Please help me welcome Dana Gynther, author of the recently released historical novel CROSSING ON THE PARIS (Gallery Books, November 2012)
Dana Gynther was raised in St Louis and Auburn, Alabama. After college, she lived in France for eighteen months, then returned to the University of Alabama to get an MA in French Literature. In 1994, she and her French-speaking Spanish husband moved to his hometown, Valencia (Spain), where they work as teachers and translators. They have two daughters and two cats.
A November 2012 Indie Next Pick, Crossing on the Paris … has the feel of a riveting miniseries as you turn the pages expectantly wanting to find out how this voyage ends. – Barnes and Noble Book Club
I first encountered Dana – and CROSSING ON THE PARIS – when Heather Webb interviewed her at Between the Sheets. I picked up CROSSING ON THE PARIS that day, and read the entire novel in one afternoon – you can read my review here (spoiler – I loved it). I’m so thrilled that Dana could join us here today!
And so, on with the questions:
1. Where did you grow up? Will you share a favorite story from your childhood?
I was born in St Louis but, since my father was a professor and my mother a southerner, we moved to the college town of Auburn (Alabama) when I was ten. That summer, my cousin Kathy and I spent a week together at my grandmother’s house. She was an elderly widow even then, and lived in an isolated house in a fork-in-the-road community. After a relatively boring first day—exploring the empty pastures, drinking a yoo-hoo at the gas station, feeding the chickens—we went to bed early, like everybody else in the county. We shared the big bed with the pink chenille bedspread next to the window (usually reserved for our older sisters) and, listening to the cicadas, tried to fall asleep. A little while later, we saw a car pull up under the lone street light down the road. People got out and started walking towards the house. We could hear the mumble of their voices, their footsteps in the tall grass. They tried the screened door on the back porch but couldn’t open it, then came around the house—passing right by our window!—to go to the front. Sweating in cold terror, we lay in the bed, pressed against one another, mute and motionless. Luckily, the intruders had no better luck with the front door and soon left. When we heard the soft rumble of their car engine and saw the receding tail lights, we could finally breathe again. We jumped out of bed, turned on the lights, and woke up our grandmother.
“Mamaw!” Kathy shouted. “Someone tried to break in!”
She frowned at us (we’d pulled a few hijinks in the past) and drawled, “Well, I tell you what. If anyone came in here and saw my ugly face, they’d go running scared!”
In the light of day, we were no longer afraid. Since our grandmother didn’t take us seriously, we decided to become detectives. We scoured the yard and porches, looking for clues, and set a few traps in case they came back, putting Mason jars in strategic places as an alarm system. Until our parents came for us a few days later, all our conversation and activities were dominated by the attempted break-in which, in the end, provided us with hours of entertainment and excitement.
2. What inspired you to start writing?
That’s hard to say—probably my love of conversation/stories, books, language(s), the words themselves. In the beginning, all of my writing was personal (journals, travel books, poems, memoir) and meant for a very limited audience: just myself or select friends and family members.
Unlike private writing, I specifically remember making the decision to write fiction. It was 2006 and I was translating the website for a local monument, a public bathhouse built in 1313. Learning about its history, I kept thinking, “Man, this would be a perfect venue for a novel! Someone should really use this material!” Finally, I realized that person could be me. I wrote The Admiral’s Baths, my first novel, and still hope to get it published.
3. If you could go back in time and share one writing lesson with “new writer you” before starting your first manuscript … what would that be?
I think it’s important for writers of Historical Fiction to learn that, often, less is more. When doing research, you discover extraordinary events and fascinating people and it’s a huge temptation to try to fit it all in your text. You have to remember that your story comes first. I know that sounds obvious, but to us history dorks, it’s very hard.
4. Your new novel, CROSSING ON THE PARIS, is set on an ocean liner (the Paris) shortly after the end of World War I. What inspired you to choose this unique time and setting?
This novel was also inspired by a translation job. My husband and I translated a museum catalog called “Gigantes del Atlantico” (Giants of the Atlantic), all about French Line ocean steamers: their history, mechanics, aesthetics, and social structure. Again, I had that same gut feeling—Wow! What a great subject for fiction!—but this second time around, I didn’t hesitate.
