Going to Paris should be a dream vacation for Mira, her father and her brother in Lost in Paris, the first of Marissa Moss’ Mira’s Diary series. But when the catalyst for the trip is to track down her missing mother, who has mysteriously resurfaced, it’s less bon voyage and more angst-y family reunion. Mira wonders why her mother left in the first place. She wonders how they’ll even find her mother (and if she can be trusted when they do). And when touching a creepy gargoyle on the roof of Notre Dame catapults Mira to 1881 Paris, she wonders how on earth she got there and just how she’s going to get home. Keeping company with impressionist painters, following cryptic clues and avoiding a beautiful nemesis become par for the course as Mira searches for both her elusive mother and a way to successfully alter a historical event wrought with corruption and intolerance.
Here, author Moss chats about swiping sketches, teaching history and where to find a baguette in Paris that’ll knock your chausettes off.
What came first, a book about Paris or about the Dreyfus Affair?
I wanted to write about Paris and the impressionists, specifically Degas. It was while I was researching Degas that I learned about the Dreyfus Affair. I'd known vaguely about Dreyfus but not the details—and certainly not how Degas' anti-Dreyfus views had isolated him in his old age.
Did rooting your book in history help facilitate the evolution of the story more easily than creating a contemporary backdrop from “scratch” might have?
In some ways, yes, in some ways, no. With history, you have the basic plot points you want to fit in, but there's always the danger of becoming so obsessed with historical detail you bore your reader. I try to remind myself that I can always use the author's note for that fascinating bit of information instead of trying to shoehorn it into the plot. Like the use of wells in the streets of 19th-century Paris. Or how trash cans got their name.
Your book sheds light for readers on a pivotal point in history they might never have heard of in such detail. Are you first and foremost a writer of fiction or a teacher of history through fiction?
Hmmm, that's tough. I think of history as a series of amazing stories, ones that actually happened. It's all storytelling to me, whether it's fiction or historically based. But I do feel a sense of mission to introduce young readers to history, to show them how passionately interesting it can be. And I feel a responsibility to historical figures to represent them as accurately, as fairly as I can while still making them accessible to readers.
Mira says it takes more than a brilliant teacher to create an artist; it also takes a talented student. Do you think some parents or teachers are so intent on enforcing the development of, for instance, an artistic talent that they overlook a child’s ability to be a terrific writer or gymnast or mathematician?
Absolutely! Although it's artistic talent that's more likely to get short shrift these days. We're an incredibly visual culture, but once kids learn to read, we dismiss picture books and art as "frills" or "fluff." Visual narrative is just as important and has been since the beginnings of human culture—think of ancient Egyptian reliefs, the Bayeux tapestry, medieval cathedrals. They all tell sophisticated stories through art. As for natural talent, it's our job as parents and teachers to recognize and encourage kids' gifts rather than forcing them to fit some preconceived mold. I have three sons with completely different strengths and issues. I feel like I have to be a different kind of mother for each of them.
You’re in Paris. Suddenly, instinctively, you’re drawn to a pulsing object that you know will transport you to another time. What is your touchstone and where does it take you?
I'd have to say the Nike of Samothrace, the statue of Winged Victory at the top of the stairs as you enter the Louvre. I've always had a sense that those great wings could carry me back to classical Greece. Not a good place for a woman to go, not my choice of where I'd want to go, but that's the object that pulses most for me with time-travel energy.
Your closing words in your author’s note ask who will be our champion of words to dispute a brutal disrespect for human rights. Who is a likely candidate to confront corruption, prejudice and intolerance today like Zola did?
Sad to say, I don't see anybody in that role. Writers here don't have the kind of status Zola had (and which authors still have today in France). Stephen Colbert is good at poking fun at and calling attention to political stupidity, but this kind of champion has to be nonpartisan, someone who's a national hero, whose words can have real impact. Athletes seem to be our American heroes, so maybe it's up to Michael Phelps to take on a new role now that he's retired from swimming.
Croissant or baguette?
Got to be baguette, the crisp outside, chewy inside, and I can tell you which bakery to go to. Near the Place Victor Hugo, on the Rue Copernic, right on the corner of the place, is a wonderful boulangerie.