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French Impressions:
The Adventures of an American Family

John S. Littell
New American Library
354 pp.

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The Wag Chats with
John S. Littell

Memoirist John S. Littell discusses the challenges of writing a memoir in his mother's voice and tells us why he doesn't think raising an 'international kid' is a good idea.

What inspired you to write French Impressions?

Littell: My mother had retyped the magazine stories she had written about our trip to France and had bound them for my sister as a Christmas present in the early 1970s. The manuscript sat in the trunk for more than twenty years until my sister casually mentioned it to me one day. Out of curiosity, I read it. Although it wasn't publishable as it was, I thought it had potential—especially because of the success of Peter Mayle's A Year In Provence.

What was more important, I knew my mother would have been delighted to see the book in print. She would have loved to do signings and answer questions for WAG and generally ham it up.

WAG: In the introduction you write, "I chose to write this book from my mother's point of view and in her voice because that was the only way the story made sense to me." Was this a decision you had come to before you began writing? The voice is so natural that the reader quickly forgets it is written by a son "impersonating" his mother. How difficult was it to assume that voice?

Littell: I had three choices to make before I began writing. First, I could have done a third-person narration, but that seemed clumsy to me. Second, I could have told the story through my own four-year-old eyes. Faulkner might have pulled it off, as he did with Benjy in The Sound and the Fury, but, hey, Faulkner's Faulkner. That left writing in my mother's voice—the easy way out. I had in front of me her literary output, and because I am an adaptive writer (read: no style of my own), I soon picked up the rhythm and cadence of her prose. I also had the benefit of knowing her for thirty years, so I was familiar with the way she wrote and spoke.

My inability to deliver a unique style is both a curse and a blessing, probably caused by my early days as a newspaper reporter and as an advertising copywriter. In those fields, a distinctive voice is anathema, while the ability to mimic gets the bonuses. Even today, when I am working on a project, I hesitate to read good writers for fear of picking up their styles. One day I'm knocking out staccato Hemingwayesque sentences; the next day, each paragraph is two pages long. (Thanks a lot, Faulkner.) I'm just glad I laid off Poe and Joyce while writing French Impressions. The results would have been catastrophic.

I tried to get the tone right and to keep it right throughout the book. That was difficult because I found that—naturally—my personality kept seeping through. Piles of good copy never made it into print because the tone was wrong.

I would like to say that it was spooky to write in my mother's voice, but it really wasn't. I thought of the work as both a challenge and a way to finally get her story in print--a kind of memorial, I suppose.

Frustratingly, there were gaps in the narrative that were impossible to fill. My mother's sometimes cryptic diary entries drove me up the wall: "Remember the hilarious story about the blue hat and the sheep" and "Mme. Duchamps, how I hate her!" What the hell did those references mean? No one will ever know; they are gone forever. So I stuck to the material that was published and unpublished and added the family stories I had heard all my life.

Oddly, when I was four years old, I had to interpret for my mother. Fifty years later, I'm still interpreting for her.

WAG: Although in many respects your family became part of the neighborhood, in other ways throughout the book it is apparent that your mother in particular remained steadfastly, confidently, and unashamedly American—clearly influenced by the recent experience of World War II. In the end your parents' decision to return to the U.S. after a year, rather than stay in France, came about because, as your father states it, "I don't want my kids to be international kids. I want them to be Americans." From your own perspective, how do you feel about your parents' decision? Do you wish you had had more time in France to build your own memories of the experience? Do you think parents are more comfortable today with shuttling their kids around the globe?

Littell: Of course, I had no say in the decision to return to the US. Five-year-olds in those days tended to defer to their parents' wishes—at least on important matters. But having known many "international kids," I can say without hesitation that I would never want to be one of them. They are people without a country, without a culture, and without any idea how to get along with Americans. The word "clueless" was invented especially for them. They can speak eight languages, but they know no slang in any one of them. They have seen the great art of Europe, but not Yankee Stadium. And they dress funny. If you act like an adult when you're twelve, what do you do when you reach sixty?

Although I may have missed an opportunity to become an "international kid," I had a happy enough childhood in the United States. (I am writing about those years in a manuscript tentatively called, Susie, Sadly, and the Black Torpedo of Doom.) Even with the Americanization of the world, I think parents should think carefully about ripping a kid away from his roots. Ten years in Yemen may be a great adventure for an adult, but for a child it can be traumatic. The poor kid will never again fit in—anywhere.

WAG: At the end of the book Mary writes, "Since our return, people had often asked me if I would spend a year in France again, knowing all I know now. That was easy to answer: No." Yet the lighthearted tone of the book belies this answer, suggesting that even the misadventures in France had a certain madcap quality of adventure. Were there more negative details in your mother's writing that you chose to leave out of the book?

Littell: In reading my mother's diaries, I found a certain amount of angst. She missed her family and her friends and the life she had left behind. For her, the most difficult part of living in France was the isolation. Her poor grasp of the language made her feel like a child again, bewildered by what was going on around her. Just to hear someone speak English made her happy. I downplayed the negative elements of the trip because they were minor, and chose, instead, to concentrate on the high points.

WAG: You write at the beginning that "all this took place in the dim days before television, jet travel, women's liberation, and the New Coke." It was also a time before American culture colonized the world. Do you think the kind of experience your family had in France is even possible any more?

Littell: I think it would be impossible to have the kind of experience we had in 1950—at least in France. As much as they try to fight it, the French are becoming more and more Americanized. On my last trip to France, I stopped in an obscure southern town to get my laundry done. The assistant Laundromat attendant listened to my garbled French for a moment, then said, "Your laundry will be ready at five o'clock. You may pick it up then." Her English was better than that of her counterpart here in New York. And this was in a village of about six hundred people. And they had a Laundromat!

To experience the total strangeness of a culture, I think you would have to go to parts of Africa or Asia these days—places where Big Macs are a rarity and the Colonel hasn't given the chicken finger to the local cuisine. That's getting harder and harder to do because people around the world, like it or not, love all things American. Once the Soviet Union relaxed its ban on Elvis and blue jeans, it was finished as an empire. France had better watch out.

—Interview conducted by Caroline Kettlewell

Posted January 1, 2001


The young Mr. Littell at the ancient Roman arena in Arles.

John S. Littell is a writer and former publishing executive. He lives in New York City. His mother, Mary W. Littell, was a successful journalist in the 1950s and 1960s, regularly contributing to women's magazines such as Parents and Woman's Day.



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