I’m not sure when Lauren Collins’s New Yorker byline first began to stand out to me, but over the years some of my favorite pieces in the magazine have been written by her, including a much-shared article about IKEA’s creepy/cozy ubiquity, a “love app” in South Korea, and profiles of Bill Cunningham, Michelle Obama, and Nora Roberts. She’s generous to her subjects but not soft; her observations are precise, witty, and often include quirky bits of research. Above all, what shines through in Collins’s reporting is her curiosity, which takes her profiles and essays in surprising directions.
Her first book, When in French, about learning French, is very much in keeping with her reporting, although this time, Collins is her own subject. In a charming mix of memoir and reportage, Collins tells the story of moving to London and falling in love with a French man whose name she couldn’t even pronounce properly. (He couldn’t say hers, either.) After a few years in London, communicating in English, the couple moved to Francophone Geneva, where Collins finally began to learn French. Her memoir opens in Geneva, where Collins, unable to understand the instructions of the chimney sweep, worries about causing a dangerous fire. It’s one of many funny yet frustrating situations that Collins encounters in her struggle to learn a new language in a foreign place.
Collins wrote the book while living in Geneva and learning French, but has since moved to Paris — a flight she alludes to at the end of When in French. I spoke to her via Skype, shortly before her book was published, on the eve of her September book tour.
The Millions: This is your first book, but you’ve been writing long pieces for The New Yorker for years. How was the process of writing a book different from writing an article?
Lauren Collins: It was totally different. I loved it. I wasn’t sure if I was going to go crazy sitting alone in a room, in a small neutral country for a year. It was cool for me because every single thing I know I’ve learned from The New Yorker — and I’m sure I’ve absorbed and profited from the house style over the years — but for me it was nice to have the chance to take myself off the leash for a little bit, to roam a little freer and sniff at dirty old tennis balls and get into trouble on my own — you know, taking some more risks, trying things that may or may not have worked.
TM: How did you come up with the structure of the book? Each chapter is named for a different verb tense, and is written in that verb tense, at least partially. When you start learning French, you go into the present tense — that’s actually when I first really noticed the structure.
LC: It kind of came to me organically. Because I was writing a book and learning French in parallel, I think it was just toggling back and forth. I would be writing one day and then going to French class, and I thought, wait a minute, this section where I’m writing about my childhood, that’s all imperfect, repeated action in the past. And I thought, this section where I’m writing about meeting Olivier in London, that’s passé compose. It was just this felicity and I decided to go with it.
TM: Has learning French made you think about your English prose style differently?
LC: Definitely, definitely. I don’t know if I can claim that I’ve thought about it consciously, but I just know that the French seeps in. Sometimes to good effect, sometimes to ill effect. Sometimes you find yourself using unwieldy Latinate nouns when a nice, punchy Anglo-Saxon one would do. But at the same time, there are turns of phrase or even metaphors that I would not have come up with had French not entered my life. You can also pilfer from another language. Things that are complete cliché in French — like there’s a phrase, “casting error,” that people use a lot in French — it’s not a clever original thing to say — but I’ve used it in English before, and it’s just straight larceny. Like, you can say, “her new boyfriend is kind of a casting error.” Stuff like that is really, great, just adding a little bit of vigor to your first language. I wrote about this a little bit, the way that even British English really helped invigorate my American English, my writing. You get this whole other roster of verbs, a rhythm even. It’s just nice to have that 10-degree remove.
TM: Yes, I love reading contemporary British novelists for that reason. There’s just a slightly different rhythm to their prose.
LC: There’s a great quote — I’d have to look it up — but it’s something like, “until you master (in my case, attempt to master) a foreign language, you never really know your own.”
TM: Your book definitely made me want to learn another language. Going back to the structure for a minute, you don’t really begin learning French until halfway through the book. That was surprising to me. I kept waiting, and I was wondering if you did that on purpose, to build suspense.
LC: I don’t know that I necessarily did it on purpose! But I wanted to give a sense of what a plodding journey it was for me. And also, the reason I opened where I did in Geneva, with kind of a rant, is that I feel like, often, depictions of life abroad in France or French have this very rosy view. And I wanted it to be the dystopian ex-pat memoir. Because that was how I had come to it. I hadn’t just come to this language that I loved and absorbed the language by osmosis. I wanted to give a sense of all the kind of preamble to learning a language, and how far you have to go to get the place where you’re ready to do it. There’s just so much windup. And also, that I was kind of an improbable candidate for this metamorphosis. And so it felt important to establish my background.
My French is still a work in progress. I mean, I can tell you the words I learned today. Today the words I learned were s’envoler, “to take flight,” affoler, which means to drive crazy, and “ravaged” — that one I looked up in English. I wanted to know if you could say ravager in French. Every single day, I’m still learning stuff. So, when I was writing the book, it wasn’t like it was a done deal. I wasn’t sure if I would emerge proficient enough to actually say that I’d learned French.
TM: Are you hearing these words and then looking them up?
