SPECIAL ANNOUNCEMENT: Ever wanted to escape to Paris in the springtime? Today you can do so, as it were, in the company of the très très charmante Corine Gantz. Originally from the City of Light but now living near the City of Angels, Mme Gantz has just released her debut novel about a group of American women who try to start afresh in Paris. She has kindly agreed to respond to our questions and comments.
The Displaced Nation has been examining the “gothic” side of expat life over the past couple of weeks. Thus it may seem odd that today we have chosen to celebrate a book that takes place in La Ville-Lumière (“The City of Light” or “The Illuminated City”) by an author who lives near the City of Angels.
But looks can be deceiving — and the cover of Corine Gantz’s debut novel, Hidden in Paris, is quite a cunning ruse. It shows a Parisian balcony with French doors reflecting the Eiffel Tower, and a flower box bursting with hot-pink geraniums. What could possible be amiss within such a picture-perfect setting, you may wonder? Plenty, it turns out.
But before we get into that, let’s begin our fête in honor of Mme Gantz and her book. To put ourselves in the proper mood, we have prepared a special cocktail, a French 75. We’ve also gone all out with our canapés. There’s a savory gougère, brie en croûte, duck rillettes, chilled asparagus with mustard sauce, a Puy lentil salad — and, in honor of Mme Gantz, her family favorite, taramasalata on toast (see her father’s recipe below).
Okay, seats, please! Our honored guest has agreed to kick off the festivities by answering a few questions from The Displaced Nation team. After that, the floor is yours, dear reader.
Your new novel, Hidden in Paris, may not tell a gothic tale per se, but we think it relates to our theme because it centers on three women who are running away from their lives. Is that a fair assessment?
People who say they love to be scared amuse me. They have a fascination with horror flicks, they read vampire books, they ride roller coasters. Yet they might be the same people who walk great circles around a pile of bills or make every effort to avoid a difficult phone call. What can be scarier than real life?
I think there is a limit to what we can handle, and at some point the tendency is to want to run way, literally or figuratively. In Hidden in Paris three strangers — all American women — have reached the point of terminal discomfort, when tackling real issues feels more terrifying than running away abroad.
Lola is running away from her husband, Althea from an eating disorder, and Annie, although she pretends to be the most high functioning member of the group, is hiding the biggest secret of all. (Just to add some spice, there is also a male character, Lucas, who is hiding his love for Annie.)
People often fantasize that “elsewhere” — particularly Paris because of the attached notion of romance — will solve their problems, or at least make the problems go away for a while. Well, we long-term expats know better. Moving to another country brings great logistical changes to one’s life, which can distract you into thinking you’ve left your pathos behind, when, in fact, you’ve brought it along in your suitcase. Wherever you go, you bring your own personal gothic tale with you.
In the case of these three female characters, the disruptions to their routines, along with new encounters, bring them to the tipping point toward change.
The thing is, as in real life, my characters fight the change they need kicking and screaming, which makes for fun story telling.
Food is another obsession of ours at The Displaced Nation. We detect from reading an excerpt from Hidden in Paris that it also plays a big role in your book.
You detect correctly. For me, writing a novel is a barely disguised way for me to talk about food — the novel being a vehicle for food just as grilled toast is a vehicle for foie gras.
I grew up in France on my mother’s terrific cooking. But she is the type of cook who wants no help in the kitchen, so at age 23 I arrived in the United States never having cooked an egg. I was terribly homesick and depressed and needed to “taste home” again — so had no choice but to teach myself how to cook. The saving grace was that I had a copy of a recipe book filled with my mother’s recipes, so I proceeded to recreate the food, and jolly myself out of my depression. Cooking gave my life a purpose: it became my creative outlet.
I think the preparation of food can be extremely healing, meaningful and joyful. Food is, after all, the soul and spirit of a home. I enjoy cooking as much as I enjoy eating, and when I’m not doing one or the other I’m telling stories where food turns out to be one of the principal characters.
