Zibby is joined by Alex George to talk about his latest novel, The Paris Hours, as well as his many other literary endeavors. Alex shares how he was inspired to write this novel after hearing a story about Marcel Prout’s real-life maid, what writing was like for him throughout the pandemic, and why he made the career leap from lawyer to novelist. Alex and Zibby also talk about the Unbound Book Festival which he helped found, as well as the Skylark Bookshop which is Columbia, Missouri’s first independent bookstore.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Alex. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss The Paris Hours, now in paperback.

Alex George: Hi, Zibby. Thank you for having me. It’s great to be here.

Zibby: You are a beautiful, beautiful writer. The way you describe things, the scenes, the interspersing of French and English and different characters’ perspectives all sprinkled throughout and all the little details, it’s really, really beautiful writing. I’m sure you know this, but just wanted to throw it out there.

Alex: Thank you. No one can ever hear that quite enough. It’s always lovely to hear. Thank you. Thank you very much. That’s great.

Zibby: You’re welcome. Would you mind telling listeners what The Paris Hours is about? Also, what inspired you to write it?

Alex: The Paris Hours is set over the course of a single day in Paris in 1927. There are four stories that are told in alternating chapters. They crosspollinate each other. They mix, but each story has its own principal character. There is Guillaume, who is a lovesick painter. There is Souren, who is an Armenian puppeteer who performs puppet shows for the children of Paris in his own language. There’s Jean-Paul, who is a writer who tells other people’s stories because his own is too sad to tell. He spends his time wandering through the streets of Paris looking for his lost daughter. Finally, there is Camille, the maid of Marcel Proust. The story really began with her. I was reading the memoir of Céleste Albaret, who was Proust’s real-life maid. There was a story in there where she talked about Proust asking her to burn all of his notebooks. I always say that authors are like magpies. We’re always on the lookout for these little glimmering things that we can pick up and use in our fiction. That was one of those times. This lightbulb went off in my head. I thought, oh, that’s really interesting. When people ask, where do your stories come from? the question that often begins it is something along the lines of, well, what if? I began to think, what if one of those notebooks wasn’t burned and was saved? Then the next question that immediately followed that was, and what if there was a secret in that notebook that everybody thought had been destroyed but wasn’t? Really, from that tiny, little acorn of an idea grew this whole story.

Zibby: Wow. You have so much real-life people and places interspersed with these fictious stories, which I guess is obviously just historical fiction, but it was so neat as different characters sort of came on and off the stage. It seemed very theatrical, almost, in the way you presented it. Even with Gertrude Stein opening up the door one day and not even realizing that she was a woman and that whole scene of negotiation and actually going to Jean-Paul Sartre’s grave and seeing what that was like, all of these little bits and pieces, it felt like you were back in time. Then of course, you have really traumatic — this whole Armenian escape, that was so intense, the woman having to bury her baby. It’s all over everywhere from the quiet studios in Paris to the side of the road. It’s just amazing, this adventure that the book takes the reader on. It’s really quite elaborate in terms of place and scale and everything. It’s awesome.

Alex: Thank you. When you set a book over the course of one day — there were many times during the writing of this when I asked myself over and over, why did I think that was ? One of the things that happens is that in order to make it work, there are lots of flashbacks. That’s what you’re referring to with Souren’s escape from Armenia and the genocide there and all of these harrowing things that happened. We talked about Marcel Proust a minute ago. The usual translation of his novel is In Search of Lost Time.

Zibby: Did I say Jean-Paul Sartre but I meant Marcel Proust? Did I just say that? I am such a moron. I am sorry. I can see it in my head. You said 1922, and the whole thing. I just said the wrong name. Sorry.

Alex: Proust’s novel is usually translated as In Search of Lost Time, which could be a good subtitle for this book, in a way, because all four of the main characters are looking back to earlier times. They’re all looking to retrieve something that they had in the past. There is a degree of melancholy about the book when they are looking back because none of them can really get there. There are lots of emotions flying around, for sure.

Zibby: There is this lingering, haunting sadness. It’s like a thin blanket over everybody. I just wanted to read maybe a passage or so that I thought was really particularly beautiful, which of course, now I won’t be able to find now that I’m on the phone with you here. Yeah, I have it here, Marcel Proust. I don’t know why I said the wrong name. This is just one random example from Rapsody about a clarinet. You said, “The clarinet, the first low trill fat with promise, then the solo ascent to the heavens soaring smoothly through the registers. By the time that ecstatic high note, limpid and beautiful, pours into his ears, Jean-Paul has made his escape.” That’s just so pretty. Then here again, “He soars high over the city’s skyscrapered silhouette, his for the taking. He hears the rumble of the Harlem-bound A train in the orchestra’s propulsive rhythms, low and sweet. He hears new worlds in the piano’s blistering arpeggiated attacks. Images streak past the onrushing traffic, hurtling down the arrow-street avenues. Perfect lines of shimmying, high-kicking chorus girls, their cherry-red lips glistening in the spotlights. A liveried doorman striding onto the busy street, his hand outstretched for a yellow cab. Elegant matrons pushing through the door at Bergdorf’s.” This is all a couple blocks away from here, by the way.

