What Rosecrans Baldwin did (and didn't) find living in Paris | Reading | Indy Week
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What Rosecrans Baldwin did (and didn't) find living in Paris 

Launch party Tuesday at Flyleaf Books

Rosecrans Baldwin

Photo by Jeremy M. Lange

Rosecrans Baldwin

Rosecrans Baldwin, the author of the critically acclaimed 2010 novel You Lost Me There, is one of Chapel Hill's most talented young writers. His new book, Paris, I Love You But You're Bringing Me Down (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), is a memoir of his 18 months living and working as a créatif for a global advertising company in the City of Lights. In crisp, sharply observed prose, Baldwin takes us through the Paris he experienced, from his arrival "in that paunch of Paris summer when the heat ballooned at one p.m., and the weather was lovely in a vehement way," to his final meal the following fall, at "a restaurant dedicated to pork."

With Baldwin as our guide, we take in dinner parties that go deep into the night, public parks dotted with eccentrics, the "cold but floral" air of a Paris October. He mangles figures of speech, confronts the conundrum of whom to kiss, writes copy for Sofia Coppola and discovers that eating lunch at your cubicle is an American thing and strictly taboo. As he braves the mind-numbing governmental red tape of his adopted city, its construction noise and its office politics, Baldwin delivers a snapshot of 21st-century Paris as well as a poignant meditation on the obstinate realities of balancing life and work, of reaching the most splendid landscape imaginable and yet still having the distinct feeling that "We were amateurs at everything."

Baldwin will host a launch party for Paris, I Love You But You're Bringing Me Down at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill on Tuesday, May 1, at 7 p.m. We spoke to him last weekend.

INDEPENDENT: There's a resurgence of Americans' interest in Paris. Woody Allen's movie, Adam Gopnik's Paris to the Moon, Pamela Druckerman's Bringing Up Bebe, and now your title. Is there a reason for our fascination with Paris, and is there something happening today that's different from earlier examples of American fascination with the country?

BALDWIN: Well the fascination has definitely been around. You can go back to John Adams and the XYZ Affair. Or, just for background, in January, I took a two-week reporting trip where I visited four different Parises of America [Idaho, Kentucky, Texas and Maine, as well the Paris casino in Las Vegas] to ask different Parisians, as it were, what they thought about the French these days. Because there was a Gallup poll this year in February that found that Americans' favorability—our feelings about France and French people—is near an all-time high. So I just went around asking people, "What do you feel about the French?"

From what I've studied, Francophilia or Francophobia has to do with politics. It often follows current events, so [in] 2003, according, again, to the Gallup poll, people were almost twice as likely to dislike France. And this was around the time that Jacques Chirac didn't support the Iraq invasion and you had Congress renaming the French fries in its cafeteria freedom fries, and John Kerry being bashed for speaking French. I think a lot of it has to do with just right now France and American relations are good on a global level, in terms of the good will between the countries. And when that's at peace, and the long-standing interest in French affairs and the long-standing dream about French culture ... a lot of people just have that dream about France. That life in France or in Paris sounds pretty good.

I was in Paris, Idaho, and I was in a cowboy bar. And I was talking about how cowboys in Paris, Idaho, and the contemporary Parisians actually have a lot in common, both being pretty much forthright about, you know, "I am who I am and fuck you if you don't like it." The cowboys thought that was very funny. They were like, "Oh man, I guess we're high-falutin' now." In a very conservative area of Idaho were people who feel perfectly fine about the French.

The book's title is based on a superb song by LCD Soundsystem that happens to fit your book's mood perfectly. Was finding your title especially satisfying?

What's funny is I came to that title through a different [LCD Soundsystem] song. A part I mention in the book is that I would go jogging on the weekends in a park called Buttes Chaumont; I was listening to "North American Scum" a lot and that was the song that stood out for me.

So the book was inspired by a series of six letters, sort of mini-essays that I wrote for this website that I'm an editor for called The Morning News. And I was working on one of them and I was casting around for a title, and I'd been listening to that album [Sound of Silver] over and over, and it just sort of like stuck out. And I was like, well, I feel a little bit guilty ripping this off, but it suits the material exactly.

You were living in the real Paris. You were invited to a lot of really cool dinner parties and got a chance to really experience the city deeply, and yet you still found it sort of unattainable. Was it, in hindsight, naïve to imagine that the real Paris would live up to the dream Paris?

Parts of it I knew about going in. I expected, though, the work culture to be, let's say, less driven than what I experienced in New York, and it turned out to be more driven. If I had like a copyediting job in New York, you might be expected to get in at 10, but pretty much everyone left at 6. In Paris, you probably can get in at 9:30, but people were gonna stay until 7:30 or 8 o'clock, and these are people also with families at home. This is just the culture, that they're going to be there that late.

