From the Writer’s Den

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For the second year in a row I was able to attend the Amelia Island Book Festival, set on the gorgeous Northern Florida Coast.

This festival always gathers famous authors.

I really got the chair de poule when the one and only Goosebumps’ creator R.L. Stine stepped behind his table to sign his books, only a few feet away from mine.

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I spoke with the French chef and TV personality Jacques Pépin. En français, of course.

Although I missed him, David Baldacci was there too.

But it’s even better to meet author friends.

 

photo-50My friend Jennifer Swanson writes awsome non fiction books for children about science.

On Friday, I was part of the Authors in School program and visited a local middle school, half an hour inland. There, I met ninety students who had read my novel Chronicles From Château Moines. Their school librarian had handpicked my book among many others. We had exchanged a few emails prior to my visit, but nothing beats the pleasure to meet in person someone who trusts you with her students.

I’ve already shared on this blog what I think of libraries and librarians. I basically put them on a pedestal. Public libraries have saved me at several moments of my life.

When I was a shy kid who took comfort in books but had no money to buy them new.

When I was a student, new to Paris and still on a tight budget.

When I was a newcomer to the USA and understood that I had to become as fluent as possible in all things American if I wanted to call this vast country my home one day.

The countless hours I’ve spent inside libraries, whether in France or the United States, have offered me so much more than just books.

So on Friday, I was very happy when I found out that I would meet the students inside their school library.

The librarian had given me carte blanche for my presentation, but she had told me that it would be wonderful to emphasize the historical facts that are the backdrop of my novel.

I also knew that most of the students had probably not traveled abroad. After all, I had also lived a rural childhood and only went to London (my first ever trip abroad) when I was at the university, even though I lived right across the Chanel.

So I figured that telling these boys and girls a little bit about France would interest them. But you know what is said about show, don’t tell?

So I added several photos from my native Normandy to my presentation. I’m lucky because Normandy is one of the most renowned French regions in the US. Sadly, it is mostly due to WWII and D Day.

flersMy hometown.

domfrontDomfront, Normandy

caenCaen, Normandy where I did my undergrad studies

plagenormandieD Day landing beaches

But I was visiting twelve and thirteen-year-old students, so this war is a very old war that cannot resonate much with them.

So I told them about my dad chewing his first piece of gum and my mom eating chocolate for the first time in years, when they were barely older than them.

Based on my last school visit and the success of the French song I played, I also added more music to this presention. These kids love French music, even though they don’t understand the lyrics.

I admitted that I couldn’t understand English lyrics either when I arrived in California. They asked me how long it took me to be fluent. In general, specified one.

That’s a hard question. You don’t want to discourage anyone, right? But you cannot lie either. So I made a distinction between oral comprehension and reading skills, between casual conversation and writing skills. Also that is was easier to learn a foreign language when you were a child.

After a Trivia Game based on the novel, we ended with a Q&A moment.

A girl shared that she was like Sylvie in my book: she also wrote songs in a notebook.

A boy told me that he wanted to play professional basketball like Jake.

Another one played the guitar like Scott.

It’s a good feeling when a reader relates to one fictional character.

That’s why I loved reading so much when I was a kid. Finding someone who was a little bit like me or a lot like me made me understand that I was not alone and that much different from anyone else.

Another girl asked me to say something in French. That’s a common question. Even adults sometimes ask me to speak French. So I returned the question and asked them what they wanted me to say.

“Tell us in French that you will sign our books at the end.”

So I did tell them under oohhs and aahhs.

Which always surprises me because French is my native language and I have no idea why everyone thinks it’s beautiful.

I told them that I’d love to speak American English like them and they looked at me like it was the weirdest dream to have.

They also wanted to know if their first names had a French equivalent.

I made Violet (Violette), Luke (Luc), and Alexander (Alexandre) happy and I felt bad to break the news to Tray, Shellby and Devon. But I reassured them: many French kids now have American first names too.

The boys and girls who had a name with a French equivalent asked me to sign their copy of my book in French. Aw…

 

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And they liked the T-shirt I wore. I bought it for another school visit right before Valentine’s Day and decided that it was okay to wear it again, even a few days after Valentine’s Day.

Besides, the story is about peace, said one girl. Right.

So, in case we doubt that our diverse backgrounds and personal stories cannot open discussions and create links between us, here is the truth:

Kids and teens in this early part of the 21st century are curious, smart, open minded, generous and non judgmental.

The future is theirs and it is in good hands when the heart is at the right place.

I trust them. All of them.

From one coast to another and everywhere in between.

And of course, beyond our frontiers.

 

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Mind and Body in Sync

Winter triggers more negative comments than any other season. People complain about the cold, the rain, the ice, the wind, the short days. But even with these challenges winter can be the perfect time to keep mind and body in sync.

