Nina George’s Little Paris Bookshop Hits Indie Bestseller List
An exclusive AUTHORLINK interview with Nina George
Author of The Little Paris Bookshop: A Novel (Crown, 31 December 2015)
Columnist Anna Roins
Nina George is a successful German author who has written 29 books, but it is her latest novel, The Little Paris Bookshop, that landed on the SPIEGEL bestseller list for 60 weeks. Though few German books are translated into English, The Little Paris Bookshop has been released into 32 languages that make her an overnight success in the English-speaking world, 23 years in the making.
The Little Paris Bookshop is about middle-aged Jean Perdu, a self-described literary apothecary possessing the rare talent of assigning the perfect book for each troubled customer who walks onto his bookshop-barge.
Haunted by the love-of-his-life, Manon, who left him over 20 years ago, Perdu does his best to avoid reality; as well as an envelope left by Manon, which he refuses to open. When a sympathetic neighbour helps him read Manon’s letter, Jean’s life takes on an immediate turn that unmoors him to the south of Provence.
This sensual and delightful novel deals with unrequited love, solace, friendship and the love of books. It has hit the Indie Bestsellers, as well as The New York Times bestseller list for eight weeks in a row.
“Each novel starts with an image that “flies” at me unbidden.”
AUTHORLINK: Ms. George, thank you for sharing your time today to discuss your charming novel, The Little Paris Bookshop. You thought about the storyline for about two and a half years before you put pen to paper. You then wrote the manuscript in under two months! How long does it usually take you to write your books? Do you normally think of/plan out the plot first before you start to write?
GEORGE: Each novel starts with an image that “flies” at me unbidden. As an experienced professional writer, I am quite good at telling these special ideas apart from the constant murmur of imaginings in my mind. Not only do these images fly at me, they land with the force of a blow to my brain and heart. It’s a bit like “love at first glance”—before we truly get to know each other.
“Falling in love” while developing a novel also sparks a light in me as though the ideas open a door. I want to know what I’m falling in love with this time and why. What is the theme? The time it takes me to open the door and investigate the theme that lies behind it, to check out the larger story that I can feel but am a long way from seeing, can be long or short. I never can tell.
With The Little Paris Bookshop, I wanted to write about lovesickness. But then I realized the theme wasn’t lovesickness but “life-sickness.” The pain experienced by the person who survives the death of another. The Little Breton Bistro (which will be published sometime in April/May 2017) also began with an image, from which I extracted the theme: the search for a place in one’s own life. Or how women seize control of their own lives instead of taking second or third place in their own journeys.
The best, most intensive and also the longest period before I begin actually writing a novel comes after I “fall in love” and carve out the main theme. This is when I get to know the characters. Each one of them, including the secondary characters, has a role to play within the entire cast—and an inner motivation that mirrors the main theme. The theme of Das Traumbuch (Book of Dreams: Germany, 17 March 2016) asks these question: “Is there such a thing as a right life that we can choose day after day—or can the wrong path also make us happy?” Each character reflects the theme in their own way. For this to happen, I have to know them well. Each one gets their own biography in my mind, and I run each one through my own life’s experiences nearly on a daily basis. How would X react if, like me, he was stood up by his tango partner? What would Y do if someone jostled him at the bakery, just like they did me? I am the stand-in for a powerful cast of characters, and I put myself in the skin of each one until it feels right, the person’s psychology is believable and they become a meaningful addition to the cast. It is very important, I believe, to place the relationships between the characters on a solid foundation. Also, I want to know how they express themselves, how they talk to others, how they react to each other, the ways in which they misunderstand and unsettle each other.
“I always begin at the end. Invariably, I know how things turn out. And what each character has to have gone through in order to grow . . .”
Once I’ve completed this process—which can take six months, sometimes even a year—I start plotting. I always begin at the end. Invariably, I know how things turn out. And what each character has to have gone through in order to grow, to move beyond themselves and learn something from life.
I don’t focus on the details until the end—and even here, I spend less time on analysis and focus more on the emotional development. Until I find the voice, pacing, rhythm, sound and temperature of the story. At times, I write the same scenes over and over again for three months until I’ve found the texture of the novel that I’ve sensed ever since I first “fell in love” with it.
This phase can easily last for one or two years, although it ultimately takes me only ten weeks to write the book. Writing Das Traumbuch was no different: One year of turning the idea over in my mind, conducting research, developing the characters. Three or four months of working my way into the story and finding the sound, point of view and pacing—two and a half months of pure writing. One month of editing.
