It’s an intriguing title isn’t it! It’s also a very funny book about American William Alexander’s mission to learn to speak French like a Frenchie. I read the book on a return train trip from Paris to La Rochelle. Normally it’s quite a chore to sit still for a few hours but reading this made the journey huge fun and I laughed out loud in places, scaring my fellow passengers. As someone who also struggles to learn French I found the book fascinating as William delves into why we might find learning hard, what we can do about it and his own journey to study French. It’s a terrific read whether you’re learning French or not…
I asked William Alexander:
At school what were you terrible at?
Well, French. Not only terrible but I hated it, every minute of it, largely because I had a tyrannical teacher, a large, imposing Frenchwoman who made every class seem like a 45-minute sentence in the Bastille. Thus I dropped French as soon as I’d met the high school graduation requirement, after tenth grade.
When did you start writing and why?
I’m a late bloomer. My first book, “The $64 Tomato,” was published when I was 53. I’d always harboured a secret desire to be a writer in a vague sense, but without purpose or even a subject. Until I realized that I had this great story to tell about the misadventures of building my first vegetable garden. Then it was off to the races…
What’s the hardest part of writing a novel?
I think most writers would answer “getting started.” But for me, it’s finishing, fitting all the pieces into a coherent story. That was particularly challenging for Flirting with French, because spending a year studying a language does not exactly suggest a thrilling story line, so I had to find a way to bring life into what was in fact a really interesting experience.
If you could have dinner with a French celebrity/historic character – living or dead, who would it be?
Sorry Voltaire, Camus, and Rousseau. I’m inviting Napoleon. Not only was he a fascinating figure, but he was incredibly well-read (he even authored a romantic novella!) and easy to talk to, a man without airs, pretty much the opposite of how we think of him today. Oh, what a time we’d have!
If you could take Napoleon to a restaurant (anywhere in France) where would it be and why?
Ha! Well, Napoleon was famous for bolting down his dinners, really having no interest in food, so anything special would be wasted on him.
What keeps you awake at night?
The slightest noise. Passing cars, distant voices, anything like that wakes me up. In Provence, where I spent two weeks in an immersion French class, the cicadas would wake me at about 4 a.m. They never shut up. It got so bad the teachers had to close the windows to be heard over the din.
What’s your guiltiest pleasure?
Foie gras. I know it’s politically incorrect, but I love the liver of a fattened duck or goose. And I’ve convinced myself that the animals don’t really suffer from the overfeeding. But still…
Red or white wine?
What is this, a matchmaking site? With the exception of Sancerre, I find reds more interesting than whites, but I eat a lot of seafood, which means I drink a lot of whites. French sauvignons are much better than those from New Zealand, by the way.
If you could go back in time where would you go?
I’d give Lincoln a heads-up about the guy lurking in the hallway. What a different history the United States might’ve had if he’d lived.
What’s your favourite place to holiday in France and why?
This is like being asked to name your favourite child. I love Paris – it’s one of world’s great walking cities – but I also love Normandy (when it isn’t raining). In Flirting I describe two long-distance bicycle trips my wife and I did, in Normandy/Brittany and Provence, and each was magical in its own way. One just much drier than the other.