Tuesday, August 25, 2009
Paris City of Night stares out at passersby from the windows of The Red Wheelbarrow bookstore (on rue Saint-Paul, in the Marais, www.theredwheelbarrow.com), and beckons from display tables (in excellent company!) at The Village Voice bookstore (on rue Princesse, near Mabillon and the Luxembourg Garden, www.villagevoicebookshop.com).
Paris, the city (of night and day) is fortunate in many ways, not the least of which is the continuing health of its booksellers. Paris boasts more independent bookstores—selling new books—than many of the states of our glorious union put together. If something is wrong with that picture, the problem lies in corporate America, and in the shopping habits of we, the people: we’ve turned away from independent booksellers, and buy almost exclusively from chain stores or on line.
Does this matter? You bet. Booksellers are real people, with real expertise, and once you get to know their tastes, you can rely on them to vet the hundreds of thousands of books out there, selecting the best for display and sale. Also, they allow you to experience the wonders of a serendipitous discovery, that chance encounter with a book you knew nothing about, but happened to see on a shelf or table, or in the sidewalk window display.
Sure, booksellers can sometimes be crabby and difficult. Because they have little room in their stores, and because they are humans and have their prejudices and predelictions, they may not stock the book you’re looking for (or the one you’ve written, if you’re an author). They may just be in a bad mood, because a customer has come in, examined a book, and whispered to another customer that now they can go home and order on line. It happens all the time, and it’s ugly.
Also, indies have the reputation of selling books at higher prices than on-line booksellers. For one thing, small indies don’t get the bulk discounts that the chains and on-line retailers get, so they can’t afford to offer loss-leader-style prices. But the price an independent offers is all-inclusive: no hidden shipping costs or special sales taxes, no customs duties for foreign shipments, and no wait (unless you special-order a book).
In balance, local, independent booksellers are not much more expensive to patronize than are chains or on-line retailers, and they render many services to customers, publishers and authors: they host book events, where readers meet authors, and they promote worthwhile books that would otherwise remain in obscurity. Don’t kid yourselves: the on-line and chain booksellers do nothing to help anyone but a star or a big-money corporation. On-line and chain retailers make publishers (or authors or both) pay for premium displays, email marketing campaigns, reminders, suggestions, and more.
So before you click on the “buy now” button for the usual mega-booksellers, think about giving your business to local, walk-in, independent booksellers such as the Village Voice and Red Wheelbarrow or Shakespeare & Co., all in Paris, Book Passage in San Francisco and Corte Madera, Reader’s Books in Sonoma, Europa Books in Chicago, Schoenhof’s in Cambridge, MA, Powell’s in Portland, Elliott Bay Books in Seattle, and the other dynamic, resilient indies you know and, I hope, love as much as I do.
Wednesday, August 19, 2009
Recently they hosted a book event at which Barbara Boxer signed her new novel, while "protesters", sent by goodness knows what lobby or industry-funded pressure group, assailed Obama's health care reforms.
"[S]ome of the protesters actually bought books," Elaine wrote in an email. "Most stayed outside and screamed. The signs they were carrying of Obama as Hitler or The Joker were really awful. Bill went outside to talk to them and one guy said that when Obama says 47 million Americans don't have health care he's lying because most of those people are illegal immigrants. Bill said he didn't know the numbers on that but he wondered if the man ever ate in restaurants. The man said yes he did several times each week. Bill asked him how he felt about the fact that the people making his food probably don't have health care and since they can't afford to take off, may be preparing his food while sick. The guy was silent."
So, in addition to a huge selection of books--literature, history, food, biography, travel and more--you might also pick up a good dose of thoughtful and provocative politics at Book Passage.
If only Elaine and Bill could set up in every American city, there might be hope for publishing in America. And we'd certainly all enjoy a rousing debate!
Tuesday, August 18, 2009
Here's the article in its entirety:
Author David Downie is a native San Franciscan, but for the last 25 years has divided his time between Italy and France. His travel, food, and arts features have appeared in more than fifty magazines and newspapers worldwide. He has been a contributing editor, European arts editor, or Paris correspondent for half a dozen publications. His latest book is the spy thriller, Paris City of Night.
For more information about David Downie, please visit his website.
Thanks for this interview. When did you decide you wanted to become an author?