Every author works at her own pace. The older I get the more time I take. Which does the books good.
AUTHORLINK: Thank you for that! Very interesting. Jean Perdu’s extraordinary unrequited love for Manon, though well kept in check, was simmering for over 20 years. Do you believe that love (or the idea of being in love), is the only thing which circumvents time?
GEORGE: No. Shame bridges time, humiliation, revenge—indeed, everything that adds up to the meaning of life for a person. Yet love is more than just love! Many other vital emotions are linked to love. Feeling that one is understood. A sense of freedom. Feeling immortal. Present in the world. Feeling safe—or even being hurt worse than ever before. And these feelings last a whole life long. None of our scars can be erased. Nor can we ease our longings.
AUTHORLINK: When this book began to take shape in your mind, your beloved father had passed away, and you endured a severe and painful neck disability. Do you think mining our deepest thoughts and feelings during a time of sorrow and difficulty makes our writing more intense? What sets apart, The Little Paris Bookshop, from your other books do you think?
“What makes this book so special is that I really didn’t care at all what kind of book a “market,” an “editor,” a “reader” wanted to have! “
GEORGE: Writing fiction should not be mistaken for self-therapy. On the other hand, if an author is to make her depiction of existential suffering and unrelenting sorrow truly believable, she must have experienced these things herself. This doesn’t mean she has to be forever unhappy in order to write good books. However, it is necessary to dig deep inside in order to write about these emotions once she is able to breath and laugh again without feeling pain.
What makes this book so special is that I really didn’t care at all what kind of book a “market,” an “editor,” a “reader” wanted to have! My twenty years as a professional writer and storyteller had given me well-honed tools. But for the first time I had the self-assurance, the inner voice and an existential theme. Mastery of craft plus an insane amount of courage plus a big theme: these ingredients can lead to amazing books.
AUTHORLINK: Indeed! We enjoyed the interactive part of your website, ‘The Book Apothecary’ where a specific book is suggested to match the readers’ current mood. How different is the role of media nowadays compared to how you first started out as a writer and do you like the difference?
GEORGE: More than anything, social media and the never-ending hunt for star ratings on major review sites have greatly changed two things: direct contact with authors and the ability to influence them—and their themes. I’ve become more accessible and am more or less constantly available for contact through a dozen different channels. Twitter, Facebook, e-mail, Goodreads, etc. However, accessibility also means that we can be more easily hurt. This applies to reviews as well. Anyone can write whatever he or she thinks. No matter how unfair, beside the point or unkind. Words can be a kind of release or a sword, and some people wield it without mercy. The writer 3.0 has to put up with this negativity in the 21st century—it goes with the territory. She has to put up with being visible, accessible and vulnerable; everyone passes judgement as though you were a product like a tampon. And sometimes this is precisely what you end up being: a piece of merchandise. Certainly it is a side effect of social and interactive media, of digital portals. It’s no longer about the author or the book in the context of time, society and the writer’s personality. Often what matters is whether the book “reads smoothly,” costs less than five dollars or adequately reflects the reader’s life experience.
On the flip side, social media brings me in intimate, fascinating contact with readers. As long as I don’t try to “please” them, I’m in no danger of writing to a presumed market.
I don’t think it’s the author’s job to be particularly adaptable to the market and create a “product.” Our task as artists is to be provocative, avant-garde, to tackle difficult subjects in complex ways and to not worry about whether a market exists for our work. Authors must also satisfy needs that have absolutely nothing to do with commerce. Freedom of expression, for example, revealing political or social trends, addressing topics that used to be off limits. Daring to break taboos and knowingly expose ourselves to all possible risks. Why else do we write? Why else do we read?
AUTHORLINK: Too true. Has anyone offered to make a movie out of The Little Paris Bookshop? Which actors do you see playing each role?
GEORGE: Yes, I recently accepted an offer from Hollywood. The contracts are being drawn up. Once I’ve signed them, I will be able to say who will be playing which characters. Until then: keep your fingers crossed.
AUTHORLINK: That’s fantastic news, congratulations! We understand, Simon Pare, did a wonderful job of translating your book from German into English. Does it have the same tone and feel, do you think, like the original?
GEORGE: It is even better. Vibrant, virile, brilliant. And the jokes work better.
“I’m open to self-publishing—but without being blind to its disadvantages.”