LC: S’envoler I saw written on a poster in the Metro, and I thought I knew what it meant but I just wanted to check — and I did. Affoler, same thing. Ravaged was just something I wanted to say…The horrible thing about trying to learn another language is that it just totally colonizes your inner monologue. You’re constantly rehearsing every conversation you’re going to have. I mean, people do that in their first languages, too, but it really goes to another level. But, I don’t know why, I was having some conversation with an imaginary friend/neighbor/postal clerk and I wanted to know if ravaged would be the correct adjective. I can’t remember what I was trying to call ravaged…I think it was, my feet? Because I’d been walking around in an uncomfortable pair of shoes all day.
TM: When did you know that this was going to be a book? When did the idea come to you to turn this experience into a memoir?
LC: After I moved to Geneva and I realized that it was really going to happen. And I was asking myself a lot of the questions that you’ve asked me: How is this going to affect my actual language? Can I do it? Why is it important? Will it change me? All those kind of things. And, actually, I realize this now looking back: the things I had been writing in The New Yorker were actually a trail of breadcrumbs leading up to this. I couldn’t see the trail at the time. But this was just really what I was consumed by. It was what I was jazzed by and interested in. I was spending a lot of time already trying to decipher this language that was hieroglyphics to me. I think your passions or preoccupations so often lead to writing. It was just where my head was. At a certain point it became obvious that I was going to write about it.
TM: Now that you’re more fluent in French, I assume it has opened up new stories for you to pursue as a reporter?
LC: Yes! In February or March, I had a short piece, a “Talk of the Town,” that I reported entirely in French, so that felt like a big milestone. I’m still not ready to petition the president for an interview. But I’m trying incrementally to work my way into doing a lot more reporting fully in French. I mean, I’ve always done some reporting using an interpreter or going back and forth between French and English. But yes, the better my language skills get, the more I’m aware of, the more I’m able to penetrate. It’s fantastic. It’s been unlocking this secret cave full of riches I could never access before. It’s a midlife gift — both as a person and as a reporter.
TM: I have another process question for you. You’ve been a reporter for years; you try to write with objectivity about people. What was it like to turn that reporting voice on yourself? Did you think of yourself as a reporter of your life? How did you think about it?
LC: Again, I was slightly hesitant because I had never done anything like this before. And I was totally lying to myself at the beginning, saying there wasn’t going to be very much of me in the book. I mean, at the very, very beginning, I wasn’t even sure this book was a memoir. I thought, maybe I just want to write this reported investigation of language. But, as it turns out, I’m more narcissistic than I thought! It was really fun. Because when you’re writing about people, sometimes every fifth word, you’re thinking can I really say that? Is that really what happened? It was great being my own source, because I had all the information. All the research was there, and from the perspective of pure writing, it was just so great to be able to take that and run with it. As a reporter, you write some beautiful sentence and then it turns out that there has to be a qualifier in it. Or you think about it and you think, well maybe that’s not fair, or whatever. There are considerations. So it was really nice that on a lot of the things, I only had to answer to myself.
TM: At one point early in the book, you write: “language, as much as land, is a place.” I was wondering if you could talk a little more about that and say what French feels like to you at this point in your development?
LC: I’m really glad you brought that up because that was one of the things I really wanted to do. Because I wasn’t even living in France, I was living in French — that’s the distinction. And I wanted to try to write, almost like a travel guide, I was thinking of this as travel writing, I wanted to describe the terrain of French, the kind of landscape and its physical features and its hills and valleys. I was thinking of it that way. To me, it feels like an older place, it feels like a colder place, often, but at the same time there are these nooks and crannies and hidden alleyways and therefore vistas that have been opened. I imagine French as being in the streets of a medieval city. That’s also kind of my physical environment right now.
TM: What is English like as a place?
LC: English is like, you know, lying on the couch with your favorite blanket and some pizza and watching a great movie — not even watching it, not having to pay attention. English is comfort. Another way I think of it, is that English is like one of those really enjoyable unchallenging vacations where you do nothing and get tan and drink a lot of drinks with umbrellas in them. Whereas French is the vacation where you go to a lot of museums; it’s the vacation where you’re actually trying to have something to show for yourself at the end of it. I’m a person who likes to do both.
TM: Just to wrap things up: How are you feeling on the eve of publication? What’s going through your mind?
LC: You know, you spend so much time alone in your room that it’s just beginning to dawn on me that, well, hopefully, there are readers out there. I published an excerpt in The New Yorker and I got some letters and they were so interesting and engaging. This one guy wrote me this great letter. He said: “I read your article and I just wanted to share with you this little anecdote.” He said, “I can’t remember which movie it is, but I swear to you, there’s a movie out there where John Wayne goes into a saloon and says, ‘Barkeep, give me a shot of rotgut.’” And the man who wrote to me claims that this was translated in the French subtitle as “Un courvoisier, Monsier, s’il vous plait.” Which was really funny! So yeah, I’m just really looking forward to hearing what real life readers think. I’m also just excited to spend two weeks in America. I mean, I come back to America often, but you’re always tagging the bases of friends, family, work. You have no time to explore. For instance, I moved to Europe in 2010, and I haven’t been anywhere since then except New York and North Carolina. People are always like, “What do you miss about New York? And I’m like, California! When am I going to go there again?”