Welcome to the four hundred and seventy-eighth of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, biographers, agents, publishers and more. Today’s is with travel writer and spotlightee Thirza Vallois. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate further.
Morgen: Hello, Thirza. Please tell us something about yourself, where you’re based, and how you came to be a writer.
Thirza: I am based in Paris (and also in London). It seems that I always wrote, even a play aged 10 that the teacher thought was worthy of being put up by our class and shown to the public. I never thought twice of it. Children are naturally creative. I never intended to become a writer. It just happened spontaneously because I felt the urge to express myself about things I really cared about. It happened to be Paris because it’s a place I have always had “issues” with. My readers think I’m in love with Paris because I am across as such. In fact, I have a complex relationship with the city. It is unique and irresistible, but also exasperating, a place shrouded in a mystique that is often so far from the reality. Why is Paris so superlative? Why is there such a mystique around it? I was intrigued, I was compelled, and I had to explore, dive in and find out. A task that took me fifteen solid years, resulting in a 3-volume series, Around and About Paris, basically the biography of the city through walks (that I encourage people to take, though many of my readers, I know, are armchair readers). A task that isn’t really finished…. There is so much more to discover and understand.
Morgen: I’m sure all capital cities have their good and bad points, and we can say that for wherever we live (it’s certainly true of where I am). I described you earlier as a ‘travel writer’, do you write other genres?
Thirza: So far I have only written travel books, all about France. And I also write articles about France, on a regular basis.
Morgen: What have you had published to-date?
Thirza: The three above mentioned: Around and About Paris, From the Dawn of Time to the Eiffel Tower; Around and About Paris, From the Guillotine to the Bastille Opera; Around and About Paris, New Horizons: Haussmann’s Annexation; Romantic Paris and Aveyron, A Bridge to French Arcadia.
Morgen: Do you write under a pseudonym?
Thirza: No. I write under my proper name. But who knows? Perhaps some day I’ll write something I won’t be brave enough to bring out to the world under my own identity? So far, I have no such project.
Morgen: They certainly have their uses. Have you had any rejections? If so, how do you deal with them?
Thirza: Yes. Many thought my books were long and not commercial enough. I persevered because I believed they were unique and that they would be a great gift to those who really care about French culture. I would never want to write something for the sake of being published, or my ego. I felt I had something important to pass on, and to do so in an engaging way that would bring the past alive.
Morgen: I like to think that’s how every writer feels but I’m sure some have published just for the money (which, given how little writers earn, I can’t say I all together blame them). Have you won or been shortlisted in any competitions?
Thirza: No. The recognition came only from my readers and the reviewers who discovered my work.
Morgen: That’s just as rewarding, I know. Do you have an agent? Do you think they’re vital to an author’s success?
Thirza: I had several well-known agents but they got me nowhere. It was probably quite vital to have an agent in the past. Today the publishing world is undergoing a revolution, and nobody quite knows how it’s going to evolve.
Morgen: It is, especially in the electronic direction. Are your books available as eBooks? Were you involved in that process at all? Do you read eBooks or is it paper all the way?
Thirza: Two of my books are available on Kindle. The others will follow eventually. I think it’s the inevitable way the publishing world will go. Paper may survive in parallel. Perhaps it will disappear altogether at some point. There is no telling at this moment of history. I myself am an older person, quite conservative, and it takes me long to get used to a new technology, any technology. I do not read ebooks at this stage, but I am not critical of them either. They are problematic when you write the kind of work that needs to be indexed.
Morgen: Given how many people (most) have said they still read both formats I can’t see paper ever going. How much of the marketing do you do for your published works or indeed for yourself as a ‘brand’?
Thirza: A lot in the old days. Not much now. It is draining in the long run, and leaves you little energy for your own writing. It is difficult to strike a balance. Your publisher will do little for you, unless you are writing a bestseller.
Morgen: Most don’t have the budgets unless, as you say, you bring in plenty of money for them. If any of your books were made into films, who would you have as the leading actor/s?
