An American Writer in Paris
An Interview with Joan Z. Shore
by Bryan R. Monte
On 4 January 2013, Joan Z. Shore was interviewed in her Left Bank Paris flat about her work as a journalist, feminist and creative writer. Shore, a Vassar College graduate (BA art and architecture), worked for nearly a decade as the Paris CBS News correspondent. During that time she interviewed such people as the Ayatollah Khomeini, three French presidents—François Mitterrand, Valéry d’Estaing, Jacques Chirac—and former US first lady, Nancy Reagan. Shore has written for The International Herald Tribune, The Wall Street Journal, several Condé-Nast publications, and Boomer Times (Florida). For the last six years she has been a frequent contributor to The Huffington Post. Shore is the author of Saging–How to Grow Older and Wiser (2000) and a novel, Red Burgundy (2011). Her current work, Collage, an “auto-fiction” about her life in Europe since the 1970s, will be published this year.
BM: You’ve had a very interesting, 30+ year career as a journalist and more recently, as a creative writer. Could you fill my readers in a little bit about the chronology of your life — for example, when and why you moved to Europe — and what you did in the first years after you moved here?
JZS: My husband had a job offer to transfer to Brussels for a six-month assignment and—lo and behold—we stayed on there permanently!
BM: And what happened in your life in Brussels that made you the independent woman that you are today. How did you go from being a married…
BM: … housewife in Brussels who followed her husband for six months?
JZS: I should say I was a corporate captive, a corporate camp follower! Actually I urged my husband to take the assignment when the possibility came up. He wasn’t certain. I said: “Let’s go!” We gave up our New York apartment and moved to Brussels and I put my three young sons into a French-language, progressive, private school so they could learn French. And that was where I started working as an art critic and journalist—just freelance, part-time, against my husband’s wishes. It was truly a major turning point in my life. I have no regrets about coming over here.
BM: And it was completely serendipitous? You didn’t know ahead of time that this was going to happen? You had no plans of living in Europe then?
JZS: No. I had always wanted to go to Europe. My parents gave me a trip to Europe as a college graduation gift. But because I was engaged to be married, many people said, “You can’t leave your fiancé for a whole summer and go traipsing through Europe!,” so I gave that up. And I always felt, “He owes me a trip to Europe!” But I never thought it would end up this way.
BM: So then, you lived in Belgium for how many years?
JZS: Close to ten.
BM: And what did you do during those years?
JZS: I started working as a journalist because I couldn’t go to architecture school in Belgium. I had been working in interior design in New York, but the easiest, most accessible thing for me to do was to join an English-language publication, The Brussels Times, where I worked as the art critic until it folded. And then I worked as Features Editor for The Bulletin, a weekly magazine, for many years. So I moved from art criticism into straight journalism. And that was how I also got a weekly news program in English for BRT (Belgian radio).
BM: Did you do anything else while in Brussels?
JZS: Knowing so many artists, I started an art rental business and organized a number of exhibitions. And I founded a group for English-speaking women called Women Overseas for Equality (WOE!). And that was a very interesting period because we coordinated a lot with Belgian, Dutch and French feminists,
BM: And what were some of the things you did with this group?
JZS: Ten of us—all English-speaking but from different countries and different ages—formed a “consciousness-raising” group, meeting every week for about a year. We supported each other as we went through life changes—marriage, pregnancy, divorce, continued education, career changes, illness, widowhood….We marched with Belgian and French feminists who were demanding the right to abortion, and we organized a Women’s Weekend with special guests such as Germaine Greer.
BM: And why did you decide to move from Brussels to Paris?
JZS: Because my husband and I were divorcing. I had gone as far as I could go in journalism as an American journalist in Belgium. My Belgian radio programme gave me the experience I needed to apply to a major broadcasting company. CBS, NBC and ABC were all in Paris at the time, not in Brussels. So I applied to all three and it was CBS that came through first with an offer. That first year, I wasn’t sure if I would like CBS or Paris, so I commuted every week down to Paris from Brussels and then back to Brussels on Friday night until I decided I liked Paris and the job!
