John Baxter

When I first spoke to John Baxter he was known for his film biographies of Kubrick, Von Sternberg, and Woody Allen. He has since become the preeminent chronicler of expat life in Paris.

 

 

When we first sat down to speak in 2001 you were mostly known for your film biographies. As we speak today you have had an international success with A Pound of Paper, your memoir about book collecting, and We’ll Always Have Paris, The Most Beautiful Walk in the World, The Perfect Meal and Five Nights in Paris, to name but a few.

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TG: Was it a difficult to segue from cinema to memoir and was it difficult to convince publishers to see you in a fresh light?
JB. In fact, I found it surprisingly easy. Autobiography is mostly anecdotes, and I’ve always been a story-teller. In A Pound of Paper, I described how I used my primitive French, aided by much arm-waving and appeals for translation, to tell a complicated story at my first French Christmas dinner, two weeks after I arrived in Paris for the first time. At the end, the “Alpha Male” of my wife-to-be’s very French family raised his glass to me and said, “Monsieur, I think you are a good raconteur.” You could feel everyone relax. Nothing wins friends more readily than a good story. As Scherezade discovered.

As for my publishers, it was more a case of them convincing me that I should change. A Pound of Paper was proposed by a publisher, not by me. It was originally intended to be a guide to help people recognize if their old books had any commercial value, but I found it impossible to do so without introducing some elements of personal experience; how I found a particular book or met a favourite author. The original publisher said, quite reasonably, that this wasn’t what he was looking for, but fortunately my agent showed the sample chapters to Patrick Janson-Smith, the chairman of Doubleday in London, who loved them, and asked for more. It helped that Patrick was a collector himself – of the caricaturist Phil May.
TG: How has your writing process changed?
I don’t write any differently, though I now do more actual writing, rather than gathering materials and interviewing people, which is the main work of the biographer. Also, the success of A Pound of Paper means that I’m often approached to consult on matters to do with book collecting, or to write or speak about it. And since We’ll Always Have Paris is so concerned with my own emotional life and that of other people who, like me, came to Paris for romantic or sexual reasons, I’ve been commissioned by HarperCollins to compile A Dictionary of Erotica “The book you were born to write”, some friends have said.
TG: How has your relationship with Paris changed?
Paris remains for me the Great Good Place, as Hemingway called the woods of his native Michigan. I know it much better than I did when I first came to live here in 1990, but that only deepens my affection. Doing walking tours for Paris Through Expatriate Eyes has helped; one is always encountering new alleys and courtyards that reveal another glimpse of an unknown Paris. That’s one of the great merits of Diane Johnson’s book Into a Paris Quartier; the sense that every doorway or staircase can lead to another story.
TG: How have you changed?
Australians are brought up to shun the idea of talking about themselves. There’s a rich vocabulary of insult for the raconteur – “ear basher”, “ gas bag”, “skite”, “big noter”. It’s taken most of my life to shed the feeling that I should keep my mouth shut. I now feel much more comfortable airing my opinions and talking about my life, and my favourite city. And people, far from complaining, seem to love it – even in Australia. I should have got into the autobiography business when I was 18!

Meet John on his Paris terrace.

John discussing An Immoveable Feast

 

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THAT TUESDAY  a Podcast with John Baxter

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