Meet Alex George, author of The Paris Hours, a tour de force of a novel told over the course of one day in 1927 about four ordinary people whose stories are as extraordinary as the glorious city they inhabit.
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Hello and welcome to Season 2 of The Art In Fiction Podcast. I’m your host, Carol Cram, a novelist and an avid reader of books inspired by the arts. This episode features Alex George, author of The Paris Hours listed in the Literature category on Art In Fiction.
Alex is a writer, a bookseller, a director of a literary festival, and a lawyer. He was born in England and currently lives in Missouri. His latest novel, The Paris Hours, was an instant bestseller, an Indie Next Pick, a Book of the Month selection, and an Amazon best book of the month.
In addition to writing, Alex owns Skylark Bookshop in Columbia, Missouri, is the founder and director of The Unbound Book Festival, and has been named one of Britain’s top ten “thirtysomething” novelists by The Times of London.
Welcome to the Art In Fiction Podcast, Alex.
Thanks, Carol. Great to be here.
I want to start off by saying that I just loved The Paris Hours. It's a tour de force. I felt like I was in Paris in 1927.
So the novel takes place over the course of one day, but with lots of flashbacks. Can you give us a quick summary?
It takes place over the course of one day and it's really four stories rolled into one. There are four principal characters, and their stories are told in a strict rotating order of chapters.
There is Guillaume, who is a love-struck painter—I suspect not an especially good painter—who is on the run from some thugs from whom he borrowed some money.
There is Jean-Paul, who is a writer. He writes for a newspaper and he tells other people's stories. He has a story of his own, but his is almost too sad to tell. And so he tells other people's stories instead.
Then there is Souren, who is an Armenian. He's a refugee from the Armenian genocide. He escaped and we see the story of that escape and how he came to Paris. And he is a puppeteer and he makes his living performing puppet shows in the parks of Paris for the Parisian children, but he performs them in his native language of Armenian and not in French.
And then finally there is Camille who is the maid of Marcel Proust.
The story really began in my head at any rate with her because I was reading about Proust. And there's a wonderful memoir that Proust’s actual maid, whose name was not Camille, and gosh, I think I've been sunbaked or something because it's gone right out of my head.
Anyway, she wrote this wonderful book called Monsieur Proust. And she told the story of how Proust asked her to burn thirty-two of his notebooks. And when I heard that, this light bulb went off above my head and I thought, ah, that's a really interesting idea. You know, I'm somebody who presses CTRL+S every time I've written more than half a sentence, so I'm terrified about losing anything and the idea that he would have the maid do that was just mind-boggling to me.
And I always say that writers are a bit like magpies and we’re always flying around, looking for bright, shiny objects to put in our novels. And that was definitely one of those moments where I thought, well, that's the thing that I really want to write about.
And so my sort of novelist’s brain went on, and I then began thinking about it and I thought, well, what if she didn't burn all of the books? And what if maybe there was one book that she kept and then the next thought was, and what if there was something in that book that everybody thought had been destroyed that actually hadn't been destroyed? And so from that small seed, the rest of the novel grew.
That's amazing that it just came from that one spark. You never know where it's going to come from, do you, as a novelist? And when you try and force it, it doesn't really work.
Yeah. That's exactly right. And this wasn't the book that I thought I was going to write. When I started thinking about setting a novel in Paris in the 1920s, I had in mind a very different book which involved many more famous people. It was going to be centered around this character called Serge Diaghilev who was a Russian impresario who began Le Ballet Russe.
So his story is an extraordinary one. And he surrounded himself with these incredible artists and music. I mean, it's an amazing roll call of people who he collaborated with. People like Ravel and Debussy would write music especially for him. Henri Matisse and Marc Chagall would paint the backdrops and Coco Chanel would design the costumes. I mean, it was insane, the people on his team. And I thought that that was what I was going to write about.
