What’s the best part of your job? Finding some key detail in an original document, the kind of detail that I suddenly brings the subject I’ve been struggling with into focus for me. That’s what makes all the hard work worthwhile.
What’s the hardest part of your job? I often work on original 17th- and 18th-century documents in archives. This is always extremely hard on my eyes; by the end of the day, I’m wiped out. Sometimes, the handwriting is so difficult to decipher that, even when I work from high-resolution images, it takes me forever to get through a sentence.
What inspired you to write this book? So many books about Paris encourage travelers to believe that many of the features of the city that are seen as truly iconic – the boulevards of Paris, for example – originated only in the 19th century. I wanted to set the record straight and to show how much of what makes Paris the city tourists love today was put into place two centuries before Haussmann began his project.
Why did you choose Paris to write about? Since 1968, I’ve lived in Paris for large stretches of time. Today, I spend about half my time in Paris. It’s the city I know best, as well as the city I love most.
What was the most interesting thing you discovered when writing this book? The full story of how, beginning in 1670, Paris’ fortifications were turned into the original boulevard.
What do you love most about Paris? The way in which, in certain neighborhoods, the present and the past co-exist so smoothly and so profitably.
Do you have a favourite location in Paris? The Marais, no doubt about it. I love to walk the streets there; every time I see the Place des Vosges, I smile; being surrounded by such great architecture gives me the sense of how great a city Paris can be – and of how great cities in general can be.
Where do you like to work? When I’m writing, I like to do so at home. If I’m doing research, in Paris’ Arsenal Library.
Which 5 people would you like to have over for dinner? Now you have to realize that my answer to this one will seem strange to many people! But I am a specialist of 17th- and 18th-century France… I would have three writers who lived in Paris in the last decades of the 17th century, were very close friends, and saw each other virtually on a daily basis: the Comtesse de Lafayette, author of ‘The Princesse de Clèves’, the Marquise de Sévigné, the great letter writer, and the Duc de La Rochefoucauld, author of the ‘Maxims’. I’d also invite two writers from the early 18th century: Montesquieu and Voltaire. Then I’d try to get them to talk about two subjects: what daily life in Paris was like in their day and how they might explain the massive changes that took place in France at the turn of the 18th century.
What are you working on next? I’m currently working on a book about two Parisian families: one is a family of artisans who made luxury goods, the other a family involved in what would now be called the finance industry. It’s the story of how they lived through the 17th and 18th centuries – the events that shaped their lives most definitively, the ways in which values changed during that period. There are some amazing characters, and they pop up at all the great moments during those centuries. And above all for the most part their lives are so modern – I can imagine them living today.
Read my review of ‘How Paris Became Paris’ here.