This is the second part of our interview with American author in Paris Jake Lamar, his editor calls him the most French of the Americans. Here’s how he does his craft.
For part one of American author in Paris see this link
Q: Do you have a writing routine, or any quirky routines while you write?
A: Music is first and foremost. I kept my bachelor’s apartment after I met my wife. I met her in 1996, at that time I had a small studio apartment in Montmartre, after we moved in together I kept that apartment as my office. I have a separate place where I work. We live in the 18th arrondissement together, but my office is about 5-7 minutes away. When I’m there, I’m in my sacred work space. I usually start work in the afternoon. I haven’t been able to have a regular writing pattern for years. Back in the 90s, I had a generous grant and back then, writers could live from publisher’s advances, but those days are over. During my first ten years as a writer, I was mainly living from grants and advances and didn’t have any other responsibilities. When I sit down to write, I have to have music on, it’s almost always music without words, a lot of jazz, but I have broad tastes, classical, world music. I like movie soundtracks, film composers like Ennio Morricone, Nino Rota, Bernard Hermann. Back in the day, my general workday was from about 1pm to 8pm. The first half of a book for me is very slow going, the process feels like pulling teeth, it takes 3 years. The first year and a half is a slog but then I get about halfway through the book and everything picks up. The second half of the book comes much more quickly, it might take 9 months, because everything starts to snowball. When I’m in that phase of work, I could take a break for dinner and then go back at it and work until late into the night. My life’s been so busy, for the last 20 years, I rarely have regular work routines, I work when I can. I’ll block out a day when I don’t have to teach, I’m not going to a book festival, don’t have any interviews. I tend to be an afternoon or evening writer. I remember writing Posterité, written between 2008 and 2012, back then I was doing a lot of media around Obama’s presidency, I was very often on TV or the radio talking about it, I was working at the theater in Bobigny, I had a lot going on, sometimes I would arrive at my studio at 10pm and write until 4 in the morning. I would sleep until 11 and then get up and start all over again. Posterité is a book that was written at night.
Q: You mentioned music and that you have to listen to music while you write and at the end of Viper’s Dream there’s a list of the songs you listened to while you wrote the book, could you tell us a bit more about your relationship to jazz music?
A: I grew up with jazz, my parents were fans. I don’t play an instrument, but I love the music. In Viper’s Dream, I play with the history and the mythology of jazz, it’s set in Harlem between 1936 and 1961 and there is an aspect of once upon a time in Harlem… The real-life characters that you find in the book, Miles Davis, Theloniuos Monk, Charlie Parker, they’re all these mythical figures. I wanted to write a book where they’re striding around, like Zeus and Mars and Apollo, these gods of jazz who come to life in the book. Music helps me get into the mental space to write. I’m not that into streaming, so I still use CDs, I put a CD in the machine and I know that the writing is going well if all of a sudden there’s no more music. The playlist at the end of the book was my editor’s idea, there was the radio version, with 100 songs in it, then I finished the novel and we were ready to go to press last summer and my editor suggested adding the list. Through them, I wanted to give a sense of the trajectory of the music over that time, so I have a lot of Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, several Thelonious Monk songs, but I also wanted to make sure it was representative of those 25 years (when the book takes place) so I made sure to have a song by Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman. There are very few sung songs on the list, but I have the four divas, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and Nina Simone.
Q: How do you come up with names for your characters, like Yoyo or Clyde. Where do you get your inspiration?
A: It’s very mysterious, I really don’t know, there’s an aspect to writing that is very mysterious and everything around characters is a mystery to me, where they come from, how they speak, what they’re named. That’s the magical part. I talk a lot about the part that you can demystify and understand when it comes to writing, I named outlines and structures as ways of organising the imagination but the imagination has a will of its own and that’s especially true when it comes to characters, I really don’t know where I get the names from, they come to me. Clyde just seemed like such an old-fashioned name.
Q: You mentioned in another interview that the French language doesn’t have enough words, so how do you feel about Viper’s Dream being published only in French for the moment? Do you feel like something was left out ?
A: A prominent French translator told me that in the Robert there are 100.000 words, while in the Oxford dictionary there are 500.000 words, so there are 5 times as many words. I think that it structures the way you think, that Americans are very blunt and to the point and can say a lot with a few well-chosen words. In French, it takes longer to say anything and I think that affects the way French people think as well, they think in a more roundabout way because the sentences become more complicated to convey the same sense that you can convey in a few choice adjectives in English. I would say nothing was left out, because for one, I can correct the translation and two, I think the translator did a great job. It happened with one of my earlier books, If 6 Were 9, which was called Le Caméléon Noir in French, it’s a first person narrator and there’s a moment when he does something stupid and he says: ‘Call me an idiot’, four words. The translation was: ‘C’est sûr que vous allez me prendre pour un idiot.’ That’s ten words instead of four. There’s an energy to the English language that you can get across in four words. The translator had to come up with something, but I feel like there was a loss of force and energy there, that was not the case with Viper’s Dream.
Q: What do you do when you’re not writing? What do you do for fun?
A: I go to concerts, museums, cinema, dinner parties, long walks through Paris. When the lockdown ended, especially this fall, I went to a lot of museums with my wife. I love going to museums. I have broad tastes. We have tons of friends in the French theater.
Q: In Viper’s Dream, the baronness Pannonica de Koenigswarter asks musicians for their three wishes. What are your three wishes?
A: Someone asked me a while ago what were my three wishes when I was young and starting out, I don’t know if they’ve changed all that much. First, I wanted to write a body of work, not just one or two books, so I got to do that. I wanted to live in Paris and now I want to continue living in Paris, to continue adding to this body of work and that leads to the third wish which was implicit in my mind but it’s clearer now, I would like to live a long life. I love this life, I love doing the work I do. I love living in Paris. I had a brush with death a few years ago, when I was 54 I discovered that I had a defective aortic vale, I had open-heart surgery, the French healthcare system saved my life, I think that reinforced this idea that was in the back of my mind, but now I absolutely wish to live a long life. So I’d like to stay in Paris, keep on writing and live a long life.
A. Longue vie à Jake Lamar!
Thank you for speaking with us Jake.
Editor’s note: Breaking news: Viper’s Dream will be published in English in Spring 2023, watch for an event at Bill & Rosa’s Book Room.
Interview and transcription by Iasmina Iordache Clarke.