Last Updated on June 1, 2023
As someone who’s long been interested in writing a historical novel rooted in literary history, I was intrigued to happen upon a recent book centered around one of the great (mostly unsung) heroes of Parisian artistic and intellectual life in the early 20th century.
Kerri Maher, a bestselling Boston-based writer who has previously published novels including The Kennedy Debutante, richly portrays the life, times, and remarkable legacy of Sylvia Beach, founder of the original Shakespeare and Company bookshop, in her latest novel, The Paris Bookseller.
I caught up with her recently to discuss how she went about researching the novel, why she thought Beach made a deserving protagonist, why she’s much more than the “midwife of modernism” and the first publisher of Joyce’s Ulysses, and more. What follows is a lightly edited, condensed version of our recent conversation over Zoom.
CT: Sylvia Beach founded the original Shakespeare and Company bookshop in Paris in 1919 with the support of her partner [in life and business], Adrienne Monnier. What’s most interesting to me about the legacy of Beach is that she’s often relegated to sort of a footnote in literary history. People will say, “Oh, well, this woman founded this bookshop and helped to publish James Joyce’s Ulysses, but I don’t know much more than that.” I’d like to hear about what led you to write a book about Beach, and why you think she deserved this kind of this kind of medium to tell her story?
KM: Wow, that a multi-layered question! I, too, get frustrated with her being relegated to the footnotes and being called “a midwife of modernism” I mean, come on. Because one of the things that I really firmly came to believe and see and believe, in the course of my research, is that Shakespeare and Company itself was a work of art, right? It was a meeting place of the famous writers and artists of its period. But it was also a worthy modernist project in its own right. So how did I come to write about Sylvia Beach? Well, this is a story I’ve actually been carrying around inside my heart and mind my entire adult life.
When I was in starry-eyed English major undergrad, dreaming of someday writing my own novel, my favorite [literary] period was the 1920s and the American expats [in France]. I just couldn’t get enough of them. And you know those wonderful bargain book bins in front of college bookstores? I was rummaging around one day, and I pulled out a used copy of Sylvia Beaches’ own memoir, [simply entitled] Shakespeare and Company. I don’t think I’d heard of her at this point.
I took it home and read it. And I was just entranced by her story. I mean, here was this single and independent American woman, at the end of the First World War, who opened this fabulous bookstore and published one of the most important novels of the 20th century. But you know, I was 20 years old. So I just filed it away, under “good to know.”
Fast-forward 25 years. I’d written two other historical novels, [and] I start looking around for a third subject, and I really quickly zero in on Sylvia. And my publisher was super excited about her as a subject, because her story is really remarkable. Not only does she open Shakespeare and Company and run it for two decades, through the roaring 20s and through the Great Depression. Ernest Hemingway is a lifelong friend of hers, and she has this sort of friendly rivalry with the likes of Gertrude Stein, and… there are just so many wonderful aspects of her life in Paris. As if that weren’t enough, she also published the very first edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses when it became a banned book [for alleged obscenity and “perversion”].
So really, she’s fighting the forces of censorship in her home country, the United States, by picking up the baton and publishing Ulysses after it was banned. And [American publishers of the book] Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap in New York are actually a pretty important part of the story [too]. Because it’s never Ulysses that stands trial. It’s not Joyce, who stands trial: it’s two women publishers, who were bold enough to serialize the novel in their avant-garde literary journal, [The Little Review]. And I think the feminist in [Sylvia Beach] was also like, ‘I can’t let this stand”. I just love all those things about her.
CT: One of the things that really struck me about your novel is how you go into the rich history of this trial, but also, the history surrounding the genesis of Joyce’s novel, and these really strong particulars around Beach and Adrienne Monnet’s relationships with relatively little-known poets and writers like Valery Larbaud, the French writer– [in addition to their friendships with more globally recognized writers.]
You seemed to really want to be faithful to those connections and artistic friendships, and the projects that she was involved with. And I guess this is always a question that one would ask writers of historical fiction: how did you research it? did? Did you consult archives? Did you read memoirs? What was your approach to getting it right? Because there is so much richness in your account. And it’s very clear that you didn’t want to come away with a caricatural account of the period or of the person, and I think you succeeded at that.
