Monday, March 14, 2011

Bonjour, Commonwealth Reading Series!

The series 
continues this Friday, March 18, 7 PM 
at Grub Street, Inc. – Boston’s hub of 
literary community and just general coolness. 
One of the writers reading at Grub is
the superb Jamie Cat Callan(Fiction/Creative 
Nonfiction Fellow ‘10). We had the chance 
to ask Jamie about her writing, books, and 
unmistakable joie de vivre.
ArtSake: Your writing experience is so 
varied - young adult novels, short 
stories, screenplays, relationship 
advice, writing tips, memoir. When 
you conceive a new work, is 
the form (novel, script, nonfiction 
work, etc.) immediately apparent, or do 
you sometimes have to explore different 
forms to find the right fit?

Jamie: And you didn’t mention poetry
and plays!

Honestly, I just like to write.

Still, I suppose the form is very much 
determined by the influences in my life and 
who is around me. For example, I wrote 
short stories and plays during a time 
when belonged to The Writers Bloc, a group 
in Los Angeles made 
up of writers and actors. Then, I wrote
 screenplays while I was getting 
my MFA from UCLA film school. 
After film school, I began teaching 
at Wesleyan University, Educational 
Center for the Arts, NYU, Yale and then
 at Grub Street, and so I created 
The Writers Toolbox, out of the games
 and exercises I used in my classes.
Most recently, I’ve reconnected 
with my French roots and discovered 
more history relating to my French 
grandmother. I loved how she had 
this spicy marriage with my 
grandfather. They didn’t always agree, 
but they certainly adored each other. 
This is how I became inspired to 
I think I wanted it to be an advice book 
because I wish my grandmother could 
sit down and tell me her secrets to 
love, marriage and elegance. Oh, and
how to make a great coq au vin!
My latest book, Bonjour, Happiness!
 is an interesting mix of memoir and 
I actually wrote a proposal for a memoir 
about my travels to France (beginning in 
the 1970’s and up to the present) and my 
editor said she wanted the book to be 
“prescriptive” but that it could be still 
be “narrative.” And with that, I think I’ve 
created a hybrid genre - the literary advice 
Anyway, perhaps this is another answer to 
your question about what determines the
form my writing takes - it’s unpredictable 
and it’s just how the stars happen to align.
ArtSake: You mentioned Bonjour, 
Happiness! Secrets to Finding Your 
Joie de Vivre, which is just about to 
be published. But you won your MCC 
award by submitting a work of fiction. 
Writing is rarely ever easy, but does
 either form, fiction or nonfiction, 
come more naturally to you?
Jamie: For me, fiction is delicious and 
dreamy. I enter into an imagined world 
and just let it lead me into surprising, 
sometimes illogical places. Along the way, 
characters introduce themselves to me, 
take me by the hand and together we get
 into trouble. Lots of trouble (narratively 
speaking, of course). For the story that 
won the MCC grant, I was inspired by my 
husband who told me that when he was 
growing up in Madison, Connecticut during 
the 1960’s, the town was mostly a summer 
community and that because only a handful
of people stayed over the winter they 
formed a “Winter Club.” This is where the
 title “Welcome to the Winter Club” comes 
from. I envisioned the club as a metaphor 
for loss of innocence and adulthood. 
From here, I imagined what it would be like 
for an adolescent boy experiencing his first 
sexual awakening in this community in the 
1960’s during the Camelot years, when 
Kennedy was in the White House and 
Vietnam was a shadow in the not-so-far 
distant future.
In terms of craft, when I am writing fiction, 
I write fast and let the characters lead me. 
At the end of the day, I put the work away. 
The next morning, I look at the writing with 
fresh eyes and see where I may have gone
off course, or if I let one of the characters 
take over the story or lead me astray, and 
so I trim and edit and bring the story 
back into alignment.
Now, you might be surprised to learn that 
when I am writing nonfiction, this process 
is rather similar, because I am still writing 
stories. The difference is, these stories are 
framed by a more obvious lesson or 
suggestion in terms of creating a happier
life, as with Bonjour, Happiness! Even 
with this book, each chapter offers it’s 
own mystery to me and 
while my characters are real French (and 
sometimes American) women that I’ve 
actually met and interviewed, there are the 
same challenges as with fiction, in that 
I let a kind of narrative grow out of the 
basic idea of a chapter topic (for example, 
why lingerie is very important to a French 
woman’s confidence!)but then in the 
clear light of day I may find that perhaps 
I need to edit and trim that part about
 the history of lace corsets. Wink. Wink.
ArtSake: How did Bonjour, Happiness! 
come to be?

Jamie: In 2009, the Virginia Center for the 
Creative Arts awarded me a fellowship to 
spend a month writing in Auvillar, France. 
The village of Auvillar is a magical place 
in the southwest filled with fig and olive 
trees, roosters, and a town known for 
welcoming artists from all over the world. 
One day after I first arrived, I walked 
into the village around noon, only to find 
everything was closed. I was able to visit 
the ancient stone cathedral (built in the 
11th century), but the boulangerie, 
the library, the shops and most 
of the restaurants were all closed. 
The streets were silent as if everyone in
town had disappeared.