Here are just a few things that make my winter more enjoyable and less stressful.

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READING

I’ve decided to limit my time on social media. Too much can be too much. I’ve always favored reading newspapers to watching the news on TV. Lucky me, my husband feels the same way. But I’ve also stopped reading every article. There is a limit to the information we really need.

All around me schools have started to celebrate kindness and friendship to honor Valentine’s Day. To match the mood I deliberately chose kindhearted books at the library this week.

I picked the picture book When an Elephant Falls in Love by Davide Cali and illustrated by Alice Lotti.

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The story depicts an elephant, doing all the weird, silly things that we all do when in love with someone who doesn’t know our feelings. Watching the elephant eat an entire cheesecake while he wants to be in the best shape for the elephant of his dreams is both funny and touching.

After reading Saving Red, I chose Girls Like Me by Lola St.Vil, another young adult novel in verse that weaves in emails and texts from the two main characters who have nothing in common and yet fall for each other. He is the gorgeous, popular guy (at least in appearance) and she is the girl considered too fat in their typical contemporary high school. She has no confidence (until she understands what really matters).

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These two books remind me that the most beautiful things in life involve love and also happen to those who wait.

WRITING

Always been my way to deal with the world around me. Over the last two weeks I wrote three new picture book manuscripts (now preparing them for submission). Through writing, I remain creative and also grounded.

photo(157)From last summer in Maine. 

MUSIC

Last week, I did a school visit. I included an American and a French songs to my PowerPoint presentation. War and Non, Non Rien N’a Changé are both about the Vietnam War and from 1971, the backdrop and time period of my novel. This is in fact the song War that planted the early seeds of my novel Chronicles From Château Moines. Listening to War reminded me of Non, Non Rien N’a Changé.

edwinstarrWar by Edwin Starr

poppysNon, Non Rien N’a Changé by Les Poppys

I’m happy to confirm that music is a great addition to a school visit. The eighth graders loved it.

photo-45They also loved my pre-Valentine’s day heart-shaped chocolates:)

Today, I selected a few more French and American songs for my upcoming presentations. They are all part of my novel. As I added them to my playlist, I found familiar old French songs that I knew when I was growing up. They have acquired this vintage status that should make me feel old but somehow soothes the world around me.

Music, perhaps even more than any other media, can really transform our mood and bring light when we feel stressed or a little gloomy in the middle of winter.

 

YOGA

I started yoga exactly a year ago. My daughters suggested it, and my husband offered me an eight-class package. I loved the first class so much that the sampling turned into a membership. Although I love challenging exercise, now that I’m the mom of four kids, no longer so little, I listen to the motto: It’s not because the body can that the body should. So I stick to mind body classes and yin yoga with an occasional power class. Where am I a year later?

Besides the expected benefits: more flexibility, lean muscles, balance, better posture, I’ve learned to stop my mind when it starts to wander and in the end gets overstimulated and overwhelmed.

At the beginning of class, most instructors ask us to find an intention and to return to this intention during class when we find ourselves reliving past events or anticipating future events. Staying in the moment, like young children, is the hardest part of being an adult. I always keep my intention very simple. I pick a verb such as FOCUS or LET GO or a word such as PEACE or JOY. Whenever I start to mentally jot down a to-do list, elaborate a plot twist for a story I’m writing, or agonize over my latest manuscript submissions I force my mind to go back to my intention and to breathe. I swear it works. Yoga, especially in the winter when it’s more challenging to hike or work in the yard is a perfect way to relax our body and mind.

photo148Testing yoga a year and a half ago before starting for good

MOVIES

I love going to the movies. It’s a whole different experience to watch a movie in a theater rather than at home. This moment connects us to other people, since we’ve all decided to watch the same movie at the same time at the same place.

La La Land is my number one pick to deflate bad vibes.

For once, this is an American movie with no gunshots and no violence. Just music. Jazz mostly, but also the music that plays between two people who dream big artistic dreams. My husband found the plot simple. He’s right. But the filming is not. The actors are terrific. Who wouldn’t tap dance with Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone? The movie has been filmed in Los Angeles and close by, in Pasadena, a small architecturally interesting city that I know fairly well, now that my son studies in the vicinity. The ending is not a happy ending and yet it is a happy ending.

And there are these views from the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, a place that I also got to enjoy, thanks to my son.

losangelesTaken when I visited the Observatory

SENSORY SURROUNDINGS

Weather permitting, I always take a morning walk in my neighborhood and often a shorter one at night.

In the winter, nature demands more of our attention to appreciate its beauty. I try to focus on the wind playing in my hair, the sun warming my neck, a drizzle kissing my face, a branch brushing my arm, the earth holding me, the air meeting my lungs. A deep gratitude for these natural elements fills me.