BM: And then you moved there?
JZS: Yes. After the CBS bureau in Paris was closed, I worked for Voice of America and CNN as a free-lance correspondent, and I wrote a lot for the International Herald Tribune, The Wall Street Journal and several Condé-Naste publications.
BM: When were you Paris correspondent for the CBS News?
JZS: That was at the end of the ’70s into the ’80s.
BM: And do you have any idea of the number of stories that you wrote or filed that were eventually broadcast during that period?
JZS: I had, on average, one radio story every day and several in a day if there was something big happening. For major events, we would file a television report for the Evening News with Walter Cronkite. And I must have had about a dozen of those television stories over the years.
BM: So what were some of the things that you reported about as a CBS News correspondent?
JZS: Oh, everything!—economic issues, political issues, occasionally cultural issues and interviews with people. You know, people asked me what I specialized in and I said I didn’t specialize; I was a generalist journalist! You know, whatever was happening, whatever seemed newsworthy, I would report on it.
BM: Can you remember some of the newsworthy articles that you wrote about?
JZS: There was the Amoco-Cadiz disaster, there was the Baron Empain kidnapping, there was a balloon crossing of the English Channel that didn’t quite make it. There was the visit of the pope to Lourdes. There were several summits with Carter and Reagan. There were OPEC meetings in Geneva. There were a few scary, frightening events too, like hostage-takings and a bomb at Orly Airport. This was all breaking news that required on-the-spot reporting.
BM: So then you were really talking to people who influenced world opinion or politics. Do you remember maybe two or three of these people whom you interviewed, the more interesting ones, the types of interviews that you had?
JZS: Well, I guess my most extraordinary interview was with the Ayatollah Khomeini. He was in exile in France for a few months and one of his followers, his right-hand bodyguard, drove me out to Neaufle-le-Chateau to interview him. And I went with a camera crew and we did the interview. Of course, I had to cover my head completely. His Farsi was translated into French for me, and I filed the story –- in English, of course — but CBS never aired it!
BM: Why not?
JZS: Because in October of 1978 they didn’t believe there was going to be a revolution in Iran and they simply cancelled the story. It’s still in their archives somewhere, I suppose.
BM: Who were some the other “high profile” people you met to get a story?
JZS: There was Nancy Reagan, Leonard Bernstein, a few French presidents….
BM: What were some of these high-profile people like, close up?
JZS: The Ayatollah was intimidating. I didn’t expect him to be quite that severe. I met Bernstein several times and he was charming and wonderful. Mitterrand was very formal, but friendly. Chirac was delightful while he was mayor of Paris, but became rather rigid once he was president.
There was an interesting incident with Giscard d’Estaing because he came back from a big summit meeting in Venice and it was at a time when American and French relations were at a real low. And he held a press conference at the Elysée Palace and three hundred of us—journalists and cameramen—were there; it was broadcast live that afternoon. And I was dying to ask him a question about Franco-American relations. He used to take questions in groups—the economy, national affairs, international affairs, etc. At international affairs, I raised my hand and he called on me. He said, “Oui, Mademoiselle, je vous écoute.” And I heard “Mademoiselle” and I kind of froze. I thought he should have been calling me Madame. So I corrected him! I said “Madame.” He was taken aback and the whole room laughed. And then he took a few other questions and he came back to me and said: “Bon, je vais répondre à la question de Madame”—emphasizing Madame! Everybody laughed again. Back in my office, everyone had watched the press conference and they were shocked and amused. They said, “Joan, how did you dare contradict him?”
A few weeks later I got this big envelope from the Elysée addressed to Madame Shore and it was an invitation to the 14th of July party (Bastille/French Independence Day) at the presidential palace! It was all very funny. A lot of papers picked it up and said: “The President should have known better. He should have called her Madame and not Mademoiselle.”
BM: Then from being purely a journalist, you changed your career in the last decade or so to concentrate also on creative writing -– becoming an essayist, memoirist and a novelist. Lets talk about this more recent work and what brought about this change. For example, you published Saging – How to Grow Older and Wiser in 2000. What inspired this book?