AUTHORLINK: What would you say are the main advantages and disadvantages of self-publishing against being published the traditional way?
GEORGE: I’m open to self-publishing—but without being blind to its disadvantages. I think publishing houses are a very good thing—but only under certain conditions.
- Higher royalties: 30 to 70 percent of the sales proceeds, depending on the provider and unfavorable conditions
- A book can be published faster. You can send a Beautiful Disaster or Shades of Grey wannabe shooting straight to the top.
- Authors are not dependent on a publisher’s list.
- They can tap new genres or subject matter, establish a more dynamic pricing policy and even generate the occasional runaway bestseller that a publisher didn’t want to take a chance on. The likelihood of this happening exists—but it’s slight. Very slight.
- It is also easier for authors to maintain a backlist and exploit the rights to their work on multiple platforms.
- Authors who specialize in current events—refugee crisis, feminism 3.0, Donald Trump—can also react faster.
HOWEVER, it is simply not true that self-published or indie authors are writing a whole lot more books with offbeat, experimental or important, neglected themes that the cowardly publishers won’t touch! If you take a look at the bestselling self-published KDP books, you will see highly commercial, entirely mainstream genres: erotica, mystery/suspense, vampires.
The market leader cliché also exists in the self-publishing world. Often it is the ordinary that the masses love, not the extraordinary.
The persisting negative image of the rejected author. Indie writers still have to overcome this reputation.
The indie market is no more open than the traditional market. Indeed, it is enormous and contaminated by e-book freebies. Thousands upon thousands of new releases.
There is a lack of portals that offer quality management and ensure that Bram Stoker’s Dracula is not sold as a brand new book titled The Old Vampire and the Young Lady (as has happened on a number of occasions on Amazon USA)
You can buy reviews or order “like clicks” in India faster than you can say “voter fraud,” all for 15 dollars a pop. So who can the consumer trust anymore? Plagiarized, poached and error-filled work can also be found on the market.
Eighty percent of readers beyond the e-market prefer books made of paper. This means that, as an indie author, I’m missing a large chunk of my readership.
Added costs: An author who wants to peddle a readable book cannot avoid editing, proofreading and document composition costs. The same goes for self-marketing. Some of my colleagues spend eight hours a day on marketing and only two hours writing the next book. Even more of them have given up indie publishing because they’re burned out. After releasing a new self-published book every four months, they’ve run out of steam.
What indie authors don’t have is access to publishers’ services such as license negotiation, event management, publicity, print distribution, trailer production, briefing and providing free review copies of books to representatives, booksellers or TV broadcasters and other partners.
Traditional publisher PROs:
A publisher pays authors an advance between 1,500 and 15,000 euros; more for nonfiction, less for children’s/young adult literature.
They provide editing, printing, proofreading, cover, marketing, publicity, event organization services and, most important of all: distribution.
The German publishing landscape has an iron-clad sales network, linked to book representatives, brick-and-mortar bookstores and the postal service.
E-books account for between two and 20 percent of a novel’s sales.
After all, a publisher (also) acts as attorney, foreign agent, editor, event manager, marketing specialist, graphic designer, typesetter, loan officer, publicist, secretary, accountant, supplier, backlist manager, trade show host, translator…all in one.
Traditional publisher CONs:
The covers are occasionally terrible. The editor puts a half-hearted effort into editing or is a stickler for proper format and adds purposefully unimaginative adverbs or mummified metaphors.
No budget for marketing and publicity; the publisher relies on copycat titles instead of coming up with something original; the author gets lost in the mix.
Publishing houses also sometimes say, “no, this one isn’t for us.” A book takes a long time to be published, and traditional publishing houses cannot react flexibly to trends.
Nevertheless, any author who writes offbeat, socially relevant stories, enjoys working on the manuscript with professionals and is familiar with how international sales work is better off with a traditional publisher.
AUTHORLINK: What a wealth of information you are. Thank you. You also write under three pseudonyms; erotic non-fiction as Anne West, thrillers as Nina Kramer, and detective novels with your husband and co-writer, Jo Kramer, as Jean Bagnol. Is it difficult to switch between different styles of genre and voice when you’re writing under different pen names?