KM: Sylvia’s rootedness in the French intellectual life is really the beginning and the foundation of her story. Shakespeare and Company originally began in Sylvia’s mind and imagination as a service to the French intellectual community that she had met at Adrienne’s [own] store, [a French-language bookshop and lending library]. Adrienne ran this almost bohemian paradise called “La Maison des Amis des Livres”. And Sylvia finds herself so at home there and just really falls in love with the life of that bookstore. And they are so hungry to read books in English, which are just not available in Paris at this time. And so really, Shakespeare and Company starts as a service to them.
It’s really a happy historical unfolding: it became the home of the “Lost Generation” writers, but it did also continue to be a meeting place for the French intellectuals of that time.
I’m the first to admit that I could have researched this book till the day I died…Because we’re talking about some of the most famous American and French writers to have ever put pen to paper. And they left behind their own whole lifetime bodies of work; plus, because of their fame and importance, everyone else in the world has written about them to– (from] academics to biographers. So I really had to pick and choose what I was going to read; and knowing that Sylvia was going to be my protagonist really helped me narrow it down.
One thing I will say is that I did not go into the archives and do that, you know, level of research that somebody writing a nonfiction book would have really had to do. I really used the fact that Sylvia is the main character as my sort of North Star. So of course, I reread her memoir. There’s [also] a terrific biography called Sylvia Beach and the Lost Generation by Noël Riley Finch that I read.
There are a couple of recent excellent books about the trials of Ulysses which were also invaluable. One was by Kevin Birmingham and the other one was by Joseph Hassett. And both of those books really helped me understand the legal arguments and artistic stakes of those trials: what was really on trial in 1921? Yes, it was the book to some extent, but it was also these two women, who had once been affiliated with [the American early twentieth-century anarchist] Emma Goldberg, who was regarded as the most dangerous woman in America, right?
[One of the other] things that’s always been interesting to me about the 1920s is this question about why this whole artistic generation pulled up stakes and left America for Paris? And that was one of my research questions. In the course of my research, which I tried to make as broad as possible., I really tried to show that what was going on in America that was so intolerable to people who really believed in free artistic expression. So that’s sort of how I guided my research.
CT: That’s really interesting. I think it’s helpful for some who are listening here who might be interested in potentially writing a historical novel, what are the techniques? How do you go about it? It’s certainly a question I’ve had.
KM: I will say that every writer is different. There have been times when I have gone into archives. But in the case of this book, so much primary source material has been put into the public domain. There’s a great volume of letters between Sylvia and Joyce, that were really illuminating to me those other volumes of Sylvia’s letters. Are they all of Sylvia’s letters? No. But there was enough for me to write a novel.
CT: Not only was Sylvia Beach, as we said earlier, kind of relegated to a literary footnote, but the nature of her identity, her queerness specifically, was always kind of obfuscated, for obvious reasons in the sort of “don’t ask, don’t tell era” that ended [in some places] only about 15 years ago. But you open your novel by talking about her meeting Adrienne Monnier, who she remained with for decades. And [ you also touch on] her love for other women, which had started earlier than that. And I wondered whether you felt it was important to sort of emphasize [Beach’s] queerness [and relationships with women]. You also talk about Natalie Barney and her salon– Natalie Barney, of course, being a famous American expatriate. A lesbian who had a prominent salon, although it was a bit more avant-garde. And then, of course, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas.
KM: That was something that I needed to do a little bit more research about, [specifically in the domain of queer history]… because I think we intuitively have this idea that Paris has long been, and especially at this time was this kind of bastion of queer culture.. And what I discovered was that the hot places to go in all the major metropolitan cities of the 1920s, New York, Berlin, Chicago, Paris, were the gay bars and cabarets. But it was only in Paris, [that] same sex-relationships were not fundamentally illegal, because they’d been decriminalized at the time of the French Revolution. And so this intuitive idea that we have did turn out to be rooted in historical fact.
But I tried to weigh that piece of information against certain other historical realities. [The novel takes place in] the late teens and 1920s. You know, these writers and intellectuals are fighting for a freer representation of the straight body, of straight people’s desires and everything like that. So this is still a pretty conservative moment overall, right? It’s not like Adrienne and Sylvia were going to go walking down the street hand in hand or kissing on street corner– but I also don’t think a lot of straight couples were kissing on street corners in the same way either.
