A Paris Apartment: Interview with Author Michelle Gable - by Jan Moran
Today we’re welcoming Michelle Gable, author of A Paris Apartment. When I read this delightful book, I was utterly mesmerized, because it is based on a true story that came to light in 2010 about a 9th-arrondissement apartment had been sealed for seven decades.
Abandoned in 1942 on the eve of the Nazi occupation and frozen in time, Marthe de Florian’s apartment overflowed with treasures from the Belle Époque era. The dusty stash included high-end furniture, a classic Mickey Mouse stuffed animal, and an unknown painting of the mistress painted by the most renowned portraitist of the 19th century — Giovanni Boldini. The canvas ultimately sold for a record-high for the artist.
The story so captured Michelle Gable that she spent several years researching and writing a fictionalized account of Marthe de Florian, a demimondaine, which was a unique class of fashionable woman supported by one or more wealthy male patrons.
In A Paris Apartment, Michelle Gable deftly weaves two stories, one of a contemporary Sotheby’s furniture specialist, and the other of a Belle Époque beauty and demimondaine. Stylish and sophisticated, it’s a story of complex relationships, romance, and history.
I had the pleasure of having coffee with Michelle (a St. Martin’s Press “sister”) a couple of weeks ago in Solana Beach, California, and we chatted about writing and historical fiction. She had the most amazing stories that I was eager to share with you, so without further ado, let’s welcome Michelle…
What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
Sotheby’s continental furniture expert April Vogt decamps to Paris to uncover the mysteries of a shuttered-for-seventy-years apartment, as well as escape the problems in her personal life.
Why did you want to become a writer?
I’m not sure why, the desire has always been there! I will confess the Sweet Valley High series made me see the whole endeavor as more of a career path than merely a way to spend my free time. So many Sweet Valley High rip-offs written back in the day!
Please tell us a little about your book. Why is it a must-read?
Earlier this year readers might have heard about the Parisian flat left abandoned for the better part of a century. Though photographs of the frozen-in-time apartment went viral only recently, I read about the discovery in 2010 and it inspired the novel.
During the Belle Époque, courtesan Marthe de Florian resided in the flat. A portrait of her, painted by the premiere portraitist of the era, Giovanni Boldini, was found in the home. It sold for over two million euro at auction.
Madame de Florian passed away in 1935. Five years later, Marthe’s granddaughter locked up the home and fled to the south of France, never to return. What happened to Marthe de Florian? What kept her granddaughter away from the apartment and its roomfuls of priceless art? I attempted to answer these questions through the intertwining voices of Sotheby’s employee April Vogt and Marthe de Florian herself.
Why is it a must-read? The backstory is captivating and the book centers on the things that make life rich: good food, great wines, and, of course, Paris! Running through it all is the thread of the Gilded Age. There is heartbreak and torment, but with quite a lot of decadence!
What are some of your favorite locales, objects, or activities that a reader might find in your books?
Well this is Paris, so there are many favorite locales! The flat itself is in the ninth arrondissement, on the Right Bank, near the Opéra Garnier, Folies-Bergères, and Pigalle red light district.
I had great fun setting Marthe’s exploits in this location. In my novel, she is employed at Folies-Bergères and most of the acts and performance described are true to history (yes, mother, even the famous farter!)
The modern day part of the story takes place throughout the city, with pivotal scenes occurring on Pont des Arts and at Place des Vosges, two of my favorite Parisian landmarks. I highlight several A Paris Apartment locations on my blog at michellegable.com.
What should people ask you about, but seldom do?
That’s a great question! It’s funny because I never really told anyone other than close friends and family about my writing aspirations. When my book sold, even my own husband (of fourteen years) asked, “what is it about?” So I guess the question would be “I know this is your debut novel, but is it your first book?” To which the answer would be, not even close!
I think a lot of people view mine as a quick success story when it’s been decades in the making. I want folks to know, especially other writers who might be frustrated with the journey, that everyone goes through a lot of pain in the process. But you can still come out fine on the other side!
Who are your favorite authors and books?
My favorite book of all time is A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving, followed closely by Father of the Rain by Lily King. Gloriaby Keith Maillard would be number three. A recent favorite wasBelle Cora by Philip Margulies and everyone on the planet should be required to read Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed.
Irving is certainly one of my favorite authors overall and my first “literary hero.” His work inspires me in so many ways. Other favorites include T. Greenwood, Monica Wood, Allison Winn Scotch, Amanda Eyre Ward, Megan Abbott, J. Courtney Sullivan, Rainbow Rowell, Tasha Alexander, and Amy Hatvany.
Is there a message you want readers to take from your books?
There’s not a message per se, I only hope people enjoy the story and it spurs them to do something, be it travel, or write, or even merely escape the world for a little bit.
What inspires your writing?
Other writers most definitely! Also, things I’m interested in but don’t know much about. People say “write what you know” but I believe “write what you want to know.” Research is my favorite part of the writing process and I love to explore things I’ve never done. It’s a little late for me to change careers but it was fun to play Sotheby’s continental furniture expert through the eyes of my character April!
What’s your advice for authors just starting out?
Keep at it! So many people say they want to write a book and I think 90% of the battle is finishing the darn thing. If you complete the manuscript, you’re a million miles closer to your goal than when you were midway through.
Finishing a book is so, so hard, and being disciplined enough to polish it to its best potential is even more difficult. If you do these two things, that is a gigantic accomplishment. I’m still a “newbie” but already I can tell you persistence is absolutely the key to this profession.
Any hidden talents you’d like to share with readers?