GEORGE: No. It’s all just me. Only the label changes. However, I’ve found that life itself has taught me how to find the themes that move me deeply. Writing crime fiction was an opportunity to explore the dark side, the abyss, melancholy and human drama. Talking about erotica and sexuality with humor taught me that characters are shaped by their inner sexual emotions—and I got over my fear of “dirty writing.” In each of my novels, I have a number of scenes where my characters become intimately involved with each other. This is because close proximity and physicality are what allow be to draw their personalities more accurately. Fear and demonstrations of uncertainty make them human. And also, on the flip side, the ability to show tenderness and attentiveness.
AUTHORLINK: You are a great ambassador of author’s rights. What are some of the causes that are close to you and how have you helped effect change?
GEORGE: I’ve been an advocate for authors’ rights for the past four years. My work ranges from advising colleagues on contracts, remuneration and agent searches to taking political action on nearly a daily basis. I also advise all relevant parties who want to learn about authors’ everyday lives, for instance. What are our earnings like? How does e-book piracy hurt us? What do we like or dislike about a particular publisher? How does the Amazon monopoly disadvantage us when it comes to the big picture of global distribution and the literature market? How do e-book providers and sellers such as Apple iBooks sanitize books and covers? What does a collecting society do? How does it benefit authors, and why do the industry and tablet manufacturers want to avoid paying us when they make unlimited copies of our work and share them free of charge on their devices?
I am now an advisor (on a volunteer basis) to the board of the German PEN Center on matters relating to authors’ rights, and I also sit on the advisory board of the VG Wort collecting society. Not long ago, I had the opportunity to meet the EU Commissioner Guenther Oettinger when he attended Berlinale 2016 and present him with an analysis and concept for fighting piracy of creative works on the Internet. I am a signatory to the open letter from authors to the German Minister of Justice asking for improvements to the contract law for authors and artists. The Fairer Buchmarkt (Fair Book Market) Initiative, which I founded, explains authors’ interests and publishes articles aimed at education and providing background information about money, contracts, authors’ rights and the everyday lives of professional writers. These articles can be found at www.fairerbuchmarkt.de (some of which are also in English).
In 2014, I organized a protest letter, signed by 2,028 authors. It was the German equivalent of Douglas Preston’s Amazon antitrust campaign after the Seattle-based company boycotted Bonnier, a move that also explicitly harmed authors in Germany and reduced their earnings. Three Nobel Prize laureates and numerous prominent authors were among the signatories of the German letter. See: www.fairer-buchmarkt.de (open letter in five languages).
I am known for speaking my mind. I can’t speak for everyone, but I do speak with everyone.
It is becoming increasingly more important for authors to get involved these days. The move toward digital content has caused our work to lose value. Flat rates, total-buyout contracts, e-book piracy and price dumping have led society to disparage our achievements, as has the use of our work by Google Books and others, which is clearly illegal under German law. Not only society but also politicians. People use our work without providing proper compensation or even defending our rights.
However, this situation is now changing in Germany. Policymakers have gotten the message that we are an economic factor. We represent innovation, the avant-garde, and we are the thinkers, contracted by society, who must remain critical, free of constraints and independent of government control. We generate content, knowledge, education, humanity; books are more than just a product.
This is what I am fighting for: to prevent our work from being valued on the basis of price alone.
AUTHORLINK: Many people are grateful to you. How do you think you’ve creatively evolved since you started writing professionally at 19? What advice would you give to your younger self, and where would you like to see yourself in five-years-time?
GEORGE: In terms of craft, my skills are in their prime. I hope they will remain so for at least another 20 years! I have also honed my skill in self-reflection. I know exactly when I’m writing lackluster garbage, and I also sense precisely when I need to get a handle on the story. I’m a better reviser; I used to be too arrogant. Today I can immediately tell when an author has no inclination to revise because he thinks he’s got it all together—in which case he’s not so good.
“My advice to novice writers is this: Read as much as you can. Reading is an author’s basic training.”
My advice to novice writers is this:
- Read as much as you can. Reading is an author’s basic training.
- Do not expect to write publishable first drafts. No one can do that. Be prepared to revise your work.
- Toss out anything that’s no good and start over.
- Being brilliant doesn’t mean that your muse will take care of everything or that you can wait for her to show up. You will get into the flow for 5 or 15 minutes on occasion, but the rest of the time you have to sit down and work. Plant your butt in the chair and start writing. Maybe you’ll get in the groove today; maybe not for another few weeks. But continue to write. Writing comes from actual writing, not from thinking about it.
- Do not write to the market. An original, daring story is more likely to become a bestseller than a poor imitation of the one that created all the buzz last year.
