An Interview with Eleanor Brown: Author of The Light of Paris

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An Interview with Eleanor Brown: Author of The Light of Paris
  Eleanor Brown is the New York Times bestselling author of “The Weird Sisters,” and now “The Light of Paris,” a novel she was inspired to write when she discovered a stash of letters written by her grandmother as a young woman in Paris. Recently released in paperback, “The Light of Paris” is the thoughtful, engaging story of one woman’s attempt to understand the life choices made by her grandmother, while struggling to make some important and difficult decisions of her own. This summer “A Paris All Your Own,” an anthology of new essays by 18 bestselling women writers collected and edited by Brown, will be released. Born and raised in the Washington D.C. area, Brown now lives in Colorado. She recently took the time to answer Janet Hulstrand’s questions about her work. JH: Your novel, “The Light of Paris,” was published last year, and has just been released in paperback. What inspired you to tell this story, and why did you decide to tell it in the way you did, with about half of the action taking place in Paris in 1924, and the other half in Magnolia, a fictional (I assume! please correct me if I’m wrong…) medium-sized city in the southern United States, in 1999?  EB: A few years ago, when I was looking for the next book to write after my debut, The Weird Sisters, my parents mentioned very off-handedly that my grandmother had lived in Paris in the 1920s, and that we had all of the letters she’d written to her family while she was there. My grandmother had died when I was still young, so I’d never known her well, but I’d certainly never heard this story before! I devoured her letters as soon as I could get my hands on them, and I was not disappointed. My grandmother had set off to Europe in 1923 for a trip to England, France, and Italy, but had been so captivated by Paris that she simply decided to stay – finding a job and a place to stay and setting about living the life we all would like to imagine ourselves living in Jazz Age Paris. I knew there was a story there, but the more I thought about it, I felt it raised more questions than it answered. Why had my grandmother decided to stay in Paris? Why had she left? How had those experiences changed her, and how had that affected my mother, and then, by extension, me? How do the choices we make reverberate for generations? So I used my grandmother’s story as the scaffolding to create Margie’s story in 1924 Paris, and then I gave her a granddaughter in 1999 Magnolia (fictional, yes, but based on Little Rock, though that’s a secret!) and allowed the story to unfold between the two of them. JH: The title, “The Light of Paris,” works on at least a couple of levels. One of the things I really enjoyed in reading this book were the descriptions of nature, particularly the subtly, or dramatically, changing colors and textures of various times of day, various seasons, and so on. Perhaps this is because Madeleine, the narrator and protagonist, is a painter, and thus exceptionally sensitive to this kind of beauty. How hard is it to render this kind of visual detail in words, and is the process painful, or pleasurable?   EB: I am a stick-figure-level artist myself, so one of the things I had to do in preparing to write The Light of Paris was to learn about art. Paris came in very handy here – I spent so much of my time there researching this book going to museum after museum, looking at sculptures, paintings, films; watching the way the movements flowed into each other, the conversations artists were having through their work. So when I sat down to write the book itself, I had a visual vocabulary to draw on in both storylines, but particularly in Madeleine’s, because as a painter, she definitely sees the world as a potential painting. I don’t remember its being difficult, but I think that was because I’d made such an effort to steep myself in a different language. I’m so glad to hear that came through for you as a reader! JH: One of the main themes in “The Light of Paris” is how women (especially women, though not only women) often become trapped in lives that are not the ones they want to be living, and their attempts to escape those traps, to free themselves to live the lives they are meant to live. Can you say something about the complex relationship between place and/or time (especially historical time), and how these things can help, or hinder, us as we try to avoid, or escape, the traps we tend to walk, or fall, into? Also, how much of the success of that struggle do you think is really due mostly to individual character, or strength, or determination? EB: One of the things that became very clear to me as I thought about my grandmother’s life was how different it would have been if she’d been born in a different time (and probably to a different family). Her family was Quaker, and so fairly liberal for the era (she was born in 1900), but her choices were still tightly circumscribed by the fact that she was a woman in the early 20th century. I think, for instance, she might have been perfectly happy not having children, maybe not even getting married, but she didn’t really have those options. So that issue was very much on my mind when I wrote The Light of Paris. Margie, in 1924, is seeing the opportunities for women change around her, but that doesn’t mean that path was easy or simple for…
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Lead photo credit : The Light of Paris by Eleanor Brown

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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).