JZS: At some point, probably twelve years ago, my parents were growing old and I was growing older and I just sat down and somehow this book came to me, this whole concept of growing older and wiser. So I devised the term “saging” — a mixture of sage and age — and I thought of nine different qualities, or characteristics, that I thought were important throughout life, especially as we grow older. It starts with simplicity and humor, and goes up through honesty and tolerance and dignity.
The book kind of wrote itself. It was amazing. It had been bubbling up in me all those years, I suppose. I published it quickly and have been giving a lot of talks on the subject, especially in Florida where there are many older, retired people. I want to republish it, design a new cover, and perhaps add a new chapter or two. But basically, it’s still valid. I’ve asked people I’ve lectured to: “Can you add anything else? Can you think of anything that I’ve missed?” And they can’t!
BM: So would you see it in the genre as, for example, books where people write about passages in their life in their thirties or forties?
JZS: I know there are a lot of books like that. This one isn’t—it’s not medical, it’s not spiritual. I guess you would say it’s psychological—how we look at life and how we feel about ourselves. I don’t even want to call it a self-help book. It’s not that. It’s a compendium of attitudes that are helpful and positive for us.
BM: Well, that’s interesting, but how did you get from Saging to Red Burgundy, (2011) which is a novel set in Burgundy in the 1980s. How did that come about? It sounds like you went through another gear change.
BM: And Red Burgundy was written in 2011, was it?
JZS: No. I wrote Red Burgundy before I wrote Saging and then put it aside. For some reason, I just didn’t do anything with it, although some French editor was interested in publishing it. I just forgot about it for a while. I wish I had published it earlier. The idea for it came to me after a visit to a cooking school in Burgundy run by an English food writer and her husband. She was the founder and director of La Varenne cooking school in Paris, and during the summer she gave courses at their château in Burgundy. She invited me there one week and I was just thrilled. First of all, I love cooking. But also, the place was so beautiful. There was a group of mixed nationalities attending the class and I thought instantly what a wonderful story this would make. I wrote this story using different names and details. That was around 1988. And I just put the manuscript aside and didn’t do anything with it until I pulled it out two or three years ago, read it again, and realized it was still good.
BM: Well, that’s interesting because it means it was a contemporaneous novel, not a retrospective view of what life was like in the Burgundy region twenty-five years ago.
JZS: It was just before the euro came in, just at the beginning of the whole European community taking shape. And this is why, in the book, I have a map of the Burgundy region and it very specifically says “1988”. Most of these people would not be alive today. The political scene has changed so much now with the euro and new EU members.
BM: Well, that is interesting. Because when I first read it, I thought it was a sort of nostalgic look back, sort of like some former East German reminiscences of life before reunification. What’s also interesting is that in the book there are World War II partisans still evening the score in the 1980s, especially after a collaborator is discovered living under a new identity. The partisans, sort of take care of things à la Casablanca where Bogart’s at the airport….
JZS: [Laughter] … definitely.
BM: And then they round up the usual suspects.
BM: So it’s based partially on a real situation….
JZS: An actual place….
BM: But the characters in general…
JZS: …are fictional. Although, I got in touch with the woman who had the cooking school. I told her about the book and sent her a copy, and she was quite thrilled and ordered a dozen copies for her friends. I said: “I hope you don’t mind if I turned you into a different type of character. You are seduced in the book by the Italian.” And she was kind of amused.
BM: Well, let’s talk more about Red Burgundy. It’s not only a novel; it’s being developed into something else…
JZS: …a film, hopefully, yes. Compared to the films that are being produced today, it’s rather mild. There won’t be any need for special effects or monsters or weird things happening. It’s a kind of nice, old-fashioned story with a twist. Somebody in England now is writing a screenplay for it. I wouldn’t dare try to write a screenplay—it’s another form entirely! But it would make a wonderful film, and I’ve thought about people who could act in it. Making a film is a long and complicated process, you know. You need a producer, a director, actors, backers. But I think it would be a really fun film.