Alex: I was going to say, it’s just down the road.

Zibby: This is my doorman. I can see Bergdorf’s out the door there. No, I’m kidding. I’m not that close. This, of course, is his thinking back to when he was in New York. How did you find your style of writing?

Alex: Gosh, what an interesting question. I don’t know. I never attended a writing class. I don’t have an MFA or anything like that. I’m an attorney by profession, and a bookstore owner now. Just trial and error, really. This is my seventh novel. Writing’s a craft like any other. One hopes that you always continue to evolve as a writer and learn new things, or at least not to do old things. I never set out to write in a particular way. I like that lyrical tone that that passage encapsulates quite nicely, but it’s not all like that. Some bits are a bit more gritty. That particular piece, the title of the chapter is Rapsody. Of course, it’s about Jean-Paul listening to Gershwin’s “Rapsody in Blue.” I’m English. I didn’t go to New York until I was in my twenties. Really, what Jean-Paul is feeling there is kind of what I used to feel when I listened to that music as a teenager before I went to New York. It did encapsulate so much about what I imagined America and New York was like. I know you speak to hundreds and hundreds of writers all the time. I’m sure that most of them will tell you, fiction, you may be making stuff up, but it’s always at its best when there’s a kernel of truth in there somewhere. I was just writing from my experience of that sort of yearning that I had about going to America. Over in London, in Wiltshire in the West Country where I grew up, nothing could seem further away than New York. I remember the first time I went, just being stunned and so excited by the steam coming out of the middle of the road because that was what it was like in the movies. When you have the confluence of reality and expectation, it’s always fun. Anyway, I’m sorry, that’s a complete digression.

Zibby: No, that’s so funny. The other day, I was literally walking across the street and this huge burst of hot, gross steam went right through me. I was like, ugh, this is so gross. You’re like, that’s amazing.

Alex: Yes, I think it’s so interesting. Different perspectives, isn’t it? That’s funny.

Zibby: How did you go from being a lawyer to a novelist? Did you always love to write? How did this all come about?

Alex: I didn’t always love to write. I wish I could tell you that I used to walk around as a six-year-old with a notebook jotting down thoughts on the human condition, but that was not how it happened. Probably just as well because I would’ve got thumped a lot. When I was in my early twenties and I was working as a lawyer in London, and in Paris, in fact — I worked there for a while, which is how I know the city so well. I just read a lot. I was always a keen reader. I went through a period of time when I read a lot of really terrible books. I started saying to people, I could do better than this. Finally, somebody gently suggested that I should put my money where my mouth was and try. Not knowing any better, I thought, right, then I will, so I started. I just began writing not really expecting anything would come of it. I had an idea for the first three chapters of a book. I wrote those. Then I just kept going. A year or so later, I had a novel.

I worked, at the time, for a firm who, coincidentally, represented a couple of literary agents. I actually went to a party at the Frankfurt Book Fair and worked out which ones of the guests was one of the agents, waited until quite late in the evening where she had had a couple of drinks, and then went up to her and said, “Oh, Maggie, I know I’m a lawyer, but I’ve written this book.” Of course, because it was at a party and because we were the hosts, she said, “Do send it to me.” I did. She didn’t read it, but she gave it to her assistant. Her assistant read it. She liked it. She took me on. We had an auction between HarperCollins and I forget who. HarperCollins won. I published four books in the UK. I was off to the races. I wrote my two and a half books while I was still lawyering full time. It’s been quite a journey. Then when I moved to the States in 2003, I published three books here. It’s almost like it’s a second career, it feels like, which has been kind of fun.

Zibby: How did you end up, then, opening the bookstore and living in — how did you get where you are, open the bookstore? That’s not where I might have pegged you from twenty years ago or something.

Alex: No, me neither. If you told me as a twenty-five-year-old that twenty-five years later I’d be living in Missouri running a bookstore and a book festival, the first thing I would’ve said was, where’s Missouri? Then I just would’ve assumed that you had been hallucinating. I got to Missouri because of a woman, somebody, actually, I met in Paris when I was working there. I will try and keep this story very, very quick. She lived in New York. She was American. She was from a little town in Missouri called California, Missouri. We got married. We got married in New York, lived in London. Then we moved back to Missouri in 2003. That’s how that happened.

Zibby: Wait, where did you get married in New York?

