Mark Pryor, author of The Paris Librarian, shares some great stories about his annual visits to Paris, some of the historical details in his novels, his relationship with his protagonist, Hugo Marston, and a heartwarming tribute to a dying friend.
Read this exclusive Q&A with Mark Pryor, author of The Paris Librarian, and make sure you're signed in and comment below for a chance to win a copy of the book!
After five Hugo Marston novels, you assumed a more familiar role as an Englishman living in Texas in Hollow Man. What’s it been like to return to the series after some time away from Hugo?
Well, not too familiar. After all, Dominic was a psychopath, and I promise I’m not one of those….
As you can imagine, writing Hollow Man was harrowing at times—it’s a much darker and grittier book, so yes, you’re absolutely right that returning to the series was an event.
In one word: comforting. Like going home, only when your home is in Paris and all your friends and family are cool and interesting. No crazy uncle Barry (not his real name, you know who you are), no needy in-law Barbara (ditto) sucking up all the energy. Just whacky Tom, sophisticated Claudia, and good old Hugo—a man you can rely on to save your life, hand you a good book, and make bloody awful coffee, every time.
And, of course, being able to immerse myself in Paris again, that’s something I’ll never get sick of.
As always, the crew of characters in The Paris Librarian is, in a word, motley. Are any of your newcomers inspired by friends, relatives, chance meetings?
Funny you should ask. Well, funny, or maybe you’ve already heard this story. I’m gonna pretend you haven’t.
You see, last January, a lovely lady from Wisconsin—a bookseller—emailed to tell me she liked my books. And, to tell me that her father liked them even more. Problem was, he was fighting cancer and not expected to win, and in fact, he was sure he wouldn’t live to see the release of the upcoming Hugo book (The Reluctant Matador).
She, being a sweetheart, was emailing to see if I could get her father an advanced copy of the book to enjoy in his last month or two. A few days later, I had an advanced copy in my hand, which I signed and sent off to my new friend.
He (and you’ll see why I’m not using his name in a little while) emailed me from time to time, letting me know how he was getting on with it and saying that he didn’t want to read too fast—to finish and not be in Hugo’s world any more.
Yeah, that feeling you have right now, I got that too. Such a lovely man.
Eventually, he finished the book and was kind enough to let me know he’d enjoyed it very much. But, we were both sad, I know, that he wouldn’t being seeing Hugo again.
Or would he?
I wrote to my friend with a suggestion: Sure, I can’t write a book fast enough for him to read it, but what I can do, is write a book and put him in it. Make him a character in the next Hugo so he can live on in that small way—interact with Hugo and walk the streets of Paris for his family and friends to see and enjoy.
Well, he was pleased with the suggestion. Very pleased. And, I did one thing for him that I’ve never done for anyone else: I let him choose which role he wanted. He didn’t hesitate. He told me he’d worked hard all his life to be a good father, husband, and friend. He’d always looked to see the best in people and help those less fortunate (and I know all that to be true)—and so he told me, “This time, I wanna be the bad guy!” How cool is that?!
So, that’s why I didn’t use his name here. There’s more than one baddie (as we say in England), so don’t think it’s narrowed down by gender. In fact, don’t think at all; just dive in and enjoy Paris and Hugo’s adventure in The Paris Librarian, knowing that a good man appears within its pages.
The mystery and history swirling around Isabelle Severin is somewhat unique to the series—where did she come from? Could you tell us a bit about how you researched the historical aspects of this book, especially?
Absolutely, she was a lot of fun. So, I read a story about Olivia de Havilland, and originally I wanted to actually have her as a character in the book, to be Madam Severin. I reached out to people close to her, but couldn’t get an audience with the esteemed lady herself when I went to Paris, which meant I couldn’t ask her permission to make her a character. Of course, I wasn’t going to do it without her blessing, so I came up with the name Isabelle Severin.
The thing is, I’m still fascinated by World War II and, as in The Bookseller, I wanted to show how such a mammoth event in history can reach forward to the present day and play a part in people’s lives and motivations. Or appear to…
Doing my research, I discovered that there were, indeed, famous people who used their positions to try and undermine the German takeover of Europe, to aid the Resistance. One of those appears at the end of the book, which of course I shan’t detail for fear of spoiling a small thread. But, Hugo’s final deduction is very much based on a true account.
Paris is a gorgeous city, and—even with the inevitable murder—that comes through in your writing. How do you keep the streets so fresh with each new novel?
