Interview with Marcia DeSanctis

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Interview with Marcia DeSanctis
Marcia DeSanctis’s journalistic career began as a network television producer. Today she is an award-winning magazine writer, and most recently author of 100 Places in France Every Woman Should Go (Travelers’ Tales, 2014). She has been honored with three Lowell Thomas Awards, including one for Travel Journalist of the Year, for her essays on Rwanda, Paris and Russia. She has written about “sugar, marriage, Graham Greene, Haiti, and sex scandals” for publications such as Vogue, Town & Country, More, O The Oprah Magazine and The New York Times. At age 18, she first traveled to France, an experience she wrote about in an essay for Vogue, and ten years later, in 1989, she moved to Paris with her then-boyfriend, whom she married there. Currently she lives with her husband and her two children in northwest Connecticut. She recently took the time to answer Janet Hulstrand’s questions about her most recent work, the way she feels about France, and what’s next on her agenda. You’ve recently published “100 Places in France Every Woman Should Go.” Can you tell us how you came to write this book? And how did you go about choosing the places to write about? I have been writing lots of essays in the last couple of years, and many of them were anthologized by Travelers’ Tales, a publishing house in Palo Alto. So the editors–great guys—were familiar with my work about France. They approached me about tackling this book and I said “Yes” in about half a second. I was terrified, to be honest. I don’t live there, for one, and two, I had to pull it together rather quickly. So I made a list, and another list, and another list, planned four whirlwind trips to France, and relied on my memories, my diaries, as well as the suggestions of others–friends, mostly, and my husband, who forgets nothing. The book is not a compendium of the most important cultural attractions – there is only one chapter on the Loire chateaux, for example, which would be a crime if this were a book about France’s most significant sites. But it’s not. It’s a book about experience, and how we as women move differently through this deeply sensual country. And how France can have almost mystical transformative powers. To come up with just 100, I asked myself five questions: First, is there a story of a great woman around which I could frame the piece? For example, the Château de Grignan is entwined with the history of Madame de Sevigné, who has a pretty remarkable story. Second, is it something so beautiful that we fall to our knees in awe? Vaux le Vicomte, for example. Giverny. The dark mountains of the Auvergne. Third, is it a place with a strong personal affinity for me, such as St. Tropez, but is also poetically, femininely French? Fourth, is it a deeply iconic experience–like celebrating Bastille Day on the Champs Elysées? Or tracing the history of silk, and hence couture, and hence fashion, in Lyon? Finally, was it a place about which another woman could tell a powerful story better than I could?  My friend Jeannie, for example, has a great love for Annecy and I wanted to include her take – why this place with its turquoise water and clear air is something we must experience in this life. In every case, I tried to convey something besides destination. Not just where to shop in Paris, but why. Not just my recommendation to visit the menhirs at Carnac, but why. Mostly, I was looking for good stories to tell – about places, experiences or moments that can be appreciated from the point of view of a female traveler and also places that have a story about a woman who changed the history of France–and in some cases, the world. What is one of the most interesting things you learned in the process of writing your book? And/or the most surprising? Definitely the research was the most interesting. I immersed myself in a lot of great writers who wrote about France, from Henry Adams to Thomas Jefferson and the letters of Abigail Adams, which she wrote when her husband John was stationed as a diplomat in Paris. I loved her outsider’s vantage point. I finally read the autobiographies of MFK Fisher, Simone de Beauvoir and George Sand. And one of my touchstones was Edith Wharton’s A Motor Flight through France. The point was to try to see France through someone else’s eyes. Most enlightening was the non-fiction writing of Colette. I can’t tell you how many times I read her 1944 essay “Paris from my Window.” There has never been a more passionate love letter to France. Most surprising was to delve deeply into the story of Joan of Arc, France’s patron saint, and to follow her trail from Domrémy-la-Pucelle to her death in Rouen. She is a constant source of astonishment, especially the fact that Mark Twain devoted 14 years of his life to writing a biography of her, and that he considered his Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc to be his finest work. I always doubted the veracity of her story. I’m not sure why, other than that it is so outlandish – I mean she was the age of a high school junior when she commanded the armies of France! But once I read the minutes of her trial, I shed my doubts. What was the greatest challenge in writing this book? What was the most fun? The greatest challenge was narrowing my list down. I felt like I was personally slighting Chartres, the Fondation Maeght, and other things that are not in the book for no reason other than the fact that I didn’t have a new enough, female-centric reason to cover…
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Janet Hulstrand is a freelance writer, editor and teacher who divides her time between France and the U.S. She is the author of "Demystifying the French: How to Love Them, and Make Them Love You," and she writes frequently on France for a variety of publications, including her blog, Writing from the Heart, Reading for the Road. She teaches “Paris: A Literary Adventure” for the education abroad program of Queens College of the City University of New York; classes at Politics & Prose bookstore in Washington D.C.; and Writing from the Heart workshop/retreats in Essoyes, a beautiful little village in the Champagne region (l’Aube).