It’s unclear to me whether I ever made the conscious decision to become an author. I started writing when in my teens. My first attempts were not autobiographical. I was interested in other people, in situations, in conversation and the way we communicate with each other. I only began making my living as a writer in my late 20s.
Do you have another job besides writing?
No, no other job: for the last 20-some years I’ve earned a living by writing.
Were you an avid reader as a child? What type of books did you enjoy reading?
Childhood memories are notoriously unreliable, and I don’t pretend to remember details regarding my early passion for words. I read widely when young, but I did not read “children’s books,” other than Pinocchio and the Jungle Book. I read dictionaries and encyclopedias. I read Twain, O’Henry, Stevenson and Dickens, but also Poe and Melville. I was lucky enough to be brought up in a household of readers. We had thousands of books in our living room. When I wasn’t out playing baseball in the street, I read and read.
Tell us a bit about your latest book, and what inspired you to write such a story.
Paris City of Night is a novel of suspense, set in contemporary Paris. It merges the glamorous City of Light — the city’s nickname — with a dark, sinister city of night, with emphasis on the “n.” Many neighborhoods will be familiar to readers, but most will not, unless they’ve strayed into Belleville in the 20th arrondissement, or the Canal Saint-Martin district in the 10th and 11th arrondissements. The book’s hero is an expert in vintage photography and daguerreotypes; the daguerreotype plates are key to unlocking a code. The CIA and other agencies (American and French) want the plates to try to stop a terrorist attack. The people funding the terrorists want the plates for the opposite reason. It’s a complex story peopled by anti-heroes, with a several false leads that keep readers guessing. Paris City of Night is plot-driven, but the characters are fully formed: they eat, drink, sleep, get mad, swear, and do things they would not normally do in life if they hadn’t found themselves in a crisis. Violence is for the most part suggested and not enacted — Paris City of Night is not a blood-and-guts thriller. It’s a fast-paced psychological, political thriller in the tradition of Alfred Hitchcock, whose TV programs and movies I watched over and over when growing up.
I was inspired to write Paris City of Night by a number of real-life events — convoluted French political intrigues involving former French presidents François Mitterrand and Jacques Chirac, the hijacking of an Air France flight by Algerian terrorists whose goal was to blow up the Eiffel Tower and also bring down the French government, and a scandal involving the murder of the elderly. Many personal reasons also pushed me to write this book. For a start, I have often helped my wife, photographer Alison Harris, on assignment, and became interested in the history of photography. I also experienced sudden-onset optic neuritis, and overnight went blind in one eye. The condition plunged me into despair, into a world of distorted black and white images. I spent a lot of time thinking about vision, photography and perception before writing the book. This personal tragedy coincided with the advent of digital photography and the potential of our digital age to become a world where hermetically sealed, perfect, visual lies are not only possible but probable.
How would you describe your creative process while writing this book? Was it stream-of-consciousness writing, or did you first write an outline?
Before writing Paris City of Night I sat down and plotted it through, scene by scene. I wrote a detailed treatment — a kind of screenplay for my own use. Once I’d established the direction of the plot and the settings, I allowed myself to riff and improvise. But to call it steam-of-consciousness writing would be misleading. I’m not sure it’s possible to write thrillers or novels of suspense without careful, detailed plotting.
Did your book require a lot of research?
Paris City of Night grew out of years on the ground in Europe—primarily in Italy and France — watching the political scene, meeting people, and reading history. I could not have written the book without a background in political science — poli sci was one of my majors at UC Berkeley (the other was Italian literature). I also learned a lot about photography from my experience as a photo assistant to my wife. Then I sat down and read every book on the history of photography and codes, ciphers, etc… that I could get my hands on, and I read a lot of newspaper and magazine articles on the scandals I’ve mentioned above. So, yes, the book did require an immense amount of research, but I hope it doesn’t show. It’s meant to be a seamless entertainment, not an academic work.
Agatha Christie got her best ideas while eating green apples in the bathtub. Steven Spielberg says he gets his best ideas while driving on the highway. When do you get your best ideas and why do you think this is?
My best ideas come while I’m walking. I walk about 10 miles a day. It’s entertainment, meditation, relaxation and exercise all in one. I think it’s the measured pace that makes walking so stimulating to the mind. The words come along like musical notes. In fact, a piece of music is often playing in my head as I walk, and the thoughts, ideas and words follow the music and the pace. To be clear: I do not listen to music while I walk. The music is in my head. I abhor the idea of wearing headphones. Constant entertainment is debilitating.