Thank you for saying that, I try really hard! And, by “try really hard” I mean I force myself to go to Paris every year to walk its streets and sit in its cafés. Actually, that’s the truth and the measure of it: I think that to portray a place in an interesting, captivating, and enticing way, a writer absolutely must go there—spend some time wandering and watching.
I tell people when I give talks that for readers, Paris isn’t evoked by descriptions of the Eiffel Tower or Notre Dame. We all know those are there and what they look like. No, it’s the businessman nibbling the end of his baguette as he walks home from work; it’s the girl wobbling along the street on a bicycle with her hair and scarf flying as she drags a rolling suitcase behind her; and it’s the chef in his white jacket standing on the top step of his little bistro, smoking a cigarette and keeping a casual eye out for customers. Those aren’t things you can see using Google Earth or some other map app. Those are things you have to go there to see, and, despite the obvious and undeniable horror of an annual Paris vacation, I am dedicated to my craft and, fortunately, have the full support of my wife, who adores Paris as much as I do.
The trail of breadcrumbs leading from Hugo’s bed on page 1 to the conclusion at the end is just right: not too obvious and not too spare. How do you navigate the need to give the reader clues while still not showing your hand?
I don’t know! Really, I don’t. Walking that tightrope is one of the hardest things in this business, for me anyway. I don’t want people guessing halfway through who did it, or why. But, I don’t want readers getting to the end and saying, “Really? I never woulda thought…” No, the perfect intersection of bemusement and discovery lies somewhere in that final chapter, where the reader is a fraction of a step behind Hugo and says at the reveal, “Oh, right, of course! Now I get it!”
But, how to achieve that, well, it’s a fair question, but such a hard one to answer. Revision is key. Once I’m happy with the obvious blunders, I tackle the book as a reader would, imagining I’m seeing the clues and hints for the first time. But, that said, I will also have a spool running in my head, like a TV in the background, which lets me compare what happens later in the story to what I’m reading—like a B-roll, I guess, so I can see the gaps and drop in a clue when I need to. Or, alternatively, remove the boulder-sized giveaway that even the slowest armchair detective would run right into.
I’m pretty sure, though, that it’s one of those things that’s easier to do than explain…and it’s not easy to do, as I’ve said. You only really know you’ve got it right after the fact, which can be pretty nerve-wracking (so thanks for the compliment!).
You’ve said in previous interviews that Hugo Marston is somewhat of an amalgamation of figures from your own life. Over the course of writing this series, how much has your own identity converged—or diverged—from Hugo’s?
This may sound weird, but I think we’ve always kept each other a little at arm’s length. He’s a tough chap to get to know, for sure, and because we’re both in this for the long haul, I feel like we haven’t rushed to spill our guts to each other, reveal every little secret or personality quirk. That’s the kind of thing I might do, but it’s not in Hugo’s personality.
That said, we’ve become more comfortable with each other. I know in an instant how he’d react to a situation or a person; I don’t have to sit and ponder it. And, he’s seen fit to reveal more of himself to me—some fairly titillating information that I’m using in the Hugo book I’m writing right now (do you think he’ll mind?!).
It’s been a slow-growing friendship, shall we put it that way? Saying that will sound utterly insane to some people, no doubt, but you asked and that’s how I feel. I think you’ll understand…
What are you currently binge-watching on Netflix?
Ah, great question. Doc Martin has sadly been plundered, and right now, it’s Marcella. I will confess to a secret admiration for, and acquaintanceship with, Justified when my wife is away. I adore that show more than she does, but together we’re charging through English crime shows at quite a pace.
What are you currently reading and/or what was the last book you read?
Several things, actually. I’m just about to get started with What Remains Of Me by Alison Gaylin. I’ve heard so much about it, and she’s such an awesome person, so how could I not be looking forward to this one?
I’m also finishing up Gift Of Darkness: Growing Up In Occupied Amsterdam by Craig Comstock. That’s more for research purposes, but it’s still a fascinating experience as a reader and comes on the heels of another book on the same subject, Anne Frank Remembered by Miep Gies, the woman who helped hide and sustain the Frank family.
The Paris Librarian is out August 9, 2016 by Seventh Street Books.
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Mark Pryor is the author of The Bookseller, The Crypt Thief, The Blood Promise, The Button Man, and The Reluctant Matador, the first five Hugo Marston novels, and the standalone Hollow Man. He has also published the true-crime book As She Lay Sleeping. A native of Hertfordshire, England, he is an assistant district attorney in Austin, Texas, where he lives with his wife and three children.