Erin Byrne is author of Wings - Gifts of Art, Life, and Travel in France (Travelers’ Tales, 2016), winner of the Paris Book Festival Award for travel genre, editor of Vignettes & Postcards From Paris and Vignettes & Postcards From Morocco (Reputation Books, 2016), and writer of The Storykeeper film.
Erin is occasional guest instructor at Shakespeare and Company Bookstore in Paris and teaches on Deep Travel trips. Her screenplay, Siesta, is in pre-production in Spain, and she is working on the novel, The Red Notebook.
PML: How did you come to writing?
EB: I wrote my first story at four years old, it was about the circus and I posted it on my bedroom door. I wrote a story at age six about how my first trip to the beach compared with my favorite book, I See the Sea and that was when travel writing became my genre. I spent hours, weeks, decades, centuries at the desk in my bedroom writing and drawing, quite near, in fact, to a painting of a little red-haired girl raising her arms in joy on a cobblestoned street under spiral balconies, which my mom had painted right on the wall.
PML: This was a painting your mother did of you?
EB: Yes, in a perfectly Parisian set—bit prophetic perhaps. But then I veered away from my creative self over the years; it was so easy to be less quirky and more mainstream.
PML: Was this veering away conscious? Willed even?
EB: Yes, as I write about in my “Winged Victory” essay, I remember making the conscious choice at five years old to cast off my curious, inquisitive, relentlessly intense nature and become Well-Behaved. It was decades later when I first went to France in 2005 that this artistic self was piqued, drawn out, and nourished. I began writing, in 2007 and was published right at the start, which was incredibly lucky. The ghosts of Victor Hugo, George Sand, Simone de Beauvoir, and others turned up to guide me through, and I acquired what I call a “kick-ass group of mentors”, mostly in the Bay Area.
PML: What was it about France that inspired you?
EB: The instantaneous sense that I fit into this place, an audible “click”: the pace matched my pulse, the wildly dramatic swings of its history mesmerized me, the outside-the-box creative vibe resonated. In France I discovered a way of communicating that I myself had engaged in but rarely had reciprocated, a focus on savoring the simple pleasures of life, and an elevation of beauty and all forms of art. These things that exist so freely in French culture were all inside of me but missing in my outer life, and I was inspired to change in a myriad of ways.
PML: Do you have a writing philosophy?
EB: My writing and travel philosophy is based on this quote by Joseph Campbell:
The passage of the mythological hero is overground incidentally. Fundamentally it is inward, into the depths, where obscure resistances are overcome and long lost powers revivified.
I believe that if we dig deep enough we reach the universal emotion. I use and teach a creative process based on this premise. The minute we begin to seek meaning, resistances crop up, but if we persist, the results are powerful indeed. I believe every writer who has written anything that has touched me has done this.
PML: So you’re philosophically opposed to the literature of escapism?
EB: We lose ourselves to find ourselves, no? I can be reading the most fantastical stories that seem removed from your my life, but if I begin to ask myself why I’m so captivated , what any of this has to do with me, connections light up like a power grid. I’ve discovered this in both reading and writing ... in film ... in all forms of art, actually. In my writing I call it The Mystique of Art. This process works with fiction, nonfiction, film, playwriting ... whatever genre we create in. If a writer persists, I have never seen it fail to both elicit surprise and spark a story that touches others.
PML: How did the writing of ”Wings” come about?
EB: As soon as I began writing these more in-depth travel essays, I had found my niche and envisioned this collection. I remember confiding in Anna Pook years ago sitting by the window in Café Panis, and quite early on I pitched it to my agent. Travelers’ Tales was the perfect publisher to keep the focus on travel but to also make it a bit of a memoir.
PML: What is the book’s main theme?
EB: The book is about how I was changed by traveling through France with the ghosts of artists and historical figures—and writers and filmmakers and friends—who shared with me their guides to living. Essentially, Wings follows the trajectory of a bumbling traveler guided by the likes of Henri Cartier-Bresson, Vincent van Gogh, Paul Cézanne, Winged Victory, and other magical guides. I was drawn to France and then sort of fell into its history and have never really emerged—I find this happens whenever I travel often to a place.
PML: It’s, in fact, a collection of autobiographical essays?
EB: My sometimes genre-bending travel essays! 15 of them have already been published, 15 of which are new, arranged in a deep-deeper-deepest arc in chapters of three stories each around themes: Tastes, Characters, Connections, Art, Transformation, Secrets, Signs, and Belonging.
PML: Children and adolescents play a prominent role in some of the chapters.
EB: Yes. One chapter, Les Deux Garçons, is about my son Brendan and his friend Corbin. There’s another based on The Storykeeper, the award-winning documentary that Rogier Van Beeck Calkoen and I made about a young boy in occupied Paris who witnessed a USAF B-17 crash in his neighborhood.