And that was why I was reading the Proust memoir because I also wanted to, I was thinking about Diaghilev and all of his coterie of geniuses. And I finally decided not to tell that story because I began to wonder, really, I was worried about two things really. First of all, wondering whether I would ever be able to do justice to all of that artistic brilliance. And secondly, when you listen to a Ravel melody, or you look at a Matisse painting, the art kind of speaks for itself. You know, you don't need someone else to come along and tell you anything about it.
And so, because of that, I decided to refocus the story. I definitely wanted to stay in Paris and I definitely wanted to stay in the 1920s, but instead of telling the stories of all those well-known people, I instead, I chose to tell the stories of the four, if you like, ordinary people, who actually formed the four principle characters.
Yes. And that's why it was such a compelling novel because you did have this juxtaposition between the four ordinary people. I got so invested in it. What's going to happen to these four people, but then you had all these famous people all sort of floating around that came in and out.
One of the things about the novel is that it’s almost hard to talk too much about what happened because there are a lot of spoilers.
The thing that I loved when I was reading it is I didn't expect to have all of these people come in. I just started reading the novel without really looking too much about what it was about, simply because my associate said, you've got to read this novel. This is the one you've got to read next. So I had no preconceptions about even what it was about, except obviously it took place in Paris.
So every time one of these famous people popped in, I went, Oh, there's Ravel, there's Sylvia Beach, et cetera.
Paris in the 1920s was just such an extraordinary time. And there was such a febrile, creative environment and such, you know, things happened in the arts during that period of time in that city that are still a hundred years later reverberating. And that was what was so compelling to me. And so I wasn't going to be able to completely ignore all of those things.
But I was also able to cherry pick a little bit and, you know, I mean, Ravel is my favorite composer and he was there. So that was an easy one. And Sidney Bechet, who I adore, who actually sparked my love of jazz. He was there. And so I was able to do that and it was tremendous fun.
Were all those people actually in Paris on the day, the ones that were there, like Hemingway and Stein and Josephine Baker, or did you just kind of make up a day?
I was very careful not to specify what day it was, so they could have been. I mean, my approach always to historical fiction and when you're using real people is that I assume an adopted defensive pose, which is that you can't tell a story that couldn't have happened. When you are writing historical fiction, you do your work in the lacunae and in the gaps where the possibility lies.
And so did any of this happen? Well, no, obviously not because I made it up, but it could have. So for example, there's a scene, you mentioned, Sylvia Beach. There's a scene in her bookshop, Shakespeare and Company, where Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein are having a squabble, a rather ill-tempered conversation. Did that happen? Well, I doubt it because I made it up, but it could have. And I know, for example, that by 1927, the two of them, you know, some years earlier there had been a mutual lovefest, but by then, they had really started to grate on each other a little bit. I think it was a question of too many large egos.
But they were, they got fed up with each other very quickly by then. And so, you know, I was able to take that context and that has those historical facts and then apply my imagination to it, if you like.
I mean the analogy I always draw is that, you know, a novel is just part of a tapestry and you've got the tapestry of history, and then all I'm doing is laying a thread that meanders through that tapestry, and it's got to fit, you know. For example, I couldn't have World War I ending in 1917 because that suited my purposes better. You know, I’m not allowed to do that, so it's all a question of what lies in the possibilities.
That's an interesting image, the one about the tapestry, and you must have had a lot of fun too, particularly with Hemingway and Gertrude Stein. We'll just talk about them for a second, because neither of them comes off particularly well.
Hemingway's a bit of a boor and a philanderer. I presume that's pretty true to life, is it?
Yeah, I think so. I mean, I read a lot of books about all of these people, I mean, whether it's Sylvia Beach or Proust or Hemingway or Stein. Part of the research, of course, is to do your reading. And so I read multiple books about Hemingway, particularly, there's so much written about him.
