W3 Wise Words on Writing

W3 is a monthly newsletter for writers on a variety of topics from technique to the psychology of writing. It appears by the 15th of each month. More information is available from www.wisewordsonwriting.com

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

No 19. Writing about Place Part II

Last month W3 examined how writers "see" places they live. This month we look at the opposite - how foreign places influence writers' work. In this issue W3 talks with two ex-pats, American writer Jake Lamar and Canadian writer Lauren B. Davis. Both make their home in Paris. (See notes for a list of their work). W3 examines how living in a different culture shaped their writing and their attitudes. Not everyone can change countries, but as writers if we look at how other writers develop we can take from their experiences to improve our depth in our own work.

Any comments can be written here or sent to donna-lane.nelson@wanadoo.fr


Any writer who has ever read about the Lost Generation must have imagined themselves living and writing in Paris, jumping on the Metro, buying baguettes, sitting in cafés while scribbling in notebooks. Jake Lamar and Lauren Davis are two writers who live and work in the City of Light.

When Jake Lamar was growing up in the Bronx, he read James Baldwin GO TELL IT ON THE MOUNTAIN. His teacher told him that Baldwin lived in Paris. He thought that was pretty cool. However he didn't pack his bags just then. He went to Harvard, back to New York, and then to Ann Arbor, MI. Lamar was half way through his second book when he won a grant. It was then that he moved to Paris planning to stay a year. That was ten years ago.

Lauren Davis moved to France with her husband. She was first in Annecy then in Paris. As she was working on her first novel, she found herself accompanying her husband to New York, Canada and then back to Paris. Three international moves within a few months is not necessarily ideal for writing, but her novel THE STUBBORN SEASON made the Canadian best seller list despite the changes. She is now settled in a flat that overlooks the rooftops of Paris, a living postcard.

Davis' work area is a room inside her flat, while Lamar has a studio away from his home.

If their reasons for being in Paris are different, so are their reactions to how living in a foreign country makes a difference in their writing.

Lamar has seen an evolution in his work as a result of living abroad, although he says it has not made a "line for line" difference. At first he continued to use the USA for his settings. His third book used the OJ Simpson trial as a backdrop. He told W3 that the geographic distance gave him a perspective that he could not have had in the USA, which he said "seemed obsessed with the trial," where in Paris it was a quick blurb in the news. However, his book that will be released in November titled RENDEVOUS EIGHTEEN is set in his Parisian neighbourhood. The one he is working on now is also set in Paris. Lamar is using the same characters as RENDEZ-VOUS 18 with minor characters taking protagonist roles in the new work and vice versa.

When Davis was asked how living abroad had affected her work she said, "There's no doubt I write differently now than I did when I lived in Canada. Although I suspect that has as much to do with being sober and ten years older. Time and experience, both life and literary, certainly change you as a writer. Still, living abroad with the singularity of the perpetual stranger, as I have for over a decade, can't help but alter one's outlook. In turn, this affects the work. As a result of being confronted so often with opinions vastly different from my own, I am more introspective than I was. One has to think about beliefs one has taken for granted when in the company of people who approach life from a vastly different perspective. One is often asked, 'Why do you believe such and such…' When I first arrived in France I found that question unsettling, and discovered that to some degree, much of what I said I believed was simply what everyone around me back home had believed. I entered a period where I deeply questioned my assumptions, my perspectives, my beliefs. It's a period that has never ended, and frankly, I hope it never will. "

Davis's book THE STUBBORN SEASON was set in Canada during the Great Depression. She was writing about her home base as much as the untravelled Flannery O'Connor did. For Davis it meant leaving Paris. She said, "There was a point during the writing when I simply had to go back to Toronto to do some research. Not only did I want access to the libraries and archives, I found I needed to soak up the atmosphere of the streets. I think that was largely due, however, to the historical nature of the book. I find I write quite easily about Canada in general. Of course, this may be like writing about one's childhood, which is as much, I think, a question of imagination as fact. I often say the childhood I remember is probably not the childhood I had. Perhaps that's the case with the Canada I write about. But this is also true of any work of fiction, isn't it? I write about the Canada that is mine, related to my memories, my experience, and although I hope it strikes a chord of recognition with others, there's no guarantee it will."