There's the daily grind of it, and that's fine. It's a full-time job and I had a lot of responsibilities, so I wasn't blown away by the demands of it. But to try to break into the foreign culture, to try and make friends, to try and be more than a tourist and sort of break through the invisible layer that separates the foreigner and the native, it was harder work than I expected. And it seems like French people, Parisians, and I apologize for grossly stereotyping here, but so many people we met, they had all made their best friends when they were 6 years old, and until one of them died, they weren't really looking to add any new people to their social circle. Everyone was nice, and we eventually did make some great friends, and slowly work our way into Paris; it just took a lot longer than we expected.

You made us feel that struggle but you didn't play it for laughs. There was plenty of humor but there was something more serious at work.

Yeah, well sure, it's my life.

Well, David Sedaris went there and he sort of played it for laughs.

He does play it for laughs. But what's funny about Sedaris, whom I admire greatly, oddly enough, he puts a lot of the cards on the table, but he holds a lot back. And sometimes the cards served are the more eccentric ones in the deck. I think he's great. I think he's phenomenal. There's nothing wrong with that, I'm not judging it. For this book, it seemed the book could have just been about hijinks. And they're in there, because they happened to me, but ... fiction is my main game. And novels are what I know better than other forms, at least as a reader if not someone who's written just one. But it doesn't work to have a novel where you keep certain parts of the character's life in the shade if they are important to understanding who that person is. So hopefully, if you get through this book you'll at least have some idea of who I am, and if not, just someone who does semi-offensive things at the office accidentally. [laughs]

How soon after you got there did you realize you wanted to write about the experience?

Never. I can honestly say it was barely even my idea. What happened was, the editor who acquired my novel, both he and my literary agent were encouraging me just to think about doing it. They were saying you've got this material from the letters to The Morning News, why not use that ... what's the cliché? As a springboard.

So you had your notes, and that helped you with remembering conversations and what people wore, that kind of thing?

It was really just the writer's tendency ... I would just keep a notebook and just record things as they happened. In fact it was more often that I would just text myself. I had this little Nokia phone, and I'm not one who enjoys feeling conspicuous in public. You know, if you whip out a notepad at your desk, and your co-worker's looking on, it might look a little bit strange. But everyone texts these days, so I would just send myself little text messages and it would normally just be like the same thing I do these days—if someone says something interesting or something that I think sounds like an interesting piece of dialogue, I'll just write it down and tuck it away for future reference. So I was getting up in the mornings anyway to work on my novel over in Paris, and one thing I would do is sort of look over the emails or the text messages I had sent myself and try to turn them into something coherent, sort of like a warm-up exercise. Because it's like fucking 5 a.m. and it's dark outside and I'm not yet five coffees in. So that's where the material really came from.

As a novelist you can play God, but as a memoirist you're beholden to certain objective truths. Does this simplify your job as a writer, by limiting the possibilities of where the action can go, what characters can say, do, think, etc., or does it introduce other complications?

What's funny is there is a lot that was cut out.

Ah. Because it's pretty trim and concise. I was thinking you must have pared away stuff.

Yeah. A lot. And a lot of it has to do with, well, you're putting real people into a book. And some of those people are close friends. And I needed to do it for myself. I wasn't writing this book for anybody else. I had to be respectful but also be respectful of the book. It's not a question of trying to make people look different from what they are, but you don't have to burn too many bridges in the act of a memoir. But I don't know if I'll be doing it again anytime soon.

There were different things at play. One is the relationships with people. Even now that I'm a couple thousand miles from a lot of these people, they're all on Facebook. But it's also the requirement of having a good story and figuring out what the story's about. In the end the story was a lot about my, I don't know, process of discovery or something, and that was as much about me trying to figure out what I was thinking and feeling and going through. Like, there's a bit about how it was sort of like going through psychoanalysis, sort of having to analyze what you're saying and doing and thinking all the time in a much more present way than normal, and that wasn't something I really put my finger on until I sat down and tried to figure out what I had been doing all that time in Paris.

A lot of the myths came tumbling down. The main one is that somehow living in Paris, merely being there, would be, should be enough. Yet even in France, advertising is still advertising, and writing breast-feeding manuals is going to be mundane wherever you go. Do the basic pressures of adult life just follow us wherever we go?

I think so. You can only be on vacation for so many days of the year. The dream I had, and I think you see it in a lot of places, of what it might be like in Paris, almost never includes a punch-out clock at the end of the day. It never includes a commute. And that was what I was going over there for. You gotta at some point man up a little bit and be like, 'Look, there's a wonderful city here and terrific people, and yes, boohoo, you have to have a day job,' but that doesn't mean you can't go out at night or spend your weekends traipsing around all day. And that's where we did find a wonderful place to live. And it had to do finally with the people that we met and sort of getting inside of the city a little bit. It just happens to take time. And that shouldn't come as a surprise. I don't even think it was that much of a surprise to me, it just took some struggle. After 18 months, we may have returned, but that doesn't mean I wouldn't want to go back tomorrow if I could. But this time without a day job. [laughs]

Did the book turn out how you envisioned it, or did it take on more weight, reveal more poignancy, as you recounted it?