Many people have said to me, what's your beef with Hemingway? And I said, I don't really have one. But I don't think he, I don't think he was an especially nice man. Nothing I read really leads me to suggest that. And I don’t think he was an especially humble man either. And so that was how I drew him. I didn't have a beef with him, but, you know, I mean, as a novelist, you know, your job is to render people. You have to respect the history and respect the memory, but also it's my job to tell the best story I can. And so I think every novelist will have a different take on these people.
Just talking about Sylvia Beach again, that was so interesting that you brought her in, you know, the proprietor of Shakespeare and Company, because most people who've been to Paris have been there. So why did you put her in? And because she also comes across as one of the nicest of the famous characters.
Yes, and I think she was. I think she was an extraordinary person. She's probably best known for owning Shakespeare and Company, which of course isn't the same Shakespeare and Company that now exists.
Yes. I noticed that because you kept saying it was up near Odéon and I went, no, it's not. Then I realized, well, it must've been in the twenties.
Yes, it was. It began on the rue d l’Odéon and then it moved. Shakespeare and Company was a very important part of the Parisian literary landscape at that time. But there's no question, in my mind anyway, that by far, her most important contribution was, as I'm sure you know, she was the original publisher of Ulysses by James Joyce and, you know, against all the odds and really all common sense, she did this.
And that's why I'm fond of her and in fact, there was in an earlier draft, James Joyce did appear. He didn't have a speaking role, but he was in the shop. And I eventually, I took him out because I didn't want to be too heavy-handed about it, but it was one of those things, I just wanted to give a nod to her because I don't think that she always gets the recognition that she deserves. And so it was fun to be able to redress that balance in a tiny way.
I'm glad you had her in there. And also of course, Josephine Baker. I mean, the jazz scene in Paris in the twenties, as you said, was unbelievable. So many American jazz musicians came to Paris. And so why did they? I mean, you do cover this in the novel, but I'm interested in what you say about that.
Both the story of Josephine Baker and Sidney Bechet who, you know, who are both in the novel, they actually traveled across to France together, both experienced a very similar thing, which was, they suddenly arrived in Paris and discovered that the color of their skin was no longer a factor. And they were treated as equals in a way that they never were in the United States. And, you know, in view of that, it makes complete sense that they would choose to stay.
Those two, you know, two of the most famous examples of African-Americans who went to Europe and decided not to not come back. I mean, particularly in the context of jazz musicians, I mean, the list is a long and incredibly illustrious one, from them to Dexter Gordon and Ben Webster, and Kenny Clark, all sorts of wonderful musicians. And so, you know, I wanted to recognize that, the difference between America and Paris and, and you have of course in Jean-Paul, the writer who is obsessed with America. And so he's looking in the other direction because I think that's just wanting to recognize that the grass may not always be greener on the other side, but we often think that it is.
Yes, that's sort of a theme that runs through the novel, isn't it?
Right. And this idea that there's a myth, I think, that travel is going to be the balm that solves all of your problems when, you know, manifestly it’s not, you just take your problems with you. They might look a little different somewhere else, but that's still there and you're still you.
Yes. Because all four of them are going or want to go on some kind of a journey. They've either been on one or they're going on one, or they think that's going to solve their problems. Like Guillaume going back home.
Yes. They're all looking back, I think, to the past. I mean, we mentioned Proust before. The most common, I think the most common translation of his novel is In Search of Lost Time. That really could have been a subtitle for this novel because it's, all four of these characters are yearning for earlier days.
Which says a lot about the human condition because that is what we often do. I mean, as a species, we are always, we tend to live in the past sometimes, or, you know, there's a tendency to do that.
I’m glad you mentioned Proust because I was just going to circle back to him. You know, he's not actually an author, I am ashamed to say, that I have ever read. I seem to have managed to avoid him all these years. Probably not a good idea. All I knew is that he wrote very long sentences, as your character Camille mentions. So why Proust? You said you were already researching Proust. What is it about Proust that you like?
