sunday-afternoon-on-the-island-of-la-grande-jatteSusan TepperA Sunday Afternoon in Paris is quite romantic without being “overtly romantic.” Jack, you begin the piece with this cinematic beauty:

“The painting and the two of them in the big room.  A tableaux.  The woman with the dark hair and green eyes, the tall American, the painting.”

Was this an image that came to you immediately upon this writing?

Jack Swenson:  Yes, because that’s what happened. I met the young woman in the Louvre. The painting was Seurat’s “Le Grande Jatte.” It was at the Louvre at the time on loan from Chicago. It’s a huge painting. I have revised the tale many times, and I keep changing the color of the woman’s eyes. To protect the innocent. Actually, her eyes were brown.

Susan:  I did see a Seurat in that line.  And I do love that this was “lifted from life” in the truest sense, though you gave her green eyes which is such a stunning choice and seems to meld her more into that painting.  Jack, I’ve read a lot of your work and you have this ability to seamlessly switch from place to place (Paris to farmland to suburbia, etc).  Yet there is always your distinctive imprint on every story.  How do you explain that?

Jack:  I think it is because I am a born again storyteller. I love to tell stories! I love to read them, too. Years and years ago, I wanted to write stories- like Isaac Babel and William Carlos Williams (yes, the poet wrote short prose pieces, too). Then when I found Carver, I was an immediate convert, but this happened many years later.

It seems to me that story telling is a lost art. When I was a kid, I loved to be a mouse in the corner when my parents had friends over. They told stories. It was great fun. Now at a get together, it’s mostly chit-chat and gossip. I’m bored to tears.

Susan:  Me, too.  Bored to tears with banal chit-chat.  You write:

“The woman lived on one side of Paris, and the man lived on the other.  She couldn’t let him sleep in her bed, nor could she sleep in his. After midnight he walked halfway across the city to his shabby hotel.”

Now this sure isn’t boring.  I found this to be an intensely intimate story.  She can’t spend the night with him which tells us a great deal about her as a character, perhaps about her levels of intimacy.

Jack:  Well, the time frame for this story is the early sixties. Attitudes about sex have changed. At the time, I wasn’t happy about it, but what was I going to do? There I was in Paris, in April for God’s sake, and I was sleeping alone. In a tiny hotel where I had to walk up four flights of stairs to get to my room!

Susan:  Ah ha!  Jack, did I ever tell you that I always wanted to be a private eye?  It seems I have uncovered certain other autobiographical details in this story than previously noted by the author…  hmm…

So tell us, dear author, is the whole piece autobiographical or only in part?

Jack:  Mm. Ah. Well. It’s not entirely autobiographical. No.

Susan: OK, well good enough.  Did you draw on Paris as a city of sensual delights: the place itself, the food, the cafes, the women?  Sensory aspects in this story are strong.  And of course there are the whores outside his hotel room window.

Jack: No, I don’t think so. I spent 3 1/2 months in Europe, mostly in major cities. I was in Paris a month, waiting to pick up my VW bug in Wolfsburg, Germany. In Paris I had a lot of time on my hands. Sorry. That’s not very romantic, but that’s the way that it was.

Susan:  I’d like to stick with the whores a moment, if that’s OK.  You did have your character looking at the whores outside his window.  And there is something so innocent about whores in paintings (and you did start with a painting tableau).  When Toulouse-Lautrec and Degas and others painted the whores of Paris, they did so with a kind of detached innocence.  The whores were always colorfully rendered with a sense of depressed gaiety.  I got the sense of depressed gaiety in this piece, too, which perhaps was influenced by his observance of the whores.  Am I way off the track?

Jack: Well, maybe some of the paintings of Toulouse-Lautrec were on my mind. I suppose the picture I paint in the story could be read that way, but depressed? I’d prefer the word detached. I see this story as more comic than anything. I think that’s true of all my stories. I write about the Human Comedy. That’s just the way I see things.

Susan:  Yes, detached.  It is the Human Comedy, Jack Swenson style!

