This Spring, the Illinois Reads program will invite residents to read dozens of new books by Illinois authors. One title on their 2016 list is our Winter Book Series selection Paris, He Said, by Christine Sneed.
The novel introduces us to Jayne Marks, an aspiring artist who leaves her New York City life -- friends, steady job, and boyfriend Colin -- for Paris, home of her new lover, Laurent Moller.
Jayne and Laurent meet in NYC at a gallery he co-owns called Vie Bohème. Both are immediately attracted to each other, but Laurent also seems interested in Jayne as an artist.
His interest piques when Jayne shows him some of her paintings in her cramped apartment. All are portraits featuring the subject in somber interiors or vibrant exteriors, emphasizing themes of absence, longing and loneliness:
Her stomach tensed as she watched his face for some hint of his thoughts. Finally he said, "You were twenty-one when you painted these, Jayne? Why have these not already been sold? Because they would sell."
Nothing anyone had ever said to her had given her more pleasure then those words. Now, her legs moving her toward the domed Parisian cathedral a couple of miles from her new home, she realized that she should have felt more confident that Laurent intended to release her work into the world.
But on that evening, as they stood peering at her paintings together, she hadn't believed him. "I don't know," she'd said. "There's a lot of competition. You know what New York's like."
"There are galleries in other places, Jayne. You don't have to start here."
"I didn't. I started in D.C."
He gave her a droll look. "Do not say you are like me, Jayne, that you do not have enough talent. It is clear to me that you do. But you need to keep working and seeing what comes to you. Paris will have a good effect, I am sure.
"He's a patron of the arts, and artists, in the traditional sense," Christine Sneed says of her character Laurent. "He pays them to make work but doesn't expect to put their work in his gallery." Sneed is referring to Laurent's Paris show room, also called Vie Bohème. "He hopes it will happen, but he's not expecting it to happen quickly -- if all all," the author says.
Soon after, Laurent flies her to France to live with him in his spacious apartment. He also converts one of his rooms into a studio for her. But first, he sets an important ground rule:
"...what you do and what I do outside of the apartment, that is not for the other person to worry over. All right?"
Jane soon learns Laurent supports other artists, including attractive women. She also suspects Laurent continues to see one of his protégés, a mysterious woman named Sofia. Rather than confront Laurent, Jayne focuses on creating art in hopes of getting it on the walls of Vie Bohème.
Of course, what's good for the gander is good for the goose. Jayne attracts the attention of Laurent's business partner, André, who pursues her aggressively during Laurent's frequent absences. Plus, Jayne resumes seeing her old beau, Colin, who now includes Paris among his business trips.
Sneed says she thought a lot about fidelity when writing this novel, and about Paris's reputation as a place where sex is the raison d'etre and monogamy ce n'est pas important.
For her part, Sneed finds monogamy more suitable for an artist. "If you're out tomcatting around, you're not likely to be that productive," she says. "I find that, if I'm in a new relationship, or when I had a really big crush on someone, it was really difficult for me to write. It's very distracting."
Sneed says creating Laurent was especially satisfying as a writer. "It was fun to write from the point of view of a male who has a lot of sexual capital and is in a position to exploit it -- not in a mean-spirited way," she says. "I wanted to get into his head and understand what motivates him."
In an interview with WNIJ, the author recalled a recent conversation with a friend who read the book. "And he said, `You did such an interesting job of creating this character Laurent,' and I said `If I were a man, I'd want to be like him!'"
Not everyone in this book is fictional. Susan Kraut is an artist and painting professor at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago. Sneed casts Kraut as Jayne's mentor in art school and has the teacher meet Jayne in Paris near the end of the book. "She was an inspiration for the book," Sneed says, "because I love her work."
Paris, He Said is published by Bloomsbury USA. Sneed, an Evanston resident, is a visiting professor at the University of Illinois English Department.
Next Monday, the Winter Book Series concludes with The Education of a Poker Player, the latest book by James McManus. Listen during Morning Edition at 6:52 and 8:52, then come back here for an author reading and other content. And if you're talking about these books on social media, please use #WNIJReadWithME.
WNIJ had help with Sneed's audio recording from WILL in Urbana.