I mean, apart from the fact that his book is monumental and legendary, and full disclosure, I haven't read all of it. I mean, it's seven volumes, Carol, and they're all vast. So I say that with no shame whatsoever. I may even have read more books about, or more pages or words about Proust, than I have of stuff that he actually wrote himself.
So the book is legendary and he was just such an interesting figure and so quirky and so many peccadilloes and idiosyncrasies, as is sort of shown in the book. He was a very, very weird guy. And so as an author, as a novelist, you sort of go, how can I possibly pass up the opportunity to talk about someone who's got all of these strange quirks?
But he was also wonderfully kind, and you know, his relationship with, oh, thankfully I finally remembered her name. It's Celeste Albaret was the name of the maid. That's extraordinary. I've been talking about her and thinking about her for the last six or seven years. And that's the first time I've had a complete mental blank. Anyway, Celeste. And the relationship that Celeste had with him was so tender and there was such kindness there. And it's rather at odds with the slightly strange reputation that he had in other ways. And again, not that Proust needs me to help him, to help his reputation at all. But I sort wanted to tell another story. So there's less than that, about the books, and more about just how he lived his life. That was a great interest to me.
Now I feel like I better read a little bit of Proust, so I know why he's so great.
Proust, I mean he's wonderful. I mean, it's very intimidating. Don't get me wrong, but it's also very funny, I find, and that was a pleasant surprise when I cracked it open and began reading. He's a fascinating, fascinating character all around. And it was tremendous fun to stick him in there.
All your four main characters, all of whom were depicted in such a fascinating way. I mean, yes, they were ordinary people, but you became, I became, very invested in their stories. Although I think my favorite has to be Souren, which I'm sure a lot of people might say that, and this whole story about the genocide in Armenia, which I am ashamed to say, I knew nothing about.
So can you tell us a little bit about that and about Souren?
Yeah. I mean, the genesis of that particular story is a good twenty-two, twenty-three years old. I was working in London as an attorney and I had a trainee who used to sit in my room and sort of follow me around, the idea being that he would learn something from me about being a lawyer. And we became friends and we suffered from the same affliction, which is a lifelong love of Arsenal football club. And so long after we stopped working together, we would meet up every other Saturday and go and watch our team play in the English Premier League. And before we went to go to the games, we'd meet up in a pub and have a drink.
And he told me about the Armenian genocide and like you, Carol, I hadn't heard of it either. And I spent so much of my time going, why, why don’t I know about this? This is just extraordinary to me that this atrocity happened, and it's not more widely known. And Raffi told me about the attempts that are still ongoing to have the atrocities that took place back in 1915 classified as a genocide.
I remember thinking at the time, I would love to write about this. I'd like to be able to talk about this, but, you know, you have to wait and be patient sometimes, play the long game, I suppose. So I mentioned before about authors being like magpies, and that was a big shiny ball. And I put it in my pocket, but it's been, it took all this time and several books in between before I realized that, ah, I can actually have somebody, a refugee from the genocide, in this book as a character and then I can tell this story.
And one of the great privileges of being a novelist is that you have an opportunity to shine a light, maybe a little light, but a light nonetheless, on things that you think are important. And, you know, I very much wanted to tell people about these awful things that happened.
And so I finally had the ability to do that, and I'm very grateful for it. And I just hope that I did it justice. I mean, I've been thrilled to have received many emails and cards from people who are of Armenian descent thanking me for telling that story. So that's been lovely and I'm grateful for that, but it was, it was just a story that, again, I'm baffled that it isn't more widely known and hopefully maybe I’ve done something to address that just a tiny bit.
Well, yes, you have. And also it shows you the power of storytelling, doesn't it? Because you took one person and their experience and also the immigrant experience, which is still relevant today. It probably always will be as long as there's people, right?
But yeah, it just shows the power of storytelling and of the individual story. Like, if you said to me, Oh, there was a horrible genocide in Armenia. I’d go, wow, that's awful. But when you tell the story of Souren, then I feel it in a much more profound way.
