While walking along Quai d’Anjou in the Parisian neighborhood of Île Saint-Louis with her husband, Mamta Chaudhry glanced—as she had developed a habit of doing—at the lighted windows of the homes they passed. From one of those windows drifted softly played music, and Chaudhry began to envision what kind of life the people who lived there led.
With that piece of music echoing in her ears, she imagined the voice of Julien, a ghost who watched over his still-mourning lover Sylvie from the banks of the Seine below her window. Julien spoke the words that would later become the first page of Chaudhry’s debut novel.
Haunting Paris follows Sylvie as she tries to deal with her grief over Julien’s death—unaware that her lover’s ghost is still with her. While moving Julien’s desk, Sylvie dislodges a hidden envelope, the contents of which compel her to track down an unknown woman from Julien’s past. Along the way, she unearths the secrets of Julien’s life and the horrors his family endured during the Nazi occupation of Paris. The quest for answers Julien left behind in life becomes her own.
Because the idea came to Chaudhry while walking along the Seine, the river and its banks had a huge impact on the story. Not only did it become integral to the plot, acting more as a character than simply a setting, but it also influenced how she chose to present the events of the novel. “It’s kind of like a river,” Chaudhry noted. “Things don’t spring out like in a news report. The plot progresses the way a river carves out its own path.”
This fit well with Chaudhry’s natural writing process. “I’m not at all conscious when I’m writing a story. I don’t have an outline. When that first page came to me in the ghost’s voice, I had no idea where it would lead. I just went where the characters led me.”
But when it came time revise and edit, she had to make some important decisions. To describe her editing process, Chaudhry turned to The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film by writer Michael Ondaatje, who met Murch, a film and sound editor, on the set of the movie version of his novel The English Patient. The Conversations came out of subsequent talks between the two. Reading the book, Chaudry recognized a process true to her own craft.
“Directors and cinematographers shoot millions of scenes, but all the scenes that have been shot come into sharper focus during editing, and that’s really very similar to the way the editing process works for me. To my regret, I’m an obsessive reviser. In doing that, I shape the story and compress it. I just cut, cut, cut, cut, cut. During revising and editing, I make very conscious choices.”
One of these choices involved how the novel should be broken into chapters. Since the story’s events take place in both 1989 and 1942, as well as a few other time periods, she wondered if people might get confused about which events took place when. “There was some back and forth about whether the book should have chapter headings, but I didn’t want to break up the sort of liquid flow of it, so we decided not to use them. The interior designer for the book later came up with this beautiful little scrolly design to show the chapter breaks without impeding the flow.”
In another conscious decision, Chaudhry wove together omniscient third-person scenes narrating Sylvie’s life with scenes told from Julien’s first-person point of view. “I was trying to play with this idea of the omniscient narrator,” Chaudhry explained. “There’s a first-person narrator where the ‘I’ comes in, but then it’s like the ‘I’ steps back, and the third-person narrator takes over—but it’s still filtered through the ‘I’. It’s taking the omniscient narrator and turning it on its head.”
Making Julien the narrator of Haunting Paris allowed Chaudhry to deviate from the traditional omniscient narrator. As a ghost, Julien knows a lot; he is able to enter into other lives and times, to find out information that no living person could, but there are some things relevant to his own life that he has refused to learn—and others that have eluded him. By writing part of the novel in first person, Chaudhry gave a usually faceless, nameless narrator a distinct voice, backstory, and stake in the novel’s plot.
What she created was a narrator who—like the city of Paris itself—could be imbued with “innumerable stories.” Why? Because, at its heart, Haunting Paris is a novel about stories, memories and secrets. Within its pages, the characters’ stories “have taken up residence,” just waiting to be discovered like a snatch of conversation on the street or a piece of music from a lighted window.
Haunting Paris was released on June 18 from Nan A. Talese/Doubleday.
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