While there’s no shortage of historical novels set in Paris, no other recent novel both embraces and transcends its Parisian setting like Alex George’s new book, The Paris Hours. Set over the course of a single day, with plenty of detours into the fascinating backstories of its four main characters, The Paris Hours brims with beauty, music, tragedy, uncertainty, and hope. While the chapters fit into an arc with a clear beginning, middle, and end, they also function like self-contained short stories, providing glimpses into each character’s life that resonate deeply. I was lucky enough to talk to Alex about the seeds of inspiration that grew into this story, conducting research as a defensive strategy, hitting the “trifecta of horror,” and telling the story you want to tell.
This novel is not only beautiful but complex, twining multiple points of view and storylines together over the course of a single day. How did the story first come to you? Did one character spring to mind first? Or was it the setting? Or one of the marquee names like Josephine Baker or Gertrude Stein who make an appearance in these pages?
The origins of this story are weirdly specific. I was driving home one evening listening to the local NPR station, which was playing a beautiful piece of music by Maurice Ravel. When the music ended, the announcer explained that the music had been commissioned by Serge Diaghilev, the Russian impresario, for one of his ballets. The list of names that Diaghilev collaborated with back then was astonishing: Picasso, Nijinski, Debussy, Cocteau, Ravel, Balanchine, Matisse, Coco Chanel, Braque. The list goes on. Out of nowhere, I had my next book: Serge Diaghilev and this extraordinary creative community he fostered. I began to read everything I could about Paris in the 1920s and the painters and writers and musicians who lived there. I consumed histories, biographies, and cultural commentaries. But as my research progressed, I began to wonder if I would be able to do justice to the collective genius of Diaghilev’s crowd. I also started to question whether their stories really needed to be told.
If you listen to a Ravel melody, or dive into a Chagall dreamscape, the art speaks for itself. In the end, I resisted the allure of all that celebrity. Some of those characters appear in the book — including Maurice Ravel — but by design they exist on the periphery of the novel, not at its heart. As a writer I am subject to my own preoccupations, and I am drawn to quieter stories. And so I redrew the focus away from all that dazzling genius. Of the four stories I chose to tell instead, Camille’s came first. Marcel Proust’s maid, Céleste Albaret, wrote a memoir of her life with the great writer, and I was fascinated by their peculiar relationship. When Céleste wrote that she had burned the notebooks that contained the bones of In Search of Lost Time, I got that tingly Spidey Sense that nudges writers toward a certain story. What if, I wondered, she’d kept one for herself? And from that small seed, this whole thing grew. The other main characters arrived soon after that, although it took longer to see how their stories all connected.
“Paris between the wars” is such an evocative phrase, but that setting has been less explored than in recent historical fiction than, say, Paris during World War II. What did you enjoy most about researching and writing about this time period, this place?
As my obsession with Diaghilev suggests, I am fascinated by artists and by what makes and inspires people to create. After the trauma of the First World War, Paris became the epicenter of so many creative endeavors. There was a reason why Diaghilev, a Russian by birth, chose the city as the base of his famous Ballet Russes. There was an extraordinary sense of limitless potential in Paris back then – its citizens had survived the most hellish war in history, so anything was possible. After the horror, old shackles fell away, and the city seemed possessed by a certain abandon, which was a perfect crucible for all that genius. Where and when else could Ulysses have been published? Paris burned more brightly than anywhere else on the planet back then, and the flame drew creative spirits into its orbit. It was an astonishing time. Having lived in Paris, I particularly enjoyed reading about these characters living their lives on the streets that I knew well. Reading their stories, and then writing my own, was a way of revisiting the city myself.
Many of the fabulous blurbs on the cover of The Paris Hours — from authors like Christina Baker Kline, Will Schwalbe, and Nancy Horan — mention how stunning they found the ending. Without giving anything away, was that an ending you had in mind the whole time you were drafting, or did it evolve later in the process?
I write organically, which is a nice way of saying that I’m too lazy to plan things out in advance. The idea that I could have constructed that ending ahead of time is preposterous. The ending in its present form was actually conceived after the book was sold, while I was in editorial discussions with my editor, Amy Einhorn. The problem with writing within a tightly defined form like the one I used in The Paris Hours — the story is told in cycles of four chapters, each featuring a different character, and progresses chronologically over the course of a single day — is that even a small tweak can trigger a number of other necessary changes. Rewriting the ending meant that I had to go back and perform massive surgery to the story all the way through. But I think it was worth it.
How do you approach the historical novelist’s classic conundrum: Should the facts of history be incorporated into historical fiction, or is it okay to deviate from the record for the sake of story? How do you find the right balance for your own work?
E.L. Doctorow wrote, “The historian will tell you what happened. The novelist will tell you what it felt like.” That sums up my feelings pretty concisely. I try to get stuff right, but I don’t obsess over it —– the truths I’m more interested in are the emotional ones. I’ve thought of my stories as threads lain across the tapestry of existing history. In that context, the role of my research was primarily a defensive one. In other words, I wanted to ensure that nothing I wrote directly contradicted the established record. My thread needed to blend into the background. In The Paris Hours there are various real-life characters sprinkled throughout the novel, and here the novelist’s job becomes more complex, but also more interesting. It’s not just a question of getting your facts right. A novelist has to find the caesuras, the breaks in the real-life character’s narrative. That’s the (often confined) space which we have to inhabit.
To answer the question directly, while it’s a nuanced and complicated issue, I do feel that the story should come first. When facts get in the way of the story you want to tell, something has to give, and every writer needs to find their own approach to resolving such conflicts. For example, in early drafts of The Paris Hours, one of the four principal characters was a real person, Marcel Proust’s maid, Céleste Albaret. As the novel progressed, the story I wanted to tell kept edging further away from the facts of Céleste’s life, to the point that I no longer felt comfortable. So I renamed the character, and that gave me the license to tell the story that I wanted to tell without worrying that I was egregiously misrepresenting Céleste’s life.
In addition to your career as an author, you’re also deeply invested in the literary community as the founder and director of the Unbound Book Festival and owner of Skylark Bookshop. I imagine these times have been extraordinarily challenging. Have there been any bright spots in the darkness, anything positive that surprised you?
It’s been a challenging time, for sure. As the owner of an independent bookshop (closed), director of a literary festival (canceled), and an author with a book coming out (tour canceled), I have hit, as a friend of mine put it, the trifecta of horror. And yet there is joy everywhere. The shop has become a mail-order operation and we have been inundated with orders from across the country. We have taken parts of the festival online and these virtual events have been wonderfully received. As for the book, all events have been either postponed, canceled, or put online. It’s a disappointment, for sure, but when such setbacks happen, you quickly learn what’s important. And while I love meeting readers on tour, what really matters is that the book is out there, being read. And, thankfully, that seems to be happening, pandemic or not. So there remains so much to be thankful for.
The Paris Hours
By Alex George
Published May 05, 2020