That's exactly right. And you're right. It's all about, it's taking the general and reducing it to the personal. And that's how you make people care. I mean, I'm thinking about E. M. Forster and, you know, his famous line only connect.
Only connect. Oh, I remember that from university.
But that’s what we do as writers, that's our job is to make people feel and to make them think, if you're lucky, but, you know, I sometimes get letters from people who say, Oh, well, your book made me cry. I think I'm maybe expected to apologize, but I tend to jump up and down with glee at that point, because that tells me that I've done my job, if I have made somebody feel.
And if you can get the reader to engage emotionally with fictional characters, then I mean, that's the game right there.
You know, one of the things that is very compelling about your novel is that you do have all these emotional connections all the way through and these threads, but also it's so cleverly plotted. I mean, as a novelist myself, I was in awe. And how did you do that? And so how did you structure the novel? Like, did you write each individual story first and then kind of stick them together? Or how did you actually go about writing this novel?
So the first thing was my wife said to me, very early on, you've got to have a strict order. You can't sort of be random about it and have A, B, C, D, B, A, C. That will be a disaster. You have to have it so people can understand and get into a rhythm. And so that was probably the best advice that I received right there. And so that was very helpful, but, you know, there were multiple times, Carol, during the course of this, when I asked myself, after I had finished banging my head against the wall for the seventeenth time that day, why I thought it be a good idea to A) set of book over the course of one day and B) include flashbacks and C) have four different characters?
Because it was very complicated because you had to have that every chapter, even though it's a strict rotation, pushes the day forward chronologically. And so it was very hard to make all that work. And the real fun was when you changed one tiny thing, you might inadvertently cause a glitch in the space/time continuum, and have to go back and then retroactively change a bunch of other stuff as well. So the answer was it was very hard to do.
What I did was I would write five or six chapters of one character and then do five and six of the next and then five or six of the next. And so you do big chunks of it. And then I would literally shuffle them together. And invariably, it was a complete mess and didn't work. And then there was the rather painstaking process of ironing out all of those glitches so that it actually ran forward smoothly.
But even quite late on in the process, we were discovering moments where, you know, it didn't work. There were these glitches and we suddenly shot back in time a tiny bit. And when you throw the flashbacks in as well, of course, that made it even more complicated. So it was, it was hard, but, um, I'm glad I did it, you know, this is my seventh novel and always, you know, obviously the primary aim when you're writing a novel is to entertain and engage the reader.
But, you know, you need to entertain and engage yourself as well. And so I always like to set myself challenges of some kind. On this particular occasion, one of the challenges was this sort of technical one of cramming all this stuff into this framework that I had created.
I found it incredibly inspiring as a writer myself. I'm just starting a new novel that has five characters and five different stories and not doing what you're doing, but I'm sort of working with this, whether I do, you know, one scene by one character and then another character, I just keep writing one story and then mash them together. I would imagine there is a tremendous amount of editing, really, isn't it? Almost more than writing from scratch?
Oh, I think that's true. I think there was more editing. But for me, the reason I did it in those chunks of five or six chapters at a time, and also they're very short chapters, which sort of, that was part of it too. But you know, every one of those stories has a slightly different voice. And I think I just would've gone completely mad. My head would have flown off if I had tried to write the book in the order in which it actually finally appears.
I can't imagine you could have done that. I mean, I don't know how that would have been possible. Anyway, it was certainly fascinating, just from a purely technical standpoint to see how you put everything together.
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Let's take a sort of a pause, and if you would like, to do a reading from The Paris Hours.
Okay. So what I'm going to do is I'm going to read the first time that we meet John-Paul. This chapter is called Rhapsody. And you'll see why in just a minute.
Jean-Paul Maillard closes his eyes and dreams of America.
The needle touches the spinning vinyl with the gentlest sigh of static.
He listens spellbound.
That clarinet! The first low trill, fat with promise—then the solo ascent to the heavens, soaring smoothly through the registers. By the time that ecstatic high note, limpid and beautiful, pours into his ears, Jean-Paul has made his escape.