BM: And you’re currently working on Collage, a memoir, about the Women’s movement in Europe in the 1970s and ’80s?
JZS: …no, no, no, No, NO!
BM: OK, well tell me what your current project is then.
JZS: [Laughter]. Well, Collage, the book that I just finished, is about my life but written, more or less, in the third person. It covers my adult years in Europe—and that means Brussels and Paris basically—and the women’s movement was simply a part of that during the ’70’s. But it was extremely important to me at the time.
Collage is what the French call an auto-fiction. I don’t want to call it a memoir. I don’t want to call it fiction, either. It’s somewhere in between. It’s about my life, but it’s written with almost a third person voice—I’m the main character, but with a different name. It sticks rather closely to the facts of my life, but I’ve changed the names of most of the people I talk about. It’s a series of fairly short chapters, almost jumping from one subject to another, and some of it is interspersed with essay-type chapters reflecting on something—Paris, love, politics. It’s a hybrid kind of book. And because of that, because it doesn’t fit into a specific category, I think it will be difficult to get it published.
BM: Are you currently working on or considering any other projects?
JZS: I would like to pull together all my all my articles, the essays, the 110 for the Florida publication and nearly 90 for Huffington, and make a selection of the best and put them in a collection and publish it. The title would be Hungry Women, Fat Men. That’s one of my funniest pieces.
BM: Well, now that we’ve talked about your writing’s historical and thematic concerns, what’s the relationship between journalism and creative writing in relation to your writing style? How has being a journalist helped and shaped your writing in other genres—essays, memoirs, and novels?
JZS: It has helped me with the structure of writing, I believe. When you are writing a 60-second spot for radio or a minute and half for television, you have to be very clear, concise, and correct about what you’re saying. One of the best pieces of advice I got was from an old radioman at CBS who said: “Joan, remember that you’re writing for a guy who’s in the bathroom in the morning, shaving, or he’s driving to work listening to the radio. And you’ve got to get it clear and simple and correct. And that was the best advice I ever got. And maybe I just had the natural inclination to write in that way.
Certainly those years writing for radio and television honed my capability, and I think it’s carried over into my other writing because I don’t use a lot of unnecessary words. I don’t use a lot of unnecessary adjectives and adverbs. I don’t go into flowery descriptions. Maybe you could compare it to Hemingway. It’s clear, simple prose and it’s the idea behind it that counts, not the affected way it’s said. I don’t like a lot of embroidery in writing, but I do like the rhythm of words. So that’s how writing for radio and television really helped me a lot. It gave me a certain sense of clarity and speed in my writing, and the rhythm seems to follow naturally.
BM: So, a minimum of adjectives, as short as possible to fit it into the time space, but powerful and effective and informative at the same time.
JZS: Yes. But also, for essay writing and novels, you want to use some imagination and add some humour. You know, things you do not get in news writing.
BM: Now where does that come in then? Where do the imagination and the elaboration come from?
JZS: I don’t know. I think probably I just have an off-kilter view of things and of the world. ’m not cynical really, but critical. And sometimes the critical is mixed with humour. I think that is what my writing and certainly my essay writing are about. You know, seeing things from a different angle and expressing it clearly and vigorously. That’s what I enjoy most.
BM: What is your writing discipline like? Do have a certain time that you get up in the morning that you sit down at your desk? Every few days or so, you think it’s time to write again?
JZS: [Laughter] No, no, no, no! Writing now, freelance, on my own, I write when the spirit moves me. Obviously, when I was at CBS or Voice of America I was under time pressure and the events had to be written about quickly. But now I’m just possibly too free. I don’t have any disciplined programme. I don’t tie myself down to a certain number of hours a day. I’m just not that kind of writer. I rely more on my inspiration.
BM: And how often are you inspired to sit down and write?
JZS: One could say not often enough, but for The Huffington Post, I’ve been inspired every couple of weeks. I’ve written close to 100 articles for them. Before that, for 10 years, I was writing a monthly column for a Florida publication, Boomer Times and Senior Life, and every month I was turning in an article about any subject I wanted . It could be about the holidays. It could be about traffic in Florida. It could be about politics in Paris. I had a total freedom. I produced over 100 articles for them over those ten years.
