Author David Downie is a native San Franciscan, but for the last 25 years has divided his time between Italy and France. His travel, food, and arts features have appeared in more than fifty magazines and newspapers worldwide. He has been a contributing editor, European arts editor, or Paris correspondent for half a dozen publications. His latest book is the spy thriller, Paris City of Night.
For more information about David Downie, please visit his website.
Thanks for this interview. When did you decide you wanted to become an author?
It’s unclear to me whether I ever made the conscious decision to become an author. I started writing when in my teens. My first attempts were not autobiographical. I was interested in other people, in situations, in conversation and the way we communicate with each other. I only began making my living as a writer in my late 20s.
Do you have another job besides writing?
No, no other job: for the last 20-some years I’ve earned a living by writing.
Were you an avid reader as a child? What type of books did you enjoy reading?
Childhood memories are notoriously unreliable, and I don’t pretend to remember details regarding my early passion for words. I read widely when young, but I did not read “children’s books,” other than Pinocchio and the Jungle Book. I read dictionaries and encyclopedias. I read Twain, O’Henry, Stevenson and Dickens, but also Poe and Melville. I was lucky enough to be brought up in a household of readers. We had thousands of books in our living room. When I wasn’t out playing baseball in the street, I read and read.
Tell us a bit about your latest book, and what inspired you to write such a story.
Paris City of Night is a novel of suspense, set in contemporary Paris. It merges the glamorous City of Light — the city’s nickname — with a dark, sinister city of night, with emphasis on the “n.” Many neighborhoods will be familiar to readers, but most will not, unless they’ve strayed into Belleville in the 20th arrondissement, or the Canal Saint-Martin district in the 10th and 11th arrondissements. The book’s hero is an expert in vintage photography and daguerreotypes; the daguerreotype plates are key to unlocking a code. The CIA and other agencies (American and French) want the plates to try to stop a terrorist attack. The people funding the terrorists want the plates for the opposite reason. It’s a complex story peopled by anti-heroes, with a several false leads that keep readers guessing. Paris City of Night is plot-driven, but the characters are fully formed: they eat, drink, sleep, get mad, swear, and do things they would not normally do in life if they hadn’t found themselves in a crisis. Violence is for the most part suggested and not enacted — Paris City of Night is not a blood-and-guts thriller. It’s a fast-paced psychological, political thriller in the tradition of Alfred Hitchcock, whose TV programs and movies I watched over and over when growing up.
I was inspired to write Paris City of Night by a number of real-life events — convoluted French political intrigues involving former French presidents François Mitterrand and Jacques Chirac, the hijacking of an Air France flight by Algerian terrorists whose goal was to blow up the Eiffel Tower and also bring down the French government, and a scandal involving the murder of the elderly. Many personal reasons also pushed me to write this book. For a start, I have often helped my wife, photographer Alison Harris, on assignment, and became interested in the history of photography. I also experienced sudden-onset optic neuritis, and overnight went blind in one eye. The condition plunged me into despair, into a world of distorted black and white images. I spent a lot of time thinking about vision, photography and perception before writing the book. This personal tragedy coincided with the advent of digital photography and the potential of our digital age to become a world where hermetically sealed, perfect, visual lies are not only possible but probable.
How would you describe your creative process while writing this book? Was it stream-of-consciousness writing, or did you first write an outline?
Before writing Paris City of Night I sat down and plotted it through, scene by scene. I wrote a detailed treatment — a kind of screenplay for my own use. Once I’d established the direction of the plot and the settings, I allowed myself to riff and improvise. But to call it steam-of-consciousness writing would be misleading. I’m not sure it’s possible to write thrillers or novels of suspense without careful, detailed plotting.
Did your book require a lot of research?
Paris City of Night grew out of years on the ground in Europe—primarily in Italy and France — watching the political scene, meeting people, and reading history. I could not have written the book without a background in political science — poli sci was one of my majors at UC Berkeley (the other was Italian literature). I also learned a lot about photography from my experience as a photo assistant to my wife. Then I sat down and read every book on the history of photography and codes, ciphers, etc… that I could get my hands on, and I read a lot of newspaper and magazine articles on the scandals I’ve mentioned above. So, yes, the book did require an immense amount of research, but I hope it doesn’t show. It’s meant to be a seamless entertainment, not an academic work.
Agatha Christie got her best ideas while eating green apples in the bathtub. Steven Spielberg says he gets his best ideas while driving on the highway. When do you get your best ideas and why do you think this is?
My best ideas come while I’m walking. I walk about 10 miles a day. It’s entertainment, meditation, relaxation and exercise all in one. I think it’s the measured pace that makes walking so stimulating to the mind. The words come along like musical notes. In fact, a piece of music is often playing in my head as I walk, and the thoughts, ideas and words follow the music and the pace. To be clear: I do not listen to music while I walk. The music is in my head. I abhor the idea of wearing headphones. Constant entertainment is debilitating.
Do you get along with your muse? What do you do to placate her when she refuses to inspire you?
My muse and I argue frequently but the relationship is not problematic. If “she” refuses to obey — “inspire” isn’t the right word for me — I remain the same. One foot in front of the other, word by word, sentence by sentence.
When it comes to writing, are you an early bird, or a night owl?
For years I stayed up late and got up late, and my best time to work was the afternoon or early evening. That was the price of living in the center of Paris, in a lively neighborhood, going out often and entertaining friends. For the last five years or so I have reversed the equation: up early, work early, eat early, to bed early. I spend more time in the country than in the city, and I’m a healthier and happier person. I’m also more productive than ever, despite the loss of vision, and the physical and psychological challenges that come with optic neuritis.
Do you have an agent? How was your experience in searching for one?
I have a wonderful agent, and was lucky enough to have been introduced to her by a fellow writer. I didn’t have to search, and I’m thankful for that.
Technically speaking, what do you have to struggle the most when writing? How do you tackle it?
Physical fatigue — in my case eye strain — is a constant challenge. I try to pace myself. I’m a touch-typist, so I close my eyes as often as possible. If I make a typo I correct it later. I also have neck and back problems, like many writers, so I make sure to take the time to stretch. I practice a mix of martial arts and yoga every day, and that helps. The other challenge is to stop writing when I’m tired. You’ve got to know when to call it quits for the day. Stop when you’re feeling good, on a positive note.
What type of book promotion seems to work the best for you?
The classic book tour, with events in bookstores or other venues — clubs, art galleries, whatever — is something I enjoy. You’re in direct contact with your readers. You get instant feedback. For word-of-mouth, book events are probably still the best vehicle going. You often don’t sell many books at an event, but you will sell books eventually because you did the event. Newspapers, magazines, newsletters, blogs will be more likely to talk about you and your book if you’re on the stump. Radio is also great. I love radio!
Do you have a website/blog where readers may learn more about you and your work?
Do you have another book on the works? Would you like to tell readers about your current or future projects?
I’m currently writing a history book about a specific institution in Rome, and travel book, also about Rome, and I’m gearing up to write another book about French food and words — the language of French food. Once I’m on the other side of those assignments, I’ll pick up my hero, JAG, and, I hope, get to work on another thriller.
As an author, what is your greatest reward?
To me, writing is a matter of necessity, it’s something urgent and essential. Writing is the greatest reward. If you write primarily to make money, be famous or for posterity, you’re missing something fundamental.