After growing up in Wilmington, North Carolina, Lauren Collins went on to become one of The New Yorker's best staff writers. Readers of the magazine recently enjoyed an excerpt from her delightful new book, When in French, which is part memoir and part study of linguistics. Collins moved to Geneva, Switzerland, to marry a French man, and the book explores her process of falling in love in a new language with characteristic insight, humor, and surefooted metaphors. As Collins prepares to revisit her home state on tour this fall, we spoke with her about the impetus for a reporter to turn personal and the indelible influence of North Carolina on her writing.
INDY: Since this book grew out of a life experience you had, not an initial reporting decision, was there a certain moment when you realized you were writing about it?
LAUREN COLLINS: I looked at what I'd been doing for the last couple of years and it was like a trail of breadcrumbs leading up to the fact that I was finally going to have to write about this thing I'd been walling off as a private enterprise—falling in love with a French man and learning French. For a long time, I kind of thought, no, that's my personal life. My professional life is about British politics or Danish television, any of the European subjects I was covering. But I had all this memoir, in a sense, already embedded in the things I was writing about. I was following my nose, which was leading me to stories about language, culture, and collisions between them—how they make people see the world differently. By the time I accepted the fact that this was the book I could and would write, it was already a foregone conclusion.
Did you have a background in linguistics?
Not at all; it would have been a lot easier if I had! I wished I could teleport back to college and sign up for Linguistics 101. Certainly, for a very long time, both in a professional capacity and in what I think is cool in life, I've been really interested in language.
How did you know where to end the story?
I was really happy when I struck upon this conceit for the structure of the book, more or less aligned with French verb tenses. It felt like felicity that by morning I was conjugating French verbs and by afternoon writing this book. I would go to my office and say, OK, how do I organize this? Wait a minute, this part is about my childhood—that's a repeated action in the past; that should be the imperfect chapter. And these parts where I'm really getting into linguistics, asking, would I be a different person in another language? That should be the conditional.
You vividly describe that super subjective process of learning, and thinking in, a new language. Was it hard to capture this abstract stuff about words using words?
No, finding the right metaphors for what was happening came really easily. Because this experience was so vivid to me, so fresh, so consuming, it didn't seem abstract at all. I was living, breathing, thinking, dreaming, and writing language acquisition.
Did you have the classic American abroad memoir in mind while writing this book?
I had really the any-person abroad memoir in mind. One that's really great is Eva Hoffman's Lost in Translation, about an immigrant to rather than from America. Another I loved was Alice Kaplan's French Lessons. I had all kinds of different inspirations, but I'm a huge reader of memoirs, and you could also say I wanted this to be a travelogue, in a way—a book about French as a country. Certainly displacement was at the heart of it.
Has your relationship with French continued to change since you finished the book?
In Geneva, I could have gotten by easily using English all the time, so it was really a labor of love. It was for my husband and this family I had joined. Now, living in Paris, it's almost an inversion—French is the language of daily life, and then I go home and speak English.
Do you think anything distinctly North Carolinian persists in your writing?
Yes, I'm going to have a Talk of the Town story on Monday, in fact, about North Carolina filmmaker Christopher Everett's new documentary, Wilmington on Fire. It's about—it's long been called a race riot, but really, it was probably a coup d'état—in Wilmington in 1898. I saw the film and was foaming at the mouth to write about it. It was just a question of when I would next be home. I was on vacation in Wilmington in August and made sure to sneak in a half-day's work interviewing Christopher. It's something I never would have known about had I not stayed plugged into North Carolina, which I do, and I'm really happy to have that one in the magazine.
Jeffrey Brown (Sept. 23, 6 p.m., Flyleaf Books, Chapel Hill, www.flyleafbooks.com/Sept. 24, 2 p.m., Quail Ridge Books, www.quailridgebooks.com) The alternative cartoonist known for Star Wars riffs creates two new characters for kids in the Scholastic graphic novel series Lucy and Andy Neanderthal. Older readers should check out his hilarious, heartbreaking Awkward and Clumsy ... but keep it away from the little ones. —Zack Smith
Jim Obergefell (Sept. 23, 7 p.m., Flyleaf Books, Chapel Hill, www.flyleafbooks.com) The author of the memoir Love Wins chronicles the landmark legal case that took him and his dying husband to the Supreme Court in an ultimately successful fight for same-sex marriage equality. With celebrated advice columnist Steven Petrow along for discussion, this benefit for Equality NC promises to be lively and life-affirming. —David Klein
Emma Donaghue (Oct. 7, 7 p.m., Quail Ridge Books, Raleigh, www.quailridgebooks.com) Last time Donaghue visited the Triangle, she'd just published her novel Room, which she helped turn into an Academy Award-winning movie last year. Now she's back with The Wonder, which deals with some of the same themes of children and adults. —Zack Smith
Geraldine Brooks (Oct. 9, 2 p.m., McIntyre's Books, Pittsboro, www.fearrington.com) Last year, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of March published The Secret Chord, a superlative novel about the biblical King David. Brooks strikes a fine balance between history and myth, portraying her subject's human complexity while armoring him in reverently gleaming prose. —Brian Howe
Jodi Picoult (Oct. 14, 1 p.m., The Garden Terrace, Pittsboro, www.fearrington.com/Oct. 14, 7 p.m., Meredith College's Jones Auditorium, www.quailridgebooks.com) Tapping nearly every hot-button issue rending society today, Picoult's Small Great Things plays out in a legal battle between an African-American nurse and white supremacists, adapting themes from To Kill a Mockingbird to our troubled times. —David Klein
Jonathan Lethem (Oct. 18, 7 p.m., Flyleaf Books, Chapel Hill, www.flyleafbooks.com) The genre-melding MacArthur Fellow behind Motherless Brooklyn and The Fortress of Solitude returns with A Gambler's Anatomy, a novel about an "international backgammon hustler" who's psychic (maybe) and has a brain tumor (definitely). Lethem is terrific at readings, deadpan yet sincere. —Zack Smith
Joseph Donahue and Andrew Mossin (Oct. 22, 8 p.m., The Shed, Durham, www.shedjazz.com) In a highlight of the poetry season, the Little Corner Reading Series pairs Duke's Joseph Donahue, who summons metaphysical lyrics in his acclaimed, ongoing Terra Lucida, with Temple University professor Andrew Mossin. —Brian Howe
Vivian Howard (Oct. 30, 1 p.m., The Regulator Bookshop, Durham, www.regulatorbookshop.com) The star of the award-winning PBS documentary series A Chef's Life brings her new Southern cookbook, Deep Run Roots—and, notably, a food truck—to the Regulator for this signing and tasting. —Brian Howe
Alexis Pauline Gumbs (Nov. 3, 7 p.m., The Regulator Bookshop, Durham, www.regulatorbookshop.com) One of the best poetry books from Durham we're likely to see this fall is Alexis Pauline Gumbs's Spill: Scenes of Black Feminist Fugitivity, which merges art and activism in sharp yet sensuous prose poems. The book will be freshly out on Duke University Press at the time of this reading. —Brian Howe
This article appeared in print with the headline "French Twist"