Marilyn is the author of a book about the French capital unlike any other I have read. Die In Paris is the true story of a compulsive serial killer during the Nazi occupation of France. As someone who rarely reads 'novels' these days, I started reading it during a prolonged stay in London, and didn't stop until I had finished it. You can read my review of Die In Parishere.
I was delighted to meet Marilyn on a treacherously cold day where she lives just to the south of Paris and visiting the Kremlin Bicetre cemetery just across the road from her place (see the photos) was a personal highlight of our meeting. You'll find out why when you read the book. Here are her answers to some of my questions. Thank you for a memorable afternoon Marilyn, and I look forward to your future endeavours with pleasure.
MARILYN Z. TOMLINS: Sab, the American singer and actress Josephine Baker, who came to Paris in the 1920s and died here in France, sang the song J’ai deux amours. It goes, J’ai deux amours mon pays et Paris. And it continues, Mais quoi bon le nier ce qui m’ensorcelle c’est Paris, Paris tout entier.
I echo her words. But the mon pays bit I would have to change, because Paris is now mon pays. So yes Paris pleases me. I wish I could pick Paris up and hug it - or hug her because Paris is supposed to be female.
PIYP: Do you have a favourite part of the city?
MZT: Yes, the banks of the Seine, from the Eiffel Tower down (or is it up?) to Bercy. I walk that walk often. Why is it my favourite part of the city? For the river’s tranquillity and the peace of mind it gives me. It makes me feel great ... alive... and grateful to be alive.
PIYP: How did you first become aware of Docteur Marcel Petiot?
MZT: It is almost a pity having to speak of him right now because for a moment now it was a summer morning and I was back walking along the Seine.
One cold winter afternoon six years ago I was paging through a French book about the German occupation of France and the name Marcel Petiot caught my eye. How many words on a page – say 300? So it is 600 for a double spread, yet it was the name Marcel Petiot that caught my eye. About 15 years earlier someone had briefly told me about him but I had not then taken much notice and had completely forgotten about him. But six years ago I could not get his name out of my head and because I had to know more about him, I went in search of books about him at Paris bouquinistes, and I can say that a few pages into the first book that I found, he had got hold of me. The man fascinated me. I had to know everything about him. I was hooked.
PIYP: How have your feelings about the city changed or evolved having spent several years of your life researching and writing about Docteur Petiot?
MZT: I always did know that there was more to Paris than the gay Paree (old meaning of the word gay) that the tourist sees, but having gone so thoroughly into the Paris of the German occupation, I am much more aware now that there is a darker side to this city. I tried to make this dark side visible in my book to show that there is more to Paris than the Eiffel Tower, Place du Tertre and the Champs-Elysées.
For example, in the 18 months before the March 1944 night when cops and fire fighters discovered the bodies at Dr. Petiot’s Paris town house, 327 bodies had been fished from the Seine or had been found in Paris’ wartime blacked-out dark alleys and parks, and most of them were headless. On that night, of those 327 bodies, 85, 35 of them female, were still lying in Paris' main morgue on Quay de la Rapée in the 12th arrondissement awaiting identification and burial. That is a Paris tourists do not know.
PIYP: You reported what was said during his famous trial pretty much verbatim, but you obviously had to invent private conversations with Petiot’s family and so on. How did you strike a balance between creating a character the reader could identify with and the more clinical approach of just letting the facts speak for themselves?
MZT: The genre is called either creative non-fiction or narrative true crime. The writer who had initiated this genre is Meyer Levin with his 1956 book ‘Compulsion’, the story of the two University of Chicago killers Leopold and Loeb. The most successful book of the genre is Truman Capote’s 1966 book ‘In Cold Blood’ about the murder of a Kansas farming family. I had to decide whether to write the Petiot story in fiction form, in other words change all the names and invent situations, or to write it as narrative true crime. I chose the latter.
Part of my research was studying about 50 books about Petiot as well as numerous media reports of the time. All but three of the books were in French. All the books and reports were written in agency copy style. In other words, the facts were reported but there was no colour; as you said, the authors let the facts speak for themselves. I did not want to write another book like that. I wanted to write a book that would be easy to read and one which would have something for the true crime buff but also for the reader of history. An agent did in fact classify the book’s genre as ‘history’, and I’ve wondered since whether I should not have done so too.
Petiot’s words, and those of his family and friends and partners in crime, were reported. In French of course. I drew what was important from those reports and a professional translator worked with me for most of two years to translate rather archaic French conversation into modern English. Where no conversations had been reported, I have no dialogue in my book.
For example, it was not reported (and no one knows) what Dr Petiot and his wife Georgette said to one another after she had found out that he had been killing people. It was also not reported what had been said in the days that the doctor and Georgette spent with the Petiot family in Auxerre in order for him to recover from his ten months of Gestapo incarceration in a Paris jail, and when the family already knew that there were dozens of bodies lying in the doctor’s Paris town house. In a novel I would have invented such conversations.