Read A Sunday Afternoon in Paris by Jack Swenson

Monday Chat is a bi-weekly series in which Susan Tepper has a conversation with a Fictionaut writer about one of his or her stories. Susan is Assistant Editor of Istanbul Literary Review, fiction editor of Wilderness House Literary Review, co-author of new novel What May Have Been, and hosts FIZZ, a reading series at KGB Bar.

  1. Foster Trecost

    This series is one of the best things about Fictionaut. Wonderful job, both of you. fos.

  2. Roberto Garcia

    Yay Jack!

  3. Gill Hoffs

    Totally agree with Foster. So glad to read such interesting chats between writers. This was great.

  4. Christopher

    Paris holds an itchy place in my heart. Loved the interview, Susan and Jack.

  5. James Lloyd Davis

    Jack is a natural. I love his work and love the interview. Thank you, Susan … and Jack.

  6. JP Reese

    Enjoyed this interview. I especially like Jack’s knowing he’s a born story-teller. The shaggy dog is sometimes lurking just beneath the surface of his work, and I love that his tales often feel like two friends sitting in comfortable smoking chairs sharing a past remembrance or two. His work invites a reader to come in and sit awhile, but it also often offers a sly undertone of irony or sadness which enriches a seemingly small story and heightens its resonance for the reader. I have a copy of this painting hanging in my living room. It’s a fine piece around which to build a story. Well done, both of you.

  7. Jane Hammons

    The minute I saw the title, I remembered the story. It really made an impression on me that lingered. The mood of it as much as the details, I think, really capture a time and place in a way that make the “real” time and place almost irrelevant. When we read the story, we are transported to that time and that place–that story.

  8. susan tepper

    Lovely comments, all, for Jack’s chat and story.

  9. fran Metzman

    Loved this interview and how pointed the questions were and how honestly they were answered. There was an issue brought to my mind as to why social chatter today seems irrelevant — no story telling. Big impact on me. fran

  10. W.F. Lantry

    Very nice. Good questions, good answers.

    A fourth floor walkup in Paris? Felt just like the old days… ;)

  11. Robert Vaughan

    Love this series, love you both! A joy to read, thanks!

  12. Kathy Fish

    I remember “A Sunday Afternoon in Paris” very well. Excellent chat, Susan and Jack.

  13. Darryl Price

    This is now one of the things I must absolutely look at first thing on a Monday. It’s inspiring and interesting. Well done. Fun.

  14. MaryAnne Kolton

    Jack, Some of my best friends and I can spend an entire evening at a restaurant secretly listening to the conversations of others! The porch snooping is also very familiar to me. The painting is one of my favorites and I used to get in trouble when I went to see it in Chicago because I wanted to touch it so much. . .just once.

    Joani is so right about you. Born to tell stories. Great work Susan and Jack.

  15. Jack Swenson

    Wow! I am hop-skip-and-jump at the response to the interview and the story! Thank you, Susan. Thank you all.

  16. Mark Reep

    Enjoyed this very much, thanks guys. Off now to read the story.

  17. Marcus Speh

    Great interview with a great writer. “I’d like to stick with the whores a moment” was a highlight. The landmark painting by Seurat has always been one of my favorites. This vision of Paris (I’ve just been there a few weeks ago) is nostalgic, that Paris may be gone, it makes me sad. But it lives on in stories like this one. Well done, both of you!

  18. J. Mykell Collinz

    Susan, Jack, thanks, I enjoyed your chat. The human comedy, yes, that’s what it’s all about. And you’re two of the best at portraying it.

  19. estelle bruno

    Loved your story when I first read it Jack, now this is a great chat with you both

  20. susan tepper

    Wow, such a great response to Jack’s chat and wonderful story, thank you all!

  21. susan

    Jack is one of my favorites here at Fictionaut. He has a great sense of human nature and experience and he can easily jazz things up to contemporize his stories. Therefore, he has one of the best blends of the things about mankind that don’t change but rather, adapt to the present time. Great story, great questions, great answers here.

  22. Gloria Mindock

    What a great chat this was. Took me a few days to get to read this.
    Really, really enjoyed.

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