Pop Culture Princess

Pop Culture Princess
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Monday, January 30, 2006

On the Shelf with Jeremy Mercer

Jeremy Mercer was a not so mild mannered reporter for the Ottawa Citizen,covering the
crime beat which lead to him writing a couple of true crime books. Due to many circumstances,he decided to hide out in the City of Lights. There,he came across the
modern legend,George Whitman's Shakespeare and Co. bookstore. Shakespeare and Co is
a known haven for artists and eccentrics alike and Jeremy became one of it's resident

He's recently published a memoir about this experience titled Time Was Soft There:A
Paris Sojourn at Shakespeare and Co(in the UK,the book is known as Books,Bedbugs and
Baguettes)and is one of the founders of Kilometer Zero(there's a great passage in the
book that explains that name),a literary magazine that publishes right out of the
very bookstore which inspired it. Jeremy is currently working on his next book but
was kind enough to answer a few questions for me:

1) Your earlier books were mostly true crime-are you finished with that genre or do you still hold an interest in it?

I am actually going back to this genre with my next book, but hopefully in a more profound way. With the Shakespeare book, writing in the first person was the most excruciating thing I've done, so I wanted to get back to familiar ground while still challenging myself. While living in Marseille, I stumbled upon a true crime story that would allow me to do this. I am writing about the last man guillotined in French history, who, amazingly, was guillotined in 1977. The thrust of the book will be classic true crime, an In-Cold-Blood-in-the-South-of-France kind of deal: The murder, the police investigation, the arrest, the trial, the death sentence. But wrapped around that will be this golden thread that follows the history of the concept of death as a penalty. It will begin with the Hammurabi Code five centuries ago, go through the Greeks, citing the Socrates case, explore the Bible, New and Old Testaments, work through the Middle Ages, then get to France and Dr. Guillotin and the Terror and the slow dawning of the Abolitionist Movement with Beccaria, Voltaire, Hugo, Camus, all leading up the 1970s when a top lawyer vows he will end capital punishment in France. The idea is that by the end of the book, the reader will be left asking first whether the man will be executed, and then whether he should be executed, raising - subtly I hope - the question of the morality of the death penalty.

2) One of George's requirements for living at Shakespeare & Co was to read a book a day-have you been able to keep that up since you have left?

I am a binge reader. Sometimes I can read five or six books a week, especially in winter when the days are short and I have no projects on the go. Other times, my head is all abuzz - like when we were in Beijing last year for the Kilometer Zero show - and the same book will sit in my bag for a month. So, the answer is no, I don't read a book a day, though I do manage to get through about a hundred a year.

I do, however, read the International Herald Tribune every day, and finish the crossword almost every day, though Fridays and Saturdays can be real buggers.

3) Time Was Soft There was published in Europe under the title Books, Bedbugs and Baguettes - was that your

idea or your publisher's?

That was most definitely the idea of the publisher, or more aptly, the publisher's marketing department. At first I was horrified, I felt my artistic integrity had been slighted. But you know what? The book is selling damn well in the U.K. It has already gone into second printing. And, it looks like I am going to get a French deal because the French editor loved the look of the British edition. So, now the pragmatist in me doesn't mind so much. The book is getting read, and, as I am currently living on borrowed funds, much-needed royalties are being amassed.

4) Who became your most unlikely best friend during your stay at Shakespeare & Co?

I think all my Paris friends were unlikely. When I was getting drunk in bars every night with Canadian cops and lawyers in late 1999, how could I have ever dreamed that within months I would count among my close friends a codeine-addicted poet from London, a heroin-junky musician from American or an 86-year-old madman who let people sleep in his bookshop? My whole Paris experience reinforces my belief that to really squeeze the juice from life one must continually leap blindly into the unknown.

To try to answer your question a little more practically, I am currently writing the guillotine book from a little cave house overlooking the sea on the Greek island of Santorini. The reason I am here is that Luke, the night manager of Shakespeare and Company who is in my book, is the winter manager of a bookstore here on the island. So I came, partly for the tranquility and jaw-gaping beauty, but also to be close to a Paris bookstore friend.

5) What's your take on the James Frey controversy?

I feel tremendously sorry for James Frey. He must be a completely miserable and insecure person to feel he has to fictionalize his life to make it more interesting. I've always believed that the goal during our wink of life on this planet is to become comfortable in our skin, to be able to look hard at ourselves in the mirror and say, 'Yeah, I'm doing all right, I like who I am.' For him to fabricate parts of his life to make a book sell better just shows how desperate he is for superficial outside affirmation. The man should get a shoulder bag and go for a long long walk and learn to feel good about himself for being James Frey, not because he was Oprah's flavour of the day.

6) What do you think Sylvia Beach would've thought of George's version of Shakespeare & Co?

I imagine she would have applauded George's efforts to help writers and his bookstore's continual celebration of the written word. She also likely would have been flattered that he named his daughter after her, and impressed that he saved an original copy of Ulysses to give to that daughter. But, I think she would have been bewildered by George's lifestyle. She had a strong relationship with Adrienne Monnier and seemed to cherish her inner life. She would ask herself how a man could live for a half century with strangers and starving artists carousing about his bookstore.

7) Is there any advice you'ld give to someone going to Paris for the first time?

Rip up your return ticket the second you get through customs.

If you're curious about Kilometer Zero(or just want to see the two different book
covers of Time Was Soft There),just click the title link to find out more. Time
Was Soft There is a wonderful read for book people who love to travel,travelers who
love to read,or those who prefer to explore other worlds thru the comfort of their
favorite reading chair.

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