March 15, 2009
One of the most tantalizing lures of a vacation is the complete escape from daily reality. No one in the unfamiliar locale knows who you are, nor do they care. Fortunately, this fleeting chance at anonymity opens the door for a wealth of possibilities. All that’s needed are a few bucks in your pocket and an appetite for adventure. Who knows what secret “gem” is lurking in the shadows just waiting to be discovered?
This month’s Jen’s Jewels, Cara Black, has spent many days doing just that….exploring the backstreets of Paris with no limitations and only time on her hands. With nine fabulous novels filled with her discoveries, I think it would be safe to say that Cara has most certainly found what she was looking for. In her latest Aimée Leduc Investigation novel entitled MURDER IN THE LATIN QUARTER, Cara takes her readers back to the ominous streets of Paris to solve her heroine’s most personal case to date.
As part of this interview, Soho Press, Inc. has generously donated five copies for you, my lucky readers, to win. So, don’t forget to look for the trivia question at the end of the column. Bonne Chance! And as always, merci beaucoup for making Jen’s Jewels a part of your reading adventure.
Jen: Oftentimes, the before publication story that led to an author’s career is just as fascinating as the afterwards. So that my readers may have a better understand of the path that led to where you are today, please tell us a little bit about your educational and professional background. Cara: I attended a Catholic elementary school with French nuns who wore habits (ancient history now!), lived in Europe, studied at Sophia University in Tokyo for a year then completed a BA, MA at SF State University and received a teaching credential. I taught preschool and was a preschool director for ten years in San Francisco. Jen: Describe for us the defining moment when you chose to pursue a career in publishing. Cara: After my son was born, I stayed home but when he started preschool my husband said “You’ve been talking about writing for years. Now that you’ve got all this free time (2 mornings a week!) why don’t you take a writing class?” So I did. Taking a class forced me to get serious. Jen: For my readers who are unfamiliar with your work, you are best-known for the Aimée Leduc Investigation series set in none other than Paris, France. To date, there are nine titles in publication. First of all, how did you arrive at the overall premise for the series? Cara: I wish I could say there was a big plan, but I never thought I'd write a book set in Paris, let alone a series. I’d lived in Europe in the 70’s. But it goes back to the 80's when, while I visited Paris, my friend took the afternoon off from work and said, "I want to show you a part of Paris you've never seen before!" We rode the bus and ended up in a narrow cobbled street of ancient crumbling townhouses. The air felt different; there was a smell of old stone and decay; the sun didn't penetrate this narrow passage. And then the street opened up and we were in the Place des Vosges, the 17th century square, surrounded by arcades, in the old Marais section. The sun revealed the old pockmarked stone, the fountain gurgled, and I felt somehow I was "home." I don't know how else to describe it. My friend kept walking and now we were on another narrow street in the Marais and here the shop signs were in Hebrew, and people were speaking Yiddish. She stopped on the pavement and pointed to window of an apartment where her mother had lived during the Second World War. My friend's mother had been 14 years old and worn a yellow star during the German Occupation. One day in 1943, she returned home from school to find her family gone, the apartment empty. She lived in that apartment alone for a year, going to school, hoping they would return. The concierge of the building helped to hide her and gave her food ration coupons. In 1944, at Liberation, she searched for her family at the train stations among the returning deportees and discovered by word of mouth that they had perished at Auschwitz. This story touched me, I never forgot it. Years later, in the mid 1990's, when I returned to Paris the story came back to me even more strongly. It was fifty years after the war. I saw plaques all over Paris commemorating Resistants and ordinary people who'd fought against the Germans in their own ways and lost their lives. They were remembered. I wanted to explore the past, that lingering sense of history, and how war still touched every generation. I'd graduated from reading Nancy Drew mysteries to P.D. James and loved the latter's combination of psychological depth and social comment and setting in a mystery. I yearned to find a voice in which to tell the story of my friend's mother, this young Jewish girl hidden in Paris, relating the story to modern day. It came to me that a detective novel would be a great framework, a structure on which to build the story. A "what if?" surfaced: What if these old cobblestones could talk? What would they say? That became my first book Murder in the Marais. Jen: Secondly, approximately how much research goes into the writing of each novel? And, as an American writing a series that takes place in France, does it require spending much time in Paris in order for the authenticity of the story to ring true with your readers? Parlez-vous français? Cara: Oui! Research is the best part of what I do. I interview cafe owners, shopkeepers and people who live in the area I'm interested in, study the street, learn about the architecture and history of the district, crawl in the sewers, and explore the tunnels of old quarries underground. I consult police records, the National Archives and photo libraries in Paris, go to the flea markets and visit the bouquinistes--those book stalls with old books and magazines lining the