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<p>“Sensual and seductive, <i>Paris Was the Place</i> pulls you in and doesn’t let you go. Find your nearest chair and start reading. With her poet's eye, Conley has woven a vivid, masterful tale of love and its costs.” —Lily King, author of <i>Father of the Rain</i><br> <br>When Willie Pears begins teaching at a center for immigrant girls who are all hoping for French asylum, she has no idea it will change her life. As she learns their stories, the lines between teaching and mothering quickly begin to blur. Willie has fled to Paris to create a new family for herself by reaching out to her beloved brother, Luke, and her straight-talking friend, Sara. She soon falls for Macon, a charming, passionate French lawyer, and her new family circle seems complete. But Gita, a young girl at the detention center, is determined to escape her circumstances, no matter the cost. And just as Willie is faced with a decision that could have potentially dire consequences for both her relationship with Macon and the future of the center, Luke is taken with a serious, as-yet-unnamed illness, forcing Willie to reconcile with her father and examine the lengths we will go to for the people we care the most about.<br><br>In <i>Paris Was the Place</i>, Conley has given us a beautiful portrait of on how much it matters to belong: to a family, to a country, to any one place, and how this belonging can mean the difference in our survival. This is a profoundly moving portrait of some of the most complicated and glorious aspects of the human existence: love and sex and parenthood and the extraordinary bonds of brothers and sisters. It is a story that reaffirms the ties that bind us to one another.</p>
<div class="aplus"> <h4>Q&A with Susan Conley</h4> <p><strong>Q. You write about Paris in such detail—we even get some advice on how to navigate a notoriously congested area: “The trick at the Arc de Triumphe is to stay in the outer ring of cars around the first half and then veer off quickly—as if shot from a cannon—over to the wide start of Victor Hugo.” How did you come to know the city so well?</strong></p> <p>A. Well I wrote my memoir, <em>The Foremost Good Fortune</em>, about the years I lived in Beijing, China, during the Olympics. In that book I decided to map Beijing really closely, almost obsessively, so that the city came very alive on the page. I’m completely interested in place and in locale in any narrative I encounter. I think place does an enormous amount of work to both contextualize and propel any story forward.</p> <p>In <em>Paris</em> Was the Place I took my love of Paris and my minor in French in college and my experiences in the city (my junior year of college I lived very close to Avenue Victor Hugo for a time, and I’ve taken other trips to Paris as an adult) and tried to weave that all into the story so that the reader really believes he or she is in Paris. I also read a whole lot of other novels set in France.</p> <p>My craziest Francophile moment came when I found myself making these gigantic maps of the Paris neighborhoods covered in my novel. I used indelible markers on poster board in my little rabbit warren of an office on the third floor of our old house, and I tried to recreate the streets that Willie and Macon walked on in Paris. These hand-scrawled maps were my blue print of the city. They’re almost illegible but they gave me access to the parts of the city I really had to make sure the novel rendered fully. I needed to make the maps to feel like I was there in Paris. Then I knew that the reader would (hopefully!) feel like they were there too.</p> <p><strong>Q. Tell us a bit about one of the book’s central issues: immigrant girls who have requested French asylum. What process must they go through, and what flaws are inherent to the system?</strong></p> <p>A. Immigration rights are buzz words these days. In the U.S. the media and the government are covering the unfolding new immigration bill in a relentless twenty-four news cycle. But what gets lost are the personal stories of youth immigrants—teens and pre-adolescents who make border crossings alone at night only to be caught up in an even bigger trauma, which is the judicial system.</p> <p>I wanted to look hard at the stories of these immigrant teens. In my book, they are girls who arrive in France. But they could be boys or girls from any country, arriving unwanted in any nation. The teens’ journeys of escape from their home countries come at great expense. The media is now beginning to really talk about the human costs of incarcerating and deporting refugee teenagers and the great injustice being done to these kids. The biggest flaw that I see in asylum proceedings is that the cards are stacked against the refugee. Often the refugee never even makes it to a court of law where they can be heard. Instead their case is dismissed summarily on lack of evidence. But so often there’s no evidence because the detainee can’t speak the proper home language of the country they’ve been locked up inside, or they haven’t been given any storytelling tools and have never gone to school.</p> <p>Rajiv, a good friend of the narrator’s, is an advisor to the asylum center in the novel and he’s fed up with the system. He finally starts to lose it during a scene in an Indian restaurant and yells, “No one knows what to do with teenage girls who can’t go back to their home countries but don’t have French passports…the French government says that every child in France is redeemable, even the ones who come illegally. But then they lock them up.”</p> <p><strong>Q. Why is it so important for these girls to learn to tell their stories? What compelled you to write about them? </strong></p> <p>A. Stories are what give us all a compass. They give us what I like to call emotional literacy. Stories are central to our life experience. I think we live our days in an endless loop of storytelling. We tell stories to ourselves, to our kids, and to friends and strangers. Stories are about the power of language to communicate some essential truths that we know about ourselves and our world.</p> <p>In the novel, stories are essential to the girls at the asylum center. The storywriting itself helps keep the girls sane. It allows them a small departure from their locked up lives. They get to travel back in time. The stories are also key pieces in the machinations of the French justice system. When they tell their stories in court, the girls may be granted their freedom.</p> <p>I was compelled to write about these girls when I began working with refugee teens and realized that so often the kids didn’t have access to their own stories. No one had ever said to them, “your story matters. I hear you. I see you. Let’s get something down on the page.” And the power of that—of getting to tell your own story—cannot be underestimated. I have seen it change so many lives. In the novel, the girls at the asylum center have to be able to tell the court where they’ve come from and what happened to them in their home countries that forced them to flee. If they can’t tell their own stories, then they have no chance of being allowed to stay in France.</p> </div>