MLA Platinum Award Press Release

Hilary Reyl Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Hilary Reyl
Photo: David Jacobs

Hilary Reyl

An interview with Hilary Reyl

A Conversation with Hilary Reyl about her first novel Lessons in French, an evocative, coming-of-age story about a Yale graduate's year in Paris as an assistant to a legendary American photographer. Contains plot spoilers

Kate has had several different experiences with France and Paris in particular. You have also spent time in France and are familiar with French culture. How much did you draw on your own experiences for Kate's story? Did you conduct additional research?

I spent a year in Normandy with my family when I was eleven and twelve. My father was an academic, writing his dissertation, and could live anywhere for a short period, so my parents decided to take my sister and me to France. We started out in Paris, but it was too expensive and the school there put us in a class for foreigners. So we ended up in the servants' cottage of a small chateau outside a tiny village surrounded by cows and sheep. A lovely husband and wife teaching team took us under their wing and, in very little time, I was fluent and in love with France. Like my character, Kate, I was young enough to get the accent and old enough to intellectualize – and romanticize – the experience. 

I returned to France during summers to visit family friends in Paris and my teachers from Normandy, with whom I am still close. But I didn't live in France again until the fall of 1989, right after I graduated from college, when I spent a year in Paris working for a journalist. Then, in the academic year of 1993-94, I did coursework for my master's degree in French Literature at the Paris campus of NYU, taking classes at the Sorbonne. These were the years when I immersed myself in the city, and they remain incredibly vivid to me. 

Insofar as Paris is a character in my novel, I have drawn heavily on my own time there, on my memories of food and impressions of the streets and the sensation of living in two languages. I too happen to love Berthillon ice cream, chestnut croissants, and the Rodin sculpture garden. Mornings in the Luxembourg Gardens and late nights dancing at clubs like Les Bains Douches are etched in my mind so that I was able to transpose them fluently into my fiction. The Parisian setting was strong enough inside me that I needed very little research to recreate its scenes. 


Like Kate, you have a personal history with France. Do you have a favorite French town or location? What is your favorite element of French culture? 

I have three favorite places in France. 

The Marais, which literally means the "swamp" because it is land reclaimed from the Seine in the early 1600s, is an old labyrinthian part of Paris on the right bank, with tiny streets, and a gorgeous Henri IV square called Place des Vosges where Victor Hugo lived. I spent a year in the Marais, studying French literature, living in a minute studio on a cobblestone passageway. Since it was so central, I would walk to all my classes on the various Paris campuses, and, coming home, feel like I was returning to the ancient beating heart of the city. 

My second favorite location could not be less famous or glamorous. It is the region of Normandy called l'Orne where I lived for a year as a girl with my family and first fell in love with the French language, culture and food. France for me will always be about rain-soaked green pastures, stone cider presses ringing apple trees, cows and more cows, the taste of raw-milk Camembert and the French I learned in my one-room village school. 

Finally, I love a small town on the Mediterranean coast, between Nice and Monaco, called Beaulieu sur Mer. It is relaxed, sun-drenched and draped in Bougainvillea. My husband Charles and I had our wedding reception there in a Greek villa on the sea. It was an idyllic place to mingle our French and American worlds. My crowning memory is of croissants on the beach at sunrise. 


Lessons in French
 is filled with intriguing characters, including real-life artists and writers. How did you determine your cast of famous characters? Did you always plan on featuring Salman Rushdie as Lydia's artistic inspiration? 


I wanted to populate the Schell world with impressive figures from art and literature in order to give it the jet-set intellectual atmosphere that Kate is so dazzled by. And I chose the particular artists for specifically thematic reasons. 

I have always been intrigued by Henri Cartier Bresson's take on photography, and, as I was writing, I recalled reading a wonderful New Yorker piece, back in 1989, about his late-in-life transition from photography to drawing, which struck me as a perfect inspiration for Kate's artistic development. 

I decided to feature Umberto Eco because he was very much a cultural arbiter at the time the novel is set. He was both fashionable AND an intellectual heavyweight, exactly the sort of person to set the Schell tone. 

Harry Matthews has a quality of mischief in his writing and in what I know of his life that makes him a perfect tragicomic figure for the book and a particularly sympathetic figure to Kate. 

Lydia's relationship with Salman Rushdie is complicated and I hope her attraction to him reflects her complexity as a character. She is drawn to his story out of a profound sense of justice, but she is also drawn to his fame as a moth to light. Through her photographs, she wants to participate in the history to which he is central, and also to associate her name with his. So he is both an important political figure and a source of glamour for her. And the two roles are impossible to separate out. 


Which character do you identify with the most? Do you have a favorite character? 