Do you get along with your muse? What do you do to placate her when she refuses to inspire you?
My muse and I argue frequently but the relationship is not problematic. If “she” refuses to obey — “inspire” isn’t the right word for me — I remain the same. One foot in front of the other, word by word, sentence by sentence.
When it comes to writing, are you an early bird, or a night owl?
For years I stayed up late and got up late, and my best time to work was the afternoon or early evening. That was the price of living in the center of Paris, in a lively neighborhood, going out often and entertaining friends. For the last five years or so I have reversed the equation: up early, work early, eat early, to bed early. I spend more time in the country than in the city, and I’m a healthier and happier person. I’m also more productive than ever, despite the loss of vision, and the physical and psychological challenges that come with optic neuritis.
Do you have an agent? How was your experience in searching for one?
I have a wonderful agent, and was lucky enough to have been introduced to her by a fellow writer. I didn’t have to search, and I’m thankful for that.
Technically speaking, what do you have to struggle the most when writing? How do you tackle it?
Physical fatigue — in my case eye strain — is a constant challenge. I try to pace myself. I’m a touch-typist, so I close my eyes as often as possible. If I make a typo I correct it later. I also have neck and back problems, like many writers, so I make sure to take the time to stretch. I practice a mix of martial arts and yoga every day, and that helps. The other challenge is to stop writing when I’m tired. You’ve got to know when to call it quits for the day. Stop when you’re feeling good, on a positive note.
What type of book promotion seems to work the best for you?
The classic book tour, with events in bookstores or other venues — clubs, art galleries, whatever — is something I enjoy. You’re in direct contact with your readers. You get instant feedback. For word-of-mouth, book events are probably still the best vehicle going. You often don’t sell many books at an event, but you will sell books eventually because you did the event. Newspapers, magazines, newsletters, blogs will be more likely to talk about you and your book if you’re on the stump. Radio is also great. I love radio!
Do you have a website/blog where readers may learn more about you and your work?
Do you have another book on the works? Would you like to tell readers about your current or future projects?
I’m currently writing a history book about a specific institution in Rome, and travel book, also about Rome, and I’m gearing up to write another book about French food and words — the language of French food. Once I’m on the other side of those assignments, I’ll pick up my hero, JAG, and, I hope, get to work on another thriller.
As an author, what is your greatest reward?
To me, writing is a matter of necessity, it’s something urgent and essential. Writing is the greatest reward. If you write primarily to make money, be famous or for posterity, you’re missing something fundamental.http://blogcritics.org/books/article/interview-david-downie-author-of-paris/
The interview is pasted here in full. Note that the title of my thriller is PARIS CITY OF NIGHT (and not Paris, City of Lights). dd
An expert's view of Italy and France
By BILL WARD, Star Tribune
August 15, 2009
Physically, if not spiritually, it's a long way from Haight-Ashbury to Cinque Terre. But David Downie is an equal-opportunity admirer of both his Bay Area birthplace and the Italian Riviera, subject of a recent travel book by the prolific writer.
"If I can keep dividing my days between France and Italy -- Paris, Burgundy, Liguria and Rome -- I'll be a very lucky and happy man," he said via e-mail. "But if I could work in more time in my hometown -- San Francisco -- I'd be even happier."
For now, Downie will "settle" for living in, and writing about, France and Italy, the locales for four books he is publishing within 16 months: "Food Wine Rome" and "Food Wine The Italian Riviera and Genoa," part of the Little Bookroom's "Terroir Guide" series; the just-released mystery "Paris: City of Lights" and "Food Wine Burgundy," due in February 2010.
Downie's life always has been peripatetic. The 51-year-old lived in Rome as a child (his mother is Italian), graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Cal-Berkeley in 1981 and lived in 10 U.S. cities before embarking to Europe for good in 1984 after earning a master's degree from Brown. He lives in Paris with his wife, photographer Alison Harris. "I'm her assistant, driver, lighting engineer, assistant stylist, gofer," he quipped.
Q How did you set about making your travel guides distinct?
A I created them from scratch. Having worked for a number of guidebook publishers (Gault-Millau, Fodor's, Frommer's, Dorling-Kindersley), I knew what I liked and what I thought was lacking. I knew that the food and travel guides I was familiar with were pulling punches and doing a hard sell, or the opposite -- running everything down.
