Author Interview with William Alexander: On his new book Flirting with French

Author Interview with William Alexander: On his new book Flirting with French

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Julia Child was fifty-one years old when her seminal book, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, was published. This demonstrated many things, and chief among them were:

  1. Perseverance pays off.
  2. French food and culture can make people move mountains.
  3. Julia Child was an ahead-of-her-time badass.

Child was (and still is) a beloved informal ambassador of France. She brought and mainstreamed French food to the masses, distilling the the process of French food preparation to a readable, manageable level, simple enough for even me to understand.

Author William Alexander was fifty-three years old when his first book was published. He worked as a technological researcher for the past three decades, before adding bestselling author to his resume as well. Julia Child makes an appearance of sorts in both his first book and his latest one. And although he does not recommend trying her croissant recipe, he admires the Pasadena native nonetheless.

Alexander’s latest book, Flirting with French, centers on his love of the language and his determination to tackle it. The book debuts this week and there’s already much buzz about this work. Alexander is a contributor to the Op-Ed pages of the New York Times, a frequent guest on NPR, and the author of the critically acclaimed books, The $64 Tomato and 52 Loaves.

He cites Merovingian from the film The Matrix Revolutions in describing his obsession with French. Alexander concurs with Merovingian, who said: “I have sampled all the world’s languages and French is the most beautiful.” It is rare you’d find an author who writes about French and Matrix philosophy with equal levels of passion. That is further proof that Alexander is a unique and wonderful find.

I was able to catch up with Alexander before the book’s release.

What prompted you to write your new book, Flirting with French?

Ever since the night I left my French-English dictionary back at the hotel room and thus “splurged” on calf’s kidneys instead of veal (who knew the French use the same word for “veal” and “calf”?) in a restaurant in France (and that was 40 years ago) I’ve wanted to learn French. I unapologetically love France and all things French. I decided it was now or never, but when I looked around for books on the subject of learning a language as an adult, there was hardly anything out there. So here I am.

How would you describe this book in one sentence?

Hopeless Francophile goes all-out to learn French, along the way learning about the science of language acquisition, why English alone has no gender, why my computer still can’t translate French for me, and why William the Conqueror is the French student’s best friend.

What do you love most about the French language?

First of all, it’s a beautiful language, soft and at times musical. I love walking into a shop and hearing “bon-jour mon-sieur” almost sung to me. Everything sounds better in French. And the French have such poetic ways of expressing things. The sun doesn’t just set, it goes to bed, le soleil se couche, and in the morning both the sun and your son se lèvent. In between isn’t twilight; it’s the time entre chien et loup — between the dog and the wolf, the familiar and the unknown, the domestic and the wild. Just lovely.

And on the other side of the coin, what infuriates you about the French language?

Gender. The logical American mind wants to look for some rhyme and reason behind the assignment of gender to inanimate objects. That, of course, is a mistake, seeing that one is faced with masculine breasts, feminine beards, and a turkey that is either une dinde or un dindon, although once it’s on white bread with mayo your guess is as good as mine. The verb conjugations are also far more difficult than in English. And when I tried to read some French classics in the original, I discovered there was a separate past tense for formal, written French! Really? The language wasn’t already complicated enough?

Why do you think Americans are so drawn to French language and culture?

Partly because Americans don’t have much of a culture of our own — the country is young, so we’ve borrowed from other cultures. Even our most popular vegetable (if you’ll pardon the USDA’s misuse of the word) — French fries — was introduced to America by the original Francophile, Thomas Jefferson. I also think that Ernest Hemingway planted the seed of an idealized image of Parisian bonhomie and café life in The Sun Also Rises, a seed which Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron watered into full bloom with An American in Paris. Not to mention all those GIs returning from the wars with their tales of free love and French kissing — it all made France sound like a great place. Which, of course, it is.

What is your favorite French food?

You might as well ask which of my children I love the most. The French, with a reputation for finicky, time-consuming recipes, actually excel at making simple things sublime. Pommes Anna, which is nothing but potatoes, butter, and salt and pepper, is amazing. And easy to make. Why it’s not better known in this country is a mystery to me. And while I was a little surprised when a waiter at Au Pied de Cochon in Paris served me my first frisée salad with lardons and a barely poached egg on top, it’s become one of my favorite comfort meals since. And what is better than the perfect simplicity of a well-prepared omelette aux fines herbs? I could go and on…

Apart from the obvious gender similarity – which American, France-loving writer do you most identify with: Julia Child or Ernest Hemingway?

I love Hemingway’s work, but I seem to have a strange affinity for Julia — she has “appeared” in both 52 Loaves and Flirting with French. One thing I love about her is that while I fantasize about not just learning French but becoming French, she went out and did exactly that. And then she brought a piece of her Gallic self back to America to share with millions of us. Although readers of Flirting will know why I do not recommend trying her croissant recipe.

Do you have a memory from when you were a child of your first exposure to France and French culture?

France was unfortunately introduced to me by my junior high French teacher, an imposing, at times sadistic Frenchwoman who made every class a 45-minute sentence to the Bastille. I might well have skipped France altogether when I backpacked through Europe after college, but fortunately I didn’t, and it was love at first sight.

Who are some writers who inspire you?

The aforementioned Mr. Hemingway, of course, who never wastes any words. The same can be said for V.S. Naipaul, whose early works also show a wonderful sense of humor. Mark Twain is not only the greatest American writer, but he’s every bit as funny and cutting a hundred years later. And Paul Theroux set the standard for the modern travel memoir.

Et finalement: what advice would you give an aspiring writer?

Read, read, read. You can’t be a good writer if you’re not a good reader. And pay attention. When a sentence or a phrase captures you, stop and ask, what is it about the words on that page that work for you? Et finalement, don’t let the rejection slips get you down. I was 53 when my first book, The $64 Tomato, was published.

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