But then, I peaked through the cobblestone 
courtyards and behind the lace curtains to 
find couples and families enjoying their 
mid-day meals. This is when the thought 
came to me - this is the secret to the French 
joie de vivre. 
Unlike our American “pursuit of happiness” 
the French find happiness in simple, 
pleasurable moments. In America, we 
often think that bigger and faster is 
better. For the French, smaller and 
slower is better. Happiness is an 
experience, not a thing you buy or own. 
And I felt so happy in that moment, 
relaxing in the sunshine of Southern 
France, knowing that the boulangerie 
would reopen at 2 p.m. and I would be 
patient, imagining that the baguette 
would be worth the wait and even 
more pleasurable because of it.
ArtSake: You teach extensively, 
including at Grub Street writers’ 
service organization in Boston, 
and you wrote The Writers Toolbox
As a teacher, what do you try to instill in
 emerging writers?
Jamie: Actually, The Writers Toolbox 
is not so much a book that I wrote, 
but a box of tactile writing games 
I created - you know, sticks and 
spiny dials and a little three minute 
egg timer, cards and then an instruction 
book. It’s all based on right brain theory 
- writing from that intuitive, nonlinear place. 
And this brings me to what I try to teach 
emerging writers: 
Follow your muse. Don’t worry about 
where you’re going or where you’ll end up. 
Write from the heart and believe that there
 is a place in this world for your voice, 
your story, your style. No one else 
can be you. You are completely 
unique and amazing in your own way. 
And as long as you stay true to yourself, 
your contribution to the world will be 
completely true and unique. 
Oh, and one other thing. 
Be kind to your writing. 
It lives and breathes outside of you. 
It’s a gift to you from your muse,
 so if you are kind to your own creations, 
your muse will make a habit of visiting 
you often. I don’t believe in tough love 
when it comes to teaching writing. 
I believe in love. 
Kindness. Gentleness. And of course a whole 
lot of joie de vivre. This is why I 
adore Grub Street and the Grub Street 
teaching philosophy. There’s a 
whole lot of love going on and I can’t imagine a 
place where writers receive so much support. 
We’re lucky to have them!
ArtSake: Can you point to any one 
decision you’ve made as an artist 
that has had the 
most impact on your career?
Jamie: A long time ago, I decided to let go
of the debilitating idea of becoming an 
overnight sensation. 
I let go of the notion of the acclaimed 
debut novel. I no longer care about being 
the next new thing.Rather, I’ve embraced 
the idea that I can be that 
gal who has been quietly and consistently 
writing all along (since 1973) while raising a 
daughter, making a living, moving around, 
experiencing all the unexpected ups and 
downs of living a full life. 
The overnight sensation ship sailed 
long ago, but I am here and this is my 
All this is to say, no one decision had the 
most impact on my career, but the decision 
to move forward, have faith and just write 
no matter what, has made all the difference 
in the world.
ArtSake: What are you reading these 
What are you writing?
Jamie: I am reading Malcolm Gladwell’s 
What the Dog Saw. I love his writing!
I am writing the book proposal for my 
next book, Bonjour, Beautiful - Secrets to 
Finding your Ooh la la! And I’m also 
working on turning “Welcome to the 
Winter Club” into a novel. If anyone wants 
to give me a nice advance, please speak up
 and don’t be shy!
Jamie joins Cheryl Clark, 
Adam Schwartz, 
Ron Spalletta, and Marc Velasquez 
for a Commonwealth Reading Series 
event on Friday, March 18, 7 PM, 
Grub Street, Inc.
in Boston. Other events include Porter Square 
Books (3/15 and 3/31), Forbes Library in 
Northampton (3/23), and Newtonville Books 
in Newton (4/5).
Jamie Cat Callan is the creator of 
The Writers Toolbox (Chronicle Books, 
2007) and the author of French Women 
Don’t Sleep Alone(Citadel/Kensington, 
2009). Most recently, she received a grant 
from the Virginia Center for the Creative 
Arts in Auvillar, France where she wrote 
her latest book, Bonjour, Happiness! 
(Kensington/Citadel, 2011) 
Jamie is married to a Woods Hole 
Oceanographic climate change scientist. 
The story of how they met (he was a 
student in her creative writing class) and 
eventually married - appeared in the New 
York Times Modern Love column.


  1. I am so excited for you Jamie!
    Your book arrived today and I am eager to get started...will blog about it when I am finished it.

  2. I just found your blog from Leslie...I've been reading your interview. Having lived in New Canaan, CT where they have a winter club, I think it's funny your take on it. I'll be looking for your book...any book signings out west?

  3. A great interview, Jamie. I could hear you speaking it - it brought back lovely memories of Auvillar. My last big St. Patrick's season harp performance is tomorrow night, and then I'm going to delve into Bonjour, Happiness and my own book again with gusto!


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