I read somewhere that all French women love champagne and chocolate. Truth is I’m not especially fond of them. But I love my perfume. However, this winter I’m using essential oils, too. Another suggestion from one of my daughters; her brother must have been nearby because he offered me an oil diffuser for Christmas. I use it in my small office. Since I’m new to essential oils and love anything lavender I’ve stuck to lavender. And found out that one single drop rubbed inside my wrist and a few poured in the diffuser are enough to trigger calmness. Also just a drop smells like taking a walk through a lavender field.

If you want to learn more about essential oils you should visit Isabelle (French native who also lives in the US) on her website Univers Aroma. So far the information is only available in French, but if you read French you’ll learn which essential oil is best for headaches, inflammation, loss of hair, cleaning your sink disposal, and easing stress. Lavender seems a good choice! But I feel like exploring many more.

 

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How do you keep your mind and body in sync during the winter season?

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Born to Run et Jouer de la Musique

Pendant une semaine cet automne j’ai beaucoup écouté la chanson Streets of Philadelphia. Je lisais un roman où je suivais une adolescente à travers cette ville qui comme tant d’autres présente de multiples facettes. Ecrite par Bruce Springsteen à la demande du réalisateur du film Philadelphia, cette chanson illustre le choix réfléchi d’un artiste qui dès ses débuts aura utilisé la musique pour dépeindre les Etats Unis.

Quiconque écoute Springsteen finit par aimer l’homme derrière les tubes qui sont devenus des morceaux cultes mais aussi derrière les chansons moins populaires, plus difficiles d’accès.

Mon accès personnel a été immédiat et pourtant laborieux, du à ma méconnaissance de l’anglais, des Etats Unis que je découvris de façon littéraire, musicale et cinématographique, des années avant de la vivre physiquement en émigrant. L’Amérique de Springsteen m’était étrangère et pourtant je ressentais sans pouvoir la définir une connexion que je pouvais toucher du bout des doigts et surtout du fond du cœur.

 

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Je viens de célébrer mes 26 ans de vie aux US (je me suis trompée d’une année dans mon billet de décembre, la preuve que le temps passe plus vite encore ici!). L’Amérique de Springsteen est lentement devenue la mienne. Mon ignorance des Etats Unis quand je passais et repassais ses disques, mon dictionnaire ouvert sur mon lit et mon crayon à la main a disparu. Et finalement je comprends ce que je ne pouvais pas alors décrire.

Une langue nous lie à notre pays d’origine, c’est vrai. On garde pour toujours comme une distance entre une langue acquise à l’âge adulte et celle qui a imprégné notre enfance. Mais l’expérience de classe, l’appartenance à une « tribu » transcende les mots.

Je me reconnaissais dans les chansons de Springsteen, même si les trois quarts des mots m’étaient inconnus. Il m’est arrivé aux Etats Unis de rencontrer des gens avec lesquels une relation immédiate s’est tissée malgré nos enfances et adolescences passées à des milliers de kilomètres l’une de l’autre. Simplement parce que nous étions les héritiers d’une même couche sociale, celles de la classe ouvrière française, celle du blue-collar américain.

Il m’était donc impossible de ne pas trouver un écho à mon expérience de vie dans les chansons de Springsteen qui dépeignent des expériences semblables et posent des questions identiques quel que soit notre pays d’origine. Qui affame les plus pauvres d’entre nous ? Pourquoi est-il si difficile de joindre les deux bouts pour certains ? Pourquoi rêver ne reste parfois qu’un mot? Est-ce que rêver est inutile donc ?

J’attendais la sortie des mémoires de Bruce Springsteen avec impatience. Je savais y trouver des réponses. Je savais m’y retrouver un peu aussi. Le livre a dépassé mes espérances.

 

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Springsteen a écrit ses mémoires au cours de sept années avec des moments d’interruption pouvant durer une année. Il dit avoir pris son temps parce qu’il n’avait aucune pression pour les rédiger. Il a écrit à la main, se donnant la possibilité de revenir en arrière jusqu’à ce qu’il puisse trouver le fil conducteur de son histoire.

Ce qui m’a immédiatement marquée est la qualité de l’écriture, précise et souvent percutante, empreinte d’émotions mais jamais sentimentale. Les chapitres sont courts, parfois très courts, comme des chansons. Springsteen leur a d’ailleurs donné un titre, tour à tour drôle, poétique, à l’image de ses chansons.

