Writers Talk Shop, Novel, and Conference
Commentary by conference attendees
Author Thierry Sagnier Talks To Michael Neff
Thierry was born in Paris, France, and moved to the US in his teens. He holds a BA in Philosophy from the Universitée de Caen. He attended Georgetown U and later worked for the Washington Post during the Watergate years. He is the a former Contributing Editor to Washingtonian magazine, and a columnist for Le Devoire (Canada) and La Suisse (Switzerland). Thierry is the author of three books: The IFO Report, Avon; Bike! Motorcycles and the People Who Ride Them, Harper & Row; and Washington by Night, Washingtonian Books. Currently he is the editor of Bank's World, published by the World Bank, as well as Editor of On the Edge.
What worked for me was the involvement of all the people there. It wasn't like a couple of professionals were brought in to lecture us, which I probably would have found deadly boring. Instead, we had pros who gave brief talks, then blended in with us. That was great. And I liked the hands-on approach. You essentially said, "You guys are writers? Fine, write." And we did. I hadn't been challenged like that in a very long time and it was excellent.
- Thierry Sagnier
MN: What made you want to write Montparnasse? What was your inspiration?
TS: I've been writing since I was 12 years old. I've already had a lot of stuff published---a novel, a book on bikers, a tourist book … The project I am currently working on, Montparnasse--Nights in Paris, deals with Paris shortly after World War I. Artistically, Paris was the center of the universe then. It's a period of history that fascinates me. My grandparents and my uncle were part of it, along with Picasso, Modigliani, Cocteau, Coco Chanel, Hemingway, Edith Wharton and a host of others. Ho Chih Minh and Lenin were there too. As was Landru, the first documented serial killer in history. They're all in the book. I should probably add here that I was raised in Paris, that my mother was an artist, and my father was a reporter. It's almost as if I didn't have a choice but to write this book.
MN: Tres intriguing. Tell us more.
TS: All right, imagine this: It's 1919, and you're a young American couple, just married, and you're in Paris for your honeymoon. You've never been abroad, never really been east of Chicago.
The husband—Frederick—hates it! Everything is foreign. The food is odd and smelly, the French appear aloof and don't speak his language, there are dogs riding in the taxis. And to make things even worse, his new wife Easter wants to be with are the dregs of Paris: the artists—loud, provocative, not particularly friendly. They smoke and drink too much and argue. They behave boorishly, have no manners, use drugs and steal the silverware… The only thing Frederick wants to do is go home. Easter, on the other hand, loves it! So she essentially blackmails him into staying in Paris for a few months, and they get involved in the lives of some of these geniuses, particularly Jean Cocteau, Picasso and Amadeo Modigliani. Picasso doesn't fare well in this book. I did a lot of research, and it seems he was not exactly a pleasant person to be around. Add to this Henri Desiré Landru, who killed and incinerated more than a dozen women and is on the loose.
MN: What made you choose to attend the Algonkian conference?
TS: I was stuck, hadn't done any serious writing for months, and a friend of mine—also a writer—suggested I attend a workshop to kickstart me. So I looked on the net and found that there were quite a few places that offered what I wanted, but when I researched the Algonkian conference, I recognized the name of a reporter I really respect. He'd been there and was highly complimentary, so that sealed it for me. The venue was great too—this glorious turn-of-the-century hotel in West Virginia..
MN: Do you feel Montparnasse is improved as a result?
TS: Without a doubt. I got to talk about it to other writers, and their interest sparked my writing. I had to refine it, boil it down to its essentials in order to pitch it to a couple of agents, and that really helped; it forced me to look at what I was writing, and what I wanted to have as a finished product. The trouble with historical fiction—which is what Montparnasse is—is that there's too much. You get lost in the details of history. I had to refine the book, take stuff out that was fascinating, but had nothing to do with the subject. I built up the characters, and narrowed them down as well. Being with other writers, with Michael who led the conference, and with the agents he brought in, was an eye-opener.
MN: What did you find most effective about the pitch sessions at Algonkian?
TS: What I had to do was take this book I had been working on for years, and compress it into a two minute presentation. That's really hard! But also useful. I practiced the pitch on the other writers, listened to feedback, rewrote, pitched again. By the time I actually spoke with the two agents, I had an excellent notion of what I was trying to sell. And you know, it's interesting: one of the agents loved it; the other didn't find it particularly interesting… Both of them were really good at describing what the market is like out there, what editors are searching for.
MN: What did you find most effective about the Algonkian approach as a whole?
TS: Everyone wanted something different at the conference and if the discipline and organization hadn't held things together we would have we would have been all over the place like somebody dropping a ball of mercury on the floor! What worked for me was the involvement of all the people there. It wasn't like a couple of professionals were brought in to lecture us, which I probably would have found deadly boring. Instead, we had pros who gave brief talks, then blended in with us. That was great. And I liked the hands-on approach. You essentially said, "You guys are writers? Fine, write." And we did. I hadn't been challenged like that in a very long time and it was excellent.
MN: Where does Montparnasse go from here?
TS: It's trying to find a home. Actually, I'm trying to find an agent that will find it a home. It's just about done. I've finished the third—or maybe fourth—rewrite. There still some minor research to be done. I expect I'll go to Paris pretty soon to make sure I have the street addresses and names right, and to check out some settings. Most of the places I described are still there. I have to send a little time at the Librairie Nationale—the French equivalent of the Library of Congress—because I want to read some of the magazines of the time and that's the only place they're still available. But there are worse ways to spend my time.
About the interviewer:
Michael Neff is the creator and director of WebdelSol.Com and the Algonkian Writer Conferences.
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