Seine. Over the years, I've gotten to know several female detectives, police officers in different branches and even have a friend who works in the Ministry of Interior. I take them out to dinner, ply them with wine, and ask them about their work, their cases, and law enforcement procedures. I know a retired Commissaire from the Brigade Criminelle who was in charge of the Princess Diana investigation and run ideas by him, i.e., would you do this, is this credible? He's kind and helpful and tells me he wants me to "get it right." I've hung out in a smoke-filled police station radio room, gone to target practice with flics at their police firing range in Paris, toured the Prefecture--the central Police HQ, seen jail cells, the courts, consulted with lawyers, air traffic controllers at Charles de Gaulle airport, and the corner kiosk news vendor. I'm a member of two neighborhood historic associations, one on the Canal Ste Martin and the other in the Marais. I travel to Paris twice a year, sleep on my friend's couch in Montmartre, and take to the streets. Even getting lost in Paris is wonderful because I discover new neighborhoods, a "new" old shop, or meet the local wine merchant, always a great font of information. Researching and writing an Aimée Leduc Investigation takes a little more than a year. Jen: Your main character, Aimée Leduc is a half-French and half-American. Please share with us her background and what makes her stand out as a très chic private investigator. (I love her wardrobe!) Cara: I can't write as a French woman, I can't even tie my scarf the right way because, let's face it, French women have that scarf-tying gene. It's important to me that Aimée be a young, contemporary woman like the Parisian women I know, have a strong fashion sense and be fierce in her pursuit of justice, the justice that often eludes people in daily life. And that she knows much more about computers than I do. I want to paint the off-the-beaten-track Paris that I've discovered, with its history, to show a vibrant, living darker side of the City of Light. Jen: In your latest release, MURDER IN THE LATIN QUARTER, Aimée faces quite the formidable opponent, human traffickers. Why did you choose to write about such a disturbing subject? (I applaud you for taking that risk.) Cara: It’s a disturbing fact everywhere in the world, poor desperate people being taken advantage of and used. I’ve witnessed this a lot in Europe with Eastern European women and in Paris, young Gypsy boys who are roped into gangs who steal on the streets. It’s a sad fact of today’s world and I think it would be dishonest to ignore this issue. Jen: Why did you choose the Latin Quarter as the locale for this installment? Cara: I was hesitant at first. But my editor kept asking why Aimée hadn’t gone to the Left Bank. Since I start from the sense of place, the distinct quartier, the neighborhood, a particular part of Paris needs to speak to me. Maybe it's a quartier I don't know, a place I want to learn about or whose history intrigues me. Once I find the district, I have to find the inhabitants who live there, work there, study there and figure out why a murder would happen here.
In the case of MURDER IN THE LATIN QUARTER, my friend took me to the mosque in the Latin Quarter for a steam in the hammam (Turkish bath). After our skin was scrubbed raw, we drank mint tea in the tiled courtyard and smoked hookahs. This was an enchanting quiet corner, another world in the center of Paris. Later my friend, a documentary film maker, told me about a film he'd worked on, near the Natural History Museum, in an old laboratory. And this laboratory hadn't changed since the 1890's...it was something out of Jules Verne. Bleached prehistoric bones hung from the ceilings, high walls were lined to the ceiling with drawers with labels in Latin. The scientist he filmed was a world authority on pigs. The documentary dealt with third world countries, and this scientist was vehement about the scandals involving Haiti. I felt the stirring and knew I had to see this place. And when I found the laboratory and met one of the scientists, I knew this had to go into a book. I didn't know how until I met some Haitians in Paris who spoke about Baby Doc Duvalier's millions stolen from Haiti and secreted in a Swiss Bank account. Often serendipity plays a factor and in this case, the mosque and hammam were around the corner from this laboratory. As I learned about the area, I realized the famous Grands Écoles, where the elite studied, were up the hill and the Sorbonne nearby. I felt drawn to this place; I could hear the echoes of the past. Jen: As part of the plot, the reader is introduced to Mireille who has a mysterious connection to Aimée’s past. Without giving too much away, why is Aimée so willing to go out on a limb and take this stranger’s word at face value? She even goes as far as putting her relationship with her business partner, René, at risk. Why so? Cara: Jen, I can’t reveal too much here but Aimée is desperate for family. Her American mother left her and her father when she was eight years old. Her father raised her as best as he could but she’s wanted to have family all her life. I won’t say weakness but maybe she’s vulnerable in this part of her life. It’s who she is. A woman I know answered the door one day to find a stranger, a man, who after hemming and hawing finally said, “I’m sorry I don’t know how to do this any other way but I found out we have the same father. I’m your half-brother.” Now that’s shocking in of itself and no matter, the outcome or reality, it changed her and it changes Aimée...there’s always that ‘what if’ especially for someone like Aimée who has only a dog, a gruff god-father, her partner René and Martine, her best friend from the lycée who has tons of sisters. Jen: Was I reading too much between the lines, or