The real Adam Gopnik – loving France, little kings, and the one question he’s never been asked
As I interviewed inimitable New Yorker writer and Francophile Adam Gopnik in his Upper East Side apartment, my mind blinked at the normalcy of this abnormal experience. His impossibly happy Havanese dog named Butterscotch greeted me excitedly at the door. He explained why pushing out a book is like pushing out a baby. He mused that in order to understand Parisian beauty, you have to understand Parisian blood. And he sent me a YouTube link to Game 2 of the 1971 ice hockey matchup between the Boston Bruins and the Montreal Canadiens.
This was an interview.
From the profundities of Paris and the Charlie Hebdo attacks to his forthcoming book(s) and little kings with big hearts, Gopnik explores the world – and his own – for us.
Adam Gopnik, a staff writer for The New Yorker since 1986, is the author of multiple books including Paris to the Moon (2000), The King in the Window (2005), Through the Children’s Gate: A Home in New York (2006), Angels & Ages: A Short Book about Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life (2009) and, most recently, The Table Comes First: Family, France and the Meaning of Food (2011). He has won three National Magazine Awards for Essays and Criticism, and the George Polk Award for Magazine Reporting.
You were raised in Montreal and received your B.A. in Art History from McGill University. How have your early years in Montreal informed your life and work as an adult?
The biggest way they informed my life as an adult is that I met my wife Martha there, before we started college in Montreal. And we’re still together, so that’s by far the single biggest thing that I got out of it, that I brought with me from Montreal.
The biggest thing physically (but the most important thing spiritually and in every other way) – growing up in Montreal meant growing up in a bilingual world. I used to joke that living in Paris was no trial for us, because we had grown up in a paranoid, monolingual, French-speaking environment, so I knew all the moves.
But, I didn’t go to a French school, so I didn’t have that around me. I have five brothers and sisters, and [four of them] did go to French schools, so they were all completely and fluently bilingual in that kind of natural way. As a consequence, they grew up with very little Francophilia in their souls, as it was sort of leeched out of them by the fact of their French education. They went to “French-French” schools in Montreal for a variety of reasons. French schools abroad – I suppose you have to call them colonial schools – drum into you such an obsequious standard of “Frenchness” that you grow to hate it. […] They like France fine, but they have no particular romantic obsession with it. I was lucky, in a sense, not to be educated in an entirely French environment.
In an interview with the French-American Foundation, you voiced your deep love for French civilization – “one of the strongest emotions” you possess. Since first visiting Paris at age 16, you have been fascinated by the crossroads of “American-imagined Paris” and “the real France.” What, for you, are the most significant differences between the two?
Such a demanding question. There’s a famous story, where Henry James was directing a young Englishman who was about to go to Paris for the first time – an Englishman who was named Edward Marsh. […] Henry James said to him, “You’re going to Paris and must not be confused or misled by the superficial and cosmetic aspect of Paris.” Then, he paused and said, “Because the superficial and cosmetic aspect of Paris is a very important part of it, you must not be confused by the superficial and cosmetic aspect of the superficial and cosmetic aspect of Paris.”
I’ve always thought that was a profound remark. What he meant by it was, one of the things that is wonderful in Paris is the beautiful surface of things. The things that are superficially beautiful in Paris – everything from streets filled with dappled light and cafés, to the trees and the Palais Royal, to the façade of the Gare du Nord – those things are central to what make Paris, Paris. The architectural thrills, the physical thrills, and the kind of general “impressionist painting” cultural thrills which linger are part of why we love Paris.
But, you are always distinguishing that from the touristic Paris, from the Paris of cheap thrills – of things that are not really part of the civilization of France, but are just part of the overlying “superficial and cosmetic aspect of the superficial and cosmetic aspect.”
Like everybody else who loves Paris, I have a slightly snobbish and unattractive contempt for the frequent American take on it. […] I don’t think you can understand Paris – one of the ways in which the superficial imagery of it is different from the reality – without being aware of the history of France and without being aware of contemporary French life. Paris is shaped by French politics as much as by any other single thing.
