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Interview with Michele Zackheim
Last Train to Paris

Thanks to the Red Room editors for matching me with Michele Zackheim as part of their “Author Matchmaking” series. For many years Michele was a visual artist exhibiting in museums and galleries, both in the United States and Europe. As she puts it, “Over time, random words began to appear on my canvases . . . then poems . . . then elaborate fragments of narratives.” She is now the author of the nonfiction Einstein’s Daughter: The Search for Lieserl (1999) and three novels: Violette’s Embrace (1996), Broken Colors (A Booksense December 2007 Notable Title), and her newest, Last Train to Paris, about a young Jewish-American journalist who is posted to 1935’s Paris and is soon entangled in romance, an unsolved murder, the fraught relationship with her mother who appears uninvited, and the desperation of a looming war.

1. In the introduction to Last Train to Paris, you say that a German citizen abducted a cousin of yours in 1937, and that you set out to write a nonfictional account until a great urge to create fiction took over. Can you say more about your desire to fictionalize the process?

Although I’m a truthful person, I’ve always had a hard time sticking to the facts in my writing. Once I’m working, I feel the pull of language and it takes me dancing in unexpected directions; the story starts to carry me away.

So when I began researching a book about my distant cousin who was murdered in Paris, I realized that I was going to face the same difficulties I had wrangled with while writing Einstein’s Daughter: The Search for Lieserl. That nonfiction book had to be carefully vetted by the publisher, Riverhead, because I had a habit of embellishing the facts. But I wanted to try again. I researched and traveled and read and interviewed and began to write. After a few months, I understood that this nonfiction account was not the book I wanted to write. Imaginary characters kept slipping in the door. A rambunctious editor entered the picture; a reporter insisted that I look at her far more carefully; a mother slithered in despite my resistance. At last, with much relief and excitement, I began a “fictional nonfiction” story that became Last Train to Paris.

2. Almost immediately I noticed objects and places—the red-leather traveling trunk with treasures, a golden clouded mirror, and the curious hotel that housed all manner of people. These objects and places have some of the vitality and resonance of the characters. How would you describe your relationship to the inanimate world as a writer?

I worked as a visual artist for thirty years. My eyes are trained to see objects and places with precision, and I try to paint my characters with nuances of color and finely delineated shapes. For instance, in my research for Last Train to Paris, I needed to know how it looked and felt for my main character, Rosie, to be walking in Paris after the Nazi occupation. I chose a dull, rainy day with moments of sunlight for a walk. This is what I saw: I walked toward the Seine on the boulevard St. Germain, turned left along the river, and after a short while, turned left again. I walked over the Pont d’léna, seeing before me the Eiffel Tower and beyond to the Parc du Champ de Mars. The park was dotted with ancient lime trees casting their shadows, creating umbrellas of coolness.

As I took that walk in 2009, I smelled the air. I imagined the harsh smell of oily brown 1930s gasoline and caught a whiff of a putrid odor from the slow moving river. Then I listened. I tried to translate sleek, modern-day cars into large, loud, goose-honking taxis, and to hear the ring of horses’ hooves striking a wet cobblestone road. But I had to erase those sensations. I realized that few people on that first day of the Nazi occupation that I was writing about were out walking or driving; they were terrified, and stayed in their homes. Instead I had to write the sound of silence, and about what Rosie was feeling. Her world was changing and she felt desperately lonely and very much afraid. I looked up. The catastrophe was clear. Flying from the top of the Eiffel Tower was a huge red flag with a black swastika in a white circle.

When I write from this visual perspective, I am trying to describe people and the inanimate world in a vivid way that allows readers to reflect on them and visualize them clearly from their own perspectives.

3. Clara, the aunt, surrounded by billowing smoke, hats with bird feathers, and romantic costumes, seems like a creature from another world—yet so real, I had a hard time believing she wasn’t someone “real” in the book—like Colette or The New Yorker writer, Janet Flanner. How, in general, do your characters appear? From nowhere? Or the result of careful planning? She is just one of many characters, by the way—like Leon who smells of metal and heat.

Thank you, that’s a very nice compliment. I often try to plan my characters, but it never works; I always veer off into unknown territory. Once I create a character, the relationship between us becomes symbiotic. Clara, like my character Lili in Violette’s Embrace, became alarmingly real to me. After I ended their parts in their books, I felt bereft.

When I began writing this book, I wrote my main character, Rose, as a man named Jimmy Corso. I interviewed my husband about “real” male feelings over a bottle of red wine. It was certainly illuminating—appallingly so! But I kept at it. I finished the manuscript and turned it in to my publisher, Kent Carroll at Europa Editions. Europa bought it, but I fretted. After two weeks, realizing that I didn’t feel that Jimmy was rounded and three-dimensional enough, I asked for the manuscript back. Two years later, I had rewritten it in a woman’s voice. Kent Carroll, I am happy to say, bought the book again.

4. The anti-Semitism in the book begins with the mother and continues in Paris. As a reader, I saw Paris change from a quasi-romantic environment with insidious rumblings in the background to an insidious environment, so what’s ground becomes figure and what’s figure becomes ground. Do you sense the world moving in and out of a figure/ground formation?

When Rose first arrives in Paris, she feels it is a fabulous city of romance and beauty and the answer to her dreams. But beneath the surface, a deep prejudice against Jews and other minorities is festering. Just a few months after Rosie arrives, Hitler becomes the chancellor of Germany. From that point on, Europe lives under a dense gray shadow of apprehension and fear.

In 1937, the murder of my cousin coincided with the opening of the Exposition Internationale in Paris. By then there were such hordes of German tourists and soldiers in Paris that people complained they heard more German than French spoken on the Right Bank. On the opposite side of the Seine, thousands of refugees were struggling to eke out a living. They were lurking in the shadows, living in cheap hotels, trying to remain invisible. But the din of human suffering intensified and began to affect that glorious city.

The city of Paris is a character in the book. It has human qualities of beauty and hope, along with a treacherous ugliness. Rosie had thought that working in Paris would protect her from the homegrown variety of anti-Semitism she had confronted in America. She was wrong. How she pushes back and finds strength amid the horrors of war is at the heart of the story.

This interview is one in an exclusive series of original author interviews arranged by Red Room editors as part of their Author Matchmakers series. Learn more about the series here, and arrange to be an interviewer or interviewee by writing to editors@redroom.com.