Interview with Lisa Anselmo, Author of “My (Part-Time) Paris Life”
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Lisa Anselmo, a writer and creative director, was born in Buffalo, New York, and grew up in a small town in northern New Jersey. She settled in New York City, working at iconic media brands like Allure, Mademoiselle, InStyle, and People. Her first trip to Paris was as a 16-year-old high school student with her French class, and at that time she was less than charmed. Years later she came back, and had an entirely different experience. Twelve years ago she started shuttling back and forth between New York and Paris on a regular basis, and in 2012, after buying an apartment on Paris’s Right Bank, launched her blog, My (Part-Time) Paris Life. Now there is a book of the same name, released this month, and a Youtube series. Lisa recently took the time to answer Janet Hulstrand’s questions about her part-time Paris life…
Janet Hulstrand: You tell the story of your first trip to Paris, and how years later you came to be spending more and more time there in your book, so I’m not going to ask about that. But can you tell us how you decided you were going to write a book about your part-time Paris life?
Lisa Anselmo: I didn’t plan to write this book, not the one that’s been published. I had been toying with something, but it wasn’t about my part-time Paris life. It was mostly about coping with my mother’s illness and death—because I needed to exorcise those demons. And I was using the search for the apartment in Paris as the vehicle to move the story forward, culminating in my finding the apartment (and hope) as the happy ending.
But fate had other ideas. I was sort of discovered from an article written about me in New York magazine. At the time I only had the blog, which was featured in the article. Kat Bryzozowski at St. Martin’s Press/Thomas Dunne Books saw the article, read some of the blog, and sent me an email with an offer of a book deal. Then my editor reshaped the story. She wanted more about my life in Paris after I had the apartment, and that’s how My (Part-Time) Paris Life came to be.
JH: What was the most rewarding thing about writing the book? And what was the hardest?
LA: The hardship of writing was the reward. I’ll explain. Because my editor had shifted the timeline of the story, I was essentially writing a memoir while I was still living a lot of the events. And I had a tight deadline so I had very little time to reflect; it was intensive self-examination during some pretty tough times.
I have to say, writing about myself was a miserable experience for me. I was sick of myself, and my thoughts, all day long. I kept thinking Who will want to read this? Who will care? But my editor believed in me and my story, kept me focused, kept digging for deeper meaning. It was exhausting and heartrending at times, but after it was finished, I felt a real healing, not just from the heartbreak of losing my mother, but stuff that went way back. It was as if this book had to be part of my journey to find this healing, and maybe that’s why it came to me the way it did. I hope others may find inspiration in it, too. I really do.
JH: What are some of the pros and cons of a life divided between two places? What do you love most about Paris, and about New York? What drives you the most crazy about each of these places?
LA: It does get dizzying. Sometimes I forget where I am. But it also makes it hard to attach to any one place—to start a relationship, for example. To create bonds. I often feel I’m missing out on something in one place or the other. But I do love having both places to hang my hat. Each feeds my soul differently. New York charges me up, and Paris recharges me.
I love Paris for many reasons. The fact that you can see the sky is a big one. In New York, the scale of the city can be overwhelming. But the one thing I really love about Paris is a simple thing: I can sit in a café as long as I wish, and write. A writer’s life can be a solitary one, and being in a café keeps you connected. You can’t do that in New York. It’s eat, pay, and get out!
But I do love the entrepreneurial spirit of New York, the in-your-face honesty of the place. The excitement, the opportunity. I love how things just get done in New York. People find a way in and around a problem and make it happen, because standing still is not an option. I think that’s something about Paris that irks me most: getting things done sometimes seems like an ordeal. You hear “no” a lot. The rules, the rules! It’s like they’ve put themselves in a small box and dare not go outside—for fear of what, exactly, I don’t know. I admit sometimes I do feel like taking people by the shoulders and shaking them. Make it happen, people!
JH: Speaking of which, one of the subplots in both your book and your blog is The Story of the Great (Terrible) Leak that kept you out of your wonderful little Paris apartment for how long?
LA: [Laughs.] Every book needs a villain, no? It was pretty close to two years that I couldn’t live in my place, mostly because of the mold that had grown. (I’m very allergic, and have asthma.) The owner of the apartment above mine refused to fix the leak for 18 months, saying it was the syndic’s responsibility. So in the end I had to hire an attorney and get the courts involved to resolve the dispute. Maybe this is why I’m so scarred by the inability to do a simple thing in Paris. It’s a leak, people. Fix it! Well, anyway, that’s all in the book and the blog. But the funny thing is, every time I tell my leak story, I get five others in return. Parisians bond over their leaks.
In the end, the water damage was so extensive that my entire apartment had to be renovated. Or I should say re-renovated? Since I’d just renovated in 2012 when I bought the place.
JH: And yet, despite the phenomenal frustration and massive inconvenience of it all, you managed to stay, on the whole, positive and upbeat. What did you learn from this experience?