One of the things I love to do is to sit and read Le Monde or Le Point or Paris Match while I’m footloose in France. The […] sense of responsibility to the profundities of Paris, of France, is part of what makes Paris blossom, what makes Paris gleam. If you’re not aware of the, in many ways, tragic history of Paris, then the beauties of Paris tend to register in far too cosmetic a manner. They don’t register less if you’re aware of the long history of blood and conflict that is underneath them – they register even more in a way. But they register for other reasons.
[And] what is a more famous image of that “superficial and cosmetic” Paris than Renoir’s Bal du Moulin de la Galette (the famous picture of kids dancing, dappled light, and beautiful people)? It’s been reduced to a cliché and used for album covers and calendar art, and it seems to be nothing but “tourist” Paris. However, if you think about that picture at all, [it] was painted in 1876. It’s five short years after the Commune, five short years after the fires of the Commune, after the worst civil war that France has ever seen in Paris. Thousands of people dead, half the city burned. So, that picture is making a very important political statement when you look at it. I interpret it as being – since all of those kids are working class kids up in Montmartre in the north of Paris – a sort of statement for the politics of pleasure against the politics of pain. The politics of power at that time.
To answer your original question: where the “superficial” Paris differs from the reality isn’t so much that the “real” Paris is squalid and ugly, and only the touristic Paris is beautiful and appealing, but the things that are the most beautiful and appealing about Paris are inextricably linked to things that are tragic and painful.
While living in Paris, you began writing a children’s fantasy adventure novel, The King In The Window (2005). You published another novel in the same genre, The Steps Across the Water (2010), illustrating the fantasy world of U Nork. Both books target a younger audience but contain specifically adult references, similar to Neil Gaiman or Roald Dahl. What (or who) inspired you to write in the fantasy genre? Did you write these novels for children or adults?
I wrote them for myself, to be honest. I didn’t write Paris to the Moon for adults, thinking, “Oh, I’ll write this for adults.” I wrote it because it was so. Because it was the force of my experience that pushed the book out of me, like a baby is pushed out of its mother. The mother doesn’t say, “I’ll push this one out for my friends.” You push the book out because you’ve got to – as you push out the baby.
To tell you the specific genesis of The King in the Window, I was trying to write a novel when I was in Paris, in addition to all the stuff I was writing for The New Yorker. It proceeded along fairly well – it was called Democrats Abroad – and it was a sort of semi-Jamesian novel about Americans living in Paris in the 1990s. But, I wasn’t really as deeply invested in it as I wanted to be.
So, I was in the American Library in Paris over in the 7th [arrondissement] with my son, Luke (who was then about 4 or 5), and we were in the children’s book room. I was looking around and showing him books that had meant a great deal to me as a kid, like A Wrinkle in Time, Phantom Tollbooth, The Once and Future King, Tolkien, Mary Poppins books by Pamela Travers. I, suddenly, with what seemed at the time a clear epiphany, said, “This is the room I want to be in. This is the room I want to write a book for.” That night (it was the middle of January, it was Epiphany evening), Luke got the bean (the fève) and put the crown on his head and looked in the black window (as in the beginning of The King in the Window). He said, “Oh look, the king in the window.” It was like this gift from heaven – the gods, the muses, your son – that this was what the book would be called.
Of everything I’ve ever written, [The King in the Window] is my favorite thing. It has the most, if you like, of “me” in it. It’s my personal mythology. All of that stuff about losing your souls to the screens, all of it about a father or a parent being rescued by a child, all of it about Paris in the winter, everything about Mrs. Pearson – who is by far the character I like best in all of my writing – all of that stuff means a lot to me. I recognize, with a certain twinge, that most of it is over the head of most children. But every once in a while, there will be a kid to whom it really speaks. Even all these years later, I’ll get a note or a letter. Or it’ll be another writer. Of all people, Alexander Theroux wrote and said, “I love this dark fable, will you sign my copy?” That’s pleasure in itself.
