could be rescued, so they escaped to other ports along the country’s northern coast, striving to find a way back to England. Nazi planes tried to prevent their return by bombing Le Havre ten more times. Bedlam ensued as local officials tried to evacuate residents. Many wanted to flee incoming Nazis by heading for Brittany, but trains could not long travel in that direction because they had to go through the train station in Rouen, which was almost sixty miles to the east. That station was closed, but Jeanne was so determined to see her boys that she traveled 475 miles south to Grenoble to see her son Jacques before getting one of her grandsons to drive her 571 miles north to see Xavier.

After Jeanne’s arrival in Paimpont, nineteen-year-old Genevieve comforted the delicate old woman, whose anxiety gave way to vivid memories from her girlhood of France’s humiliation by the Prussians at Sedan in 1870. She felt like she was reliving those dark days, and her weakened heart couldn’t bear it. Her granddaughter reassured her that it wouldn’t happen like that, not again. Charles would come to visit his mother and Xavier’s family en route to London, where he’d meet with British prime minister Winston Churchill on June 15. After that visit Genevieve assured her grandmother that France would fight back — yes, right there in Brittany.

Brittany. The very shape of the peninsula on which the French army hung their dwindling hopes jutted out toward the English Channel and Atlantic Ocean like the hand of a drowning man begging for help. Two weeks before Petain’s radio address, the military devised a plan that would gather forces along Brittany’s Rance and Vilaine Rivers to fend off an enemy assault. As French troops kept up a stiff resistance along those rivers, allies from Great Britain could stream through the ports west of that line of defense to come to the country’s aid. A prolonged fight under this strategy would allow France to keep its lines of communication open with its allies and, in case of trouble, make it easier to relocate the state’s armed forces and government ministers to London or North Africa.

Two days after Petain addressed the nation, Charles de Gaulle, who had been recently appointed undersecretary of war and national defense, held secret meetings with commanders about the feasibility if this scheme. The overwhelming consensus: Such resistance was futile. There were simply not enough troops to hold off a German advance. General de Gaulle bid farewell to his wife and children. He was headed to London, he told them because things were very bad.

“Perhaps we are going to carry on the fight in Africa,” de Gaulle told his wife, Yvonne. “But I think it more likely that everything is about to collapse. I am warning you so that you will be ready to leave at the first sign.”

The signs were everywhere. After securing passports, Yvonne and the children left on June 18 to join Charles in England.

On the morning of June 18, Xavier de Gaulle and several other reservists were ordered to march west in an effort to regroup against the enemy. His family joined him on the crowded streets in an procession riddled with anger, shame and fear. All around them there was a growing feeling that whatever came next would be in vain. Genevieve lingered close to her grandmother, “this little old lady, dressed in black, so tiny and easy to miss,” so she didn’t fall behind and get lost in the crowd. Throughout the day the young woman reassured the matriarch, as she worked through her own tormented emotions about this turn of events.

By evening, they had walked forty miles to the town of Locmine and faced their first Nazi soldiers. They looked like war gods, Genevieve thought; their smart black uniforms and chiseled features exuded strength and pride as they breezed past on motorcycles and tanks. Some reservists cried because it was clear that there was no hope left and no will to fight this aggressor. As the crowd grew numb with dismay, a priest ran toward them from the other side of the town square. He was excited because he had just heard a French general speak on BBC radio.

“He said we may have lost a battle,” the priest cried, “but not the war. The general’s name was de Gaulle.”

Thrilled by the news, Jeanne de Gaulle, broke from the crowd and ran to the priest.

“Monsieur le Cure, that’s my son!” she cried as she tugged on the sleeve of his cassock. “That’s my son! He’s done what he ought to have done!”

A country away, Charles de Gaulle couldn’t have known how his mother reacted to his decision to offer France another way, but Genevieve remembered the moment as one of her grandmother’s last great joys. For Charles, it was a lonely affair, because as he heard himself speak into the BBC microphone, he realized his life would never be the same. Up until then he had been devoted to both the army and the nation he served. And yet he was not the sort of man to capitulate, which was why he had broken with his superiors and headed to London, to condemnation. At forty-nine years old, fate had lured him away from all his predictable patterns and responsibilities. He was obligated to the France he once knew, and he summoned his countrymen, uncertain of who might hear or put their trust in him.