The character I identify with most is Kate because I too spent formative years in Paris during which I grew up a considerably. Some of my most painful memories are there, as well as my happiest. But my favorite characters are Jacques and Solange. They are a collage of all the "parent" figures I have known, mixed in with some of my favorite literary characters from Balzac and Proust. When I picture them, I feel waves of gratitude and love. 


Lessons in French
 takes place during the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. What made you decide to set the novel during this time? Did you consider other time periods? 


I briefly considered setting the novel in the mid-seventies, which is the first period during which I lived in France, but decided on 1989-90 because it was more vivid to me and also because it was a more crucial time politically. The Berlin Wall coming down, leaving two worlds that had been separated for years suddenly facing one another, provided a deep sense of possibility as well as anxiety and unrest. This tumult heightened Kate's own sense of being poised at the start of something "big" with no idea how she was going to pull it off. 


Most romantic relationships in the novel are deeply flawed, particularly Clarence's and Lydia's dysfunctional marriage. What do you think readers will take away from these relationships? What made you decide to keep Lydia and Clarence together even after Clarence's infidelity? 


First of all, a dysfunctional relationship makes for much better dialogue than a happy one! Secondly, I was interested in exploring the ways that abuse and competition can bind people like Lydia and Clarence, who are ultimately realistic and grittily ambitious, whereas often relationships based in romantic fantasy and obsession, like Kate and Olivier's or Claudia and Clarence's, can't endure. Lydia and Clarence are "two wings of a trapped moth." They torture one another, but they are also part of the same animal. And when they are threatened, as when Joshua joins the army, or when they decide to turn on Kate or to banish Olivier or Claudia, they unite in a reflexive defensive posture. I wanted to show their cruelty not only as a kind of tragicomic affection but also as a form of destructive dependency that is stronger than they are as individuals. Nothing, not even infidelity, can break them apart. 


Although initially mesmerized by the Schell family, Kate ultimately decides to leave Paris at the story's end. Did you ever consider an alternative ending for Kate's journey? 


I knew Kate's arc from the outset of my writing. While I wasn't always sure of the exact turns she would take, and I discovered many shades of her personality as I went, the fact that she would break free of her "mentors" and slowly come into her own, both as an artist and as a member of her true family, was never in doubt. 


Lessons in French
 is your first published novel. What was your favorite part of novel writing? What was the most challenging? 


My favorite part of novel writing, because it was the most interesting, was also the most challenging. It was finding the balance between pain and pleasure. Although Kate and I have wildly different stories, the emotional truth of my early twenties was similar to hers. I tried to combat my formlessness with an eagerness to please that makes me cringe when I look back. But it also makes me nostalgic, tender and amused toward my old self. In the novel, I hoped to evoke Kate's insecurity along with her growing intelligence and sense of humor and joy. It took several drafts, pushing deeper each time, to get at my emotional truth. Yet even as parts of the book became painful, I tried to maintain its sense of play and give voice to my joy in immersing myself in the wonders of Paris. So it was a delicate balance between coming to terms with the awkwardness of youth and shaping it into a story, a story which, while "difficult" remains pleasurable to read. 


In your opinion, what is the main message in Lessons in French? What do you hope your readers learn from the novel? 


I did not write Lessons in French with one specific lesson in mind, although Kate does learn throughout the story. 

In the broadest sense, Kate comes into a style of her own. Gradually, she takes responsibility for her actions just as she allows herself to own up to her artistic choices rather than desperately trying to reflect the world and the desires and opinions of everyone who impresses her. She also becomes a nuanced judge of character, finally able to see the Schells and Olivier in their true colors, because she is progressively more able to discern complexity in human nature. So, it is a book about forming personality, and I hope it will speak to anyone who has ever floundered in this pursuit. 

The book is also very much about family, about the way a young person in new surroundings will attempt to forge bonds that imitate those she has known or wished for. Katie tries to find the "father" she has lost and to seek the approval of a "mother" whom she perceives as more successful than her own. Ultimately, though, she comes to see that her own heritage is richer and truer for her than the one she aspires to. But it is not a direct path, and it is certainly not an uninteresting one for Kate. I suppose everyone has to find her own balance between true and adopted family. There is no specific right or wrong, but there is a moral compass in each of us, and so much of growing up is finding it for oneself. 


Do you have any other creative projects in the works? 

I am currently working on a novel called "Borrasca," which means the opposite of Bonanza. It is a father-daughter story set in the 1970s, mostly in California. It is a major reworking of the first novel I ever attempted, but have not been able to get right despite several versions. I feel that I have finally found a way to tell the story to its fullest effect and I am very excited about the writing as it goes forward.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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