Then, I went on to write The Steps Across the Water immediately after because Olivia, our daughter, was aware that Luke had a book written for him. She said, “When are you going to write a book for me?” I said, “Well, baby, Luke gave his book a name, The King in the Window, and you’ll have to give your book a name” (thinking that would buy me a year or two). She said instantly, “My book is called The Steps Across the Water.” I said, “OK, I’ll have to do it.”
In a writer’s life, you write big books that people like, you write big books that people don’t like, you write small books that no one reads, and you write small books that a few people read. You sort of come to terms with that, or you try to come to terms with the variety of responses. John Updike said once (and Updike was my hero in all things literary) that you’re trying to write, not for the critics and not even for your immediate audience (the people you know or readers who have an affection for your work), but for an imaginary audience – which is yourself as a young person. He would always think of writing for the lonely, very provincial, rural boy he had been in Shillington as a kid. I sort of feel that way about it too.
Apart from Paris, you seem to profess an equal affection for New York. Whether in your novel The Steps Across the Water (2010) or your collection of essays Through The Children’s Gate: A Home In New York (2006), New York remains dear to you. What about New York intrigues you most?
That’s hard, but it’s also very apropos because, right now, the book I’m working on is a prequel to The Children’s Gate called At the Stranger’s Gate. It’s about coming to New York in the 80s (which Martha and I did) from Canada. It’s about the eternal business, which is somewhere between “barefoot in the park” and Dostoevsky, of trying to make a life in New York. It deals with the first six years we were here up to the moment when I finally got something published in The New Yorker – when my grown up life began.
I think the thing that intrigues me about New York is also the thing that depresses me about New York. No, depress is the wrong word. That frustrates me about New York. And that is – where Paris is, with all of its transformations, very much a city of continuity – New York is a city with no continuities at all. New York is a city of constant change.
Our first years in New York were spent not far from here, really, in a basement studio on 87th and First. And yet nothing, nothing, of the world we knew then 35 years ago remains now. Eighty-sixth Street is unrecognizable. First Avenue is unrecognizable. Even this neighborhood, which we used to like to visit then, is unrecognizable. So, you have to deal with that change.
The positive side of that, of course, self-evidently, is that you’re in a city that’s constantly being reinfused with new energy. I don’t think there’s ever been anything more moving in my life – my public life, the common life that we share with other people – than the recovery of New York from 9/11. People don’t even talk about it adequately, it seems to me. When 9/11 happened, it was (the official line outside New York) a tragedy. Yet New York healed, and New Yorkers chose to live with their hopes rather than their fears with amazing celerity, amazing speed. I’ve always thought that is one of the most beautiful things about New York.
So, the play between the constant infusion of new energies in New York and the constant exasperation, or constant bafflement, at how much the city changes is the core of New York’s appeal for me. Even five years ago, Crown Heights was Hasidim and danger, and now it’s the coolest pizza places in the city. That’s New York.
You recently wrote a piece for The New Yorker on the PEN American Center’s right to honor the murdered cartoonists of France’s Charlie Hebdo at its annual Literary Gala with the Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award. Why did you choose to write this article? What has the general reaction been?
Run it back just a bit. When the Charlie Hebdo massacre took place, I wrote immediately for The New Yorker a Comment on the very particular and, in some ways, peculiar French tradition of “the caricature” and the caricature magazine going all the way back to Philipon and the July Monarchy and Daumier.
As it happened, when I was doing the MOMA exhibition “High and Low” with Kirk Varnedoe, I wrote the chapter on caricature. A lot of it was about late nineteenth-century caricature and cartoon journalism in France, like Le Rire and L’Assiette au beurre. This was a tradition of satirical cartooning at a very high level, but also a very scabrous and offensive kind that we just don’t have in America. Mad Magazine is the closest we come, and that’s not very close.
So, I wanted to explain to people not to misread these [cartoons]. I wanted people to understand that Wolinski and Stéphane Charbonnier were not borderline gutter scrawlers. These were important artists with Légions d’honneur who existed within a very particularly French tradition.