Lamar, who knows Davis, says that he does not do the research she does, but he tends to use areas he knows. In THE LAST INTEGRATIONIST he used Martha's Vineyard as a location. His description was so vivid I became home sick reading it. Lamar admitted he had only been there once.

Like Lamar, Davis has changed to a Parisian setting for her next novel, THE RADIANT CITY. "One main character is a Canadian war correspondent, another a Lebanese woman who runs a restaurant, and a third is an American Vietnam Vet. A lot of the research involving the journalist I was able to do on the web - details of various conflicts, journalist reports, that sort of thing, and the same with the wars in Lebanon and Vietnam, but nothing takes the place of talking to people, walking the streets, listening to the voices, soaking up the sense details."

Being an ex-pat can leave you English-isolated. Lamar says French has become more and more present in his life. After his first three years in Paris, he became serious about learning the language and began to work with a tutor. Last year he started dreaming in French, and found he corrected himself as part of the dream. When he told his Dutch/Swiss wife, she pointed out that his original French was correct and in his dream he corrected himself incorrectly. Lamar now is comfortable in talking at book fairs in French. He doesn't see the mixture as a problem. He says he never expects to be proficient enough to write in French, but admires writers who can write fluently in a second tongue. Learning a language does take time and patience, one more chore for a writer's day.

Davis has strong feelings on living surrounded by a tongue not her own. "Up until about a year ago working in English while surrounded by another language made English almost sacred. I loved how precious it was, special, while there was a wall of other language just outside the door. French was the language of the street, the shops, the bureaucracy, while English was the language of my imagination and, because it's the language I speak with my husband and friends at home, also the language of love and even sanctuary. However, over the past year or so I find I'm forgetting words in English, substituting French words. And worse, I'm no longer able to conjure up the voices of characters whose mother tongue is English with the same ease as before. The rhythm of French has crept into my English construction. This is not good. It worries me, and to be honest I'm looking forward to going back to North America for this reason. Although it's obviously possible to write well in English while living in a non-English speaking country, I think, for me, it is important to spend a certain amount of time in an English-speaking place. Perhaps I haven't been back enough, for long enough, over the last decade - whatever the reason, it has begun to take a toll.

Hemingway hung out with Fitzgerald, but does Paris have a community of writers today? Lamar spoke of his writer friends, which include Davis, the late poet Ted Joans and Diane Johnson. Lamar said he found American writers he met in Paris, "more open and feeling of camaraderie then in the US." He suspects that "it may be a function of us being foreign."

Davis also has writer friends on both sides of the ocean. She says she receives "invaluable support from them all." She chooses careful. "In France the writers I know come from all over, and we're all living outside our primary markets, which does make a difference. We're not competing for the same publishing dollars from the same publishers, nor for the same prizes, etc. Although writing should never be a competitive sport, there's no doubt that the lions of jealousy and resentment have to be tamed by all writers. I learned the hard way to give a wide berth to people who haven't dealt with those sorts of things. The writers in my circle now, either here or in Canada are all dedicated craftspeople who delight in the successes of their friends and are generous with their support."

Lamar does not visualize returning to the States, although he says he does not consider himself in exile as some other Black American writers have felt. He has renounced nothing. He feels he is an American who loves living in Paris. Davis may or may not stay there.

On a personal note and as an ex-pat myself, I am aware that the perception of those that stay "home" about those of us who live in foreign lands varies from the reality. This became clear when I emailed a friend who was Stateside about meeting my daughter in Basel for lunch, the half way point between her home in Mannheim and mine in Geneva. His response -- "You have such a glamorous life." I didn't have the heart to tell him we'd lunched at Burger King. I then changed the laundry and took out the trash followed by sweating over a story I was working on and couldn't quite nail.

