Interview & Contest: Francine Thomas Howard

Jen: What sort of research did you do for PARIS NOIRE?

Francine: The core story of Paris Noire was told to me by a French-born friend. His father—a biracial immigrant from Martinique–was the prototype for the character, Christophe. My friend recently uncovered scanty details of his oral history—a perceived scandal pretty much kept from him. Intrigued, I sniffed the outlines of a book—so I turned to the internet to search out setting details. I first looked for a Parisian neighborhood where people of color might have lived pre-WWII (the story opens in August 1944 on the day Paris was liberated from the Germans). I stumbled upon Montmartre–a place where members of the African-American artistic community lived and worked in the twenties and thirties.

I was hooked. These Americans—think Josephine Baker, Bricktop, James Van der Zee—left America because they felt their talents underappreciated at home. But for them France was an entirely different story. When they showed off their literary, artistic, and musical talents in Paris, they were lionized. Imagine, black Americans from America’s Jim Crow era held in exalted status. In reality, most of these folks left France under the growing threat of war. In Paris Noire, I had a few remain—almost in hiding. The juxtaposition of two groups of people of color—the former French colonials and the black Americans– fascinated me. Their multicultural differences play as backdrop in the novel.

Jen: What was the inspiration for the book? How did the idea come about?

Francine: My French friend and I exchanged long-buried family secrets over dinner one night. (I was still polishing my own tale of a well-kept family scandal in Page from a Tennessee Journal.) Something he said in his oral history of a ménage a trois involving his father grabbed me. The pregnant, married woman in the tale committed suicide. Though I said nothing to him at the time, the idea of a woman killing herself and her lover’s unborn child because the husband refused a divorce in Catholic France rankled in my head. Suicide or murder? That’s when the core story of Paris Noire was born.

Once I discovered that African-American artists live in pre-WWII Montmartre, I decided to add another layer to the story. One of my three grandmothers inspired the story of the chanteuse, Glovia Johnson. My grandmother longed to sing in Paris, but the Montana town where she lived with her husband and children was not exactly conducive to fostering the career of a wanna-be Parisian chanteuse. I gave Grandma Paris as a tribute.

Jen: If PARIS NOIRE was made into a movie, who would you cast as the main characters?

Francine: My goodness. I obsessed over casting Page from a Tennessee Journal but I’ve given little thought to Paris Noire–except for the character of Glovia. In the novel, Glovia is a woman in her late forties who looks a sexy thirty-five. Her singing and dancing skills rival those of Ms. Baker, and her figure is voluptuous. With the magic of Hollywood, I’m thinking Beyonce could do justice to my Glovia. She’s certainly got the body as well as the performance flamboyance.

As for Marie-Therese, let’s give Loretta Devine a shot if she can master that West Indian accent. Monsieur Lieutenant, the drop-dead gorgeous truck-driving American Army Officer, and possible love interest for Marie-Therese, might be just right for Denzell. Or, maybe, Will Smith. Give me newcomers for Marie-Therese’s light-skinned (quadroon) son and daughter, Christophe and Colette. The same for the double dealing wife, Genvieve (Oscar time?). Alain-Hugo—husband, French Resistance Fighter—how about a French actor who can command both menace and adulation? She would be a make-up artist’s challenge, but Zoe Saldana would have a real chance to show off her acting chops in the role of Martine—the half-Senegalese/half French plain-looking, but smart girl Marie-Therese hopes will wed Christophe.

Who do you think is ready for a turn at an Oscar-worthy role?

Jen: What’s up next for you?

Francine: I dote upon exploring lesser known aspects of oft-told tales. I’ve not read many books like Paris Noire that delve into the multicultural differences and likeness of two groups of people of color living in France. Right now, I’m captivated by genealogy—an old hobby made new by the miracle of DNA.

I’m busy at work on Book One of a five-book series, Scattered Seed. I’ve already finished Book Five, the last in the series. Yes, yes, I know it’s unusual to write the last book first, but I had to be sure everything turned out all right for my three sister-heroines who carry a particular genetic trait that will sustain them and their descendants through three hundred years.

Scattered Seed covers three centuries and spans two continents starting in 1706 in the legendary city of Timbuktu when three sisters of noble birth are kidnapped, marched to Goree Island, transported to the port of New Orleans and sold, separately into slavery. Books two through four follow the descendants of our sisters through various periods of American history. My own DNA admixture results prompted the story of how enslaved Africans actually intermingled into the fabric of America. Each of the descendants of my original three sisters fervently believes herself to be “pure” Spanish-American, Louisiana Creole, White American, or African-American. But the undeniable science of DNA, and the genetic gift they all carry, unites them in modern-day Timbuktu.

Jen: Please share a short bio with our readers.

Francine: Here’s the official bio…
Francine Thomas Howard resides with her family in the San Francisco Bay Area. Originally from Illinois, she has lived in the Bay Area since childhood. She left a rewarding career in pediatric occupational therapy to pursue her first love, writing. PARIS NOIRE is her second novel, after the celebrated Page from a Tennessee Journal.

Contest details:

  • The prize is a print copy of Pairs Noire.
  • The contest is open to US residents.
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  • The contest ends on Sunday, October 2.
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