An Interview with novelist Cara Black

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One of my favorite writers about France is the novelist Cara Black, whose mystery novels set in Paris always are so thrilling and true. Black’s series featured detective Aimée Leduc, a half-French, half-American whose father was a policeman.  The latest Aimée Leduc, Murder in the Bastille, comes out next week, and is already receiving a lot of advance critical acclaim. Some bookstores are already offering it to eager fans, several of whom have already written me boasting happily that they have their copies in hand (and cuningly refusing to divulge any of the plot). Cara spoke with me today from her San Francisco home. What prompted you to create Aimée Leduc? and why did you choose to bring her to life in France? I wanted to tell a story set in current-day Paris… well, in the1990s. I couldn’t write as a French woman, since I’m not French and can’t even tie my scarf with the élan they have. But I could write as an outsider, very acquainted with French culture since I went to a French-run Catholic school and have spent a lot of time in France in my life. I grew up familiar with French things and ways, but the clincher was my visit to Paris in 1994. I was revisiting the Marais, treading the cobblestones and absorbing the place, when the story of my friend’s mother’s hiding during the German occupation of Paris came back to me. She’d hidden in the Marais, and it struck me so vividly about the layers of history there…16th-century buildings with chic boutiques next to a rundown hotel particulier… if only the cobblestones could talk! This story is different from past Aimées–in this one, very early in the story, she becomes blind. Why did you decide to incapacitate her in this way? Gee… giving the plot away so quick? But that happens very early in the story, and it’s something I wanted her to struggle with. Also, let’s face it–René, her partner, the computer whiz who’s a dwarf, has been complaining he wants more page time. I wanted to take a risk, keep the series fresh, and my editor supported this. At the time, also, a woman in my writing group suffered a virus that left her temporarily blind and I experienced some of her experiences. While in Paris, my friend’s father during a routine cataract surgery at Quinze-Vingts eye hospital in the Bastille lost his sight in a botched operation. All these things pointed me towards Aimée losing her vision.Why did you decide to make Aimée’s partner a dwarf? When people look at vertically challenged people, dwarves, they often see the disabilties. Not the abilities. I wanted to explore that. People are fascinated with the practical, everyday details of a writer’s life. How do you prepare for a new book? I beg borrow or steal frequent flyer miles and go to Paris! What is the process you use when you work? It’s called keeping my derriere in the chair. Not fancy, simple or exotic. But it’s the hardest part. That and continually wanting to check my e-mail. Do you have a regular schedule? Every morning: get up early, grind the coffee beans, and as sunrise comes over the San Francisco Bay, I’m hitting the keys. Do you have people to whom you give your work to read prior to submission? Yes, I’m in a writing group. Have been for a long time. I do a big chunk, then submit it to the group when it’s my turn. How long does it take you to research a particular area in Paris? That’s hard to say… the wheels are always turning. When I’m there visiting and researching a quartier, I’m researching other possibilities, too. Let’s face it, I’m lucky to go once a year, so I’ve got to make it full. What kind of research do you do? All kinds and as much as I can. I use books, libraries here and in Paris, the Internet, friends and their acquaintances who live in the quartier. When I am in Paris, I crawl under buildings, dig around in my friends’ attics, explore the restrooms in old cafes… you name it… I’ve even gone into the little-known tunnels in the Palais Royal. I visit museums, lock stores, the markets, the commissariat. I hung out in the police dispatch room in the 12th arrondissment commissariat, one evening… what an experience! I talk with shopkeepers and bus drivers. Friends of my friends and anyone who’ll talk with me. Do you have experts who advise you? I interview police and private detectives… some are even my friends and I always buy them dinner. And doing that in Paris is a pleasure. When the wine runs freely, the talk runs freely too. I run computer-type questions by my computer nerd friends. Talk with my friend a forensic pathologist. Most Americans are not familiar with the parts of Paris where Aimée has her adventures. Why these neighborhoods? What do they say to you? Well, they’re where I’ve happened to spend time (like Belleville, where I stayed with my friend, a single mom) and they are funky and little-known gems in the heart of historic Paris, like the Sentier, which I stumbled into when I’d missed the bus from the Marais. It spoke to me and I wanted to know about this vibrant place with hookers, software startups in crumbling mansions and the garment sweatshops below. The parts of Paris where Aimée has her adventures are a gritty, off-the-beaten-tourist-track Paris, places where real Parisians breath, work and love. I usually tell people that you are that very rare thing, an American novelist writing about what France is really like today. And when most Americans think about France, they think…
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