No matter where we live as writers, we have the richness of our surroundings for our stories. It is what we do with them. Ex-pat Hemingway said writing was more perspiration than inspiration. Those serious about their writing perspire wherever they write.


These two samples are from LIFE IN A POSTCARD ESCAPE TO THE FRENCH PYRENEES by Rosemary Bailey. It's non fiction book about how she and her husband renovated a medieval monastery. It could be best described as the movie THE MONEY PIT meets A YEAR IN PROVENCE. Unlike A YEAR IN PROVENCE, which tends to mock the locals, Bailey treats them with a great deal of respect. In every line, the reader feels her reverence for the past as well as her respect for the present.

"The battered but beautiful thirteenth century Romanesque chapel was abandoned by the monks at the Revolution and has been used as a barn and cowshed ever since. Once after going in for firewood stored there we forgot to turn off the light and it shone all night, the only light in the darkness of the valley, just as if would have done seven centuries ago when the chapel was built and there was a hermit in residence to keep a candle burning day and night."

The place plays on her sense of well being, but she not only changes her life from the city of London to a tiny French mountain village, a flat for a monastery, but in her imagination she changes time zones and assumes the role of a monk growing herbs during the Middle Ages.

"I have responsibility for the herb garden, where we grow herbs and medicinal plants, for cooking and treating ailments. One of our most important duties is to care for the sick and needy and there are many in need in the village of Mosset. The lavender is ready to cut, so the flowers can be pressed for oil. It has so many uses: for bites and stings, rheumatism, and burns, as well as relieving tension and insomnia. The yellow flowers of St. John's Wort, good for wounds and bruises, and used to dispel melancholy, are already are already steeping in oil in the sun. I nibble a few feathery leaves of chervil which we can add to the salad tomorrow."

Throughout the book we see how her life is changed by her environment.


1. Using what Lauren B. Davis said about belief, list five of your most common beliefs. Try and imagine the opposite. If necessary use the web and try and get into the head of a person who thinks totally differently. If you're a conservative, try and think like a liberal, if you're a sportsman try and think about being handicapped, if your religious think like a pagan, etc.

2. Find a newspaper on the web from another country and read it daily for a week and try and notice what the different perspectives are. If they have a classified look at the way flats and houses are advertised, help wanted (Example: an American might be surprised to see how many countries specify, age, gender, and appearance in their help wanted ads). Try and gather enough information for a short story set in that place.


1. Lauren B. Davis was born and raised in Montreal, Canada and now lives in France where she teaches creative writing. Lauren is the author of the critically acclaimed short story collection RAT MEDICINE AND OTHER COLLECTIVE CURATIVES (Mosaic Press 2000) and the best-selling novel THE STUBBORN SEASON (HarperCanada 2002). Her short stories, essays and reviews have appeared in numerous literary journals. Her website is www.laurenbdavis.com.

2. Jake Lamar is the author of BOURGEOIS BLUES and four novels: THE LAST INTEGRATIONIST, CLOSE TO THE BONE, IF SIX WERE NINE, (translated into French as Le Caméléon Noir) and the forthcoming RENDEVOUS EIGHTEEN. He grew up in the Bronx, is a graduate of Harvard where he studied literature. He worked for Time Magazine writing Milestones before being promoted. His web site is www.jakelamar.com.

3. Although W3 deals primarily with fiction, it is amazing how many different niches we can find as writers. We came across The Keeping Hearth & Home Series, an American publisher producing primers for living in the United States…100 to 150 years ago. The Keeping Hearth & Home series recalls the ideals of 19th century America through the "prescriptive literature" of its cookbooks, newspapers and magazines. Featuring culinary practices characteristic of their states and social advice pertinent to their regions during the second half of the 1800's, books on Old Alabama, Massachusetts, Ohio, Texas and Colorado entertain with period quaintness and enlighten with timeless wisdom. Says author Carol Padgett, It is almost like a picnic under the family tree beside the river of time! Order at www.menasharidge.com. Meet the author at www.keepinghearthandhome.com.


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