Where I did create dialogue was, for example, for the night of the discovery of the human remains at Dr Petiot’s Paris town house, when Massu, the Paris police chief, told his deputy, Battut, that they would investigate no further that night. It’s Page 34 in the book, and the conversation goes like this: "So, I’ll be off home," said Massu to Battut. "I’ll call it a day too. Or rather, I’ll call it a night," replied the DCI. How do I know that the two had discussed packing it in for the night? I know because Commissioner Massu wrote in his book about the Petiot case that he had told Battut that he was going home and that Battut had gone home too. I could therefore create the conversation the two had had.
But I can assure you that when Petiot was awakened on the morning of his execution, he did say, "You’re a pain in the arse," and his last words before the guillotine’s blade dropped, were indeed, "Don’t look, gentlemen: this won’t be pretty."
PIYP: You talk about Petiot almost with a certain fondness, if that’s the right word. You say you spent a lot of time 'with the doctor' by his grave during the writing of Die In Paris. Is this a fondness for the character you built up for your book, or a genuine sympathy or compassion for the real person, as you came to understand him?
MZT: When I started the actual writing of the book, an Australian friend, who is a true crime reader, told me that true crime writers have said that sooner or later the murderer they were writing about had visited them. That gave me a terrible fright. I emailed her that if I should walk into a dark room one night and there stands Petiot I will have a heart attack. She told me that that was not what she meant. She meant that sooner or later the writer will come to understand, to know, the murderer. The writer will 'get into the murderer's head'. And that sure happened with me too. In the beginning I kept on saying to myself, "What got into this guy?" Then, after a time, I understood. It was as if he himself had told me.
Did I become fond of him? Good heavens no. I became so scared of him I made sure to always think of him as 'Dr Petiot' in case he had really turned up when I could at least have defended myself by telling him that I had always been respectful towards him.
But seriously, I came to understand him. I could of course be wrong, but I believe that he was not a born killer, but had become one because of his very unhappy childhood.
I went to his grave yes. Why did I? I had to see where he lay buried to be able to describe it. That was the reason for my first visit. The other visits were to talk to him. And no, Sab, he did not reply – not in words he did not. I went to talk to him because I had become stuck – when I did not know what to write next – and going to the cemetery and sitting there and allowing the silence to clear my head, I could work out what to write next. I used to say to him, "Oh come on Dr Petiot, help me with this!"
PIYP: What was it about this story that fascinated you so - the character, the murders, the period (wartime France under the occupation) or a combination of all of these?
MZT: Bad people are interesting. I’ve been criticised for saying so, but I’ve just said so again. Take World War Two. How many bad people can you name from World War Two? Hitler, Mengele, Eichman, Heydrich, Bormann, Goebbels, Himmler. And that’s just to start with. Now, how many good people from World War Two can you name? Probably only Schindler and that will be because of the film ‘Schindler’s List’. And who had heard of Schindler before the film?
Therefore, because I write and because bad people are more interesting than good people, I began reporting true crime – murders. Then, discovering Petiot, I wanted to write a book about him, this man who was guillotined for the killing ... no, the slaughter of 26 people but who had, according to the police, killed many more, perhaps two hundred. And then what made this man even more interesting to me was that he murdered within the framework of the Nazi German occupation of France, a time of such great turmoil for the French.
PIYP: What are you working on at the moment?
MZT: I have a manuscript of a novel titled ‘Sitting on a Stick’ with a New York literary agent. The novel is set in the Soviet Union of the 1930s and it is a love story, believe it or not. It is the story of the adulterous affair the Russian poet, writer and Nobel Prize in Literature laureate, Boris Pasternak, had with the journalist Olga Ivinskaya on whom he had modelled the Lara character in his epic novel ‘Dr Zhivago’. My novel is not however all sweetness and honey because in recounting their love story I also tell the story of Stalin’s rule of terror. So it is another book about death and destruction. And a bad man: Stalin.
PIYP: Do you, like I, feel that Paris has set you free in some way?
MZT: Yes. Yes. Yes, I do, Sab. You have no idea how Paris has set me free. I came to Paris with many prejudices in my rucksack. I won’t go into those, if you do not mind. Gradually, I took those prejudices out of my rucksack and I threw them away. If I am still today guilty of a prejudice or two it is because of recent injustices done me. On the whole though, I am patient, tolerant and broadminded. Paris has taught me to live and let live.
PIYP: And just to finish up, what's your philosophy on life, if you have one?
MZT: As I said in my reply to your previous question, I believe, and I hope that I apply, ‘to live and let live’ to my life. However, my philosophy on life is summed up in the title of my next book, ‘Sitting on a Stick’. Leo Tolstoy wrote in his diary on January 15, 1891, To think you can change your life by changing its outward conditions is just like thinking that by sitting on a stick and taking hold of it at both ends you could lift yourself up. Therefore, my philosophy on life is that one can’t run away from oneself. You can run, yes, but who and what you are will accompany you.
Note: I'd like to thank Marilyn for taking the time to meet and talk with me, be dragged around a genuinely freezing graveyard, and for getting a review copy of Die In Paris to me using means beyond the call of duty.