And there are stories of same-sex female couples going to the Monocle which was one of the major bars at the time [in Paris]. And if they were wearing a suit, they would cover themselves in a cloak. You know, so there was still some amount of obfuscation. And in this bohemian sector of Paris, it also appears that, you know, Gertrude and Alice were just accepted as a couple– as were Sylvia and Adrienne. Natalie Barney’s salon was the most desirable salon to be invited to. So, you know, it’s an interesting time.
And speaking of the sort of historical, retrospective obfuscation of Sylvia’s queerness, she wrote her own memoir in the 1950s, for an American audience. [And] there is no hint anywhere in there of her relationship with Adrienne. So when I read her memoir, as a college student, I did not walk away from [it] with any idea that she was romantically involved with Adrienne. That was a wonderful piece of information that came in my recent research for this novel. And in all the writing about Sylvia after the 1980s, it’s out in the open.
CT: Right. I also think it’s interesting how in the novel, you sort of grapple with Sylvia’s sense of invisibility [at times], or of having her relationship be acknowledged. I think there’s a moment when a friend kind of says, “Oh, you know, it’s rare to have what you and Adrienne have.” And Sylvia sort of starts at that acknowledgement and realizes that it’s so rare that anybody would acknowledge it publicly. And of course, [Ernest] Hemingway, in [his Paris memoir] A Moveable Feast— he kind of suggests that his friendship with Gertrude Stein ended because witnessed Gertrude and Alice B. Toklas having some sort of intimate moment that shocked him deeply. It’s kind of intimated in A Moveable Feast, but not spelled out.
KM: I did not reread A Moveable Feast for this book, so I can’t speak to that. But… I just don’t believe that he was shocked. I’m sure that he understood the nature of Adrienne and Sylvia’s relationship. I mean, [he and his first wife Hadley Richardson] went on double dates [with them]– the four of them went to, boxing matches and stuff together. And you know, I loved getting to write about Hemingway in this book, because I got to write about him as Sylvia [saw] him, as a [sort of] younger brother. You know, Hemingway has gotten written about quite a lot in recent historical fiction. And he’s often portrayed as the sort of villain in a romantic situation, which, hey, I get it. But because there was never a romantic complication between him and Sylvia, I enjoyed getting to write about him in that way, as a sort of “Young Ernest “– from Sylvia’s perspective.
CT: Yeah. I also noticed that Ezra Pound makes quite a prominent appearance in the novel and has a complex friendship with Sylvia and Adrienne. Pound, obviously, is a really complex character– for many people, his legacy has sort of been marred by the fact that he was sympathetic to fascism. And I know that the novel ends before the Nazis occupy Paris [in 1940] and of course in your postscript you do talk about how the bookshop was closed– by the Gestapo, right?
KM: No, [Sylvia] closes it… It’s an amazing story. I mean, she’s threatened by the Nazis. They [threaten] to close it– and she’s like, not if I do it first! In a matter of only hours, all her French friends came over, and they erased the store. They brought all the books to the fourth floor of the building. They dismantled the shelves, they painted over the facade. It’s amazing…
CT: Right– in an effort to save the store, in a sense, from oblivion. But as you note, Sylvia Beach never did reopen the original shop, which was just a couple of blocks away from the Jardin du Luxembourg. And, of course, a guy named George Whitman opened another shop in 1951, [originally called Le Mistral], then renamed it Shakespeare and Company in honor of Sylvia Beach.
KM: Their lore says that they really named Shakespeare and Company on the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth in 1964. But I think, you know, it’s really clear that that store is also an homage to Sylvia’s original. And if you wander into the store, and you’re paying attention, you see the connection to Sylvia store all over. And Sylvia was a regular at George’s store.
CT: Oh, I didn’t realize that.
KM: Yeah. So I have to imagine that the two of them were friends, and I’m sure she would regale him with the stories of her store.
CT: Yeah, and he of course, named his daughter [Sylvia Beach Whitman, current owner and manager of the store] after her.
KM: I actually got to sign copies of The Paris Bookseller at Shakespeare and Company– a dream-come-true situation.