Then, the whole thing happened with PEN, and people reacted to it. […] This was a case where there was something to be said on both sides of that particular argument. The case to be made on the other side was, whatever the intentions of the artist, that kind of very raw cartooning hurts the feelings and damages the self-esteem of minority peoples who have enough troubles already. You can certainly defend the principle of free expression – these men should never have been killed – without handing them a good conduct badge at the same time.
I think this was wrong, but I don’t think it’s ridiculous. I think it’s wrong partly because images need to be understood in context just the way that sentences need to be understood in context. If you think that because Mark Twain uses the word “nigger” in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn he was a racist, you’ve completely misunderstood the most anti-racist novel in the American language. Similarly, if you think that because Charlie Hebdo cartoonists drew hairy Muslims or black people with big lips this was a racist enterprise, you’ve completely misunderstood the basis of it.
Charlie Hebdo was an anarchist magazine, that’s basically what it was. A libertarian anarchist magazine that never took the side of power – that was always relentlessly opposed to whoever was in power, that treated Sarkozy and Hollande with an open (perhaps well-deserved) contempt that they never directed at hopeless people.
People were misreading the language of cartooning, which needs interpretation the way any language does. I thought that for us not to offer solidarity and praise to those people who had seen to the remaining staff members (who had, after all, not seen their fellows criticized or censored, but slaughtered, murdered, by religious fanatics), I thought that the choice was clear. Between, maybe not endorsing religious fanaticism, but saying, “Oh, I understand that,” and saying, “No, I stand with the Charlie Hebdo people.” I thought that choice was clear. That’s why I wrote what I wrote.
Threatening another human being is different from criticizing another person’s ideas. You have to always keep them separate. Yes, sometimes the line can be hard to see, but that’s why we have laws and courts. […] That was the crucial point I was trying to make – that an insult to an ideology is radically unlike a threat to a human being.
Since the Charlie Hebdo attacks, France has undergone a national identity crisis. French identity is in question – and under fire. Speaking the French language, dressing according to French norms, and other republican rituals seem, today, to lack that fundamental civic binding quality they once did. Meanwhile, French politicians are voicing even stauncher support for laïcité (secularism). In a November 2014 speech cited in Le Monde, Nicolas Sarkozy made emphatic reference to assimilation (not integration) as the only way to become French. In your opinion, what does it mean to be French today? What can the French state do to bolster, and restore faith in, a unified French identity?
That’s a tough question and one that needs to be addressed on many levels. I’m a great believer in the French republican model. What are its components? It’s a belief that people can share ideals who don’t share identities.
The example nearest to my heart, and closest to my own experience, of course, is Jews in France. Even with all of the hideous portrayals and treacheries and tragedies of Jews in France, there is still a strong core of French Jewry who identify with republican – including men and women of great power and influence. It’s because you believe you can accept the ideals of liberty and fraternity and equality. You believe that you can leave your particularized identity at home and come into the place (the public square) as a citizen, not as a Jew or a Catholic or black or white. I think that’s a terrific principle. I think that’s right.
But there’s a moment in which the shared ideals are supposed to become the common identity. That seems, to me, to be wrong. In other words, it’s perfectly fair, right, and enlightened to say, “However you choose to live at home – kosher, Muslim, Catholic, Buddhist – is great, and that’s fully your identity. It can be, but it’s not what you bring into the public space.” However, to say that nobody should have these characteristics, nobody should cultivate the communitarianism (as they call it in France), that seems to me mistaken – and unsustainable too. That’s not how human beings live. Human beings tend to have multiple identities. We’re Jews and Americans, we’re Jews and Frenchmen, we’re Catholic and American, we’re Irish and American, we’re North African, Maghrebian and French. The multiplicity of identity isn’t a threat to democracy or to a common purpose.
