VINCENNES, France -- Romancier. That’s how you say “novelist” in French. “Row-MAHN-see-ay.” It’s a word I’ve heard a bit lately during the three-day Festival America book fair in Vincennes, just outside of Paris. There were about five dozen of us writers here, from all over the Americas, including Argentina (Fernanda García Lao) and Alaska (Eowyn Ivey), and all published in French. The French are crazy about books, and about 30,000 people attended, each paying 10 euros to listen to writers such as Toni Morrison, Russell Banks and a “new face on the literary scene, who comes to us from Los Angeles, Hector Tobar.”
On Sunday I was on a panel at the Hemingway Auditorium with Banks, the author of many great American novels, including the recent “Lost Memory of Skin.” Listening to him talk about his work habits felt like taking lessons from a master. “John Gardner once said a novel is a sustained dream made coherent,” Banks said. “When I’m working on a novel, it’s as real as the world I’m living in physically.”
When did you realize you were an artist, someone asked Banks. At 19, he replied, when he took up painting: He thought a career in art would be “less work” than being a plumber or a carpenter.
A few moments later, it was my turn. “You’re lucky that you realized you were an artist at 19, Russell,” I said. “I’m 49, and I didn’t know I was an ‘artist’ until I got to Paris this week and people started calling me that.”
The writer is a revered figure in France. People flip through books here the way people flip through satellite TV channels back home. “Authors in France think they are gods,” one Parisian told me. He found it refreshing that most American authors he met didn’t act that way.
It may be that the French writer thinks he is a god because photographers are always pointing cameras at him. Just about every writer at the Festival America was set upon by photographers who specialize in “shooting” authors. There was Mathieu Bourgois and Ulf Andersen, whose subjects include Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Michael Chabon. And there was a tall, elegant, white-haired woman who asked me three times to stand for a portrait before I finally consented. Her name was Sophie Bassouls. We walked out into the Vincennes sunshine and she pointed a huge lens at me. “I’ve been doing this for 40 years,” she told me. Ah, I said, who is your favorite author you’ve photographed. “Nabokov,” she answered. Vladimir Nabokov, the author of “Lolita,” “never put down his whiskey glass” as she snapped his portrait.
At none of the panels were members of the audience invited to ask “the gods” questions, as is the custom at U.S. book fairs. Instead we fielded questions from a variety of critics and bookstore owners, each of whom seemed to have read our works with great care. When Salvatore Scibona was asked how he could write about events taken from his grandfather’s life with such authority a half-century later, he answered: “I thought of his life as the part of my experience I did not live.” Even before the interpreter could translate this into French, a few members of the audience sighed at the simple poetry of this reply.
On Monday morning, we writers filed out of Vincennes, though many stopped in Paris for interviews. The California writer Julie Otsuka was at the studio of France Inter radio a little bit before I was, to talk about her novel “The Buddha in the Attic.”
“C’est formidable,” my host Kathleen Evin said of Otsuka’s book.
A few minutes later I was listening to a recorded woman’s voice reading the French translation of my novel. I don’t understand much French, but the sound of those words of mine redendered in the language of Proust and Rimbaud was truly melodic to my ear.