Thirza: My books have been used for documentaries, however, PBS in the US, BBC in the UK and others. I even caught a comment in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris straight from my book Romantic Paris. I once started writing fiction, and I felt that it would make a fantastic filmscript if carried through. Unfortunately, although it was a very powerful story, I lost the motivation and never completed it. At the time when I cared, and visualised it as a movie, I imagined Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson in the lead roles.
Morgen: They’d make a great pairing. Did you have any say in the title / covers of your book(s)? How important do you think they are?
Thirza: Not in the case of Romantic Paris. It actually damaged my relationship with the publisher. I was very angry. The cover he chose was lovely in the hands, useless in bookshops.
Morgen: Oh dear. How interesting that they were so different. What are you working on at the moment / next?
Thirza: I usually refrain from talking about my projects until they are well advanced.
Morgen: No problem. Do you manage to write every day? Do you ever suffer from writer’s block?
Thirza: Because I write a lot of articles, I do write every day (unless I’m “on the road”), but not necessarily writing for a book every day. I am very disciplined but it’s a matter of making time. When I wrote Around and About Paris it was a full-time commitment. I wrote all day long (unless I was out walking Paris or researching).
Morgen: I’d find patches of weeks where I’d not write a thing then I started writing a story a day during May and I loved it so much that I started 5pm fiction on 1st June and have now written over 90 stories (albeit mostly flash fiction). It’s amazing how you find the time when you have to. Do you plot or do you just get an idea and run with it?
Thirza: It depends. Usually the plot happens and takes shape as I am running.
Morgen: Do you do a lot of editing or do you find that as time goes on your writing is more fully-formed?
Thirza: Yes, I do a lot of editing. Obviously, one becomes more experienced as time goes on, but in general I think my writing is spontaneous, very identifiable readers tell me, and I just let my inspiration carry me along.
Morgen: And you clearly know France well. Do you have to do much research?
Thirza: In view of the nature of my work, I do A LOT of research.
Morgen: What point of view do you find most to your liking?
Thirza: Oh, it really depends on the nature of the book. No preference. My book Aveyron, A Bridge to French Arcadia, is largely in the first person, because it’s my own discovery of the area and the reader is led to see it through my eyes.
Morgen: Do you have pieces of work that you think will never see light of day?
Thirza: The one I mentioned earlier. It’s really a shame that I didn’t do it when I cared, ten years ago. It’s lost its momentum.
Morgen: Oh dear. Maybe it’ll come back. What’s your favourite / least favourite aspect of your writing life? Has anything surprised you?
Thirza: What surprised me was how difficult the promotion and marketing would be, and how exhausting. I have done so many author’s tours in the US. I loved it, but it was a killer, and not that productive in terms of sales.
Morgen: Now that is a shame. To go to all that trouble, at least you enjoyed it. Being online gets you in front of so many people at once (if they’re paying attention). Marketing is usually the answer to ‘least favourite’ so I’m not surprised you said it’s difficult. What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Thirza: To go there cautiously with their eyes wide open. To be aware that there is a lot of talent around, a lot of competition, a difficult market, probably rejections. One mustn’t feel inadequate when one is rejected (which is easier said than done). In short one has to be brave and realistic.
Morgen: One does, perseverance helps. If you could invite three people from any era to dinner, who would you choose and what would you cook (or hide the takeaway containers)?
Thirza: Three would be difficult… Shakespeare, Colette, Proust. Am not sure what I would cook. It would have to be gastronomic. Certainly something French. Both Colette and Proust were great gourmets, and I am sure Shakespeare would appreciate such dishes.
Morgen: I’m sure he would. Is there a word, phrase or quote you like?
Thirza: Lots of them, but off the top of my head, possibly, If music be the food of love, play on; give me excess of it.
Morgen: I love that. Are you involved in anything else writing-related other than actual writing or marketing of your writing?
Thirza: A lot of lecturing on French culture and art.
Morgen: What do you do when you’re not writing?
Thirza: Spend time with family and friends, go to the cinema, theatre, concerts, museums, spend time reading, spend time in the countryside, eating out, etc…
Morgen: Great people-watching opportunities. Are there any writing-related websites and/or books that you find useful? (please include links where you can)
Thirza: I am sure there are, but I have never investigated. Recently, I started getting involved with some linkedin groups, a bit accidentally, which is how I found you actually.