CT: [Speaking of Whitmans], another aspect of your book that that really came out for me, because I’m a big reader of Whitman and the Transcendentalists and also work on scholarship around them: [I was struck by] how much Walt Whitman is alive in this book. You talk about Leaves of Grass several times, and there’s a section of the book that opens with part of [his most famous, free-verse poem] “Song of Myself”. And to some degree, other [American] transcendentalists are an important presence in the book– so I was wondering about that. [Does] that come out of your own love of these writers? Or is it also owing to Sylvia’s interest in these writers?
KM: Sylvia was a great admirer of Whitman. And so I really wanted to make that part of the book. I thought that that was a really interesting, kind of thematic thread to weave through. So I had to go back and read a little bit of Whitman, to get that voice in my mind a little bit and think about what it was about him that would have attracted her so much to his [poetry]. And she did do a retrospective of his work and ephemera in– I think it was 1926. And it was a big project that she undertook in the store. While she was also busy trying to get translations of Ulysses [done], and publishing more editions of the novel, she was also putting together this Whitman retrospective, which was a pretty big deal…. So I really think it shows how much Whitman really meant to her.
CT: It’s sort of interesting to me that this group of Americans who were so motivated to leave the US still feel so connected to these [Transcendentalist] poems, that kind of see themselves as national poems, [expressing a kind of broad American identity]. I mean, even people like James Baldwin, another great American writer living in Paris,, was to my memory, also interested in Whitman. And maybe there was something really resonant [for these American expatriated writers], the way [Whitman] tried to be a universalist– maybe that desire to understand other ways of seeing the world or sort of expand horizons resonated with American writers [living abroad], on some level.
KM: I have not thought about it in that way. But I think that that’s a really compelling way of seeing it.
CT: It’s just me surmising really– I have no idea whether it holds water! For my last question, is there anything else important you’d like to add about your book, including what do you think popular culture or history to date has kind of gotten wrong about Beach? And do you see your novel fleshing out our understanding of the woman and her legacy?
KM: I’m going to loop back to the very beginning of our conversation and just say that she’s not a footnote. She was a really important, active participant in this movement that we now call modernism. So I hope that the novel really makes that clear… [Another thing] I think that people just haven’t bothered to look at is… Shakespeare and Company’s relationship with Adrienne’s store. Something that became very clear to me in my research and that I really wanted to portray in the novel was the extent to which Adrienne’s store and Sylvia’s stores were really more libraries than shops.
You know, books were expensive, writers were poor. So the most important function [of both stores] were really the lending libraries. For a modest annual fee, you could check out as many books as you wanted. Adrienne’s French language bookstore and lending library, and Sylvia’s English language bookstore and lending library, really operated as two halves of a whole. Joyce called it Stratford-on-Odéon you know, [referencing Shakespeare’s birth town, Stratford upon Avon, and the Rue de l’Odéon where the original shops were located in Paris]…
And there are [other] wonderful stories, and you can’t put them all in the book. There are these stories of Simone de Beauvoir and John-Paul Sartre in the 1930s [at the two stores]: they would kiss goodbye in the middle of the street. And he would go over to Adrienne’s store because he preferred French literature, and she would actually go to Sylvia’s store because she was a voracious reader of American literature.
There’s actually some scenes with her that wound up on the cutting room floor [for the novel] that were very powerful. In the end, I decided to end the novel when I did [in the late 1920s]. So some things from the 30s that I had written– they just didn’t fit. But I like to mention them in interviews, because they show the ways in which [ the two stores] were like two halves of the same whole.
CT: It’s been so great talking with you, Kerri. The book is The Paris Bookseller, published by Berkley Books (2022).
KM: Thank you so much for having me.
Courtney Traub is the Founder and Editor of Paris Unlocked. She’s a longtime Paris resident who now divides her time (as well as she can manage) between the French capital and Norwich, UK. Co-author of the 2012 Michelin Green Guide to Northern France & the Paris Region, she has written and reported stories for media outlets including Radio France Internationale, Reed Business Information, WWD, and The Associated Press. She has also been interviewed as an expert on Paris and France by the BBC, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Le Figaro, Matador Network and other publications. In addition to pursuing an insatiable interest in French culture, history, food and art, Courtney is a scholar of literature and cultural history whose essays and reviews have appeared in various forums.