The truth is that the struggle to have common republican values has been a struggle from the beginning. It’s come very, very hard. And it’s coming hard again. But, I agree with Olivier Roy when he says that the mistake is to think of a Muslim identity in France. What you have is a Muslim population in France, which is as varied and multipart as any other population has ever been. Not only are the overwhelming majority of French Muslims not fanatic ideologues, they’re not even Muslims in the sense that we insist on thinking of – any more than French Jews are Jewish, in the sense that they necessarily recite sections from the Torah or the Talmud. There’s a huge range of identities within any identity. I think that that‘s the hope for the future.
Is it difficult assimilating a new community? You bet it’s difficult. Are the difficulties sometimes exaggerated? I think they are. I think that the true story of the Charlie Hebdo murders is […] that the two murderers came from a French Muslim background, with all of its deprivations and difficulties. But, so did the policeman who they killed on the street, and so did the copy editor they killed. Their brother wanted no part of what they stood for. To have a kind of “mechanical” model, where deprivation (which is real) and discrimination (which takes place) automatically produce fanaticism and alienation, I think that’s not true. Many kinds of assimilation are taking place, and the cop the Kouachi brothers killed was as French and as Muslim as they were.
One thing I do think would be useful, and it’s something that […] runs against the grain of French republicanism, is what we call in America “affirmative action.” I know affirmative action is extremely controversial in America, and I understand why. But I think that all it means is, not only do we accept minority students and minority groups when they come knocking at the door, we actively seek them out. […] So, if I were advising Sarkozy, I’d say, “Alright, if you want to believe in a unitary French identity, fine, but then you have the responsibility to say, I’m going to go into the banlieues, and I’m going to find those kids who will be the next generation of what Mendès-France and Léon Blum were to the Jews.”
France has taken tougher stances on issues of international concern (i.e. the Iran nuclear agreement and Bashar al-Assad’s government in Syria) than the United States – a “global policeman” role that the United States used to hold exclusively. What might explain France’s current actions? How might this more robust foreign policy be related to French domestic politics?
I’m the farthest thing in the world from a foreign policy pundit. You’d have to ask Fareed Zakaria how to square all that. The only thing I have any insight about is that France feels a sense of responsibility about old French West Africa, places like Syria and Lebanon (once a French mandate), or where there’s been major French influence over the years.
There is a strong, robust, and, I think, fascinating line of French thought – probably more robust and influential in France than here – that believes in the droit d’ingérence or the duty to interfere. You can’t sit by, on the grounds of national sovereignty, and allow another Rwanda to happen. The difficulty with that is, you find yourself in Libya or Mali, where you may be keeping Gaddafi from slaughtering people, but you’re helping to create another kind of chaos.
I think that it’s clear that French presidents enjoy enormous autonomy in the field of foreign policy as well. It’s always a domaine reservé. You can do big-time stuff without being crippled or hobbled by the legislature.
In 2011, you published a book entitled The Table Comes First: Family, France, and the Meaning of Food on food and the rituals of dining, using France’s gastronomic culture as your guide. Recently, it was discovered that “85 percent of France’s 150,000 restaurants serve vacuum-packed and frozen food without telling customers.” In July 2014, France enacted the fait maison law to combat this practice, requiring restaurants serving “homemade” food to display a specific logo. What is your opinion on the current state, and evolution, of France’s food culture?
Well, this is a subject, as you know, about which I have very passionate and complicated and long-winded feelings, so much that they got stuffed into a book. As always, I love the culture of French food, French gastronomy. It made the UNESCO heritage list, and I still feel the beauty of that.
It’s true – and it causes me pain to say it – that table-by-table, you’d probably eat better in London these days than you do in Paris. In the sense of the range, the variety, and the excellence of ingredients, it’s easier to get great organic food.
You do feel that French cooking right now has been divided into three parts. There’s the kind of haute, three-star places, which are kind of “grand opera” that people do once a year. There’s the old places, which are wonderful but still, in some way, stuck in the past. Then, there’s ethnic cuisine. There’s Thai and North African and Maghrebian and so on.