Plus que le parcours extraordinaire de ce musicien hors du commun le cœur de ce livre reste la poursuite inlassable d’un homme conscient que la tragédie humaine est sa mortalité. Springsteen a eu la chance et la malchance de vouloir très tôt donner un sens à sa vie et d’en connaître l’outil. La musique était sa destinée et serait son salut mais aussi son fardeau puisque sans elle il ne serait rien. Le drame de Springsteen aura été en effet d’être perdu hors de la scène. Conscient de ce vide, il aura cherché jusqu’à l’âge de quarante ans (jusqu’à son histoire d’amour avec Patti Scialfa) comment vivre une vie hors de la route et des concerts, car en effet il insiste que la vie doit toujours dépasser l’art et que sans une vraie vie de famille que l’on construit délibérément, avec courage et sacrifice, nous ne sommes pas grand chose.

Le mémoire de Springsteen est bien sur un régal pour quiconque aime sa musique mais aussi pour tous ceux et celles qui ne peuvent vivre sans créativité.

Les passages sur la création de certaines chansons, par exemple Born to Run, or bien encore la conception d’un album, illustrent de nombreux points communs avec la créativité littéraire. Le moment où une idée effleure l’esprit, s’installe dans la tête et petit à petit se développe jusqu’à ce qu’il soit impossible de ne pas la réaliser. Et c’est là où l’on découvre un Springsteen relativement inconnu : un bourreau de travail, un musicien qui honore ses musiciens mais n’oublie jamais qu’il est le leader de son groupe.

On découvre donc des amitiés remises en question, revécues et souvent suffisamment fortes pour résister aux désaccords et au temps. Le E Street band en est un parfait exemple.

Et puis on découvre un Springsteen qui ne touchera jamais au tabac ni à la drogue, davantage par peur de mourir que pour la dépendance. Un Springsteen mentalement fragile qui connaitra plusieurs moments de dépression suffisamment sérieux pour envisager une thérapie et un traitement médical. Conscient des dégâts que sa relation, ou plutôt son absence de relation, avec son père en est la raison, Springsteen ne fuira cependant jamais ce père grand buveur et fumeur, souffrant de problèmes mentaux qui seront diagnostiqués trop tardivement. Ce père représente la figure masculine, machiste des années 50, muré dans son silence car convaincu que parler et dévoiler ses sentiments est un signe de faiblesse. Pour ses petits-enfants il laissera craquer sa carapace que Springsteen lui aussi ne craquera d’ailleurs qu’en aimant Patti Scialfa, qui inlassablement le forcera à ouvrir les portes sur l’intimité du cœur, celle sans laquelle une relation ne pourra jamais être complète.

Les fans craqueront pour les planches photos en noir et blanc. Springsteen bébé. Petit garçon. Ado. Et pour le Springsteen des pochettes de disques, celui qui a séduit la France (et les françaises!) album après album. Et puis il y a des photos de sa famille. Une photo du mariage de ses parents. Une histoire d’amour étrange que Springsteen ne comprendra jamais. Il reconnaît devoir bien plus à sa mère que sa première guitare. Il l’aime et respectera son choix de suivre son mari du New Jersey en Californie, laissant un Springsteen de 15 ans derrière avec sa sœur de quelques années son ainée et quelques membres de leur famille. Photos de ses trois enfants (ils ont l’âge des miens) et de Patti Scialfa, musicienne elle aussi et faisant partie du E Street band bien des années avant leur mariage.

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Le choix de la musique que nous écoutons, des chanteurs, des groupes et des musiciens que nous respectons et admirons n’est pas un hasard. La musique est sans doute le plus universel mode de communication qui lie les êtres humains. Mais il y a des raisons précises derrière nos choix musicaux. Nous répondons à quelque chose, ancré au plus profond de nous. Nos raisons sont d’abord personnelles avant d’être universelles. Springsteen a d’abord questionné les raisons pour lesquelles la classe moyenne ouvrière américaine s’appauvrissait en voyant son père, ses voisins et plus tard sa sœur ainée et son mari affronter la réalité humiliante de la perte d’emploi avant de les traduire en musique.

Springsteen n’est pas politiquement aussi engagé que d’autres musiciens et il le reconnaît. Mais rester depuis plusieurs dizaines d’années obsédé par les rêves et les échecs de l’Amérique, ne cesser de les dépeindre à travers une musique qui résonne au-delà de la langue dans laquelle il écrit, être le chantre de cette Amérique et rester le porte parole du blue-collar n’est-il pas un engagement digne de respect ?

Le 11 septembre 2001, alors que Springsteen reprenait ses enfants à l’école, un parent d’élèves a baissé la vitre de sa voiture et a crié, « Bruce ! On a besoin de toi ! »

On connaît la réponse sublime à cette requête.

A mon tour de vous supplier, Monsieur Bruce Springsteen.

 

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P.S. Ces deux citations de John Irving font écho au credo de Bruce Springsteen :

« If you are lucky enough to find a way of life you love, you have to find the courage to live it. »

« You’ve got to get obsessed and stay obsessed. »

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