Emma Beddington’s memoir, We’ll Always Have Paris, published earlier this month, is a memoir of a life spent, as the book’s subtitle says, trying and failing to be French. An early encounter with a library copy of French Elle promised glamorous, intellectual delights not otherwise available to a North Yorkshire teenager and prompted an enduring francophilia, leading, inevitably, to a move to Paris. At its heart, We’ll Always Have Paris is a journey of self-discovery: if, try as you might, you can’t be French, how do you find out who you really are, and what you really want to be?
Emma is also the author of the immensely successful blog, Belgian Waffling, and a contributor to The Telegraph, The Guardian, Red and ELLE. I sat down with her to ask her about writing her book.
H: How are you feeling now that We’ll Always Have Paris has been properly released into the wild?
E: I feel terrified and excited and like I want to run away to a remote cave, which I think must be pretty standard, especially with memoir. I have started getting texts from friends as they read through it which is very odd – good odd, but odd.
H: What kinds of things are people saying?
E: My friend Frances who is also married to a Frenchman was laughing about me saying my husband’s Proustian madeleine was tinned ravioli and saying her husband’s was coquilettes pasta (little shells) and knacki sausages which are these gross things you get in french hypermarkets that are made out of hooves and lips. Someone else was texting about early crushes – mine : Gary Speed, the man from the electricians and France, hers: the drummer from curiosity killed the cat.
H: One of the many joys of the book is the contrast between our expectations of what ‘being french’ means and the harsh reality – we think it’s all the glamour of À bout de souffle and how neatly tying a little scarf will turn you into Juliette Greco but it’s actually tinned ravioli and knacki sausages
E: I moved to provincial France in 1994 and it was NOTHING like nouvelle vague cinema. I remember watching French sitcoms (also terrible) and being mesmerised by the terrible clothes; boxy jackets with big shoulder pads, ill-advised vest tops
H: Your lovely book is subtitled Trying and Failing to be French – are you still an incorrigible francophile, or has French Elle no longer any allure?
E: I’m a ‘francophile avertie’ now – I know my own folly. I still can’t resist it, but I know it’s not the answer, really, not for me. Also, provincial France – that British Provence/Normandy/Côte d’Azur dream – holds no appeal to me. It’s Paris and nothing but. I want to be in St Germain or the Marais with a nicely groomed dog and an amazing wardrobe. Yes STILL, like I did when I was 16. Sigh, there is no hope.
H: Your early immersive experiences of the French are provincial rather than Parisian – firstly on a school exchange to Morocco and then as a student teacher in Normandy before going up to university. It’s not until much later you go to live in the imagined nirvana of Paris (I won’t say more, because, Plot Spoilers). How different are the Parisians from the rest of the French?
E: Oh, very different I think: I mean, my husband is French and not Parisian and he certainly felt completely out of place there.
H: You and he met during your time teaching in Normandy – which of course makes me think of Emma Bovary living in Normandy and longing for Paris – How would Emma Bovary have coped if she’d actually ended up there?
E: Ha, Emma Bovary in Paris, I think it could have gone either way but I bet she’d have had a shocknot being the chicest and most sophisticated person in the village any more.
H: Imagine. She’d have bankrupted herself in the shop in Au Bonheur des Dames
E: Yup, destitute in a gutter in 6 months probably OR maybe she could have become some rich man’s mistress if she landed on her feet?
H: Or scuttled back to Normandy with some new frocks and then driven everyone mental talking about how rubbish Rouen is compared to Paris.
E: Like the nanny in The Blessing. The part of Paris we lived in – the 17th – was very glitzy and nouveau riche back in the second half of the 19th century so I bet she would have loved it.
H: I’ve taken us rather off the beaten track and distracted us with Flaubert’s Emma B than in you – Emma B. What I wanted to ask was, when we first met, you were writing a novel (I remember you finishing it) but your first published book is memoir – why?
E: The only writing I have ever really done – apart from academic – is very personal. When I started writing the blog it was always very much in the confessional vein – that’s what comes naturally, I suppose.
I didn’t necessarily want to write a memoir, because nothing very interesting has ever happened to me, but five or six years ago I read one of Janice Galloway’s memoirs. She writes about a really quite ordinary life in a very beautiful way; there is no huge drama – people don’t die or vanquish huge adversity – it’s muddled and impressionistic – yet she’s a beautiful writer, I could only dream of writing like this – she made it utterly compelling. So I started thinking I would like to write something like that – something a bit poetic and impressionistic – about the year we lived in Paris. I imagined it as quite a narrowly drawn little thing, but I don’t, know, it sprawled and also, I am not poetic – I like things to be funny – so it ended up quite a different book. Oh, and also about cake. I wanted to write about cake and Paris, but it didn’t quite work out.
H: Tell me about the cake – why was that so important to the genesis of the book?
E: Basically, the story I used to tell about our year in Paris was that I spent the whole time buying and eating cake, because that was the only thing that made me feel better. And that was true – I was terrified in the market and people shouted at me in Monoprix, but I could cope with bakeries. Cakes were these little bombs of comfort and happiness at a really awful time.
H: Most comforting cake?
E: Ah, the flan pâtissier, which is far from glam but genuinely comforting. It’s a set custard in puff pastry. I used to stalk the best ones around Paris. The best French cakes are far more flamboyant, but back then flan was what I really needed.
