Tuesday, 7 December 2010

People ~ 'Heather Reyes' ~ Interview

POSTED IN:  ~ PeoplePublicationsBooksInterviews

Photo by Derek Adams
Heather Reyes
Editor, city-lit PARIS

Heather is the editor of a new collection of Paris writings, city-lit PARIS, which we reviewed recently. She is also the author of a novel, Zade, inspired by Père Lachaise cememtery, runs her own publishing company, Oxygen Books, and also writes for children.

PARIS IF YOU PLEASE: Does Paris please you?

HEATHER REYES: Always. It's both very beautiful and intellectually exciting. There are always new places to discover, and the bookshops are marvellous. The art, the architecture, the way they display their fruit and vegetables!

PIYP: Could you sum up your own, personal relationship with Paris in a sentence?

HR: Love at first sight - a love that has deepened over time.

PIYP: How have things changed since you wrote your first novel, Zade, set in Père Lachaise cemetery?

HR: With the economic difficulties, there are many more strikes and demonstrations. Back to 1968?

PIYP: How did you choose the final pieces for city-lit PARIS?

HR: With great difficulty! There is SO much good writing on Paris and some was, inevitably, left out (in fact, I’d love to create a second volume).

PIYP: The range of material is quite remarkable though...

HR: We try to make ‘variety’ the keynote in our collections – variety of genre (everything from classic literature to blogs, by way of memoirs, history, journalism, detective fiction, letters, diaries, even the ‘Bluffer’s Guide’ … as long as it’s good writing and reveals something of the city), variety of voice, tone, length of extract etc – so this plays a large part. The pieces also need to fit into the section headings – but these are quite broad and varied so it’s usually possible to find a place for anything that is really good.

As in all our city collections, the emphasis is very much on the modern and contemporary so although we do include pieces by Flaubert, Hugo, Balzac, Maupassant and Proust (there’s no Zola – it was a toss up between him and Hugo), they are very much in the minority.

PIYP: So did you start with your personal favourites and take it from there?

HR: Personal enthusiasms have to play a part: I’m a great fan of Colette, Simone de Beauvoir, Gertrude Stein, Georges Perec and Edmund White, for example, so I made sure they were represented. But, above all, I chose the extracts that seemed, to me, to ‘get under the skin’ of the city in some way. Although some extracts will introduce readers to places in Paris they might not have otherwise visited (such as Colette on Montmartre Cemetery or Jeremy Mercer on the Shakespeare & Company bookshop), the main purpose is to enhance the visitor’s feel for the spirit of the place, to draw attention to the unexpected and deepen the appreciation of what the visitor might already know. We also like our books to be a kind of ‘illustrated reading list’ – and we know that many readers seek out  some of the books they first encountered in our series.

PIYP: And I suppose you can't just grab someone else's writing and put it in your book and sell it!

HR: There are practical considerations – like the cost of ‘permissions fees’ … though with the Paris book this was only a factor in one case: it was a real anguish to me to leave out the extract I’d chosen from Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, but the fee being asked for was just too great – we couldn’t justify it.

Above all, I tried to imagine I was two different kinds of reader – one who was visiting the city for the first time, and the other who already knew and loved the city and always wanted to increase their knowledge of the place. I tried to put together a collection that would be enjoyed and appreciated by both.

PIYP: That sounds just like this web site! But weren’t you sick of 'perfect bloody Paris' by the end of it? Wasn't there a danger of too much of a good thing putting you off altogether?

HR: Frankly, no! The process of putting the book together just made me realise why I love it so much. And actually it's not perfect, though it is my favourite city. I think immigrants sometimes have a harder time in Paris than in London, for example, and I have included some extracts that, while not horribly negative, convey something of the reality of living in Paris when you are not fairly well off or come from a different culture. The two extracts from Abdelkader Djemaï's slim but very moving novel Gare du Nord are among my favourite pieces in the book (specially translated for our volume), along with the lively piece by the young Faïza Guène (a kind of 'laureate of the banlieus'). Although it’s been wonderful to visit all the other cities we’ve produced books on, I still can’t wait to go back to Paris.

PIYP: Do you have an absolute favourite piece of writing on Paris?

HR: I dread this question! There is so much in the book that I love. But the quirkiest favourite is probably the extract from Raymond Queneau's hilarious novel Zazie in the Metro in which a rather foul-mouthed little girl from the suburbs is being given a tour of the city by her Parisian uncle and one of his friends. They attempt to interest her in the architectural wonders of the city they love (though they don’t know the Panthéon from the Gare de Lyon) – but all she is interested in is riding on the Metro (which, in good Parisian fashion, is on strike). There’s a brilliant film of the book, by the way, directed by Louis Malle.

PIYP: Do you have a personal 'defining' (or memorable) Paris moment, or a place in the city which is special for you?

HR: The statue of my hero, Montaigne, in the rue des Ecoles, near the Sorbonne. I discovered Montaigne's essays when I was sixteen - the Penguin paperback was the first properly adult book in my now extensive library. It also happens to be almost opposite the Hotel Claude Bernard where I stayed with my parents, as a school girl, in 1968, experiencing the unforgettable events in the city that year. I always visit the statue when in Paris and give his foot an affectionate rub.

PIYP: What do you remember from that now historical time?So give me one memory from the student uprising of '68 and a favourite quote from Montaigne...

HR: The students had painted the lips of many of the city's statues bright red: it was the kind of 'carnivalesque' gesture that was in keeping with the spirit of the times and made one smile, even while dodging the scary-looking riot police. A favourite quote from Montaigne - "Without lightness, I achieve nothing" (from an essay on 'books').

PIYP: What are your plans for the immediate future?

HR: We've now brought out six anthologies on European cities, so we thought it was time Oxygen Books went a little further afield. I'm working on a New York collection - and it's tremendously exciting. I'm also trying to find time to do more of my own writing. I have a short book on 'bibliotherapy' that needs a final edit ... ditto a couple of children's books. I'm also part the way through a book on nuns! But running a small publishing company is very time-consuming - but great, great fun. And I'd rather be reading really great writing for our books than spending too long on my own work!

PIYP: Has Paris 'set you free' in any way?

HR: Yes, in two ways. Although I was young at the time, experiencing '68 was important. But reading the work of the Paris-based Existentialists - especially Simone de Beauvoir - was a very 'shaping' experience in terms of personal freedom. And I only have to step down from Eurostar onto the platform at Gare du Nord to feel more tinglingly alive - and free.

PIYP: And just to wrap up, what's your philosphy on life, if you have one?

HR: I tend towards Buddhism. One should try to live intensely in the moment while keeping a sense of the vastness of the universe and beauties of the world, and to keep a sense of proportion on one's own life by being aware of the lives of others with whom we share the planet. (I'm quite political.) I suppose 'social responsibility' plus 'wonder' and 'love'. Probably sounds pretentious, but hey ..

Note: Many thanks to Heather for taking the time to fully answer my questions and give me all the help I needed with information, photos and so on. And particularly for offering three copies of city-lit PARIS as a wonderful prize, which you can still win by leaving a comment on the review here!
© 2010 Sab Will / Paris Set Me Free - Suggestions, questions, requests and offers always welcome!

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