Tatiana de Rosnay happily eyes the stack of pancakes in front of her. "When I'm in America, my childhood comes back to me," the French author says, without even a smidgeon of an accent. "I miss this, so when I come to the States, I dig in."
And then she does dig in, and begins rattling off names and places from her childhood years in Boston when her father, a scientist, was teaching at MIT.
"The pancakes are your madeleine," says de Rosnay's French publisher, Héloise d'Ormesson, who has joined de Rosnay for a whirlwind, mid-July promotional tour across the United States of Sarah's Key, the film inspired by de Rosnay's bestselling book of the same name.
De Rosnay, who loves the film, notes that she's a bit worried about the timing of its release, just after the final Harry Potter movie. ( Sarah's Key opens in North Texas on Friday.) But if the reception at the Dallas movie screening the night before this morning breakfast at Bolla in the Stoneleigh Hotel is any indication, she just needs to eat those pancakes and relax. The crowds reportedly started to queue up five or six hours before the screening, and when the movie ended, the room filled with applause.
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The book has been wildly successful and has catapulted de Rosnay into the international spotlight. Sarah's Key has been published in 38 countries and has sold an astounding 5 million copies worldwide.
De Rosnay is currently regarded as one of Europe's top fiction writers, and in America, book clubs are almost obsessed with this work, which focuses on the July 1942 roundup of Jews in Paris. In the course of two days, French police, working under the orders of the Germans who occupied their country, took 13,000 Jews, including more than 4,000 children, to the Vélodrome d'Hiver, an indoor bicycling arena. (The roundup is now simply known as the Vel' d'Hiv'.) From there, the families were sent to Beaune-la-Rolande, a camp outside of Paris, where children were separated from their parents. Eventually, most of the victims ended up in Auschwitz. But the book divides its time between events of the past and modern times. De Rosnay's contemporary protagonist is Julia Jarmond, an American journalist who lives in Paris and starts investigating the roundup. This is as much her story as it is the story of Sarah, one of the girls in the roundup. As Julia learns more and more about Sarah's life, she also discovers more and more about herself.
Tall, thin and striking, with a mane of silver hair, de Rosnay could be intimidating if she weren't so, as the French say, sympathique. In our hourlong conversation, we talked about the book and film and then segued to more personal topics -- de Rosnay's children, a brush with a psychic and how she once was so discouraged by the fact that she couldn't get a publisher for Sarah's Key that she almost gave up writing altogether.
Here, highlights from our chat.
Her quest to learn about Vel' d'Hiv':
"This is a very dark part of France's past, something that we French are ashamed of, and we were not taught about it in school.... So I learned about the roundup very late, probably around Jacques Chirac's speech [about the roundup] in 1995 when I was in my 30s.... In one of my previous books that I was writing at the end of the 1990s, I wanted to explore the Rue Nélaton [where the Vélodrome used to be]. I went to that street knowing that the Vel' d'Hiv' had taken place there but not knowing that an annex of the Ministry of the Interior had been built on the premises of the Vélodrome. And then the plaque. It takes a long time to find that tiny plaque that says what happened. And then I started researching and went through everything Julia went through. The books that I was trying to get hold of were all out of print. It drove me crazy. I just felt, 'My God, nobody cares about this.' But still I had not decided to write about it."
Why she decided she needed to write about it:
"I went to Beaune-la-Rolande, which is where the kids were separated from their parents during the roundup. It's this little village about 80 kilometers south of Paris.... I was asking people, 'What do you remember from the summer of '42?' And they would either look at me blankly and say, 'I don't know what you're talking about,' or 'We don't want to talk about it,' and the more answers of that type I was getting, the more angry and hurt I became. And when I learned the exact details of the roundup in the sense of the amount of children -- 4,000 children -- and at that time my kids were about 8 and 10, and I just couldn't stop myself from seeing them torn away from me like I had read about in my research. So I guess you see that it's the mother in me that had the idea for the book. Immediately, the character of Sarah came to my mind, and then Julia, with Julia being a mother as well."
Why she wrote Sarah's Key in English, when her previous six or seven novels were in French:
"When I sat down to write this book, I did not realize it was coming to me in English. I wrote about 30 pages and gave them to my husband. He was taking a long time reading those pages. He's French and not bilingual. And then he said: 'This is really great. This is powerful. You must continue. But why is it in English?' And then I realized it was.... I think I had to get myself into my English side to write about this shameful French past." [De Rosnay's father is French and she was born in France, but her mother is British.]
On how discouraging it was to find a publisher for Sarah's Key:
"The publisher I had then (in 2003) turned it down. He didn't like the subject matter -- he thought it was uncommercial, depressing.... I tried to shop it around for two years. Nobody wanted it. I found an agent in America, but she couldn't do anything with it, so I wrote two more books in French and forgot about Sarah. It was probably the worst year of my life.... I seriously envisioned quitting writing."
What her own kids thought about the book and movie:
"When I was discovering all the stuff about Vel' d'Hiv', I was so horrified, and I'd show my kids and husband what I had found, and they were as appalled as I was. In fact, I had to stop at one point because my daughter was only 10 and she is very sensitive and was getting so upset.... Two years ago, my kids were in the movie -- in the Vel' d'Hiv' scene. After two days, they said, 'We're just extras, but we're slowly starting to understand what happened to these families.'... When we saw the movie, we were all in tears. My 21-year-old son, who is this very cool dude and is usually like, 'My mother wrote this book, but I didn't read it' -- my kids don't read my books -- he was, like, on the floor in tears. He put on his Twitter feed: 'I have never cried so much in my life. Mom, I'm so proud of you.'"
The story she has never told another journalist:
"About 12 years ago, my husband and I were invited to dinner by a famous voyante [clairvoyant person]. All the politicians go to see her.... All of sudden she looks at me and just stares and she says: 'I'm having a flash. You are going to write a book that's going to change your life. I don't know if it's a book or a movie but there are two women of different ages in it. This is going to be huge. This is going to change your life.' My husband was there, too, but we forgot about this until a couple of months ago, and then he remembered and reminded me. Isn't that amazing?"
What she told Harvey Weinstein, who bought the rights to the American version of the film (which was originally released in France as Elle s'appelait Sarah), this summer:
"My daughter Charlotte just passed her baccalaureate, thank God, which is why I'm here. I told Harvey, I will be coming to promote the movie only if Charlotte passes her baccalaureate. Because if she hadn't passed it, I would have stayed home with her. I'm a mom before everything else."
Catherine Mallette, 817-390-7828