Brooklyn-born Mark Greenside is the author of the short-story collection, I Saw a Man Hit His Wife, a novella, The Night at the End of the Tunnel or Isaiah Can You See?, and two memoirs recounting the hilarious and one-of-a-kind experiences he's had since he began spending summers in the house he bought in Brittany 25 years ago; I'll Never Be French (No Matter What I Do): Living in a Small Village in Brittany and (Not Quite) Mastering the Art of French Living. He recently agreed to be interviewed about it by Wendy Westgate for the LAPL Blog.
What inspired you to sit down and write these two books on living in France?
When I bought my house, I promised myself I’d do three things: pay all my bills on time, no questions asked, as nothing ruins relationships faster than bad money, except maybe good sex; not sleep with any of the local women, which turned out to be easier than I hoped, as none of the local women seemed interested in sleeping with me; and not writing about my life in France. Two out of three’s not bad.
I didn’t want to write about it because I wanted to live it. Writing about it meant separation, meant observing and commenting, judging and evaluating, and what I wanted was to be there and experience it. So I kept no notes, no journals, no diary—but I did tell lots of stories, and the more I told them the more I realized, one they were funny, and two, people wanted to hear more. So after fifteen years of being there, I started to write about my life in France.
In fact, what inspired you to buy your house in Brittany?
Two things: me and Brittany. I was 47 at the time and owned nothing but an 18-year-old Volvo and the clothes in my closet. My father died a few years earlier and another of my serial monogamous, sort of, relationships was ending. All I can figure—retroactively—is I was approaching fifty and I was looking for a place to nestle or nest. Why Brittany? Because it’s gorgeous: plush-Irish green (because it rains a lot) heathered hills; long, white, soft, sandy beaches; pristine seas; huge tides—some of the largest in the world—and the light, the light, the shimmering north-sea light, cotton-candy clouds, and endless horizon, where Gauguin, Monet, Seurat, and Pissarro came to paint; the people, the friends I met, their humor, curiosity, warmth, genuineness; and the house: a three story 120 year-old stone house with five fireplaces and original wood and tile floors on ¾ of an acre of land, facing a river, and the last lock before the sea for less than the cost of a high-end Mercedes. All of this (and more) is the subject of my first book about living in France, I’ll Never Be French (No Matter What I Do).
Does it make life more confusing or disjointed to have lives going on in two places?
Originally, yes, because I often wanted or needed something that was where I wasn’t. After a while, that happened less and less as more and more I doubled up and kept the same key items in both places: pen refills, yellow pads, certain books, computer files, American keyboards, Blackwing pencil sharpeners and 602 Palomino pencils; knife sharpeners, cherry pitters, measuring cups and spoons in ounces, 8.5 X 11 inch paper…. The confusion and disjointedness were about missing things, not about missing life. Life in California and Brittany feels complete. The truth is I like the bifurcation of rural village life—my village has 600 people—and city life. I like what both have to offer, and I like how I live in both, though Donna, my wife, and all of my friends say I’m nicer in France. I tell them it’s because of my language skills—or lack thereof—keep me in line. Whatever it is, they’re happy, and so am I. In the U.S., I work as a union grievance officer, which allows ample time and opportunity to release and express aggression. In France, because I can’t do much or say much, I’m humble—and humbled. Living in both places makes for an interesting life.
Was it difficult to distill down all of the many funny/crazy/frustrating experiences you had into what could be contained in one (and now two) books?
No. I knew what I wanted to do—which is not the same as knowing what I wanted to say—in both books. The first book, I’ll Never Be French, was about reluctantly going to France, surprisingly falling out of love with my girlfriend and in love with Brittany, buying a house when I don’t speak French, don’t like to fly, and have no money, and fixing the house up. It is a series of single event stories: redoing the floors, dealing with a flood and house insurance, almost drowning, a fiftieth birthday party. When the book came out a friend of mine said, “There’s nothing here about day-to-day life,” and I realized he was right: it was a series of very funny (and hopefully illuminating) one-offs. The second book, (Not Quite) Mastering the Art of French Living is all about the day-to-day: driving (and accidents); shopping (and different accidents); banking (getting my money out of my bank); eating (things I wouldn’t eat anywhere else); cooking (for French people, which is not like cooking for Americans); medicine and staying healthy; speaking (and not speaking) French. The first book felt like it was channeled. I’d told so many of the stories so many times it just flowed. The second book, I had a mental outline and organization, and I knew what I wanted to do. Once that was done, it was fill in the blanks, none of which means writing the books was easy: each book took five years to write and each book went through multiple, multiple iterations.
What were your criteria for choosing which anecdotes to include?
Before writing these books, I wrote short fiction and had a collection of stories, I Saw a Man Hit His Wife, published. Writing fiction taught me a lot about voice, character, point of view, setting, dialogue, plot, theme, and story. In deciding what to include and exclude, I followed the dictum: if it doesn’t add, it detracts, so I included pieces that I thought were funny, well-written, and interesting; pieces that moved the story and added to the whole—and I eliminated (I hope) everything that didn’t.
Did you decide to omit certain experiences in order not to alienate a friend/acquaintance?
Yes. Lots. First, there was the girlfriend who “made” me to go to Brittany with her. Do I tell that story or not? Do I write the break-up scene? Do I write a payback, Kathryn Dearest book? The answers were No, No, and No, three of the wisest decisions I ever made. Second, were my new French friends, none of whom signed up to be written about or have their private lives disclosed. I was so concerned about this that I sent every French friend who could read English a copy of the manuscript before it was published and asked each to read it for accuracy and offense, which they did, and made the book better and more accurate. Third, was Peter Mayle. I’d read A Year in Provence and thought it hilarious and outrageous—and not something I wanted to emulate. His book is based on French stereotypes, making fun of French people. I didn’t want to do that. I didn’t want to lose any French friends over the book, though I did, and I didn’t want to have to move, I didn’t. I figured if sixty million Frenchmen can’t be wrong, the problem is probably me, not them. It’s their country and culture after all. I’m the outsider, so in my books, I’m the foil, not they. These were all conscious, writer’s choices that took me a long time to make.
What do you like to do in your spare time?
Read, walk, travel, visit art museums, visit friends, go to the sea, sit in the sun, write angry letters to the editor, not answer my phone…
What other jobs/occupations have you had prior to your career as a writer?
Window washer; camp counselor; coat check guy; weighing heavy people for diet experiments; community organizer; teacher of political science, U.S. history, American literature, and creative writing; teacher’s union president, grievance officer, and contract negotiator.
What’s the best thing about being an author?
Writing well, channeling a voice, finding the right word, entertaining myself, making myself laugh, looking in awe at something I just wrote, marveling and wondering, ‘where in the world did that come from?’; the joy of finishing something that was difficult and important that I didn’t know or think I could.
What’s the hardest part about being an author?
Not writing and self-doubting.
What are you working on now?
A third and final book about living in France. The working title is: Hello, Goodbye, I’m Finally French.
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