What influenced you to start writing and illustrating? My biggest inspiration is the J. Peterman catalog. Seriously. I love those stories that create an entire world in five sentences, and I love the illustrations of the clothes that never have people wearing them but are still loaded with personality and movement anyway. I stole a lot from J. Peterman for my first book (‘When Wanderers Cease to Roam’).
Do you collect anything? I’ve been collecting J. Peterman catalogs since 1992. Which I’ve stopped telling people because everyone makes the same Seinfeld joke.
What other jobs have you had? Oooo, this is a good question. Because I’m nosy and this is exactly what I’d want to know about other people. I was a Faberge expert for Christie’s auction house. I was a hotel maid in Reno (Nevada). I was the Bio-terrorism Administrator for the Tea Association of the USA – taking long, appreciative tea breaks was part of the job. I was a clerk in a book store on Fifth Ave NYC, a receptionist for a Manhattan hedge fund (finance guys are real creeps, trust me), and a secretary at Cartier and an au pair in Paris (not at the same time). I’ve been a collections agent, a PR writer, and an independent appraiser of horology, jewelry, and objets de virtu (advising people on how to divvy up the valuables for the heirs). I was a museum administrator in West Africa and an admissions clerk for a charity veterinary clinic close to home on Long Island. This is a partial list, and is not in chronological order. If you don’t have a college degree, but you can speak fluent French and have a very low tolerance for boredom you will probably find yourself on a wonderfully meandering career path.
What do you find inspiring? A really great 2 1/2-minute pop song. It’s the perfect delivery system for the most sophisticated kind of writing: highly idiosyncratic but totally grokkable, mood-altering, and memorable.
What was the most interesting fact you discovered when writing this book? That the names of French butterflies are about a thousand times better than the names we give our butterflies in America. Daily Peacock, Spanish Tobacco, Saint of the Blackberry Bramble, to name a few.
Which books do you recommend? First and foremost, anyone who wants to write memoir or travel must read ‘Eat, Pray, Love’. I think I was its 20-millionth reader – in other words, I put off reading it long after everyone else had already got on the bandwagon. I have almost zero interest in Italy, India, or Indonesia. (Nothing personal; I just don’t want to travel there.) And then I gave in and read it and I was astonished by the gorgeous writing: honest without being cringingly confessional, beautifully paced, funny, and smart. Also, I know from experience how hard it is to communicate the meaning of a journey and Elizabeth Gilbert did it by imposing a heroic level of structure on her story, so much so that you can read it and never see the pains she has gone through to make it all hang together. No wonder it was a monster hit. I wrote Ms. Gilbert a fan letter, something I haven’t ever done, because I thought Oprah missed the point: it’s not a self-help book. It’s a master class in the art of narrative. I am an evangelist for a book called ‘The Names of Things’, by Susan Brind Morrow. She has a deep story to tell and it’s remarkable that she can write it with such emotional restraint and linguistic elegance. There’s also a lot about Egyptian hieroglyphics in it. Interesting mix, for memoir.
Who do you really admire? I really admire my cats. They know how to enjoy happiness, deeply savour and exalt in it. All they need is a beam of sunlight they can nap in and they are catatonic with pleasure. Saul Bellow wrote a very dumb book about Africa (he never set foot on the continent and it shows) called ‘Henderson The Rain King’, but there’s a line in it that I like, about how the lion is such a majestic animal because it ‘does not take issue with the inherent’. I’m not sure that I know what that means, but it sounds good and it sounds like my cats.
What is your favourite gadget? A corkscrew.
Have you incorporated anything from the French lifestyle into your life? Yes. Lots of wine. By the way, after two glasses of Pinot I can speak excellent Strine.
What are you working on next? I am writing another illustrated travel memoir about ten life-enhancing gardens. I‘ve been to one in Brazil, one in Morocco, one in Scotland, etc. I live three miles from Frances Hodgson Burnett’s old estate on Long Island, where she wrote ‘The Secret Garden’, and I have a chapter on that, too. The north shore of Long Island is magical: Not many people know this, but Antoine de Saint-Exupery wrote ‘The Little Prince’ while he was living in a rental house on the north shore of Long Island. That’s not in my new book, but it just goes to show you.
Read my review of ‘Le Road Trip; A Traveler’s Journal of Love and France’ here.