The next great revolution in France? If I were a young French chef, I would have thought that there’s a way of raising North African cooking. Which is the real common plate of France right now. Couscous is far more “the everyday meal” than pot-au-feu. Pot-au-feu belongs to the nineteenth century. I love it, but it belongs to the past. I would have thought that there would be a great, distinctly Maghrebian, North African restaurant operating at a three-star level. That hasn’t happened. I’ve been waiting for it to happen for the past 20 years, and it hasn’t happened.
I would still rather eat at L’Arpège or Le Grand Véfour (whose chef, Guy Martin, is a very forward-looking guy) or Le Taillevent than anywhere else in the world. Because they remain outposts, chapels of a faith in which I very much believe. But I can’t delude myself that they’re beacons looking forward.
The (what I described almost 20 years ago now) crisis in French cooking, I don’t think has resolved. I don’t think it’s turned the page. My friends at Le Fooding, Alexandre Cammas, strongly disagree. And they know more about it than I do. They think that the whole new generation of auberges and bistros – Yam‘Tcha and Frenchie and L’Astrance and all of those places – they believe it’s all there. The funny thing is they kind of hate and despise the old, grand cuisine. I love the old, grand cuisine.
What is one question you wish you were asked, but never have been? What would your response be?
It’s a beautiful question. One question that I wish I were asked (no one has ever asked me) is, what’s the structure to Paris to the Moon? What’s the novelistic structure? Because everyone always treats it as though it’s a compilation of essays that begins in one place and ends five years later. When in fact – and this is why I wish someone would ask me this question – it’s a very tightly structured book. The midpoint of it, by deliberate design, is the longest chapter in the book, which is about the Papon trial. It’s where I introduce the idea of the parallel paper universe.
The way I wanted the book to run was that all the ingenuous and optimistic and enchanted energies of arriving in Paris (along with the exasperations and frustrations of gyms and BHV and all that) would take a very different turn. It’s like a prism inside of the book. From that point on, it’s not that I become more critical of France, it just becomes a more serious book in lots of ways. That’s what I wanted it to be.
Then, the question that the narrator (me) asks at that moment – about everything that went wrong in France in the 40s – is resolved in the chapter called “A Handful of Cherries,” where he has the realization that love is the civilization of French life. And fear is the abstraction of French official culture. Do you remember that section in the book? No one does. But that’s the key climax of the book. Then, he [the narrator] says that you can’t have one without the other. The two things are inextricably linked. You can’t have the small shops without the big buildings. You can’t have the beautiful tiny particulars without the grandeur of the big abstractions. Like anything, you have to accept a world the way we accept the world. That was the structure of the book. And no one, in the all the years that it’s been out, has ever asked me about the structure.
The other question that no one has ever asked me is, did you ever want to write a novel? Why have you never written a novel? […] I started, and I got about 50 pages into a novel called Democrats Abroad, while we were living in France.
I’m in the middle of another novel that I’m trying called Unicorns Almost. It’s a quote from a poem, a World War II poem. And it’s set in Britain. The truth is that, though I’m notoriously Francophile and I have written a lot about New York, I spend a great deal of my life in England – in London and Oxford and Cambridge. My brothers and sisters were often educated there. A lot of my life has passed there. And I’ve never written about it pretty much at all. I wrote a long piece about the Warburg Library in London, but it really wasn’t about London. So I wanted to write something set in England. That’s what this is about. Part of the premise of it, for me, is to imagine a narrator who hates France and is a passionate Anglophile and is totally bewildered by Francophiles.
It’s been fun to imagine yourself [as] if you were someone who was totally allergic to France. Not just who disapproved of Vichy but was genuinely puzzled, bewildered, by people who love French life. Who only saw irascible rudeness and stultified cooking and insane arrogance and vindictive bureaucrats. What would that feel like inside?
In a perfect world, what would be the topic of your one unwritten book?
In a perfect world, I would like to get a novel written. I hope this one [Unicorns Almost] finally gets finished. But truly, if I’m lucky enough to hang on and anyone would want to publish it, at some point I want to write a big book about my family. I come from a very strange, slightly crazy, and, I think, interesting family. I’ve written an essay about my father (about driving and my father) and about baking with my mother. They’re sort of sketches, pieces towards the bigger book I want to write about a family memoir. Not an autobiography in any sense, but a memoir of my particular family, a memoir with family. If I had faint, desperate glimmers of writing a masterpiece – a big book – that would be the book.
