Journalism

The question most people ask me is …

By Anne Sebba, Richmond Magazine, December 2017

The question most people ask me is …

I love talking about my books. You may think that’s obvious, surely every author likes discussing subjects close to their heart that they have spent years obsessing about. But no! Many writers, preferring the solitude of thinking, hate having to share with an audience what they see as their inner workings and to reveal what was really their inspiration.

Not I!

For me, the talks are the reward for all those years spent alone researching in dark libraries and sitting at a desk trying to produce fluent prose. I feel I have finally been freed from my cage, that giving a talk is just another form of communication, in addition to the writing. And at the end of every talk there is question time. Some authors complain this is always so predictable.

“I’m asked about my routine,” they moan. “Where I work, what hours I work, do I write in longhand first?”

Until this book, about Women in Wartime Paris, I might even, just occasionally, have agreed.

But this time it is different. I am often asked detailed questions about particular individuals: did I come across a woman, let us call her Brigitte, who was in Paris until 1941 but then fled? Or have I written about (shall we say) ‘Jean-Francois Maquisard’ who, my questioner is convinced, sheltered a group of Jewish acrobats/ dancers/lawyers etc. Sadly, I probably cannot help them. But I love hearing the extraordinary, individual stories that come with the questions including some from those who want proof that their parents did the right thing. Last week I had a letter from a man who told me that both his uncle and father had been policemen in war time Paris. While he understood perfectly well what they had to do, he hoped they were policeman who did not take part in any of the roundups of Jews. Could I perhaps confirm that? Of course I cannot!

People who stand up and make statements are usually the bane of festivals, and often the organiser will ask questioners in advance to limit themselves to questions only, not statements. I have never understood the logic for this and now with my latest book, even less so. Some of the most interesting Q and A’s have been where members of the audience have clearly come specifically to share their experiences. Last month I was speaking in Devon and a woman was swiftly up on her feet the moment the roving mikes went a-roving.

She began somewhat shakily. Nervous, I assumed, but no that wasn’t it. She wanted to tell me (and here her voice went from a slight catch to a total choke – she was crying as she spoke) that as a result of having already read my book, she had had a DNA test since she was convinced that her grandmother was Jewish even though she had never said so. When the DNA test came back it proved positive and this woman said that she now realised her grandmother too would have shared the fate of so many of ‘my’ Parisiennes. It was a deeply moving testimony which left the audience stunned. Luckily someone else picked up the baton and there followed a lively exchange about Nazi policy in Paris and to what extent most French had, or had not, tried to resist.

Additionally, I have often been asked by a French speaking audience, what right do I feel I have as an English woman who did not grow under any kind of occupation, to tell the story of those who did? Or else, how would I have reacted? It is not an easy one to answer since how on earth can you know with certainty?

Recently, staying in a small French village near the Loire, which had been occupied, I was given lots more stories about life under occupation in the countryside. Yes, they had enough food unlike many in Paris and other cities but living so closely with the German masters meant that everyone knew what everyone else was up to and even 70 years after the War, people still remember. These villagers felt that I, as an Englishwoman, was at an advantage in tackling this story because I could be seen as more objective, more neutral whereas if a French woman had tried to ask the questions, her interviewees would always be thinking: what is her back story, what did she really do during the war?

But the question I am always asked (and here this book was no different) is:

Where do you get your ideas for new subjects? Yes, the ideas do come when lying in the bath or walking the dog but sometimes they emerge from the questions people ask at Literary Festivals, when suddenly it seems this is the subject everyone is talking about.

So, the message is, please go on asking those questions, however banal you think they are. Authors like me love nothing more than to have an excuse to talk and to talk and go on talking about our work!

Anne Sebba is the author of Les Parisiennes: How the women of Paris lived loved and died in the 1940’s (Orion £9.99)

She is talking about les Parisiennes on December 13th @7.30at St Anne’s Church Hall Kew Green for tickets http://www.kewi.org.uk/programme.html