Morgen: Ah, yes. LinkedIn is great. I’d started running low on interviewees, put a shout-out, and have been inundated ever since. Regarding networking sites, how valuable do you find them?
Thirza: It’s too early in the day to tell whether they are valuable. I do enjoy some of the discussions.
Morgen: What do you think the future holds for a writer?
Thirza: Very difficult to say at this moment of history and in such a changing world. But people will always want to be informed (therefore non-fiction), and people will always want to hear stories (therefore fiction). These are basic needs in man. What shape and form it will take, we know not. In the Victorian age there were no radios and televisions, so people read serialised novels. I don’t know how Dickens would have fared in years to come.
Morgen: Some modern authors serialise their work on podcasts so I’m confident he would have been OK – there are plenty of readers who love historical so he wouldn’t even need to update. Where can we find out about you and your work?
Thirza: On my website: www.thirzavallois.com, on google and the other search engines, by typing my name, on amazon.com which is my first seller outside France. On facebook, linkedin and twitter.
Morgen: Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
Thirza: Yes, how much I appreciate the fact that you are giving us fellow writers a platform. It is a very considerate and kind gesture.
Morgen: You’re so welcome. It’s great to have you back. Is there anything you’d like to ask me?
Thirza: What motivates you to help promote writers? Is it the love of the art?
Morgen: Absolutely. I’ve been asked before to sell whatever it is that makes me do what I do and I just say that it’s Eau de Passion. Now if I could bottle time, that would be priceless. Thank you, Thirza.
I then invited Thirza to include an extract of her writing…
a) A Journey into the depths of Paris is what this book is all about, an invitation to scratch beneath its surface of dazzling vistas and imposing monuments and to probe into the souls and lives of the restless people, both high and low, who throughout the ages have never ceased to shape it and reshape it. For Paris is a city of perpetual change, a hectic building site of destruction and reconstruction, of restoration and renovation, a city in perpetual motion whose rounds of pleasure are periodically broken by maelstroms of social fury and whose throbbing pulse has always exerted a magnetic power on creative minds from far and wide who have bequeathed to the world great schools of art and thought.
b) The Easter weekend was drawing to a close. We gathered at the Mas de Salel for our final dinner and were barely seated when the young student opposite me asked what I had thought of the 35-hour working week. Before I knew it, a heated discussion had sprung up about the upcoming presidential elections, whilst Christ stepped back discreetly, leaving the floor to the terrestrial agitation of an impassioned political debate, left, right, centre.
I feel very strongly about giving you this last excerpt that closes my book, Aveyron, A Bridge to French Arcadia because a) we are now at the eve of the same scenario in France, five years later, and because I was even aware of the implication of left, right, centre to Christianity as I was writing that sentence. My oldest (Irish) friend pointed this out to me when I told her about this typically French incident. Also, and this can be useful to writers, when I went to Mas de Salel, specifically for the Easter celebrations that I wanted to close my book with, I was very worried about the conclusion of my book. I was going to stay there indefinitely, till I finished the book. This incident happened suddenly and unexpectedly. I rushed to my room, took out my laptop, and typed out this paragraph in one go and in less than 5 minutes. It seems that the muses just deigned hover over my head.
Thirza Vallois is an expert on all things Parisian and lectures worldwide on Paris and France. She has lived in Paris most of her life and holds several post-graduate degrees from the Sorbonne, including the most prestigious agrégation. She is the author of the internationally acclaimed Around and About Paris series, Romantic Paris Aveyron, and A Bridge to French Arcadia, as well as the Paris entry of the Encarta Encyclopaedia. Thirza Vallois has appeared on PBS, BBC, the Travel Channel, the French Cultural Channel, Discovery and CNN, has spoken on radio in the UK, the US and France, and has worked as a consultant for the BBC. She contributes stories regularly to the international press. Her award-winning Three Perfect Days in Paris story was published in United Airlines’ Hemispheres and aired on their international flights. You can read her author spotlight here. Photo of Thirza by Theodore Robinson.
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