Alex: On Downing Street in the Village. There’s a lovely converted coach house down there which is very, very nice. That was where we got married. I’ve been here for eighteen years now. We’re actually not together anymore, but we have two kids. I was not, obviously, going to go back to England, so I hung around. Then the bookstore came around because back about seven or eight years ago I began a book festival called the Unbound Book Festival which was wonderfully well-received by the community here. It was clear to me doing that that there was a real hunger for books and reading. Columbia is a university town. There are three universities here, lots of incredibly smart people, lots of good readers and writers. There wasn’t an independent bookstore selling new books. I thought, there’s clearly a gap in the market here, so let’s try to fill it, which we did. We’ve been open for three years now. It’s been a funny three years, as you might imagine, with COVID, but we’re still there. We’re still going. We’re very grateful for it. It’s been a lot of fun. You’re absolutely right, Zibby. It’s not exactly what I would’ve imagined for myself if you’d asked me twenty-five years ago.

Zibby: Although, not a lot of people’s lives are necessarily exactly what they would’ve picked twenty-five years ago.

Alex: True enough.

Zibby: Maybe this isn’t the most-crazy story. It’s a pretty cool literary journey. I’ll say that. Are you still writing? Are you working on a new novel now?

Alex: I am, yes. It’s been slow-going. The pandemic has — I’ve spoken to lots of my friends who write. It’s interesting because a lot of people assume that with the pandemic, everyone’s been writing up a storm because they can’t go out. They haven’t been able to go out, so they just sit at their desk and they write. I know some people, that is true. The majority of people that I’ve spoken to, the opposite has actually happened. I think that the anxiety and the fear and the worry that they feel has just crippled them creatively a little bit. That’s certainly been my problem. I am in the foothills of a new book, but I’m not going as quickly as I would like. It’s partly because, with the festival, which was online last year and is now going to be in person in 2022, and with a bookstore, there’s a lot to do. It’s just hard to tell stories these days. It feels that there are almost more pressing things. I was on a panel a couple of months ago with Ann Patchett. She was saying that she had — she’s just about to come out with a new collection of essays, which I’m extremely excited about. That was what she did. She turned to nonfiction rather than fiction because, again, telling stories just didn’t seem possible at the time. I am, but it’s very slow-going.

Zibby: One rationale I’ve heard is that when truth is stranger than fiction, it’s hard to turn to fiction.

Alex: Exactly right. I think that’s true.

Zibby: The problem is that readers are even more reliant on escaping through stories at the moment when authors are feeling like, why does this story I’m making up possibly matter when the world is in this crazy place? Luckily, there are a million books you could pick up at any time. Still, I think the hunger for stories has only been amplified lately. That’s a good thing.

Alex: I think that’s right. Certainly, there are times when, as a writer, I’ve sought refuge in my own stories, which has always been a joy. I write very early in the morning. I get up at five and write. I would occasionally break my own rule and go onto the internet before I would begin. I would occasionally go onto social media and just say, right, I’m off to Paris. Then that would be all I would say. Then I would start writing. Then two hours later, I’d turn the internet back on. People would be going, oh, you lucky thing. When are you going? I was like, no, not actual Paris, I’m just in my head. It provides an escape for the writers as well as the readers.

Zibby: You always write in the morning?

Alex: Yes. I try and carve out one day a week where I can write for longer periods of time, but that’s not going so well right now.

Zibby: Tell me about the upcoming Unbound Festival.

Alex: 2020 was a bust. It takes place in April every year. We had everything all lined up. It was really just at the last minute that we had to cancel it. In 2021, we just decided we weren’t even going to try, which turned out to be a very good plan. It was all online. It wasn’t the same, obviously, as meeting in person, but it went very well. We had thirty-three events and about sixty-five authors. Tracey K. Smith and Jericho Brown were our two keynotes, the two wonderful poets who just had this incredible conversation, which was wonderful. We’re going to be back in person in 2022. The keynote speaker is Viet Thanh Nguyen. We’re very, very excited about that. That’s going to be great. It’s a festival that takes place in Columbia, Missouri. It’s completely free to attend. We normally have sixty or seventy authors who come. We bring them in from around the country. It’s a good time. It’s an insane amount of work, which I didn’t realize when I began this. I thought, oh, yeah, this we’ll be fun. Just get a few people to come in. It’ll be easy. Not the case, actually, but it’s wonderfully rewarding. What’s been fun is that I’ve been able to meet in person, a ton of people who I knew online, a ton of authors who I finally got to meet because they came to the festival. That’s been terrific. It’s just a wonderful way of giving something back to this community. It’s a lot of fun.

Zibby: If people want to find out more about it or attend or anything, where should they go?

Alex: It’s We’re just beginning to get the programming sorted for next year. We always get the keynote in place first and then program around it a little bit. We’ll be announcing more all the time.