I would bring in my Canadian heritage, Jewish heritage, leaving America for Canada, family quarrels, family rages, and family reconciliations. I even have a title for it now, which came up from a book of letters by John Berryman, the great American poet, which I was reading last summer. He says, at one point, in a letter to his mother, “Are all families crazy, or is it just us?” I thought Just Us would be the title of the book. Because all families are crazy. That’s the book I hope to get written sometime in the next ten years.
For the other side of what I do – the Angels and Ages: Lincoln, Darwin, and the Birth of the Modern Age, fake, highbrow, pseudointellectual side – I would like to write a book about the idea of the Italian Renaissance and the modern imagination. The Italian Renaissance, Italy from 1400 to 1550, has had this huge effect (because of the way we idealize it, the way we think about it, the way we imagine it) on the modern imagination. I’d like to write a book about how that happened, about all the ways we imagine the Italian Renaissance, and about how we make sense of our own experience. Bernard Berenson and Aby Warburg and Kenneth Clark and Sigmund Freud and Walter Pater –pretty much everybody looks back on the Italian Renaissance and says, “Oh, that was a great, good time.” But we all think about it in different ways.
I’ll tell you one more book I’d like to do some day. Fantin-Latour is one of my favorite under-sung French painters. He did that great painting Homage to Delacroix, where everyone – Verlaine and Manet – is there. I’ve always wanted to do a behind-the-snapshot book about that picture. Who was everyone in that picture, why did he paint it then, what was happening in the world? As a tribute to that great moment in culture, a dissection of that picture. Individual by individual, moment by moment.
Then, one last thing I want to do. I’ve been devoting a lot of my time in the last five years to musical theater. It’s been my new passion. I’d love to write a musical comedy about Eleanor of Aquitaine and the troubadours. I’ve always thought that would make a wonderful musical, about a troubadour who falls in love with a beautiful queen.
What do you enjoy outside of writing?
I love cooking. That’s my great release. That’s the honest answer. At the end of every working day, almost, I cook dinner for this gang. And I enjoy doing that. That gives me a lot of pleasure, partly because it’s the opposite of writing. Writing is a purely internalized thing, and one of the truths about writing is it has no données. There’s no “given” in writing. There’s just experience and senses, and the senses can be shaped any one of an infinite number of ways, all of them bad. That’s part of the exhaustion of writing. Cooking, you start with a donnée. You have a recipe, you have the onions, you have bacon. You can do it better or worse, but you know how you’re going to do it. I love that. I love to finish my writing day and to come into this kitchen and chop onions.
Other than that, I love watching my children grow and mature.
Those are my pleasures, beyond all the normal human ones like sex and wine and music. Those are the three real great pleasures.
You are a self-avowed devotee of your hometown’s ice hockey team, the Montreal Canadiens, commonly known as “the Habs.” If you could choose, which Original Six team would you have face off against the Canadiens in the Stanley Cup Finals today? Why?
That’s an easy answer. It’s the Boston Bruins.
I’m sorry to say this, but I would have very little emotional life were it not for Canadiens-Bruins clashes over the years going back to 1969. […] Beating the Bruins is the only thing that’s meaningful. Losing to the Bruins is the only thing that’s truly painful in life.
Sometimes (I’m ashamed to admit this, but it’s true), when I get down or a little distracted or despondent, I go on YouTube and look at Game 2 of the 1971 series. This is when the Bruins were up – with that great Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito team – 5-1 on the Habs towards the end of the second period. Henri Richard scored a meaningless goal at the end to make it 5-2. Then, the Habs scored five unanswered goals in the third period and defeated the Bruins 7-5. That was one of the highlights of my somewhat unhappy high school years. When I need to be cheered up, that’s how I cheer myself up. […] The title of the YouTube video is something like, “The Worst Loss in Boston Bruins History.”