We recently spoke with author Eric Freeze about his new Slant book, French Dive
French Dive. Can you tell us a little about the title?
I wanted something that captured both the risk of starting a new life, of renovating an apartment with a large family underfoot, and also the physical act of diving which became more a part of the memoir the longer I worked on it. I’ve also been heavily influenced by many feminist writers who use the sea as metaphor for transformation. There are echoes of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening and Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing throughout the book.
Why were feminist writers so influential?
I sometimes joke with my spouse that we are stereotypically opposite our genders. Rixa abhors shopping and is stoic emotionally. I’ve always been extremely sensitive to others, sometimes overbearingly so, and often read from the margins. I’m very aware of the power structures at play and the ways that men come across in fiction and nonfiction. Men are often, whether they want to be or not, vehicles for oppression. They come from a literary heritage that informs their experiences and the ways that they see the world. I wanted to write something that offered an antidote to oppression, that showed that it was possible to live as a man who is aware of those power structures and is actively trying to combat them. I wanted to show how a man could occupy domestic space and invite others in, privileging values like sharing, inclusion, and love.
But a lot of the book is you doing somewhat masculine things: providing for your family, spearfishing, pursuing your artistic dream.
There was an interesting moment after our House Hunters episode aired (spoiler alert!) where I read through comments online from people who had seen our show. One woman praised our family for actually speaking the language and then she said something like “ugh, another man dragging his family across the world so he can pursue his dream.” During the filming, that’s certainly the narrative that the producers wanted to tell. But that wasn’t our story. It became our story in the show because it’s the one that most people had become conditioned to expect.
France is replete with narratives of men moving there to pursue artistic ideals. My book of essays, Hemingway on a Bike, addresses this somewhat. Our narrative was much more nuanced. It all started as a desire for my children’s education. I could care less about finding an aesthetically pleasing place to write or find inspiration. The spearfishing was also something that I learned to do somewhat against type. For what it’s worth, I’ve never been a very manly man. While it’s a sport and activity that I enjoy, it still is very hard for me to do. I don’t enjoy killing things. Every dead fish that I solemnly clean in the sink reminds me of the moral price I pay as an eater of meat. I do it because it’s less offensive to me than buying fish from the market. And some days, I can’t do it.
What are some of the challenges you’ve had in writing this book?
The challenges were mostly formal. I had never written a memoir before. All my previous books have been collections of short stories or essays. So the long form was difficult for me to learn. Luckily, I had lots of help along the way. I completed the first draft really quickly, putting in about 2000 words a day, but then it took over two years to revise it. Outside of the natural structure that comes from having a linear timeline, nothing seemed to fit together. I cut and cut and cut. At a low point, I posted on Facebook that my 150K-word memoir was now a 3000 word essay. Then I looked to some other memoirs for how they structured themselves in sections, trying to show a larger developmental arc. After I had the three-part structure down I tried to whittle away till I had a stronger sense of what each section was trying to accomplish.
And what is that?
Well, Surface Dive: starting this new life with all this optimism and eventually settling in; then Underwater: disruption, challenges; and finally Surfacing: learning, growing, finding a harmonious way to live in the world.
You mentioned other memoirs were helpful to you. What were they and how were they helpful?
I read Cheryl Strayed’s Wild after I finished the first draft. I love how she starts with this boot that she chucks off the side of a mountain. It creates an anticipation that carries her through all the backstory leading up to that point. In my second draft, I tried that with the Nice Terror attacks. But it was too jarring for a narrative of expatriation and it violated the mostly year-long timeline I’d set for the book. I admire the transformation that is so powerful in Wild and I hope that some of that is in French Dive.
I was also influenced by some memoirs about France and travel: Gopnik’s Paris to the Moon or Anthony Doerr’s Four Seasons in Rome. I loved Lauren Collins’s When in French and Thad Carhart’s The Piano Shop on the Left Bank. Those were helpful for how they showed that a special interest could provide a hook for a memoir set in a particular place.
I also read a lot of lifestyle France memoirs, enough to know that I was writing something different. Most narratives of French expatriation in the south are echoing Peter Mayle in some way: stone house in a field of lavender. There’s a whole cottage industry of Provence memoirs that they now almost read like “how to” books. My memoir is mostly urban, about a large family in a city center. Those kinds of memoirs don’t really exist because it’s too much of a risk. Or the expectation of the way a large family should live is so engrained in our psyche that people don’t think of it as an option.
What would you like people to take away from reading French Dive?
Oh that’s such a difficult question to answer! I can’t really control what people take away, but I hope that they will at least see our experience reflecting back on their own. I guess one thing I’d like to see is people reevaluating their priorities, even if something like what we did still seems unattainable. We can live in much smaller spaces than we do and have a much lower impact on our environment. Plus the proximity of living closer to others in a diverse community encourages more empathy. All of those things—empathy, understanding, living in harmony with our environment, raising a family differently—are what I’d love for a reader to take away.
So what’s next? What projects do you have on the horizon?
I have alternated a book of fiction and then a book of creative nonfiction for a while now but I’m actually working on another memoir, a sequel that picks up fairly recently during the Coronavirus pandemic. It’s still in the early stages so I don’t want to jinx it, but it has a lot about author James Baldwin. I’m tentatively calling it Pioneers of France.