Zibby: Exciting. That’s awesome. Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Alex: I do. It has to, of course, come with a caveat that this is what has worked for me. Everybody is different. In the shop, we actually have — I’m very proud. We have a big section in the shop for — I think we call it Books on Writing. It’s everything from very abstruse tomes about writing dialogue to Ann Lamott and Elizabeth Gilbert. It’s all good advice, but not all of it works for everyone. You have to find your own way. With that caveat out of the way, what I always tell people is, find a routine, most importantly. Try and write every day even if it’s just for thirty minutes. Find a place. Find a time. Then when you’ve done that, defend it with your life. Don’t let anything get in the way. It’s all about priorities. You have to make writing a priority. There’s a great book, actually, called The War of Art by Steven Pressley. I think that’s his name. He does his best to un-glamorize it. He says, just treat it like a job. Treat it like anything else. You wouldn’t not turn up for your job one day just because you couldn’t be bothered. It’s very down-to-earth, no-nonsense kind of advice, which a lot of people maybe don’t want.

Zibby: But they might need.

Alex: Exactly. They might need it. That’s always been my approach. Because I’ve always had so many jobs going on, doing so many things simultaneously, for me, it was very important to compartmentalize like that. Like I say, I get up at five o’clock every day. I write for two hours. Then I turn off the computer and then take my daughter to school and then get on with everything else that I do. That’s pretty much how these books get written. It takes a long time to do it that way. Most people, when they start off writing, are doing other things. That’s why I think that advice might be helpful. You need to find a time and stick to it. It’s a marathon. It’s not a sprint.

Zibby: It’s true what you said. A lot of people who pick up books and they think, we could do this, or I could write like this, or whatever, maybe you could write that page. Maybe you could write that paragraph. Maybe you could write that chapter. There’s a lot more to it than just that paragraph. You have to actually put in the time to do the rest of it.

Alex: Absolutely. There’s the old saying about — what is it? Two percent inspiration, ninety-eight percent perspiration. It’s a slog. You know this. Writing is lonely. Sometimes it’s boring. Sorry, I make it sound so enticing, don’t I?

Zibby: Yeah, sign me up.

Alex: Nobody would do this unless they really felt the need to do it and the need to tell stories because it’s hard work. When I first left my law firm — I was still living in London — and began writing full time, I think my ex-colleagues imagined I would get out of bed at eleven o’clock and then sit down with a cup of coffee in my dressing gown and tap out a paragraph and then go back to bed. Nothing could be further from the truth. I was living in terror of abject penury and was writing quicker than ever because I was just terrified. You’ve got to stick at it. Bloody-mindedness and determination is a more important quality to have, in certain times anyway, than a felicitous turn of phrase.

Zibby: Last question, then I’ll let you go here. Are there books you’re loving right now or just books that you always go to as your favorites in general?

Alex: One book that I adore and never have far away from me is Upstream by Mary Oliver, which is not poems. They’re a collection of essays. There’s a bit in the middle of the book, which is sort of lit crit, which I am less interested in. The first bit of the book and the last bit of the book are these beautiful, beautiful essays about creativity and about nature and about being in the moment. Every all heavily, heavily underlined. There’s so much wisdom and beauty in those pages. That’s one that I adore. In kind of a similar vein, there’s a wonderful book called The Book of Delights by Ross Gay, which we have sold a ton of in the shop. They’re micro-essays that he wrote. He set himself a challenge from one birthday to the next just to write every day about something he found that day that delighted him. It’s such a simple idea, but he’s Ross Gay, so he obviously does it in a beautiful way. He’s a wonderful poet as well. All sorts of interesting thoughts coming at you from all sorts of weird angles. It’s a real joy. You can dip in anywhere. The way that we sell the book is we just open it up to the back cover. There’s a picture of him. He’s got this enormous smile on his face. We just say, look, read this book, and this is how you’re going to feel. People are like, okay, and they buy it. It’s a very warm-hearted, big-hearted book, very inspiring too. That’s another one. As you know, this fall is just a completely bonkers, bonkers season for amazing, amazing books. Colson Whitehead’s book is out today, I think, Harlem Shuffle, which is fantastic. Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr is coming out shortly. That’s also amazing. Lauren Groff’s Matrix just came out. These are all unbelievable books. We’re having a lot of fun in the store. Although, it is Tuesday morning.

Zibby: Yeah, sorry about that. Bad timing.

Alex: No, it’s fine, but it’s going to be chaos in there right now. This September in particular, there are so many titles coming out every week on a Tuesday. We put them all in the window, but we’re going to need a bigger window because there are so many titles.

Zibby: Amazing. Thank you so much, Alex. Congrats again on your own paperback for The Paris Hours. I’m excited to keep talking to you about ways to make Zibby Books awesome and our collaboration there. I’m really excited to be connected.

Alex: Thank you, Zibby. Great to see you.

Zibby: Thanks. Take care.

Alex: Bye.

Zibby: Buh-bye.


THE PARIS HOURS by Alex George

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