Author Q&A

Open Book with Elaine Sciolino


In 1978, Elaine Sciolino, then a foreign correspondent for Newsweek magazine, arrived in Paris with "no sources, no lovers, no family, no friends, no mission except to start fresh in a city all the world loves."

She quickly fell in love, not only with the city, but also with the Seine.

"I was seduced by the river ... Every day, I walked home over the same bridge and stared at the river as the sun set behind the Eiffel Tower. The river allowed me to begin a journey of discovery — of Paris, of the French people, of myself. Its energy pumped deep into my veins; its light gave me strength," said Sciolino, a contributing writer and former Paris bureau chief for The New York Times, in an email interview.

Over the next several years, Sciolino would spend time as Newsweek's roving international correspondent and Rome bureau chief. In 1984, she joined The New York Times, holding numerous positions, including United Nation's bureau chief, Central Intelligence Agency correspondent, culture correspondent and chief diplomatic correspondent, as well serving as its European investigative correspondent with a responsibility for coverage of terrorism in Europe and Iran's nuclear program.

She said during her time as a journalist, she has seen two big changes in the industry: job security and field security.

"When I started out in journalism, it was possible to get a staff job for a respectable newspaper or magazine with health benefits, a pension plan and union protection. The internet changed all that," she said. "Too many readers these days expect to get their news for free, and that means more and more journalists are asked to write for little or no money."

She continued, "Being a journalist in many parts of the world is more dangerous than ever. When I started out, traveling to danger zones in the Middle East — Lebanon, Iran, Iraq, for example — journalists were respected and my journalist identity was my protection. And even when I was in trouble — in prison in Syria or under fire in Beirut — I always could count on a big media company, first Newsweek, then The New York Times, to get me out of danger's way. Now journalists are often vilified as 'enemies of the people' and are vulnerable to attack."

Sciolino's love for Paris and the Seine have led to five books, including The New York Times bestseller, "The Only Street in Paris: Life on the Rue des Martyrs." She will speak at the Berkshire Museum as part of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute's Distinguished Speakers Series about her latest book, "The Seine: The River That Made Paris," at 3 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 31. In advance of the event, Scilino answered some questions about her research and about her favorite books. Her responses have been edited for length.

QWhat was the most fascinating thing you learned about the Seine in your research?

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AI discovered a goddess! A Gallo-Roman protofeminist healing goddess named Sequana. She was the star of an ancient temple that was built at the source of the Seine. Pilgrims came from as far as the Mediterranean and what is now the English Channel to pray to her for a cure, consult the pagan priests, stay for a short visit, give thanks. They threw votive offerings in wood, stone and bronze into a healing pool.

A fictionalized 18th-century story about Sequana turned her into a survivor, who escaped the clutches of Neptune by transforming herself into the Seine River. (The Seine was initially called Sequana.) The story is woven into the ancient Greek myth of Persephone, who succumbs to Hades and must spend much of her life trapped in the underworld. But unlike Persephone, who fell victim to her abductor, Sequana escapes!

Q. What is your favorite non-fiction work about the Seine?

A. That's an impossible question to answer! I think I own every book that has anything to do with the Seine. I love books of photographs, like "The Glow of Paris," a luscious book of black-and-white photographs of the bridges of Paris at night by Gary Zuercher, who spent five years photographing them; I also love flipping through large-format art books about the Impressionists who painted all along the Seine.

Q. What is your favorite fictional work to include the Seine?

A. The 1862 novel, "Les Miserables" by Victor Hugo. The Seine plays only a minor role. But the novel includes what may be the most important suicide in all modern French literature. It is the suicide of Javert, the troubled police inspector who doesn't even have a first name.

Throughout the novel, Javert is gripped by an obsession: to punish and destroy the escaped convict Jean Valjean, who had been imprisoned for 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread. But when Valjean saves Javert's life, Javert is faced with a moral dilemma: How can he arrest the man who saved him? Unable to understand Valjean's act of generosity, Javert goes mad. In Paris, he approaches the edge of the Notre-Dame Bridge and gazes down at the most treacherous part of the Seine. It is a suffocating, hemmed-in square of water bordered by two bridges and two quays, a stretch of the river that is 'dreaded by mariners," Hugo writes. The water rolls in vast and terrible waves. Whirlpools loosen and tighten their grip like screws that never stop turning.

Javert is swallowed by the blackness of the night. When he reappears, he is ready for death: "Suddenly, he took off his hat and laid it on the edge of the quay," Hugo wrote. "A moment later, a tall black form, which from the distance some belated pedestrian might have taken for a phantom, appeared standing on the parapet, bent toward the Seine, then sprang up and fell straight into the darkness; there was a dull splash; and the night alone was admitted to the secret convulsions of that obscure form, which had disappeared under the water."

Q. What books are on your nightstand?

A.  Proust, Proust and more Proust. I haven't read Proust since grad school, and I always intend to go back to Proust. More often than not, I end up watching something on Amazon or Netflix. Even then, I can't get away from Paris. The second season of "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel" opens with a segment on Paris, including a scene in a cabaret on the rue des Martyrs, the street that is the subject of my previous book, "The Only Street in Paris: Life on the Rue des Martyrs."


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