He sweeps through the open window onto Rue Barbette and hurtles down the cobbled streets of the Marais, streaking westward across the city. In a moment he is flying over the dark waters of the Atlantic.
The music beckons him on.
He soars high over the city’s skyscrapered silhouette, his for the taking. He hears the rumble of the Harlem-bound A train in the orchestra’s propulsive rhythms, low and sweet. He hears new worlds in the piano's blistering, arpeggiated attacks. Images street pass like the onrushing traffic hurtling down the arrow-straight avenues, perfect lines of shimmying, high-kicking chorus girls, their cherry-red lips glistening in the spotlights. A liveried doorman striding onto the busy street, his hand outstretched for a yellow cab. Elegant matrons pushing through the door at Bergdorf’s. Sharp-dressed men with two-tone shoes, hats pulled down low, huddled close on a street corner.
When Jean-Paul Maillard dreams of America, he dreams of New York City.
But those dazzling syncopations do not last forever. The music ends, and the spell is broken. Reluctantly, Jean-Paul opens his eyes. America has retreated, as it always does, and his shabby French apartment remains. He looks around. The place used to be so bright and tidy, so clean. And now every surface is coated with a patina of ancient dust. The faded wallpaper is staging a slow escape from the walls. A dark brown stain has annexed a corner of the ceiling. The gramophone is still going around. The silence is gently punctuated by the soft rhythmic bump of the needle against the spinning vinyl, as regular as a tiny heartbeat. He does not get up to switch it off. He likes the sound.
Jean-Paul looks at the dim morning light creeping across the apartment window. It's been years since he had slept through the night. In the early hours of every morning his ruined leg drags him from sleep. Then he sits in his armchair, listens to George Gershwin, and thinks about the glittering lights of Manhattan.
Oh, thank you. That was wonderful. I'm glad you chose that passage, because it's a great example of your ability to observe and describe. Well, I saw it all the way through that novel, but it really came clear in that particular passage.
You have an amazing attention to detail. How do you cultivate that?
Ah, well, I think it's a practice that as writers, we all do well to do whenever we can. I mean, it's just, you know, one of the things that I enjoy doing always in, particularly in this book, is writing about music. And of course, you know, it's, Thelonious Monk once said the writing about music is like dancing about architecture. You just, like, it doesn't make sense, but what it does do, and what any art can do, is it evokes emotions and feelings.
And so that was really what I was trying to do. And speaking as an Englishman who grew up dreaming about New York, not in the 1920s, but I was thinking more about so Cagney and Lacey, but anyway, it's the way that music can evoke a particular emotion and feeling was something that I wanted to explore. But I think that those emotions are revealed in the details. That's where the truth lies. And that's where, as a reader, you know, you recognize things. It's rather like what you were saying about how Souren, you know, the taking an individual detail and an individual person's story makes everything real. I think that's the same with certain details is that that telling detail can really give life to a story.
That’s actually a good practice, as you said, for writers, people who are writing now or who want to be writers, is that observation and the use of detail.
I love the way your novel brings together so many of the arts. As you know, I've got it classified under Literature in Art In Fiction, but I could just as easily put it into Visual Arts, Dance, Music, even the Decorative Arts, which could put puppetry under that. Because obviously I love the arts. I mean, all four of my novels, the ones that are out, are about the arts.
And so what does your novel communicate about art and all the different art forms?
I’m going to answer the question by telling a story, if that's okay. Mary Morris is a friend of mine. She's a wonderful writer. And last year she released a memoir called All the Way to the Tigers and I got an early copy of it and I scribbled all over it. Because there were nuggets of wisdom all the way through, which there always is with Mary's books.
And one of the things that I loved was she was talking about, I think it was a tribe somewhere in India and there's a certain language and there is no word for art. But the closest that they get is I'm doing my best.
Oh, I love that.
