Whenever I meet my neighbors on the street or at the Abingdon Farmer’s Market on Saturdays, it doesn’t take more than a handful of syllables before they realize that I’m not from these parts. No matter how hard I try, my ‘the’ still sounds like a ‘ze’. I nod politely when they ask if I’m French. I can’t hide what is evident. Oui, I am French and, even worse, I’m a Parisian! I know what follows; it’s a familiar routine by now. They ask me how long I’m visiting and, when I tell them that I live here, they raise an eyebrow. “How come you live HERE when Paris is the most beautiful city in the world?” Being true New Yorkers, they invariably want to know what I do for a living, and my response is met with even more blank stares. A French novelist in the West Village? How did that happen?
It’s a long story and, not surprisingly, it starts in France.
When I was ten years old, on an early August morning, my dad came into my bedroom and told me we were going on a short journey, just the two of us. We drove for hours before arriving in Normandy. He stopped at the gate of the American cemetery. There were 9,387 graves. He asked me to look at each cross, at the ages of the men buried here. They were all so young. He told me that it was thanks to those men that I was living in a free world. “Never forget,” he told me, “You need to live a life that will respect and honor the freedom they died for. You must be a guardian of this freedom that they gave to you.”
It was only much later that I learned my father had been a part of the French resistance. It was his dream to become a pilot in the British Royal Air Force. For an 18-year-old Parisian with a serious case of myopia, it was more than a little improbable. Even more so because, at the time, he was imprisoned in the south of France by the Nazis.
When I was 16, I had only known peace and my dreams were my own. I wanted to become a doctor and to one day live in New York City which, for a Parisian with my accent, was also very improbable.
My father transmitted his love of freedom to me. Liberty—such a word! I was thirsty for freedom. When my teachers told me I would never be a doctor based on my math, physics, and chemistry scores, I decided to join the Red Cross anyway. I worked with them for six years. One day, a friend said to me, “I have to show you something.” It was 11:58 a.m. when he turned on his Apple computer. The screen said “Good morning.” He turned it off. He turned it on again at 12:01 and the computer said “Good afternoon.” As silly as it sounds today, at the time it was indeed extraordinary. A new world opened up to me.
Continuing my pursuit of freedom, I left France and moved to San Francisco when I was 24 to create a computer graphics company. I had no idea about graphics and even less about computers, but the first PC had just been released, I felt these machines would be a source of creativity and could push the limits of the imagination.
But I found true freedom when my oldest son told me on his ninth birthday that the bedtime story I made up for him each night was good, but not as good as his favorite TV show. It was quite distressing, since I spent the three hours after he had gone to bed crafting the next night’s installment. If he didn’t want my stories, what would I do with myself during those hours? Well, I decided, if I couldn’t write for the child he was any more, why not write for the adult he would one day become? (It was a smart move, since he would undoubtedly grow up.)
I was 39 at the time, and my dream was to give him the manuscript on his 39th birthday so that, for the time he was reading it, we would be the same age. Within the pages of the book, we would become best friends. I know some dads play baseball with their kids, but I’ve always been hopeless at sports.
Speaking of growing up, a few months later, I had to have my first serious heart-to-heart with him. I had to ask my son if he would allow me to share the story I had written exclusively for him with Steven Spielberg, who had called the night before to say he wanted to make the book into a movie. I told him it wasn’t my fault, but that his aunt had forced me to send his story to a publisher, where it was read by the best literary agent in the world (who would go on to become my best friend, too) who turned it into a book and had transformed my life into a fairy tale. You’re probably now wondering how this episode is related to freedom. Try to imagine my situation: after everything had happened to me without even trying, after I’d surpassed my wildest dreams, how could I not embrace this?
So I left my job and moved to London (a stepping stone to New York) with my son. I began to write my second novel and I started to become a free man. I was free to become in a novel everything I couldn’t be in real life. I became an illustrator living in New York, hopelessly in love with his childhood friend who was working as a humanitarian in Honduras. I turned into a personal mediator between God and the Devil watching as their agents, chosen to battle for the fate of the world, fall in love. I was a Russian painter whose long-lost final portrait reveals the dark truth of his death and brings together two souls who have been searching for each other across the centuries. I was a single father who lets his best friend convince him they can raise their two children under the same roof and in an ideal world without women (which turned out to be a catastrophic decision). I became an estranged father who creates a robotic version of himself to be delivered to his daughter’s apartment the day after his funeral, giving them seven days to say all those things they never said. I even was an astrophysicist in search of the first star who crosses paths with his first love, who had become an archaeologist in pursuit of the first human bone. (For someone who is so bad at math and science, the writing process was very cathartic.) I was a young boy who has the power to listen to people’s secrets—and heal them—through their shadows. Or a cantankerous old British man with an unlikely interest in his neighbor who takes her on a journey to Istanbul to find a past that neither suspected she had. And most recently I embodied a New York Times investigative reporter who wakes up three months before he knows he will be murdered and has to find out why someone is trying to kill him.
It’s also a matter of freedom that I choose to live in the West Village with my wife Pauline and two sons. My second son Georges was born here and has become an American—at two years old, he already has a much better accent than his father. I love that he lives on an island where 153 different communities and ethnicities live together. That he will hear 20 different languages in a five-block radius. That he exchanges smiles with old people whose extraordinary lives can be read in the lines on their faces. The West Village is truly a village, and it feels good to belong to a community. It’s filled with the history of the people who built it and who passed on the responsibility of maintaining its architectural integrity but also its artistic spirit. In the West Village, the world looks bigger, and it keeps me humble in the best way.
I truly believe the best way to preserve freedom is to remain humble, to respect and celebrate our differences. When I walk around the Village, I sometimes look at the faces of the people I cross in the streets and remember my father’s words, 40 years ago, in an American cemetery somewhere in Normandy and I think to myself, “What a wonderful world.”