I've interviewed hundreds of hard-working chefs, restaurateurs (not the same thing!), winemakers, food artisans, travel specialists, local historians and experts in everything from salting anchovies to training falcons. The world is complex, full of wonderful, sometimes crazy stories. I wanted to capture the good, useful part of that craziness.
I asked them where and what they ate and drank, and I avoided the hyped, overpriced, over-famous places. I wanted to create something opinionated and authoritative, something the PR-meisters and tourism offices might not necessarily recommend.
Q I've got a 400-page Fodor's guide on Italy from 1978, and there's no mention of the Cinque Terre. How did it go from completely off the tourist map to major destination?
A First, waves of young, penurious travelers like me, who'd heard of ritzy Portofino and roughneck Genoa, and had some notions about "the Italian Riviera" but hadn't been there, started washing up in Riomaggiore or Monterosso, the Cinque Terre's main towns.
I first went in 1976, by chance. "Riomaggiore" sounded intriguing, and the coast was so gorgeous that I just stood up, grabbed my bag and jumped off the train when it stopped.
By the 1980s the word was out-via backpackers' and students' guidebooks. But you've got to understand, in the 1970s the Cinque Terre villages were rundown, half abandoned, and the vineyards were dying. Fishing was never going to maintain the population. Everyone knew tourism would have to come to the rescue, and the Italians started pushing the area.
Now the Cinque Terre are being loved to death, like Yosemite, and the Italian government has had to create a national park and charge entrance fees.
Q Summer's almost over. What are some good reasons to visit Cinque Terre in the off-season?
A The weather: It's perfect in spring and fall, and the water in September-October is still warm enough for swimming. The crowds: It's always crowded, but in summer it's insane. The grape harvest: It's lovely to see the ripe grapes on the vine, and watch locals pick them, clambering up and down terraces that are as steep as a stepladder. The food: Service and food quality are infinitely better out of season.
My favorite time of all is winter; no swimming but spectacular storms and rough seas, cool temperatures perfect for hiking and a great time for fish.
Q What is your favorite time of year to be in Rome?
A January and February. It's cold at night but often warm, sunny and clear during the day. The crowds thin out, and you get into churches and museums without standing in line. For food, the best time is spring: artichokes, milk-fed lamb, chicory.
Q What's the minimum amount of time a tourist should spend in Rome or Cinque Terre?
A For Rome, you really need several lifetimes, and I'm not kidding. Don't bother to go to Rome if you can't spend a week there. Skip the summer months, unless you enjoy sweltering, suffocating heat and mobs. And be very, very careful about where you stay; the Termini train station area is impossibly dreary!
You can enjoy the Cinque Terre for half a day or a week, depending on your tastes. If you like swimming and hiking, stay longer. If you just want to enjoy the atmosphere of Vernazza (the most attractive of the five villages), you can spend a morning or an afternoon there. The number of historic and cultural sites is limited, the natural setting and atmosphere are unlimited.
Q What are the most important things Americans should do to ingratiate themselves to Italians?
A Be natural, be unaffected, be totally American and don't expect that the rest of the world is a projection of America, or a playground for Americans. Italians respond to anyone who shows interest in their culture, language, history or food.
Q So you've written a mystery set in Paris. Will there be more of the same or will you do mysteries set in other European places?
A Yes, the heroine of "Paris City of Night" is the city, an unusual, dark, sinister but alluring Paris. Depending on which way I jump, my next one will be set either in the Paris area or Rome. Lots of good food and atmosphere in both!
Q Where would you eat your last meal on Earth, and what would you order?
A I would eat at Da Gino, an old family-run trattoria in the center of Rome, near the Italian Parliament building, and I'd order chicory salad with anchovy dressing, followed by tonnarelli alla ciociara (fresh pasta with bacon, peas and mushrooms), then simply roasted spring lamb seasoned with rosemary, with a side of roast baby potatoes and a fried artichoke Roman-Jewish style. The kicker: a slice of ricotta-and-sour-cherry tart, or Gino's classic tiramisu. To die for.
Bill Ward • 612-673-7643
© 2009 Star Tribune. All rights reserved.
Friday, August 14, 2009
Travel & Leisure September 2009
Where can you find the tastiest gelato in Rome? How about the best sake in Tokyo? The Terroir Guides (The Little Bookroom, from $24.95)are strictly for food lovers—brimming with insider restaurant recommendations. They’re the perfect companions for traveling gourmands.