Right. I mean, I saw it and I just like, I underlined it, put stars by it and it's so wonderful. It spoke to me.
And I mean, this book was written by then, but it just completely encapsulated so much of what I think about all of these endeavors. You know, whether it's me writing a novel or my son, who's a musician, writing a song, or my daughter who paints and does all these other things, whatever it is, we're all engaged in these activities.
The point is, you’re trying.
Yes, you're doing your best. That is a wonderful way of looking at it.
And it's not uncommon for people to come up to me and ask questions about, well, how do I get published? How do I get an agent? And if I've got these three ideas, which one is most likely to get published? And I always say to them, you are asking all the wrong questions. The one that's most likely to get published, if we have to ask that question, is going to be the one that is going to engage you the most. And it's going to be the one that you love doing the most and that you will try your best at.
And so this idea of striving appeals to me. I mean, I understand that you have to be of a certain personality, perhaps, in order for that to seem like an appealing thing rather than one that fills you with horror. But the idea, I guess, to reframe it somewhat is that it's about the journey. It's not about the end result.
Well, my husband's a painter, actually, and a jazz musician and we always say really, the reward is getting to do it. I get to get up every day and write. He gets to go out and he's in the studio right now, painting. How fortunate is that? And yes, it's nice to have shows, It's nice to have books published and have other people enjoy your work, but really the doing and trying to get better. As you said, you're trying to do your best every day, trying to write better.
Yeah. And you know, whether you're a jazz musician or a painter or a writer, then this is a craft and it's all about improving it. So that, you know, as I said a little while ago, with every book, I'm trying to make life interesting for myself and to push myself to improve my craft.
I mean, heaven help the artist, in the most broadest sense of the term, who thinks that they are there.
Oh my goodness. Yeah. You're never there.
Yes. I mean, that would be the moment where you close the computer and just go and do something else. But I do think that you have to be a particular kind of person to be able to live in that space.
That is very true. Yes.
You, in addition to being a writer, you're also the director of the Unbound Book Festival, and I noticed you just had your festival in March, which of course was online. So tell me a little bit about your festival.
The idea came to me back in 2012 when I was on tour for the first book that was published in the US for me, which is called A Good American. And I was invited to go to a couple of book festivals, one in Gaithersburg in Maryland and one down in Louisiana. And I just thought, well, this is cool. As writers, we're all used to sort of being alone in rooms just tapping away at the keyboard and suddenly to be an event where there are lots of people who want to listen to what you have to say, I thought, well, that's rather nice.
And I live in Columbia, Missouri, which is exactly halfway between St. Louis and Kansas City. And it's a college town. The University of Missouri is there and there are actually three universities in the town, and we're a town that loves its festivals.
We have a world-renowned documentary film festival called True False that happens every year. And there’s a blues festival and a barbecue festival. And I sort of thought, well, why not have a book festival? We have lots of very smart readers and also a bizarre number of writers who live there too.
And so that was really where the idea came from. And I sort of gathered together a group of friends who are writers and booksellers and librarians. And I said, what do you think? And, everyone went, yeah, why not? And so we got to work, and that was back in probably about 2013, 2014. And then 18 months later, we had our first event.
And usually, of course, in the pre-Covidien times, when we do it in person, it takes place over the course of one weekend.
And we have a keynote speaker on the Friday night, and then a ton of authors. In 2019, which was the last time we did it in person, we had, I think 76 authors who came in from across the country to Columbia and they talk, or they give readings, they talk about their books and they're on panels and things like that. And we had Michael Ondaatje was our keynote in the first year. And then Salman Rushdie in year two and then Zadie Smith came. And then in 2019 it was George Saunders.
It's been a wonderful experience. I mean, I always joke that the biggest asset that I had when setting off down this road was a really profound ignorance of what was involved, because I really had no idea how much work it was going to be. It's a lot. But it's been very rewarding, and I've met lots of wonderful people and made some terrific friendships too. So I'm super proud of it.