is René silently pining away for Aimée? Do they have a romantic past or will they have a future together? Cara: Ah yes, René’s got it bad. Aimée regards René as her best friend, confidant and shoulder to lean on. I just don’t know what will happen between them in the future. Jen: Speaking of romance, what makes Edouard, the clandestine figure who plays a vital role in the plot, so irresistible for Aimée? How are these two characters alike in terms of their pursuit of the truth? Cara: Aimée finds it hard to resist ‘bad boys’ and Edouard is that in spades with a tousled couture side. That’s a great observation - Edouard pursues the ‘truth’ he perceives and for the benefit of a larger group and so does Aimée. But still it can’t work out. Jen: In my opinion, one of the most fascinating characters in the storyline is Léonie. Not only is she hiding numerous secrets that ultimately affect Aimée’s course of action, but also she is a firm believer in voodoo. Please tell us why you chose to address this topic within the confines of the story. Cara: Thank you, Jen. My son was going to college in Florida and when I visited him I discovered this area called ‘Little Haiti’ outside Miami. I spent a lot of time in candle shops with voodoo beads, cards of the saints, figurines and herbal packets of potions. And almost got my hand read. I met Haitians in Paris, too. But in researching about Haiti, in France, in ‘Little Haiti’ and among the Haitian community in the SF Bay Area, I was struck by how the people I met regarded themselves as Christian yet in their homes were voodoo objects. To them Christianity meant reverence for African gods, too. I found it fascinating. Jen: Professor Benoît is the central figure caught in the middle of an evil plot to destroy the future of Haiti. I liked how you touched upon the discoveries made by Marie Curie and her contribution to science towards the end of the book. I think it would be fair to say that MURDER IN THE LATIN QUARTER is written with a scientific slant in mind. Is this a hobby or passion of yours? What specifically piques your interest? Cara: I know very little about science but I love to know about scientists and what it is that they do. It’s like a foreign language but I’m as interested in knowing how things work, evolve, their structures as the next person. I’d read a biography of Marie Curie, an amazing woman who surmounted so many obstacles i.e.; being Polish in France, a woman pooh-poohed by French Academicians and scientists as an amateur, the prejudice against her since she hadn’t attended a Grand École. When she first came to France, she lived in a garret, worked as a nanny, and studied at night. But it was her single-mindedness, her drive despite all the challenges she had to just keep going and do the research she wanted to do. They only supplied her and her husband a small disused shed in a courtyard and that’s where she pioneered her research in radium. The woman won the Nobel Prize twice and even so, it took sixty years after her death to be re-buried in the Pantheon with the ‘Great’ of France. Jen: Tacking onto that last question, why does Professor Benoît research pigs? Is this truly an issue in society today? Cara: Professor Benoît researches pigs because, in a sense, it’s part of his commitment to his country Haiti. A rural, once highly agricultural country, Haiti’s fertile farming and grazing lands have suffered from soil erosion, deforestation, lack of water and corruption in the government infrastructure. Pigs, the domestic Haitian variety, were a source of income, a staple for even the poorest families who could raise them cheaply and survive on them economically. Papa Doc Duvalier ordered the pigs slaughtered and brought in American pigs which cost more, needed special feed and bankrupted farmers and destroyed a system in place for hundreds of years. Jen: What do you have in store for Aimée’s future? Where will her next adventure take her? Cara: Aimée’s next investigation takes place in the first arrondissement. Not far from her office at Leduc Detective. It’s titled MURDER IN THE PALAIS ROYAL and comes out March 2010. Jen: Please tell us about your website. Do you have a mailing list? Do you have e-mail notification of upcoming releases? Cara: My website is https://www.carablack.com. Feel free to visit and sign up for my newsletter. I post recent photos of Paris, have a blog for readers to comment and yes, you can sign up for my mailing list on it and get notification of upcoming books. Jen: Do you participate in author phone chats? And if so, how would my readers go about scheduling one? Also, do you have Reading Group Discussion Guides available on your site? Cara: Author phone chats are great. Just send me an e-mail via the website and we’ll find a mutually agreeable time. I’ve got Skype and that makes it easy and reasonable to talk to a group across the country. Sorry, I’m still working on a reading group discussion guide. Soon. Jen: Merci beaucoup for taking the time out of your busy schedule to stop by and chat with my readers. I highly recommend your series, especially to all of the Francophiles out there like me! Please check back in when your next release hits the stores! Bonne chance et à bientôt! Cara: Avec plaisir, Jen et merci!
I hope you have enjoyed my interview with Cara Black. Please stop by your favorite bookstore today and pick up a copy of MURDER IN THE LATIN QUARTER. Better yet, would you like to win one? Okay, be one of the first five readers to e-mail me at email@example.com with the correct answer to the following question. Bonne chance!
What is the name of the main character in MURDER IN THE LATIN QUARTER?
Next month, I will be bringing to you my interview with Britain’s Gillian McKeith, author of the international bestseller YOU ARE WHAT YOU EAT. You won’t want to miss it!
Until next time…Jen