A CHAT WITH ANSTEY
Q: Can you tell me about your research process for Goodbye, Paris? Did anything surprise you?
A: Mr. Williams came as a complete surprise to me. There are times in the writing process when things seem to be out of the writer’s hands, when the characters become so lively—and the story world so real—that things seem to happen by themselves. Mr. Williams was one of those moments: he literally knocked on the door of the shop! I didn’t know who he was or what his role would be, but I knew he was important and that Grace should open the door and let him in.
When I first wrote Nadia, I was living with three angry teenaged girls (my own two daughters and my stepdaughter—our boys seemed easier somehow!) and it was easy to channel their frustration into Nadia. What surprised me, and what was a useful reminder at the time, was her tenderness and her kindness, albeit veiled in swagger. I think it’s helpful to remember that our own teenagers also have that uncertainty and vulnerability underneath all the layers of bluster.
Sadly, the Nikolai Dernov situation was all too real, but I was surprised by the number of female musicians who told me about experiences of sexual assault at college and in their professional life. One woman, a professional violin player, told me that she’d been made aware of the “casting couch” at almost every audition she’d been to: an awful situation.
Q: What was your writing process like when you wrote the novel? If you encountered writer’s block, how did you break through?
A: I didn’t have writer’s block when writing this novel—the story tipped out in a rush. What took time were the rewrites and the edits: so much of writing is in the rewriting. I always tell my students (and I don’t know where this comes from but I didn’t make it up) that a first draft is heaping sand into the sandbox—once all the sand is in, you can start to make a castle. After lots of shaping and remodelling, you get to the point where you can decorate it with seaweed and shells and, eventually, a Popsicle stick in the top.
Q: Which character do you identify with most, and why?
A: I think it would have to be Nadia, although I think it’s fair to say there’s a little bit of the author in most characters we create. I certainly found my teenage years as confusing and isolating as Nadia does.
I identify with Grace in terms of her passion for music. I would love to have Grace’s talent—and her dedication and commitment. I started playing the cello when I was eleven and did anything I could to wriggle out of practice and lessons. I’ve had various teachers as an adult and have got to the dizzying heights of the average seven-year-old.
I would hate to have self-esteem as low as Grace’s, although there have been times when my younger self was on a similar level. Again, kindness is key—if we treat our children right as they are growing up, they can grow terrific armour against such things!
Q: You capture the essence of small-town England, Paris, France, and Cremona, Italy, so beautifully. Have you spent time in those locations yourself?
A: I’ve been to Cremona twice as my husband is a violin maker who has entered the Triennale twice. He is entering again this year (third time lucky?). It’s a magical place: I’m torn between urging you all to go and keeping it for myself.
Paris is etched in my heart and I go there as often as I can. At least once a year, usually more. We live in a small town on the south coast of England so we can actually drive to Paris and back on less than a tank of gas. There is nowhere in the world quite like Paris. I do really believe what Grace says, that Paris—more than any other city—knows about love. I live in a sleepy town, not dissimilar to Grace’s. Her community is a combination of where I live now and the last town I lived in.
Q: Your description of playing the cello is enchanting. Do you have experience playing the instrument, or any other instruments? Are there any songs that you love playing in particular?
A: I adore music and would love to be a significant player. As it is, I struggle with even the most basic of tunes despite a lifetime’s best efforts. I love the cello above all other instruments. Last year I bought the album Inspiration by Sheku Kanneh-Mason and it’s fabulous (he has since played at the royal wedding and achieved the profile he so deserves). I like classical music that can engage people like me rather than experts. And I like the same thing in fiction.
When we moved to this little town by the sea, I had an office on the third floor of our house. I was typing away at Grace’s story when I looked up and saw a man playing the cello in the window opposite. That man was the world-famous cellist Matthew Sharp, who was living in Deal at the time. It is a German version of Matthew (Matthieu Scharf ) who plays Grace’s cello in the winners’ concert. When Matt and his family moved on from Deal, they held a party where he played the cello. That was the first time I heard the “Libertango.”
Q: I notice that a lot of your previous works are short fiction, for which you have won numerous accolades and awards. Did Goodbye, Paris originate as a short story that grew into a novel, or did you always intend for Grace’s story to be novel-length?
A: Grace’s story was always going to be a novel. I wrote the first draft of it as the dissertation for my Master’s degree at the Manchester Writing School. I chose Manchester as it was one of the few institutions that required a full novel to pass the
course. Others required only three chapters and a synopsis and I didn’t see that as challenging enough.
Q: You mention on GoodReads that you write about “things that make people tick, the things that bind us, and the things that can rip us apart.” With regards to Grace, what do you think makes her tick?
A: Grace is defined by her overwhelming lack of self-belief. I see this as a consequence of her time with Nikolai, an experience that could have been so much worse if her parents hadn’t given her such a grounding of love and support. Grace is a talented artist, both in her music and her making, and I think a degree of self-doubt is imperative in turning that talent into success. If we don’t question our own abilities sometimes, I don’t think we can create true art. It’s important to be able to critique yourself—Grace, for a while, lost the balance in that, but meeting Shota again and hearing the truth restored it.
Q: I read that you enjoy cooking in your downtime. Did that serve partially as your inspiration for Mr. Williams’s character? If you were on the Great British Baking Show, what would be your showstopper? A: I think I associate cooking with caring—I’m not sure what that says about me! I had the idea from the very start that David would, subtly, control Grace’s eating as part of their particular and peculiar relationship. Mr. Williams is the antithesis of that, using cooking as kindness and part of Grace’s recovery in a physical—as well as emotional—sense.
My showstopper would absolutely be pear and frangipane tart with cardamom, and I’d serve it with homemade rhubarb and custard ice cream. I adore cooking and feeding people. This year, we are building a pizza oven in our garden and can’t wait
to fire it up with friends (and wine). I love the Bake Off, even the new Channel 4 version (which I don’t know if you have).
Q: I was so inspired by the setting of Cremona toward the end of the novel. Do you believe in the power of a location to change your perspective on life? Have you felt that way about any location you’ve visited in the past?
A. The place that most changed my perspective on life was Iceland. I went there twenty years ago—when tourism on the island was still in its infancy—with my children. The whole country is so steeped in magic and fairy tale; it feels like
a whole different planet. I returned two years ago with my husband and we rode Icelandic horses through the volcanic landscape—one of the most moving experiences of my life.
Q: There’s a lot left uncertain at the end of Goodbye, Paris. Is there a chance that Grace, Nadia, and Mr. Williams might return in future work?
A: Sadly I think the only way that these guys would get back together for another novel would be for a funeral. And I don’t think you want that . . .
Q: You paint Grace as a sympathetic and delicate character in her relationship with David. While writing, were you conscious of making sure to hit the right chord with their relationship?
A: This was the greatest challenge of the novel. I wanted to take a character that we are hardwired to despise (in this case, “the mistress”) and add in enough personal circumstances, life experience, and character that we could start to believe in her and her choices, however poor those choices might be. I have long been fascinated with the way society depicts women in literature (and art)—where you can be the Madonna or Lady Macbeth and rarely anything in between. I wanted to write something that tilted our perceptions of women and their societal roles. I wanted to write about the power of kindness and the fact that we don’t know ANYONE until we’ve walked in their shoes. People are rarely who you think on first meeting them . . .
It was also important to me to paint David’s wife, Dominique-Marie, as a woman in control of her own life and family rather than a passive victim.
A Chat with Anstey
A CHAT WITH ANSTEY