It definitely changed a lot. Initially, I had to write a proposal for the book, and the proposal took forever. It took like six or eight months or so. Here's what I mean: In the proposal, the character of Bruno had almost no role. I don't think he's even mentioned in the proposal. There were no plans of me talking about this guy that I was assigned to work with. And yet when I started writing the book, and I'm a couple months into my first or second draft, suddenly Bruno's like the main character—he has more of a role than [Baldwin's wife] Rachel, almost more of a role in the story than me. And I never set out to do that. I started thinking like, OK, Bruno is sort of hammering on the door here, what's this all about? And I think when I initially sketched out the book, I didn't realize what it was about—that it was about relationships, essentially, whether it's my relationship with the city or my relationship with the people I met there. So it didn't necessarily become more serious, but it definitely started to have a purpose. When I was just imagining the book, I just saw it as this disjointed series of essays almost, of what it's like to live and work in France in the 21st century. That's how I might have described it to you if we had talked about it before I started writing it. And now, as I say in the conclusion, it has so much more to do with the actual people.

That's how it really becomes truly engaging, when you bring it to that level. And Bruno seemed to me to speak for France. He really embodied it.

Yes, right, exactly. And I don't know if it's fair to Bruno or fair to France. But when I looked back on our relationship and some of the things that he was struggling with, things that I saw in parts in other people seemed to crystallize in him, and suddenly his character carries a lot of weight that I never would have expected it to. That's the great part about writing the book, that you don't really know what you're going to write: Even if you've lived through it and outlined it, even if you're carrying a hard drive full of notes, suddenly a book becomes something else.

In the book, moments of unease, of not feeling part of things, of being "constantly an inch off normal" are balanced by moments of pure intoxication with the place. Sometimes it's things like the clouds, the lights, a wonderful meal—other times it's something less elemental: the braless Carla Bruni, the soft-core pornish ads shown before a movie. What is it about this aspect that you find so inspiring?

The truth is that Paris is a sexier place than most. In my experience with the people I hung out with and got to know, sex is much less of a big deal, easy to talk about and part of everyday life, but also a more important part of everyday life, and sex not being something necessarily dirty or tawdry but also sex meaning all kinds of things. Sex meaning that conversations can be playful and not dry, that people are frank and emotional rather than being reserved or vague.

Or the other way: salacious and full of innuendo.

Or salacious, or foul-mouthed or dirty, but at the same time those things without it being wrong or necessarily inappropriate. There's just a humanity about it that's really refreshing. It's hard to see America's puritanism when you live in America. It's like living in America and being like, "I hear the world really likes that game soccer. I wonder what that's all about." And then when you leave America, suddenly you understand you're talking about like a couple billion people like the game soccer and it takes on both sort of a daily insignificance—just something that everyone does, plays, talks about, watches, etc.—and also something much larger when the entire world gets together every couple years to play the game. So, from the inside, American attitudes toward sex, you figure, well, we've got conservative and liberal, and there's different ideas about it, but, leaving the country and looking back, suddenly it seems like Americans are both bizarrely obsessed with it and really repressed. And that might be a lot of theoretical stuff that you weren't looking for.

Finally, do you have any thoughts or observations on the French election today?

I just saw the news, that it's between Hollande and Sarkozy. Which was sort of expected. The French friends of mine on Facebook were all very excited that Le Pen only got 20 percent; granted it's still 20 percent.*

The New York Times just published a few pieces citing France's hopeless nostalgia and resistance to globalization.

The French are a lot more aware of their problems than we are. The stuff I talk about in my book would be of no surprise to anyone French reading about it. I think it'll only come as news to Americans. What I love about the French election is the fact that they have multiple political parties, and we're basically stuck with two, and a very, very conservative right wing. And they've got a communist party—real Lefties. They make the Democrats here look like prison guards.

But how could two parties even begin to speak for the multiplicity of views?

That's right. And even the French multiplicity barely speaks for everybody. The thing about France is it's an enormous country, even though it's smaller than the size of Texas. It's got all the issues of the contemporary world, and it's also formed of ... trying to understand local government in France is insane, because you have like 246 departments. That's not the right number but it's something like that [France presently has 101 departments and 342 arrondissements]. So it's kind of like the United States. You've got a country that has so much of a world to it, there's all these different places, all these different people. That's why I was frustrated in the end that I only got to live in Paris. I wouldn't mind doing a stint in Marseilles.

The bastion of inclusivity, according to the Times piece.

You talk to anyone outside of Paris and it's the same attitude that Americans have toward New Yorkers, which is like, "Oh, they're all cold and they work too much and they're snobby, and in the country everyone's nicer." And that's why I live in rural North Carolina now. [laughs]

*On Sunday, April 22, France conducted the first round of its presidential election. Of 10 candidates, the Socialist challenger François Hollande led with 28.6 percent while the center-right incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy claimed 27.2 percent. Coming in a strong third was Marine Le Pen, the candidate of the far-right National Front, whose tally, initially reported at 20 percent, was officially 17.9 percent. The runoff between Sarkozy and Hollande takes place May 6.

This article appeared in print with the headline "A Tar Heel in Paris."

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