Interview with Nancy K. Miller by John Wisniewski
1. What captivated you about Paris? Seen from the New York fifties, Pariswasheaven for intellectuals. We all knew about the Beauvoir/Sartre couple and were fascinated by the fact that they were equally brilliant, famous, and bound by a pact other than marriage. We alsowere enchanted with Albert Camus, readyto believe his claimthat the world was “absurd.” But, of course, the appeal of Paris was not just about braininess. There was style, glamor, and sophistication in sexual matters. While Doris Day was starring in movies in which she never lost her virginity, nouvelle vague movies were showing us the opposite. I was entranced instead by Jeanne Moreau, and especially, though she wasn’t French, the American actress Jean Seberg, who starred in Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless.
What was Paris like in the 60s?
In the early sixties Paris was still very much in postwar recovery. Few people had telephones, televisions were rare, most lived without indoor plumbing—the WC on the landing—and the famous “ravalement” that cleaned up all the dingy gray buildings was just beginning. The buildings matched the equally famous Parisian “grisaille” (permanent gray skies). In many ways, Paris in the sixties was still in the fifties, until May ’68. The shadow of the Algerian war hovered over the city. As the decolonization process accelerated, street bombings (of Sartre’s apartment building most famously) were common, as were walls covered with graffiti for or against independence for Algerians. Newspapers reported rumors of torture. Large numbers of “pieds noirs” arrived from North Africa, demanding housing. Everything to do with immigration, the right to stay, to work, to travel, was cumbersome, often frightening. You had to carry your passport and various cards of entitlement to prove your identity to the police, who could stop you at random.
At the same time, the seductive scenes and settings Americans liked to fantasize about Paris were flourishing. Café life, endless bookstores, inexpensive restaurants, scores of tiny movie theaters,all that seemed like paradise, albeit a slightly grotty one. Everyone smoked endlessly, and wine, of course, was cheap. Despite the tense political atmosphere, for me and the young people of my generation, Paris, if not the glamorous world of Stein and Hemingway, was excitinglyfar frommiddle-brow America.
2. Is the book to be read by women, or do you anticipate a male readership?
I imagine that most of my readers have been women since I’ve been writing as a feminist critic for many years. But I’ve received enthusiastic emails from several male readers, mostly men I know as friends, colleagues, or students—but not all. Early on, Ron Hogan at Beatrice.com asked to interview me, as you have. So perhaps you know better than I do what kind of reading experience a male reader might have with the book.
3. Could you name a few writers who inspired your writing?
As a memoirist? Colette, Joan Didion, and Annie Ernaux.
4. Was it difficult to recall all that had happened during the 1960s?
For a long time, long before I wrote the memoir, I knew that the experiences of this period had had a profound effect on my life.Naturally,much of what I remember about 1960s France is filtered through the lens of the wannabe expatriate girl I was. And after the death of my parents, I discovered that my parents had saved all the letters I had written them from Paris, which helped with some of the details (when I first ate foiegras, or wore a mini-skirt!).Unfortunately, I often lied to my parents. As a result I could not rely on my reports as a reliable record of my feelings. I also returned to Paris several times to revisit the places where I had lived and eaten,several of which had not changed.But in the end, memoir always remains an artifact of memory.
5. What would the reception have been if Breathless: An American Girl had been written in the 1960s or 70s?
In the early seventies, tales of an adventurous young woman’s life would have been told in a novel. The heroines of AlixKates Shulman’s Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen (1972)and Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying (1973) quested for independence and sexual freedom;both books were immensely popular. Many novels followed along those lines (later to be called “feminist fiction”), but these two were pioneering in the genre. Memoirs about that period—Joyce Johnson’s Minor Characters (1983) and Hettie Jones’s How I Became Hettie Jones (1990)--did not appear until decades later, with the exception of Diane di Prima’s 1969 Memoirs of a Beatnik. In 1969, I began a PhD in French at Columbia. Writing a novel or a memoir couldn’t have been further from my mind. I was excited to become an academic; I was enamored of impenetrable prose. It was too soon for me to have told my coming of age story—variants on those I’ve just mentioned—because my memory of those Paris years (life before 1968 and before feminism) was still raw and inchoate. If Breathless appeals to readers now, it is, I think, because the book looks back at a time that many people imagine as glamorous and exciting—the Sixties!—but of course, for those of us who struggled through this moment of tremendous social change, it was, above all, the story of our lives.