H: Will you return to fiction at some point?
E: I have all the imagination of a breeze block, which is why I’m drawn to memoir, I think. Also my way of looking at the world has always been about telling myself a daft, exaggerated, funny story about what’s going on and latterly I started to actually write that down. I remember when things were ludicrously, farcically bad in all manner of ways (many of which did not make it into the book as others were involved), I would walk to work telling myself what an amazing story it would all make one day. I need to learn how to do fiction though, because I can’t go pissing off my nearest and dearest all the time by writing about them.
H: You don’t spare yourself in We’ll Always Have Paris – when you write about difficult times, you tell it like it is, raw and often coruscatingly honest. That kind of confessional writing was a feature of your blog too, wasn’t it? I wondered if it feels more exposing in a hardback book than when putting it all out there online?
E: I don’t know – logically it isn’t, but the act of blogging, regardless of the indestructible nature of a digital archive, feels sort of disposable. You dash something off and a couple of days later everyone has forgotten about it, thanks to some cats in a basket or a cute wombat. The process of writing a memoir is slower and more careful and much more bloody painful. I was really lingering, by necessity, on stuff that I really had no desire to ever think about again. Some parts of the writing process were utterly miserable, I would walk the dog in the morning and cry and think “why the fuck am I doing this, why don’t I know how to write a bloody detective novel, my life would be so much simpler”.
H: I want to go back, briefly, to the blog. Belgian Waffling had – still has – an enormous global reach, and it, and your life online in general, plays an important role in the story that unfolds in We’ll Always Have Paris. Tell me about starting to blog?
E: Well, we’d been living in Brussels for a few years and I found it such a funny and bewildering place I really wanted to talk about it all the time. And I was doing a job that I found quite boring and I was feeling sort of dislocated, like my identity was a bit up in the air – was I English? French? Bruxelloise? The blog was a way of reasserting myself in a way – saying ‘this is who I am’ and at the same time talking about the absurdities of life in this city: humour is really important to me and I didn’t feel like I was getting enough of it, I think, existing mainly in my second language
and it really worked for both of those things. I met a whole community of people who had the same sense of humour as me which was wonderful: expat life can be really lonely in some ways and the internet is amazing in redressing that.
H: How important was blogging to honing your craft as a writer?
E: It’s interesting – I basically didn’t write anything but emails to my friends from leaving university in 1997 to starting the blog in 2008. Nothing. I mean, I wrote really, really good emails but still. So when I started the blog it sort of felt as if I had a decade of STUFF to talk about and not a quiet decade at that and at the start the actual process felt utterly effortless or at least instinctive. But blogging is useful I think in working out what works: I know I always want things to be at least slightly funny, even if they are really, really sad – that’s what works for me – and I think that’s what makes hard things easier to read. Brevity, perhaps too – trying to craft something that’s an online readable length. A blogging public is quite indulgent: they like to have stuff to read, so you have quite a kind environment to practise in.
H: The late Professor Anthony Clare talked about writing [books] as the great secular vocation. Had you always longed to be an author? Did you feel ‘The Call?
E: I never imagined being “a writer” was a thing you could do. I didn’t know any writers, and it didn’t seem an accessible world to me at all, so if it was a dream, and I suppose it was, it was a mad unrealistic pipe dream. That’s another reason I’m so grateful to the Internet: it made it possible, it democratised access to a space where you could show people what was inside your head. I swear, without the internet, I would still be an angry, frustrated, shitty, lawyer. I have a whole new career now doing what I absolutely love; admittedly I am near destitute but at least I am doing work which makes me happy. So I think this is to say that if I did have any kind of vocation, it was a very timid, easily quashed one and thanks to the internet at a very particularly encouraging and propitious time, it was allowed to develop.
H: Now that you’ve pushed We’ll Always Have Paris out of the literary pigeon loft and into the world, what’s next?
E: I have no idea. Well, I am sort of working on three things but who knows where any of them will go. My best friend and I have an idea for a food book, another friend is co-opting me into her historical detective fiction project and I am dipping a toe into fiction on my own account, but oh my god, I am terrible, I don’t know if it will ever take shape. It’s set in France, évidemment.
H: And lastly what are your top 3 french novels
E: I confess I don’t now read mountains – or even molehills – of French literature. It is my great shame.
La Bête Humaine – Zola
I bloody love Zola. We’ll talk about him more at TBTBM. This is one of the best – murder and mayhem on the early railways.
Dans les bois éternels – Fred Vargas
Vargas’ marvellously dreamy detective Adamsberg and his alcoholic assistant Danglard are wonderful. it’s on the very edge of how much whimsy I can tolerate (not much), but she writes like a dream, the plots are deliciously complicated and the cast of characters completely vivid. This is my favourite, I think, but they’re all brilliant. The most recent one is sort of about the revolution, and also TOP NOTCH.
Laurent Binet HHhH
Clever and fascinating, about the nature of history and fiction, woven around a plot by a couple of Czech resistants to kill Heydrich during the Second World War.
H: Emma, thank you very much – wishing We’ll Always Have Paris bonne chance and the very best of British too and see you on 21st June for your Books That Built Me.