You are a Française who has been “displaced” to the Los Angeles area for a couple of decades, where you live with your American husband and two sons. Does your novel echo that experience?
Had I landed on an alien planet I doubt I would have been any more confused and out of place. I understood none of the codes, none of the cultural references, of Los Angeles. I could not understand people or express myself — and I resented them for that.
Writing sprouted from this: the frustrated need for self-expression and communication. Like my protagonist, Annie, I had to figure out how to function, and I would be lying to say I functioned well. Also like Annie, I resisted my country of adoption for years. I did not have both feet in it. A part of me felt in limbo: I was standing by for my eventual return to my home country.
Twenty years later I don’t even feel French anymore, but no one here lets me forget I’m not American either. Americans seem fascinated with my Frenchness, as though it defines me. For example, it’s often about how I say things rather than what I say. Yesterday I was saying to a friend: “On the envelope my husband gave me for mother’s day there was a…” She interrupted and said: “Could you repeat that?” I repeated and she fell into peals of laughter: “I just love how you said the word ‘envelope’!”
In Hidden in Paris, I wanted to transpose my experience and reverse it. I wanted to bring American women to France and see how well they coped with that set of codes and cultural idiosyncrasies. That’s only fair, don’t you think? I’m a little miffed to report that they are a more adaptable than I was.
You have a popular blog, Hidden in France, where you’ve been entertaining Francophiles and others with stories of the writing life, décor, food, family, travel and all things French. In fact, The Displaced Nation has featured one of your posts — about the time you fell into your swimming pool when the first day of spring brought heavy rains to the LA area. Tell us, has your blog had an influence on your writing? Also, why have you chosen the trope “hidden in”?
The blog has everything to do with my writing. Before the blog, I was a closet writer, ashamed that my English was too imperfect. The blog gave me a sense of just how forgiving and supportive readers were. I have readers now, and I have fans! Had I based my self-worth as a writer on agent rejections, I would have changed my hobby to fly-fishing. Readers are what make someone a writer.
The word “hidden” is significant only in the sense that I was hiding for years behind an alias as a blogger, and I just recently came out as writer for the world to see (speaking of fear…).
When it came time to settle on a title for the book, it felt natural to give it the same title as the blog — but I decided against it because there was already a memoir by that name. So Hidden in France became Hidden in Paris.
Finally, The Displaced Nation supports a fictional character, Libby, who is about to move from London to Boston with her husband. Do you have any advice for her?
Well, how about if I let my own fictional character, Annie — who moved from Boston to Paris to follow her own husband twelve years ago — speak to Libby directly:
Don’t do it, Libby! Kidding! Well I would suggest you have more babies, some siblings for your son, Jack, and fast. They will keep you busy and busy is the name of the game: no time to think! And if you decide against having more babies, then take on a hobby (such as cooking and eating) to keep your sanity without demanding that your husband become your everything for companionship, friendship and intellectual stimulation.
Don’t be like me in other words. Don’t forget that the man has a job and he is tired at the end of the day and nobody needs a needy wife. (Sorry for the harsh words, Libby, but this is the truth.)
You could also take a run-down house and remodel it. I did. You will have no skin left on your fingers but lifting bags of concrete makes for pretty shapely biceps. The remodeling might bring you to financial ruin but if that becomes the case, you will always have eating, which you can become very good at.
Without further ado, let’s pour the champagne for a toast to Corine Gantz. Tchin-tchin! And now, patient reader, it’s your turn. Questions, please, for this très gentille debut novelist… If you want to check out her book a little more, go to her author’s site, and to buy it, go to her Amazon page.
Taramasalata on toast — Corine Gantz’s family recipe
You will need:
- one packet of smoked cod roe (seriously, can you even find this in the US?)
- 8 tablespoons safflower oil
- 2 tablespoons lemon juice.
Mix fish roe and lemon juice, then slowly beat with a fork and add the oil as you would do to make mayonnaise.Spread thinly on toasts and serve with very good champagne, et voilà! Très festif.
Images: Hidden in Paris cover, artwork by Robin Pickens; author’s photo.
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