Back in the day I was a competitive tennis player! I am also really advanced in Excel. I love playing around with complex spreadsheets and financial models (aka my day job!) Also, if you want to talk sports I can regale you with all kinds of obscure facts and stats (mostly about the NFL!)
Are your character based on real people? Or imaginary people?
Both! As my book was inspired by a true story, most of the historical characters existed in some fashion, though I did take many liberties with their day to day adventures.
As far as modern-day characters, these are mostly from my imagination though I did give April a very likeable brother named Brian, named after my very likeable brother Brian! They’re both techie guys who like to surf.
When did you begin writing?
I started writing “novels” sometime around age ten. Lifelong friends tease me that I’d make them write books during sleepovers when really they wanted to watch VHS tapes and give each other manicures.
What are you working on now?
I recently submitted two manuscripts to my agent, one about the aftermath of a plane crash told through the alternating viewpoints of the deceased pilot (ghost narration!) and his widow, and another about a pack of shady sorority girls and a crime they may or may not have committed.
I am very, very early on in a manuscript about a young woman who retreats to Oxfordshire, England after losing her fiancé in the Vietnam War. The woman, Laurel, encounters a half-crazed octogenarian bumbling around town claiming to be a Duchess and also meets a would-be author intent on writing a book about her life. Soon Laurel begins to question things about her fiancé’s death, as well as whether the wandering Duchess is more dangerous than her pack of barking spaniels and hidden revolver might indicate. Or perhaps it’s the writer himself who poses the greatest risk!
Of course this is all very, very early and subject to (much) change! One thing I always alter mid-manuscript is the protagonist’s name. I don’t know why…but April from A Paris Apartment was originally Rebecca!
If you could tell your readers anything, what would it be?
Make time for books! Be a “reader” in whatever genre makes you the happiest. Support the authors you love. It’s such a small price to pay. A latte or two has never changed a life, but books have.
Are there any women, past or present, who inspire your work?
Marthe de Florian was a great inspiration for A Paris Apartment, especially after seeing the portrait of her found in the apartment.
Not much is known about her, which was for the better as it gave my mind permission to wander. That said, I took tremendous inspiration from courtesan-turned-princess-turned-nun Liane de Pougy. When I stumbled across her journals I realized Marthe needed her own diaries to write!
What do you love most about the writing process?
As much as I love reading any book that sends me googling, I love writing any book that requires me to perform loads of research, not just via the internet, but through interviews, hunting down copies of books that went out of print half a century or more ago, looking through personal collections in libraries, and, of course, traveling! I really have to force myself to stop the research and start the manuscript.
What’s your favorite genre?
I read anywhere from 2-3 books a week and across all genres: mainstream fiction, literary fiction, historical, mystery, romance, Young Adult, Middle Grade, as well as non-fiction including memoirs, biographies, humor, narrative non-fiction, even military. There really isn’t a genre I don’t read. I like mainstream and historical fiction the best, but I definitely prefer to mix it up.
What’s your favorite place?
I love my hometown of Cardiff-by-the-Sea, California, in northern San Diego County. It’s a funky little beach town where surfers tromp by my home office in bare feet, boards tucked under their arms. Families play in the streets at all hours. Everyone is friendly and you can walk from any point in town to any other point, and of course walk to the beach. Being so close to San Diego and not too far from Los Angeles, it has all the benefits of a small town with access to a larger one.
Aside from Cardiff, my three favorite cities in the words are London, Washington, DC, and, of course, Paris!
What’s the best fan letter you’ve received?
It wasn’t a fan letter but something I read on someone’s blog. She wrote: “A Paris Apartment, by Michelle Gable, was what I needed while I had an unexpected stay in the hospital. I never share my personal life on this level, but I just have to share how this book took me to another place other than my hospital room.”
She went on to say many generous things about the book, but the fact that it helped get her through such a difficult time was incredibly moving. I definitely found my eyes watering– and I am not a crier!
Where do you dream of traveling?
I’m headed to London and Paris with my husband, daughters, and parents this summer. My husband’s only been to London once and never to Paris and my girls have never been abroad at all. I’ve been dreaming of this experience and the girls are finally old enough to enjoy it. We are also celebrating “milestone” birthdays for my dad and for me (gulp!)
Also, I have in my “to write about” file a book set in Kenya in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s so I desperately want to travel there. The trick will be getting my husband on board. He’s really more of a “golfing on Maui” type.
When do you write?
Whenever I can sneak it in! I am an executive at a publicly-traded software company so my “day job” is pretty intense. I also have two young daughters – and no nanny! I am a very early riser so usually write in the mornings, which is my preferred time. Though sometimes I have to take it when I can get it! I travel a lot for work so also make good use of plane flights, airport lounges, etc. My trick is always stopping for the day mid-sentence/scene/thought so that it’s easy to start up again.
What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
A few people have compared my book to Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay, which is certainly apt…and a great compliment! Other authors include Therese Anne Fowler (Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald), Daisy Goodwin (The American Heiress), Paula McLain (The Paris Wife), Kathleen Tessaro (The Perfume Collector), Sara Gruen (Water for Elephants), Melanie Benjamin (The Aviator’s Wife, Alice I Have Been), J. Courtney Sullivan (The Engagements, Maine), and Alan Brennert (Moloka’i, Palisades Park).
About the Author: Jan Moran is an author and entrepreneur who writes historical fiction for St. Martin's Press (Scent of Triumph, 2015), contemporary fiction, and nonfiction (Fabulous Fragrances). Sephora acquired her latest technology, a program for the beauty industry.
Visit her website at www.JanMoranWrites.com for a free Reading Guide: Say Oui to Paris: 35 Best Books Set in France.