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PARIS NOIRE & BARNES and
NOBLE BOOK CLUB
First of all, let me say how excited I am about this marvelous opportunity to discuss my novel, Paris Noire, with such an articulate group of readers. I think of myself as a shy person who’s not good with small talk, but when it comes to my books, I’m told it’s tough to keep me quiet. I love each and every one of my characters—the naughty and the virtuous—and I enjoy extolling their machinations, even defending the most dastardly among them. Bring on your questions!
Q. I understand that Paris Noire has some very personal connections to your own life and family history, could you explain that to us and how the idea for the novel came about.
A. The core of Paris Noire, the menage-a-trois between Christophe, Genvieve, and Alain-Hugo, is actually the fictionalized family story of a French-born friend of mine. As I researched the Parisian neighborhood in which to put my characters, I ran across Montmartre. That’s when I discovered that an entire community of African-American ex-patriate artists had moved to France in the 1920s. Josephine Baker may have been the most famous among them, but she was joined by writers, comedians, painters and hordes of other black American performers who felt their talents under-appreciated in the United States. That’s when the second of my three grandmothers popped into my head.
My step-father’s mother abandoned her family when Dad was just six. Her goal: Use her stunning singing voice and green-eyed good looks to get to Paris and give Mademoiselle Baker a run for her half-naked shimmy. Grandma #2 never achieved her goal in this life, but she didn’t let up. Her insistence that her time had finally arrived in 2010 made me insert her into the story of Paris Noire, and changed the novel’s original direction. Allow me to introduce the incomparable chanteuse of 1944/45 Paris--Madame Glovia Johnson (a.k.a. Grandma S.).
Q. Did you travel to France for research for Paris Noire?
A. I’d been to France—mostly Paris—twice before I wrote Paris Noire. And, of course, I had my French-born friend to validate the little details of the neighborhood during WWII and verify the euphoria the French felt on the day of liberation. My friend’s father, the prototype for Christophe—crowded among the throngs of welcoming Parisians that August day of 1944.
To coincide with the September 2011 release of Paris Noire, I had great plans to go to France with my friend. Together, we would videotape his surviving family members—those who remembered the exilheration of liberation day, and those who knew something of the family history. Alas, eight days before departure, I broke my leg. Au revoir France—until next time.
Q. Tell us a little about your first novel, Page from a Tennessee Journal.
A. I have often felt that I was somehow dropped into a most unusual family. There are so many strange happenstances in my family history that border on the implausible—a Buffalo Soldier grandfather who fought up San Juan Hill with Teddy Roosevelt, and retrieved frozen American bodies in the Siberia of 1918; the surprise internet discovery of a direct descent from a powerful American president and his black “house servant”; black descendants of the most famous aristocratic house in England who were defrauded of their Arkansas oil lands—you get the idea. With a treasure trove of stories like these I can keep writing for the next twenty years.
Page from a Tennessee Journal is the story of the first of my three grandmothers. But, of course, it was a deep family secret revealed to me in a five-minute monologue by my mother only two years before her death. She never spoke of it again despite my bended-knee pleas. It seems that the nice brown-skinned man I’d always thought of as grandpa was not my grandfather at all. Instead, a white farmer from northern Tennessee was Mama’s biological father. Grandma was deserted by her sharecropper husband leaving her with four young children and no means of support. The white landowner learned of grandma’s plight, took a closer look at those bronze thighs of hers, and he and grandma began a bargaining dance that led…well, you’ll have to read Page from a Tennessee Journal to get the rest of the story.
Q. Tell us how your writing career began.
A. My relatives insist that I’ve always written. That’s not true. I admit to wanting to preserve the family stories. Those, I did write down, but they were for family consumption only. I didn’t get serious about writing until after I’d completed Page from a Tennessee Journal—that took me four months at the close of 2002. I liked what I’d written, and began to wonder for the first time if I had the stuff to become a real writer. In 2003, I got serious enough to join critique groups, attend writing seminars and conferences, and enter contests. When Page from a Tennessee Journal became a top ten finalist in the Rupert Hughes Prose Writing contest at the 2003 Maui Writers Conference, I was both stunned and pleased. That honor gave me the courage to pursue a career in writing.
Q. What’s next for you?
A. I thought I had this all planned out before I broke my leg. I had been working on a five-book series spanning three centuries and based upon the travails of three sisters kidnapped from Timbuktu, transported to the Americas and sold separately into slavery in 1706. Through the miracle of DNA, their descendants finally reunite in modern day Timbuktu.
But since my leg fracture, I’ve toyed with the idea of writing a sequel to Page from a Tennessee Journal—a popular request from those who’ve read that book--or telling the oil-land grab of my late husband’s black branch of a ducal British family.
Q. Give us the normal day in the life of Francine Howard.
A. For the past several months, it’s been a round of doctor visits. Thankfully, those are coming to an end and I can resume my life of exercise, errands, writing, travel planning, and of course, shopping!
Q. Tell us something about you that would surprise us.
A. Modesty prevents openness here. Just let us say that those “spicy” scenes in Paris Noire and Page from a Tennessee Journal come from the creative pen.
Buy the book here visit the author's blog here visit the website for Little Bird Publicity to learn more about Sarah here read my review of Paris Noire here