- Don’t worry about what your mother thinks. Or your father. Or your husband. Or your wife. Or anyone else in your family. You are not out to please them. Not that you’d be able to anyway. They will either constantly grumble about your work or refrain from offering any kind of constructive criticism because they’re afraid you won’t be able to cope with the knowledge that you write tedious drivel. Find critique partners who will offer their honest opinion without being unkind. These people are rare, so take your time, choose carefully and never ever show your work to your pals, your writing teacher or your doctor before you are finished with the production process. Before you yourself can sense whether it is any good, that you’ve expressed precisely what you want to say. Otherwise, too much feedback from the Muggles will only make you utterly confused.
- Get together frequently with likeminded people or other creatives. We need each other because we see the world as one big novel. Astonishingly, non-writers do not do this.
- Never listen to anyone who tries to tell you what the market is looking for. No one knows this. Not even the market itself. It is our job as authors to surprise the market. Therefore, write whatever you want.
AUTHORLINK: You should write a writers’ manual! What is the hardest and easiest thing about writing for you? If you could have been the original author of any book, what would it have been and why?
GEORGE: The hardest part is deciding what I want to say, when and how to say it and that I have only one opportunity to do so. The easiest part is thinking about my characters. I wouldn’t want to have written any books other than my own.
AUTHORLINK: Great. Finally, what are you working on at the moment? Will this be your next book to be released? Can you tell us a bit about it?
GEORGE: I’ve finished working on Das Traumbuch (The Book of Dreams), which will be published in Germany on March 17. And The Little Breton Bistro will be released in the United States and the UK. Here’s what it’s about: “When Marianne throws herself into the Seine in Paris, all she wants is to end her life. But destiny has other plans, and she’s rescued. The 60-year-old German woman, who doesn’t speak a word of French, flees her loveless marriage and escapes to Brittany, where the “Ar Mor” bistro/B&B awaits her in the coastal town of Kerdruc.
There she meets the artist Yann and, with renewed courage and unexpected tenacity, she dares to build a new life of her own.”
The novel has so far been translated into six languages and deals with the question of how we find our “true” life.
I address a highly existential theme in Das Traumbuch: Life consists of a sum of hourly decisions. Which of them are the right ones? Which bring us happiness, love, friendship and which lead to loneliness and despair? Publisher Eddie, war correspondent Henri and Sam, a highly sensitive teenager, grapple with these existential questions when Henri falls into a coma after an accident.
I tell the story from the first person points of view of completely different people. Edwinna, who goes by the name Eddie, publishes magical realism with a special sense of the miraculous. Sam is a highly gifted 13-year-old, who sees sounds as colors and who experiences people, places and moods more intensively than others do. Henri, the former war correspondent is Eddie’s ex-lover and Sam’s father. He lay dead for eight minutes following an accident and is now struggling to wake up from a coma. He has a message to deliver to those he loves from the place where he nearly went missing.
In Das Traumbuch, I write about the unknown realms between life and death, between reality and dreams—and also about the brief moments when doors open onto entirely different paths in life. The ones we don’t trust ourselves to take.
AUTHORLINK: That sounds fantastic. We can’t wait to read them! Ms. George, thank you for your generous time today. We wish you even further success with your future novels.
GEORGE: Thank you. And don’t forget: What you read is much more important in the long run than whom you marry.
Translation: © Heidi Holzer
About the Author:
Nina George is a prize-winning best-selling author and freelance journalist since 1992, who has published 29 books (novels, mysteries and non-fiction) as well as over hundred short stories and more than 600 columns.
In 2012 and 2013 she won the DeLiA and the Glauser-Prize. In 2013 she had her first bestselling book Das Lavendelzimmer (The Little Paris Bookshop), translated into 32 languages and sold nearly 1,000,000 copies worldwide.
She lives in Berlin and Brittany, France and is married to the german writer Jo Kramer.
You can find out more about Nina George at http://www.nina-george.com/, https://www.facebook.com/NinaGeorge.Schriftstellerin/ and https://twitter.com/nina_george
About Anna Roins:
Anna Roins is a lawyer, previously of the Australian Government Solicitor, who also writes freelance. As a journalist, she has contributed to articles on social and community issues and edited books, websites, and dissertations.
She has continued her studies in creative literature with The University of Oxford (Continuing Education) and the Faber Academy, London.
Anna is currently writing her first novel and is a regular contributor to AUTHORLINK assigned to conduct interviews with best-selling authors.