Few people caught the general’s broadcast, but the ones who did began risking their lives to spread his word.

***

Excerpted from THE GENERAL’S NIECE: THE LITTLE-KNOWN DE GAULLE WHO FOUGHT TO FREE OCCUPIED FRANCEpublished by Chicago Review Press. Copyright 2017 by Paige Bowers. All rights reserved.

Mid-June News and Notes

Posted on June 16, 2017

An Event that Inspired a Young Patriot

Seventy-seven years ago this week, German troops stormed into Paris, began their wartime occupation of a portion of France, and inspired a little-known French general to implore his countrymen to keep fighting. That little-known French general was named Charles de Gaulle, of course, and he would later become his country’s president. But during that summer of 1940, his words ignited the flame of French Resistance in the heart of his 19-year-old niece, Genevieve, who became one of his most loyal foot soldiers and risked her life in the process. I tell Genevieve’s story in The General’s Niece, and so far readers say they love this tale about an indomitable heroine who “fought the good fight” until the end of her life. I’m grateful for the reader feedback I’ve gotten so far on Amazon and Goodreads, so if you’ve read the book and would like to share your thoughts, please take a minute to add your review to one or both of these sites. Word of mouth like this helps readers find great new reads, but it also helps authors like me get found by bookworms too. So please make like they did in the resistance and spread the word!

Speaking Monday, June 5 at the Carter Presidential Center and Library.

The Book Tour

I’ve been on the road since June 1, and have met amazing folks at my first five signings. One man actually met Charles de Gaulle. One woman’s father was in President de Gaulle’s diplomatic corps. One woman met Ozzy Osbourne, which I know has absolutely nothing to do with the book, but it is no less riveting. There have been book groups, and librarians, and history buffs of all stripes. I’ve talked about visiting Paris, encouraged people to write that book they’ve been thinking about, sung the praises of a good Bordeaux, and told an old family friend that I hadn’t seen in years that I was 21 years of age. That was a fun little fib (and he knew it…because a lady never reveals her true age, especially when asked), but the bottom line is that I’ve been having a great time meeting readers and hearing their stories as I sign this dear little book of mine.

Come see me on tour! Here’s where I’ll be next. More events are coming, but the latest news is that I’m proud to add the Louisiana Book Festival to my fall lineup.

Media and Other Stuff

This week, I did my first radio interview with Susan Larson, host of The Reading Life. She sent me a friendship request on Facebook prior to our chat, so she cleverly sifted through a lot of my nonsense there, finding out about the brand new pair of red cowboy boots I bought at Allen’s Boots while I was in Austin, for example, and a whole host of other things. She’s based in New Orleans, and I’m based in Baton Rouge, but one thing we both know is that we need to meet in person soon. I can’t vouch for myself, but she sure is good fun. If you want to hear our chat, tune in to WWNO in New Orleans Tuesday, June 20 at 1:30 p.m., Friday, June 23 at 7:30 p.m. or Sunday, June 25 at noon. You can also subscribe to the podcast on iTunes or at NPR.

What it looks like to talk to Susan Larson about your book.

Wednesday morning, I went on a little stealth operation in Baton Rouge, leaving seven copies of The General’s Niece in Little Free Libraries throughout town. Bookworm that I am, I’ve always loved the Little Free Library concept, because anything that increases access to books and creates community connections is a very good thing. Consider this a little gift to my hometown, if you will. So if you’re looking for an inspiring summer read and are up for the scavenger hunt, go over to the Little Free Library website, pull up the Baton Rouge map and see if you can figure out where I’ve left these little presents. Then, read, enjoy and spread the word with your friends and loved ones. If you’re on social media, you can tag anything you say about the book #thegeneralsniece, all the while being sure to give me and my publisher Twitter shout-outs at @paigebowers and @chireviewpress respectively.  Word on the street is that you just might win something if you do…

No makeup, no dressy clothes, no problem. Here’s me on my stealth book drop mission this week in Baton Rouge.

