Editors: With all of the possible subjects to write about, you’ve chosen the French Resistance – a relatively small movement from a long time ago. Why do you think it is important for readers today?
Kaiser: I’ve always been preoccupied with World War II, particularly with anyone who had the courage to stand up to the pure evil of the Nazis. As I say at the very beginning of the book, for me that war glows with the romance of victorious history. And Christiane Boulloche Audibert is the most remarkable woman I have ever known. I think celebrating genuine heroism is one of the most exciting things a writer can do.
Editors: How did you first encounter the Boulloches, the family that is at the center of your book?
Kaiser: My uncle Henry Kaiser, a great man and a great storyteller, was a lieutenant in the U.S. Army in Paris in November 1944, immediately after the Liberation. Christiane and Jacqueline Boulloche saw an ad in the newspaper seeking housing for US Army officers. They took my uncle in, rent free, in gratitude to the allies. From that moment on the two families bonded. My parents first met Christiane and her brother Andre in 1946 when they visited America. I first met them on my first visit to France in 1962. Christiane and her husband Jean Audibert had four children, all close to me in age, and I gradually became close to the entire family. I probably visited them every year or two for the next thirty years.
Editors: You grew up hearing stories of the heroism of the Boulloches. Later you learned more about their experiences during the war. Did it change your feelings?
Kaiser: When I first heard the story, it was a tale of pure heroism. It wasn’t until I was in my thirties that I learned the main complication: only half of the family had fought in the Resistance. That certainly changed the way I felt about their experiences.
Editors: Did your views about the French Resistance as a whole, or this era in French history, change while you researched and wrote the book?
Kaiser: It’s a very difficult period to write about. In every country occupied by the Nazis, there was great heroism and horrible collaboration. When I was young of course I was certain I would have joined the Resistance. As someone who has now been living with this story for more than forty years, I think my empathy has gradually increased for everyone in it.
Editors: How did it complicate your job as a writer, if it did, that you were writing about people you knew? Would your role, and the book, have been different if you came to this story as a complete stranger?
Kaiser: I grew up at The New York Times where I was trained never to write anything about myself–and I barely ever had before I wrote this book. Writing about someone whom I love as much as Christiane was a completely new experience. What I hope I ended up with is affectionate honesty.
Editors: Janet Malcolm famously said that the job of a reporter is to “seduce and betray.” How did the Boulloches feel about your writing a book about them? Did you have to persuade them?
Kaiser: Janet Malcolm’s famous article is replete with absurd distortions and simplifications, and that is certainly one of most prominent ones. One thing Malcolm ignored altogether is how often a reporter is seduced by his subject. When I started my research fifteen years ago, Christiane had no desire to be celebrated. In fact, when I moved to Paris to write the book, I had dinner with her a couple of nights after my arrival. The first thing she said was, “Of course, you can’t use our real names.” That was a measure of her modesty. My heart sank, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to change her mind right away–and of course the book would not have worked at all with pseudonyms. About a year later we were having lunch at her house in the country. After the meal, I said, “You know, I can’t really write this book if I don’t use your real names.” She said, “O.K. But if there’s a movie, you’ll change the names?” And I said, “Fine!”
Editors: Now that your book has been published, do you know what their reaction is?
Kaiser: I went to Paris last December to give Christiane a copy of the galley. The final photograph in the book records that glorious moment. Three weeks later, she told me she was very happy. “Merci pour les voeux,” she wrote – thank you for the good wishes. That was her response to my confession that I had been in love with her for fifty years. After that I got a series of beautiful e-mails from her three surviving children, as each of them finished reading the book. In June I was in Paris again and I had dinner with Christiane, her children, and several grandchildren. After dinner, Christiane’s eldest, Catherine, said, “We are very lucky that you fell in love with our story.” “Oh no,” I replied. “I am the lucky one.”
And Christiane said, “It’s reciprocal.”
Editors: The book has been out for a little while now. What are you hearing from readers about how they are experiencing the story? Is there anything about their reaction that has surprised you?
Kaiser: I have received some magnificent reviews and some amazing fan mail, most recently from Herbert Gold, who said I had made him cry several times–“which doesn’t happen very often when you’re 91.” Many people said they felt like they had been transported back to Occupied Paris, which makes me very happy, because it was extremely important to me to do that successfully. In a way, all of my books are time machines–I always try to make you feel like you are living through the events I am describing in real time. (The first time I did that was when I described Bobby Kennedy’s assassination in 1968 In America.) And that’s why I decided to write about everything that happened to the Boulloches during the war in the present tense. That was one of my most important decisions.
Editors: It is, of course, unfair to a complex narrative to try to reduce it to a single message or moral. But that said, what do you think the lessons of your story are?
Kaiser: It takes enormous courage to fight totalitarianism. If you’ve never been faced with that challenge yourself, it’s impossible to know how you would react if you were.