LA: Well, you didn’t see me on my bad days! It truly tested me in every way. At one point I thought about just selling the place “as is” and moving on. But the thing is, I’m stubborn; I’m like a dog with a bone when I get something in my head. I’m fighting for my home, no matter what. And so, yes, I’ve learned a lot from this. First, that I am indeed a fighter. But the most important lesson from all this is that life is not just about the good, happy times. As Americans were such optimists that it’s written in the Declaration of Independence: Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We believe happiness is the ideal. So when things go horribly wrong, we feel like the world is falling apart. But the French (and Europeans in general) seem more used to hardship—maybe from centuries of wars and occupation; maybe from living in ancient cities. They find happiness in the midst of the hardship. You can’t wait for everything to be perfect for “real” life to begin. Life is the good and the bad, and everything in between. So live through all of it with your eyes and arms wide open. And be grateful, always. Even the “bad” stuff is a gift. If it weren’t for that leak, I’d have had nothing to write about!
JH: I was really moved and inspired by your acknowledgements–I think it’s probably the most gracious set of acknowledgements I’ve ever read. Can you tell us about your concept of a “chain of gratitude”?
LA: Thank you for that! The chain of gratitude, as I call it, is a kind of “game” a friend (and ex-boss), Lucy Sisman, the creative director who launched Allure and other iconic brands, taught me. We play it from time to time together: tracing a current job post all the way back as far as we can go, to the first person who unwittingly set it all in motion. For example, how did I get my job at People magazine? Through a woman I’ve known for years named Susan. How did I meet her? Through the woman who hired me at Ladies’ Home Journal, etc., etc., until I trace the chain back to a friend in art school. It’s a genius exercise, because it illustrates the interconnectivity of humanity, and shows you how you have been nudged forward in life by helping hands. You can only feel grateful after you play this game.
JH: I particularly like the way the collaborative nature of writing is highlighted through this chain of gratitude. I think this is something that is little understood by people outside of the publishing world, which results in editors, agents, and others often not receiving the respect and credit they deserve for their important role in the process, as well as unnecessary concern among aspiring writers about having to be “perfect,” or fear that they can’t be good enough. Can you say something about this too?
LA: Wow, you touched on a lot here. Yes, I would not be here but for my editor, and for Thomas Dunne, my publisher, who agreed to take a chance on me. My whole team at Macmillan is amazing. I’m so, so lucky. How can I not be anything but humbled and grateful, really?
Regarding this idea of perfection—yes, it’s paralyzing. I write a lot about it in the book because it’s a huge issue of mine. I have a novel I’ve been tweaking for 14 years, so I get it. But I’ve learned that a good editor or agent can see the pearl under the grit in your work, so get it done and get it out there. This is a lesson for life, too. Don’t be afraid to be flawed. You have something to give to the world; it’s your purpose. So get out of your own way, and get out there. Live baby, live!
JH: Can you tell us about your web series? How did that come about, and what will viewers learn by watching it?
LA: This is me being that dog with a bone again. I wanted to create a travel series but I didn’t know how to go about pitching such a thing to a network. Then I realized, with my years as a creative director in media, not only did I know how to make my own video series, but I had the crew to do it. So why wait, right? Last summer we filmed for two weeks and in May of this year, we launched our first episode on Youtube.
The series is part travelogue and part inspiration. My aim is to take the viewer to locals-only Paris, and introduce them to the people who make the city what it is—those who have taken a risk to change the course of their lives, as I did. This season we highlight Parisians. Next season, expats.
JH: When someone is planning their first trip to Paris and they ask you what they should be sure not to miss, what do you tell them?
LA: For me, it’s less about what to do and more about what not to do. Stop running mindlessly from site to site because it’s in a guide, or on your list. Take time to let the city seep into you. Stroll through the streets. Discover local areas and see how Parisians live (Rue St. Marthe in the 10th, Parmentier, the Butte aux Cailles in the 13th). Take a leisurely boat ride, or sit at a terrace table in a café and watch the city go by. And dear lord, if you care about Paris at all, please don’t put a lock on a bridge anywhere! These are historic places cherished by Parisians, and those locks are costing them much—economically, and culturally.
JH: Yes, and speaking of that, you’re a co-founder of No Love Locks. Can you tell us about your efforts, along with Lisa Taylor Huff, to deal with this issue, and where it stands now?
LA: No Love Locks was founded to educate tourists on the toll the “love locks” trend was taking on the UNESCO World Heritage Site in Paris, which includes the Pont des Arts. There were over 65 tons of locks on the Pont des Arts, and 35 tons on the much smaller Pont de l’Archevêché. While these bridges have been unburdened from locks and restored, there are still nearly a million locks covering other bridges and sites, and well over 1 million keys polluting the Seine. We now work with the mayor’s office to find solutions, and are pressing the city to ban this trend outright before it cannot be reversed.
JH: What can people do to help turn this trend around? And why is it important to do so?
LA: We hope everyone will share our message of responsible tourism. There is nothing loving about “love locks, ” sorry, folks. It can never be okay go to someone else’s city and vandalize a landmark or pollute their river. Once these historic treasures are gone, they are lost forever. Isn’t that worth fighting for?
JH: What is next for you? Are you gradually shifting your life over here more and more? Is there a movie about your part-time Paris life in your future? And if so, who would you like to see play Lisa?
LA: For now I’m okay with my part-time Paris life. It works for me. Unless I meet a nice guy. I’m sure in the film adaptation of my book they’ll make that happen. Who’ll play me? I don’t know. My friends have suggested everyone from Amy Adams to SJP. Who do you think should play me?
Lead photo credit : Author Lisa Anselmo. ©Carla Coulson