Today, I was interviewed by Chris Gondek, host of The Biography Podcast, which is available on iTunes. Chris is a good interviewer and great advocate of women’s biographies, which he believes get short shrift. I was very glad to talk about The General’s Niece with him this afternoon, and look forward to hearing the interview when it’s available. He says it should run by July 1, so I’ll be sure to share it when it’s live.

As always, thank you so much for the support you’ve given me since this book’s release. I really appreciate it and love hearing from readers about The General’s Niece. Please don’t hesitate to email me from this site with any questions or comments you may have. You can also shoot me messages on Twitter or Facebook too!

Scenes from a Book Launch

Posted on June 2, 2017

I’m full of gratitude right now for the people who braved the rain and (in one case) fought through a busted tire to hear me talk about Genevieve de Gaulle last night at Octavia Books, which is one of the loveliest, friendliest places to launch one’s first tome. I got a warm reception, an attentive and engaged audience who knew their World War II history, and the opportunity to break in a new box of Sharpie pens.

The shop gave me a wonderful front-page welcome on their website.

I was able to chat with the audience a bit before giving my book talk. Getting to know a little bit about them and their interests was fun for me, and helpful too, because I could make sure to tailor some of what I was saying to them.

This kind lady right here said she was going to take The General’s Niece off to the beach and read it. I signed that I hoped it kept her good company in her beach chair.

After signing some other books for guests, I signed some more for the store. At Book Expo in New York this week, Genevieve de Gaulle kept Dolly Parton company on a shelf at my publisher’s booth. Here she is sidled up to Ernest Hemingway.

Tonight, I’m off to see the new Wonder Woman film with my daughter and a friend. Then, I’m on to Atlanta for my next talk, which is Monday June 5 at the Carter Presidential Center. Hope to see you there! And thank you for the support!

 

Looking Back and Looking Ahead: An old school story on launch night

Posted on June 1, 2017

This is an older piece of writing, but it’s a long read that was coaxed out of me by an incredible editor and some formidable women in an online writing group. I’ve been looking back on it lately, because it sparked my journey toward the book I’m in the process of launching, though I may not have realized it at the time. This editor and this group asked me how a modern woman could get wrapped up in old stories about long-dead French people. The simple answer was “Because I like those stories.” But the more complicated answer follows in something that amounts to a window into a writer’s soul. I hope you enjoy it, and now that I have the perspective I didn’t have then, I realize there’s a whole new chapter I’m about to write. It starts tonight and I thank you so much for coming along with me on this journey.

— Paige 

 

***

 

He seduced me in the rain.

It happened in Paris. And at the risk of making this story really French, it happened while my husband attended a conference on the opposite side of town.

Now for the part that makes me sound less like Catherine Deneuve:

It happened on a cold September day. We had been in Paris for three days by then, long enough for my four-year-old daughter to decide that the Luxembourg Gardens playground was the only place worth visiting in the entire city. It had that well-worn merry-go-round, that vendor that sold rich hot chocolate, that puppet theater where the characters beat the ever-loving-daylights out of each other with sticks, much to Parisian children’s glee. There were ponies to ride and rope spider webs to climb and big fat pigeons to chase through puddles. It was a veritable kiddie Xanadu, well-shaded by chestnut trees whose leaves were just beginning to turn gold, orange and brown.

Although it was understandable why my daughter wanted to be there, it was also problematic, given the weather that day. So I thumbed through a guidebook in hopes of finding something else we could do, something else that might titillate that part of her that loved sparkly, fabulous princess things and fluffy tutus and rainbows worth of color. That should not have been such a difficult thing to find in Paris, France – it’s a pretty gorgeous place — but on this day it was, thanks in no small part to the discernment of my pint-sized companion, who blithely swung her feet back and forth as she nibbled at her pain au chocolat.

“I want to go to that park today,” she said.

“I already told you that we can’t,” I reminded her. “It’s raining way too much, so Mama is looking for something else to do.”

“But I want to go to the park.”