PML: What I like about “Wings” is that we witness your view of France evolving.
EB: My image of France was at first blindingly glittering, but my own air of sophistication misted over the more I went there, and finally evaporated altogether. During the editing of Wings, I chose not to make myself seem smarter or savvier, although it was tempting. I tried to keep the essence of what we often do when we travel: arrive with preconceived notions, cling to our assumptions, pine for our prior expectations, and take pride in our vast knowledge. I found that if I was open enough, these all got upended and that was when the discoveries began. We feel such an affinity with a place that we over-identify (“Bastille Day on the Palouse”), we get it wrong and we fall (“Signs”), we fumble with the language and learn that une croissant is really un croissant (“f is for...”), and thus we are humbled (“The Mirror of Montmartre”). The view is different from this vantage point.
PML: There are a lot of lovely illustrations. Who did them?
EB: The artist Anna Elkins. She contributed over 100 gorgeous sketches which illustrate the stories perfectly. The pictures include many addresses that make Wings a guidebook of sorts.
PML: You’ve also made films of some of the stories?
EB: Rogier and I filmed a book trailer and made short films for two of the stories, which you can find here on YouTube. Rogier has also made The Storykeeper available for a limited time to view.
PML: Tell us a little about your writing workshops.
EB: I’m “anti-workshop”, so with me, writers do not weigh in creatively on each other’s work. Instead we wrestle with our own stories, which go from unmanageable beasts to concise stories with a clear structure and theme. It’s a grind but it is the only way to get to the heart of what you are trying to write.
PML: Why no group feedback?
EB: The objective is to learn to do this for ourselves, to develop our intuition into a kind of divining rod for our own truths. “Why do you want to write this story?” “What was the most powerful emotion here?” ... and perhaps most crucial, “What is the connection between this story and you?” This is where that resistance Campbell mentions in his quote about the inner journey comes up; we think we randomly choose our topics but I’ve found that is rarely the case. We polish and burnish our prose, and then we always have a party when we share our stories. So we also develop the skill of reading our own work as a reader would, which requires stepping back from it.
PML: You obviously enjoy teaching these workshops.
EB: I adore teaching the writers at Shakespeare and Company because they’re used to this process, and they are up for anything. I can toss out a concept like the Spanish duende or the idea of using fictional techniques in nonfiction stories, or ask them to grab a book and write the first thing that comes into your head, and everyone leaps into, shall we say, the void?? I’m so inspired by everyone every time I’m here.
PML: You’ve also begun hosting Literary Salons?
EB: As well as a riveting presentation by you on Menippean Satire that led to a rousing analysis of humor, I’ve hosted salons over the past five years in Paris featuring an expert in medieval storytelling, filmmaker Gonzague Pichelin speaking of his Love Letters Project art installation and film, Jane Weston and David Vauclair, authors of De Charlie Hebdo à#Charlie: Enjeux, histoire, perspectives, Moroccan storytelling, and the varied and gifted artist Anna Elkins. These evenings follow the patterns of literary salons established in Renaissance Italy and continued in 17th-century France, a short presentation of around 20 minutes followed by discussion that swerves all over the map. It is a wildly fun and vibrant tradition.
PML: What other projects have you been working on?
EB: The beloved original anthology of stories written by writers here that Anna Pook and I put together, Vignettes & Postcards - Writings From the Evening Writing Workshop at Shakespeare and Company Bookstore, Fall, 2011 will be republished by Reputation Books and comes out in August. The new edition, Vignettes & Postcards From Paris, has 21 new stories and poems by Don George, Georgia Hesse, Billy Collins and others that bring the reader to Paris before ascending to the upstairs library for the original stories.
PML: There’s a Moroccan version too?Vignettes & Postcards From Morocco is coming out at the same time, a collection of stories and poems that seek the ancient and celebrate the exotic in Morocco by Suzanna Clarke, Phil Cousineau, Michael Chabon and many other fabulous writers (including Ann Dufaux and Claire Fallou, two of the original Paris writers). We will launch these in the Bay Area in August and in Fez and Paris in March. Vignettes & Postcards is now a series of destination specific anthologies ... next will be either Spain or Ireland!
PML: And you’re writing a screenplay?
EB: I’m editing my screenplay Siesta now. It’s a short (or perhaps a full-length feature, we are in the midst of this decision) Rogier Van Beeck Calkoen and I plan to film in Spain. It is set in a small village in southern Spain that continues to keep the tradition of the siesta, and is about one high-strung American man’s encounter with that culture and the ensuing clashes and changes, and features flamenco, a group of eccentric old men, and a close encounter with a bull. I love writing for film and it is awesome to collaborate with Rogier.
PML: What’s your upcoming novel The Red Notebook about?