5. Do you have a favorite author? If so, who and why?
Not a favorite author, but a favorite century: I love 19th century literature. I got hooked on it in my late 20s and have since gone on Thomas Hardy jags, mooned over Moby Dick, read and reread Dickens and Austen, discovered the great Wilkie Collins, and on and on. It’s like Living Historical Fiction (and they didn’t have to do all that research!). I love and need to mix contemporary fiction into the bag—Zadie Smith, Paul Auster, JK Rowling, Barbara Kingsolver, etc. etc.
On a side note, I am a firm believer that teenagers should not be obligated to read the classics. Most of them are just not prepared for the prose-poetry of Melville, the tragedy of “Tess of the d’Urbervilles” or the detailed sensibilities of the Russians. Forced upon too young, readers get a bad taste in their mouths for many authors of classics (except, maybe, Twain, the Brontës, Fitzgerald and Dickens) and won’t explore them later on. As for myself, when I was a teenager I devoured stuff like Stephen King novels, “Helter Skelter”, “Gone with the Wind” and the biography of Jim Morrison. And I’m not surprised—or disappointed—when my teenage daughters want to read similar things.
6. CROSSING ON THE PARIS has three female protagonists, each of whom has a different reason for boarding the Paris. One woman is traveling first-class, one in second-class, and the third is a member of the crew assigned to serve working-class steerage passengers). What did you find most challenging about telling a story from three very different perspectives?
It was like telling three stories, really. Each woman had her background, her on-board story, and different physical environs, the three areas of the ship. One thing I was highly aware of, however, was making it “fair.” I wanted no one woman to overshadow the others and wanted each one to get equal time. Perhaps this comes from being the mother of two? At any rate, after finishing each “Day” on board (the main dividers of the novel), I counted the number of pages for each woman and made sure they were more or less the same.
7. Do you have a favorite scene in CROSSING ON THE PARIS? If so, what makes that scene stand out for you?
The scene of Vera Sinclair giving Max the puppet show. It was not in the original manuscript and is therefore relatively “new” to me and still has some freshness. It’s a reflection on childhood—on that of Vera, Josef, and Max himself—combining melancholy with playfulness, two of Vera’s key traits.
8. What is the last book you read, and why did you read it?
At the moment, I’m reading Georges Simenon mysteries (currently 45º à l’ombre), mainly to practice my French. I have an MA in French and lived in France for over a year in my early twenties, but, due to all the years I’ve lived in Valencia, my Spanish has pretty much eclipsed it. The foreign language area of my brain seems to be very fragile ground. If I’m reading in French, even now, my Spanish temporarily goes out the window.
9. How long did it take you to write CROSSING ON THE PARIS? How did you push yourself to get past difficult moments in writing and editing?
I started it in 2007, the summer after we translated the catalogue, but it’s hard to calculate exactly how much time it took to write. Do you include all the time spent mentally plotting things out, doing background reading, and making notes and outlines? And how about that very essential “down time,” when you put the MS aside and don’t look at it for a couple of months? And all of the various drafts (each one requiring its “time away”)? If so, taking into account I made a few final changes in the spring of 2012, it comes to about five years. But I think that’s misleading.
As far as pushing myself, once I had an agent interested (and the possibility of publication), I found that was motivation enough. Besides, when it’s a question of something I really like—writing, for one—I have plenty of self-discipline (housework is another story).
And now, the speed round:
– Plotter or pantser?
– Coffee, tea, or bourbon?
No wine on the list? Coffee then.
– Socks or no socks?
From October to May—definitely socks. I’m very cold-natured and we have tile floors and no central heating.
– Cats, dogs, or reptiles?
Cats. I’ve almost always had one—if not two or three.
– For dinner: Italian, Mexican, Burgers or Thai?
Who’s cooking? If it’s me, Italian. If we go out, Thai.
Thank you, Dana, for joining me today! I loved CROSSING ON THE PARIS and think many of my readers will love it too!
Set on an ocean liner in 1921, “Crossing on the Paris” explores the lives of three women on board. Vera Sinclair, an elderly woman travelling in first class, is reluctantly moving back to New York after thirty wonderful years in Paris. In second class, Constance Stone, a provincial wife and mother, is returning home after a failed attempt to bring her bohemian sister back to Worcester. Below decks, Julie Vernet embarks on her first job in the steerage service crew. During the course of the voyage, classes blur, romances blossom and lives change.