“I understand that, but we can’t in this weather,” I said. “We’ll do something else that’s just as fun while Daddy’s at his conference.”

“How about the park?”

***

The last time I was in Paris, I was 19 years old. It was my first solo trip outside of the United States. This brings me to the first thing you need to know about me: I have been seduced by a Frenchman before, a fact that is so utterly clichéd that I hate myself for typing it. But alas, it is true, and our romance began the way all great romances begin, with a young French man and a young American woman telling each other they have no earthly idea what the other is talking about.

The young French man in this case – I’ll call him F. — was a 20-year-old Parisian podiatry student who was vacationing in Florida with friends. I had just completed my freshman year in college. My younger sister and I were hanging out on the beach near our house when we met these guys. F. and I spoke for three hours that day. My diary entry from this rendezvous, dated 8-18-1992, describes the experience in a way that Honoré de Balzac never could: “Hubba-hubba.”

Cut me some slack. I was 19 years old.

F. had a quiet charm and easy smile. “He’s so nice, he probably has a girlfriend back home,” I wrote in my journal. “That sucks, but when he goes home in a couple of days, maybe he’ll be my pen pal or something.”

And that’s exactly what happened. The sick and twisted deal of it all was this: I was rather proud of my seven years of French, and he was rather proud of his 11 million years of English (him being the sophisticated European and all that), but we could always stand to improve ourselves, non? So for months, we sent letters back and forth, each of us torching the other’s efforts to write in our respective mother tongues. We softened the red ink blows with stories about the day to day (yes, right down to what part of the foot he was studying in school) and eventually he wrote to say that his family would like to host me in their home for the summer.

This invitation did not sit well with my mother.

“You met this person on the beach, spent a few days hanging out with him and his friends, and then several months writing him. Now you think you’re going to spend a summer with his family? These people are total strangers. Are you out of your mind?”

C’est possible. Then again, I wasn’t the one using The Simpsons episode about the time Bart went off to become a French exchange student and two unscrupulous winemakers turned him into their own personal slave as a cautionary tale.

I love you, Mom, but really.

Anyway, I spent the summer in Paris, touring museums, looking at art that I had only known from slideshow presentations in class, improving my French, making new friends, eating foods I used to find repulsive and arguing with F. about every topic under the sun.

Then he kissed me. Profoundly inexperienced in the romance department, I finally came to understand what all those arguments were about. The day after this night of much kissing (which was all it ever was, and I swear), we headed for a small town in the South of France where his family camps every year. It was during that ride that he filled me with notions of what our romance could be – leave my family behind, come be with him in France. It was all starting to sound pretty good, even though it seemed like it might require me to turn a blind eye to my ambitions, which were to be a writer. But then he said “So when we are in this town you will meet the love of my life and so it will be complicated.”

I couldn’t believe him.

I wanted my Mommy.

I met Love of His Life over a bouillabaisse feast. And she made no secret of her disdain for The American Girl. F. was quiet through it all. I was mad and then quite drunk.

He liked that I was mad.

Which, of course, infuriated me even more.

Ultimately we did not stay angry with each other. But I also did not stay in France with him because leave-it-all-behind-and-be-with-me style commitment just did not seem like something I could do. Months after I returned to the States to begin my junior year at Louisiana State University, F. had found a serious girlfriend. He called me to ask whether I was jealous. I told him no. I was happy for him. We haven’t spoken since. I did Google him (of course) and know that he has his own private podiatry practice, located in a charming suburb not far from where he grew up. Do I wonder what might have been? No. He and Paris came into my life for a reason, turning me into a slightly braver version of my shy, uncertain self. For that I will always be grateful.

***

“Can we pleeeease go to the park today?” my daughter begged.