BM: To change the subject a little bit, this issue of Amsterdam Quarterly (AQ6) is about ekphrasis and writing about art and architecture, music and dance. How have some of these things affected your writing? How has living in Paris sort of changed you or helped form you as a writer?
JZS: It’s hard to say, because when I was living in America, growing up in America, I didn’t write very much, only for school papers. I was actually a winner in Vogue’s Prix de Paris (for creative writing), but it was only as a journalist that writing became a full-time activity. And coming to Paris, I don’t think really changed me. Certainly not in the early years because I was writing for an American network and it was news and it wasn’t creative writing and I was simply a reporter. So there were no real changes there.
These days, I go through periods where I get jaded about Paris. I am really fed up with all the books people are writing about Paris—How to be a Chic French Woman and Why French Women Don’t Get Fat and The Parisian Diet. Or someone comes to Paris for a few weeks and meets the love of her life in a restaurant! There’s a plethora of books about Paris and I’m fed up with it, and I’m really tempted to write a negative book about Paris!—all the things that are ordinary or wrong with it. Paris is not just the Champs-Elysées and the Eiffel Tower and the Left Bank. It’s also those little neighbourhoods where you have Africans or Asians or Arabs living, which are very run down. You do have slums in Paris — Paris is not just glamour. Paris is a living, breathing city and I’d like to show that side of it, if I ever do write something about it. I would be more critical and more realistic, I think.
BM: Well, I think I’ve seen a little bit about that in the pieces that you have written for AQ, especially in AQ5 with your “Stay Home! A Tirade Against Tourism:”
Listen folks. Paris is not a playground. Nor is it a quaint leftover from your history books. It’s a place where you can write, paint, philosophize, dream, stroll, eat, drink or simply lose yourself. If you wake up early, it’s sunrise on the Seine. If you get lucky, it’s love in the afternoon. I’m sorry, but your presence here in droves distracts me, drives me fou.
JZS: Yes, I definitely write about the tourists because there are more and more coming every year. It used to be just spring and summer and now the season is year round. And it’s interesting to see the change in the nationalities because at one point, it was people coming from the Middle East, and then Japan. After that it was tourists from the newly liberated Eastern European countries, and then the Chinese. The Chinese are now coming in very strongly. But the problem is that it is year-round. They are certainly helping the economy, but they are not helping me! There are tourist buses, most half empty, that fill the streets, and people who are looking for bargain restaurants, or simply making a quick visit to the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower. I don’t want Paris to become an artificial city like Venice, for example. And yet it’s becoming harder and more expensive for native Parisians to live here. They’re being squeezed out in terms of the real estate, in terms of the prices, in terms of the availability of restaurants and so on. I understand that economically it’s great for the city to have all this tourism, but its not much fun if you’re living here.
BM: OK. But what’s it like to be able to look out your dining room window and see Notre Dame…
BM: …across the Seine…
JZS: … and the boats going down the river?
BM: How does that affect you as a writer?
JZS: It calms me down. I love living near water, whatever city I’m living in. Brussels had no body of water, unfortunately. In New York, I lived near the Hudson River, and luckily in Paris I’m near the Seine. That’s very important to me. It’s an aesthetic thing. What is it like? It’s pleasurable. I can put up with a lot of nonsense—like plumbers who don’t show up or mail that doesn’t get delivered—because I do have something to look out on and contemplate!
I also lived in the South of France for eight years at Cap d’Antibes. And that was a rather privileged period even though it was rather desolate because there isn’t much you can do down there in terms of journalism. I think it was probably too lazy, too easy a life. I need stimulation. I need the cultural advantages of a big city, and I’ve got that here in Paris.