And I also noticed that it's free. And just, from someone who actually did run a festival for a few years, how do you do that?
I always say I spent 11 months of the year raising money and then one month of the year spending it. So there, there are three main sources. We have sponsorship and then we apply for grants from various places. Uh, but by far, the biggest source of income for us is donations from the community, just individual people who really appreciate what we do. And they're grateful for it and they want us to keep on going. And so we do it that way. I mean, we, we're 100% volunteer run, no one gets paid at all. And that's the other way, that's how you do it.
So you did it online this year. How does that, how did that go?
Well, it’s been going incredibly well. I mean, one of the complaints that we used to get every year was on Saturday, we were, we would take over the campus of Stevens College, which is this beautiful college in downtown Columbia. And we would have usually six events going on simultaneously, from ten o'clock in the morning to five o'clock in the afternoon. And people would moan that there were four things they wanted to see any particular time and we've made them choose.
And that was kind of a, sorry, not sorry moment. But when we realized and decided that this year, we were going to have to do it online, I thought, well, this is an opportunity for us to at least address that problem for at least one year. And so, rather than having all of these things going on at the same time, over the course of one weekend, we decided spread it out.
We've been doing two events a week since January. We're actually off this week, the week that we're recording this, because it’s spring break. And so that's been great, and it's been wonderful because we've been able to have authors, we've had two authors from the UK and one from Vietnam. So we've been able to spread out the geographical scope of the people who we have coming in. And I haven't really had time yet to dive into the diagnostics, but I know just anecdotally that we've had people watch from all over the world.
So it's been wonderful from that point of view. It's been, if you, like, I've always thought about this year as being something of a shop window for us. And everything that we do is online. So you can go to the YouTube channel, the Unbound Festival YouTube channel, and you can watch scores of conversations. I don't know how many there are there now, but everything that we do and all the readings and they're all there for everyone to see. So that's been fun. It's been different and it's not been the same, but it's been a good alternative.
I wonder how much of this we will take forward. I can't go into the Historical Novel Society conference in June. I'm actually speaking at two events there and I'm thinking, wow, this is going to be different, but I wonder how much we will keep of and have a kind of hybrid thing going on going forward. Because as you said, there's so many benefits to doing it online. There are really good things, like having people from all over the world.
For sure. I mean, I think that certainly if we can get the hardware, what we'd like to do is to record everything, film everything, and then again, upload those, like do some production on them and then upload them so people can see them later. What's been so interesting is that doing it the way that we've been doing it, and we use a platform called Stream Yard and it streams to YouTube and Facebook, and we can then boost the event afterwards.
We're well over 25,000 views now for the events that we've had this year, which has just been amazing to me. It's been a real education and we've all learnt a lot. I mean, the pandemic has made, all of us learned, had to pivot in many different ways. I also own a bookshop. And that's a whole other story about how we've had to deal with it, but with the festival, for sure there are going to be things I hope that we'll, we'll take forward.
I just want to end off with asking you a question I'm sure you've been asked many times, but what's the one piece of advice that you'd like all writers to know, especially aspiring writers?
I'm going to start with a caveat that I'm sure you get a lot, Carol, which is that what works for me is no guarantee to work for anybody else. All I think anyone can do is to say what they have found works for them.
For me, it's all about routine and about regularity. And so the advice that I would give is to find a time and a place to write and then defend it with your life. And then the other obvious thing, which I'm sure everybody says is, of course, you've just got to read and read and read. And then when you've done that, read some more, that is probably the most important advice of all.
Thank you so much, Alex, for chatting with me today, this has just been delightful.
Thank you, Carol. It's been great and I enjoyed it very much.
My guest has been Alex George, author of The Paris Hours listed in the Literature category on Art In Fiction at www.artinfiction.com.
Be sure to check the show notes for links to more information about Alex George and his novels. You’ll also find the link to save 50% on your first audiobook when you sign up for a free trial with Audiobooks Now.
Thanks so much for listening.