In some respects, the 36-year-old Paige who sat in Paris with a child who was blind to the weather was not all that different from the 19-year-old Paige who once stood in Notre Dame Cathedral and realized that seven years of French class can only take you so far with a native speaker. This brings me to the second thing you need to know about me: As I sat in a rental apartment on Left Bank with a youngster full of chocolate and a guidebook on my lap, I felt irretrievably lost and unsure of myself, which might have been what made me so vulnerable to yet another Frenchman’s seduction later that rainy day. After years of defining myself as Paige-who-freelances-for-national-magazines-and-newspapers, the market dried up and I became Paige-who-couldn’t-successfully-pitch-a-story-to-save-her-life-and-now-what-do-I-do? I had a handsome, kind husband and a beautiful child and every reason to be happy. And yet I felt like a failure because, try as I might, I wasn’t able to do much of anything with my head or my pen. So when my husband said we should all go to Paris, it was as if a little light inside of me that I feared had been extinguished began to flicker anew. I hoped the journey would be as personally transformative as the one I took when I was a teenager and also wondered what it would be like to see a city I love so much through my daughter’s eyes.

“I wanna go somewhere today, Mama.”

I looked down at my guidebook and saw the words “Palais Garnier.” Although I had loved French history as a college undergraduate, I didn’t know a lot about the building, an opulent opera house built in the mid-nineteenth century. But it seemed to have everything I needed to persuade my then-budding ballerina to come along willingly: beautiful artwork, gilded décor, miles of red velvet and the additional selling point of being a place where famous ballerinas have danced (none of whom she would have known, but the promise of fame and tutus holds major sway in a young girl’s imagination).

Together, we navigated the Paris Métro to the Opéra stop, and carefully made our way up the steps past fast-moving throngs into the ninth arrondissement. There, we were greeted by golden theatrical masks that smiled down on us from the Garnier’s rooftop. Even in the cool drizzle and mist, the building was breathtaking: ornate Corinthian columns, elegant arches, a symphony of multicolored marble and intricately carved stone. All of it fluttered across the building’s façade, which was emblazoned with winged statues and busts of composers.

“Pick me up, Mama,” she begged.

Huddled under a cheap black umbrella, I sloshed across the Rue Auber with her in my arms. When we reached the other side of the street, I put her down for an instant so I could switch my too-large-for-that-moment handbag from one shoulder to the other before picking her back up again. That’s when I looked up and saw him for the very first time. He stood still and calm outside the opera’s entrance, a soulful type with artfully tousled hair that framed his piercing eyes and well-chiseled face. Who is he? I wondered.

His name was Charles Garnier, he was a famous French architect, and he had been dead almost 110 years by the time I hustled across the street to get a closer look at his statue, which stood outside the opera hall that was his life’s work. When he lured me across the street and into the building that bore his name, the rest, as they say, was history.

There was no line for self-guided tour tickets that day. So we paid and wound our way through dimly-lit corridors full of intricately carved stone, past a bronze statue of Pythia, a priestess known as the Oracle of Delphi, and then up slick marble stairs. There were more stairs, after that. Grand ones, familiar ones. Why were these stairs so familiar? Because I had seen a couture-clad Audrey Hepburn stomp down them past Republican Guards in the 1957 Stanley Donen film Funny Face, about a bookish girl who was discovered by a major fashion magazine and then turned into a cover model overnight. It was one of my favorite movies and I was tickled to be standing in the midst of where that particular scene was shot, all the while wondering how Audrey made it down those steps without slipping and breaking her swan-like neck. Then I imagined ladies in crinolines and beautiful gowns, their hair piled high, fanning themselves as they climbed the steps to their seat as admirers watched their grand entrance from the surrounding balconies. This was the grand staircase from the Broadway musical and Gaston Leroux novel The Phantom of the Opera and I had never even made the connection until that point. This building was the backdrop for the world’s longest-running and most iconic musical, a show I hadn’t seen since I was a teenager meeting strange Frenchmen on the beach. This place was gorgeous and opulent and dizzying. I looked down at my daughter as we climbed the staircase together and her mouth was wide open.

“What do you think of this place?” I asked her.

“Whoa,” she said.

Whoa was right. I wondered what it would be like to see a performance there, how much it might cost, how fancy you’d have to dress, how much of a scene it all was both on and off the stage. I wondered how you dreamed up something like this, if you were that guy who caught my attention down on Rue Auber. I wondered how much it cost and how long it took to build something this grand.

Again, who was this Charles Garnier?