BM: So in other words, there is an influence that a city has on you as a person. I know you talked to me yesterday also about writers in New York. To paraphrase you, you said: ‘I don’t know if could run around and go to all those events if I had to be a writer in NY. I like to live in Paris, because Paris is…’
JZS: …easier. It’s slower. Sure, not as much happens in Paris as happens in New York, but whatever there is, it’s accessible. If you want tickets to the opera or the theatre, it’s not a big hassle, so I appreciate that. I go to New York from time to time, because at heart I guess I’m a New Yorker and I still have many friends there, but I don’t know if could live there again because it’s too frantic, it’s too hectic. Paris seems to be the right pace, the right dimension for me.
BM: I noticed last night coming in from the Gare du Nord metro station and transferring at Odéon, riding the subway wasn’t as big a deal as in Manhattan. Yes, it was rush hour, but people just got on and off without bouncing into each other too much and someone even gave me their seat because I had a cane.
JZS: Yes, there’s definitely that side. But it’s changing, of course. The younger generation, with their iPhones and iPads, are certainly changing the rhythm of the city to a certain degree. But it’s still a comfortable place to live. It’s a place where I can take it easy or I can work very hard. Of course, that’s where I am in my life right now, because I’m not holding down a full-time job. But I feel that I have a lot of freedom here, whereas, in a city like New York, I would feel very pressured.
BM: What are the things you read most often for “inspiration?”
JZS: Well, I guess I’m still a journalist; I’m still a newsperson because I look at The New York Times every day on the Internet. I also read the French news, and whenever I’m home, I watch the eight o’clock French news. You see, I’m still a news junkie! I’ll never get over that. I also read my horoscope every day! I’m very busy corresponding with people, with friends, and a lot of websites come to me that I’m not interested in, and I’m trying to eliminate some of them—particularly about American politics. I get many e-mails from groups that are trying to save animals or trying to save historic sites or trying to save the world. I’ve just gone through a process of eliminating a lot of these because you just can’t respond to all of them. You can’t spread yourself that thin. And the political ones this past year have been very annoying.
BM: Is there any architecture in Paris that has inspired you to write a piece or an article?
JZS: Well, of course, when the Pompidou Centre opened, I wrote about that. I interviewed the director for CBS television. The newest museum, the Musée de Branly, I don’t like at all. The architecture is terrible.
Nor do I like the Arab Centre, the Institut du Monde Arabe. Both are by the same architect, Jean Nouvel. They’re badly designed in terms of their façades and the way they exhibit their products.
BM: Could you compare the Pompidou to these two buildings? Just mention why you like the Pompidou?
JZS: The Pompidou was extraordinarily conceived. And it’s still extraordinary. It’s a building that’s literally turned inside out!—all of the plumbing and the stairs on the outside. It’s expensive to maintain, but it’s extremely adaptable and spacious. People hated it when it was built. They called it a factory. And it’s now the most visited museum in the city, even more so than the Louvre. And it’s stood up well over the years, whereas the Branly Museum and the Arab Institute are so badly built that I think they’re falling apart. So, that’s one that I like and two that I don’t like.
The pyramid at the Louvre was also a big deal. Everybody was against it. Frankly, I was negative about it, but I went to a press conference with I.M. Pei, the architect, and the way he explained it, he completely won me over. He said it was the most difficult project he had ever undertaken because he was dealing with something sacred to the French. But he said it was a bastardized building, destroyed by fire and rebuilt, and he decided to do the pyramid because it was the most neutral shape that would not interfere with anything. It didn’t relate to any particular French period, and it had to be as transparent as possible. Anyway, it was a brilliant press conference and I left totally convinced that this was a good thing to do.
BM: So he won you over then?
BM: So if I were to describe you, you would say that you have a journalist’s cynical attitude towards the world, but you have an open mind.
JZS: [Laughter] Should we say cynical or skeptical? I may be cynical about politics, but for the rest, I’m skeptical. But I have a great deal of curiosity. For example, I’m interested in physics—it fascinates me. The Large Hadron Collider fascinates me. Maybe I’m an intellectual dilettante—I can’t limit myself to one subject or any one field. I’m interested in a lot of things. And people may say, “You’re spreading yourself too thin,” but that’s how I am—a thinly-spread intellectual!
BM: Well, Joan Z. Shore, thank you for your time and your hospitality.
JZS: You’re welcome!