Go to 13, Rue Thérèse on Google Maps (as seen in the pictures to the left)
Charles Baudelaire: the French poet, whose poem “A Hemisphere in a Mane of Hair” (“Un hémisphère dans une chevelure”) is quoted on page 94. The poem is quite intoxicating, and begins with “Let me breathe in for a long, long time the scent of your hair, let me plunge my entire face into it, like a thirsty man into the water of a spring, and let me wave it in my hand like a scented handkerchief, to shake memories into the air.” Read the original poem in French here and the English translation here.
A.S. Byatt’s Possession. The book was a bestseller upon its publication in 1990, and is, like 13, rue Thérèse, a delicious blend of contemporary fiction and a historical narrative, incorporating different texts (diaries, letters, and poetry.) Listen to A.S. Byatt talk about Possession here
Xavier teaches Flaubert’s Salammbo to his students. Read it here.
The sounds of 13, rue Thérèse
Louise and Garance go to Bizet’s Carmen at the Opéra Garnier. Read more about the opera here, listen to a recording by Jane Rhode who famously sang the role of Carmen at Paris’ Opera Garnier here
Edith Piaf, chanteuse of WWII France, sings “Non je ne regrette rien”
Maurice Chevalier, a very popular French entertainer, sings “Paris, Je t’aime”
The tastes of 13, rue Thérèse
Louise serves boeuf bourguignon with potatoes for Henri (and a heavy chocolate custard served for dessert) on page 100. Take a page from Julia Child and make the same.
A conversation with Elena Mauli Shapiro
In your author’s note you write about the process of discovering the box that contained Louise Brunet’s possessions. Would you say a bit more about how the idea for the novel unfolded and what your writing process was like?
The writing process was rather volcanic! It just erupted one day. I had a dream about the two large photographs that were on top of all the objects in the box, one dated 1944 and picturing an older man, the other undated and picturing the same man at a much younger age. The result was a short, countdown-shaped narrative of his life that moves from the later picture to the earlier one. It was a countdown to an explosion. The book came in an immense, life-consuming blast after that. The idea for the whole story wasn’t spontaneous, though—it included pieces of lots of stories I had written before that hadn’t come together. As the book pulled them into itself, all those pieces finally found a home.
Did you know as soon as you saw the box that you would write about it?
I was such a young child when the box came into my life that I honestly don’t remember encountering it for the first time. It was always there, and its draw was always powerful, but the notion that I would write about it accreted slowly over time. I think it was fully formed as a certainty when I came to the United States and the box came with me—because then I wanted to chronicle not only a person lost to history, but also a time and place I had personally lost: my childhood, France.
What were your first drafts of the novel like? Where do you write and how much do you revise?
It was exhilarating and a bit disorienting at first. I knew roughly where the story would go, and I knew I wanted visuals of the artifacts in the story, but the structure was a complete mystery. I started the book with the words “Dear Sir,” and it took me a while to figure out who “Sir” was, and who was talking! The biggest unknown was how Trevor, the frame, would ultimately interact with the story, how the boundary between frame and story would be breached.
I wish I could say I wrote at a beautiful mahogany desk overlooking picturesque hills out the French windows of my mansion, but my desk is a tiny pressboard Ikea corner unit crammed into my husband’s home office, and it is so covered in jetsam that I can’t even remember what color it is. I usually write in coffee shops or at the local library. Sometimes I like to type away in bed, with my computer on my lap and a pillow propped behind my back. How much I revise depends on the piece I am working on; each one is different. Sometimes the words come smoothly and don’t need much tinkering. Sometimes the words are about as cooperative as an angry cat being shoved into a carrier on the way to the vet’s; I must positively wrestle with them over multiple drafts. Sometimes I may write a story, not revise it, and forget about it, then remember that story years later and write it again from scratch. Every piece comes with its own process.
Do you write every day, or when inspiration strikes?
I don’t try to force myself if I don’t have an idea. I do go through fallow periods. A project begins with the same heady rush as falling in love, but that rush, as wonderful as it is, will not take me all the way through a long-haul journey like a novel. A grim determination born from my allegiance to that initial rush does that. During such times, I try to write every day to maintain the rhythm.
You are a fan of stand-up comedy and feel that the form is good training for writers. Can you say a bit more about this?
Each joke is a tiny model of a standard story arc: introducing and building tension, a climactic turning point, and then a resolution. But that’s not what we think of when we think of what makes a joke—the joke succeeds or fails entirely in how it is delivered: timing, rhythm, inflection, diction. Looking at the way jokes work is the best way to figure out how to work on a story at the sentence level. It’s fascinating to take them apart and figure out why they’re funny. Why is a pause at a particular moment so effective? Why is the joke less funny if you replace the badger with a ferret? How does the comedian know when to deliver a breathless riff or a slow whisper? It’s a great lesson in voice, because the instrument at work is literally a voice. When discussing fiction, people often get caught up in plot, in the broad scope of what happens, but it’s how it happens on the micro level that actually makes the story. Fiction is really all in the delivery too.
How old were you when you moved from Paris to the United States, and what kind of adjustment did that involve? What things did you miss about living in France?
I was just about to turn thirteen, and it was undilutedly awful. I spoke very little English, and my parents left me with an aunt while they went on a grand tour of the country to figure out where they wanted to live. I stayed in her basement—it was a very nice basement, and she was lovely to me but did not speak French. The dank undergroundness of the place was very apt for the way I felt at a time. Like I was trapped in a sort of linguistic prison; it was quite brutal for a verbal person like myself to suddenly be robbed of the ability to communicate. And middle schoolers are not exactly known for their tolerance and inclusiveness, so I was terribly isolated and picked on. I learned English incredibly fast to keep myself sane. I don’t know how to describe it except as a process of osmosis. And my brain said, “Let there be English.” And there was English.
As is probably obvious by now, I missed the French language terribly. I missed the food, pastries most of all. I missed the breathtaking architectural beauty of the city of Paris. I still miss all these things, but when I go back there now, I miss American things. So I am stuck in between. Which is a good place to be, for a writer.
Reading group guide
What is the role of history in this novel? Is there a character whose version of the story you trust more than another character’s?
Describe your understanding of Trevor and Josianne’s relationship and the ways in which it changes from the beginning of the novel to the end.
Is the third-person narration still in Trevor’s voice? If not, who is he channeling?
What is the purpose of the scanned objects? What do they add to the story?
Do the scanned objects tell a story of their own that is different from the text of the novel?
What is the role of desire — sexual and otherwise — in this novel? What are its consequences?
Describe Louise’s relationship with her father and how you think it does or does not shape her relationships with Camille and Xavier.
What does the novel say about memory? Can there be such a thing as an objective account of the past?
Why does the author use footnotes in the novel? How do you make sense of the fragmenting of the text that occurs on pages 246–47, for example?
Broadly speaking, how does the war change the way men and women think of each other in this novel?