My daughter and I walked into a box and looked out across the red velvet seats and gilded ornamentation, up at the several-ton chandelier that hangs in the middle of a Mark Chagall mural, out at the faux curtain that rises on ballerinas eager to make their mark. My girl took it all in, her little delicate hands on the balcony, before looking up at me to say “I want to dance here someday, Mama.”

“When you do, I will watch you all the time,” I said.

We walked around the foyers, underneath more chandeliers and Byzantine-style frescoes that looked like dark, starry nights. We walked and walked and sat on the stairwells and took pictures together, of the ceilings, of the floors, of the blackamoors, of the lighting, of our feet. And then we left. At least I did physically. Mentally, my head was still hovering over the red velvet seats. By dinnertime I was thinking that maybe I wanted to come back to the Palais Garnier and dance too, although not in a ballerina way, but in a nerdy, I-want-to-know-more-about-this way. Because I had a feeling there was a good story there, one that had a lot to do with that statue on Rue Auber.

The sun came out the next morning. After breakfast, my daughter and I walked to the Luxembourg Gardens and headed straight for its old wooden merry-go-round. I helped her climb onto a white wooden horse with a pale green bridle, fastened a safety belt around her waist and then paid the attendant, who handed her a foot-long stick she could use to grab rings as she galloped around and around on her steed. I sat down on a green park bench and watched my daughter reach for the rings, sometimes grabbing them successfully, sometimes flinging them through the air. I snapped a few pictures of her, then pulled my guidebook out of my purse, flipping to the pages about the Luxembourg Gardens in hopes of finding out more about this ride. I never managed to read past this sentence: “One of the park’s treasures is its merry-go-round, whose much-loved wooden animals were designed by none other than Charles Garnier, the 19th-century architect of the Paris Opéra.” Rather than read the rest of the entry, I wondered how you went from designing a posh opera to designing a kiddie ride for a park and where I could find a book about this person who had captured my imagination.

As the ride slowed to a stop, I realized that maybe, just maybe, I wasn’t as lost as I thought I was.

***

We had been back in the States for a week when I told my husband that I might want to go back to graduate school and might want to study French history, because I was curious about the Palais Garnier and this Charles Garnier person and thought I might want to write about him.

“Why can’t you just write about him?” he asked.

By this point, my passing interest turned into a full-blown mission. I looked for a biography of Garnier on the internet, but found several books about his architecture. I bought the sole book in English about his work that included a chapter-long treatment of his life, but also a couple of GRE study guides so I could spend the next couple of months cramming for the test I’d need to take to be admitted to graduate school.

“I can’t just write about him because I feel like there’s a lot more I need to learn before I can do it,” I said, a response that had as much to do with the nineteenth century as it did with me.

Less than a year later, we sold our house in Atlanta and moved back to my native Louisiana where I began studying Modern France under the direction of a professor who had tried to convince me to get a master’s degree in French history when I was an undergraduate. A month after we moved into our new house in the Baton Rouge area, I watched my daughter make her way up the steps of the school bus that would carry her to her first day of kindergarten before I got in the car for my first day of school in fifteen years. By the time I met the twenty-something classmate who introduced himself to me as “not much of a morning person” and sat through a history department orientation with the rest of my soon-to-be-footnoting peers, I began to realize a lot of things, one of which was that I had actually forgotten how to write an academic paper.

I walked out of the meeting and down the hallway to my advisor’s office even though he told me the day before that he wasn’t going to be there.

He was.

Because he knew what was coming.

I sat in the chair across from his desk, broke down in tears and said “Oh my God, what in the hell have I done?”

He shut the door and I reached for the Kleenex, which were right where they used to be. And then he went about the ugly business of reminding me that I could do this, that everything would be fine, that I’d see.

***

That was almost seven years ago. The advisor was right. I would be fine. And the seemingly strange, brave step I took on that rainy day in Paris has become one of the best things I ever could have done. For now, I’ve gotten the opportunity to write about a brave young woman who fought against a world that had become unacceptable to her. She’s an inspiration, and I can’t wait to share her story with you. Thank you for that privilege. It’s one I don’t take lightly.