Zibby speaks with New York Times bestselling author Ruth Reichl about THE PARIS A NOVEL, a sumptuous, evocative, mouthwatering adventure through the food, art, and fashion scenes of 1980s Paris as told by Stella, a woman who stumbles across a vintage store, tries on a fabulous Dior dress, and is changed forever. Ruth reveals how her own transformative experience in a couture dress inspired this novel and then delves into the themes of hope, joy, and fairytale-like transformation. Then, she describes her unexpected career in food writing and the evolution of food culture and then shares her best advice for aspiring writers.


Zibby: Welcome Ruth. Thank you so much for coming on Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books to discuss the Paris novel. Congratulations. 

Ruth: Thank you. 

Zibby: So not to embarrass you, but I am such a fan that I pulled out all the books. I had to go all over my house to different bookshelves, but Tender at the Bone, Comfort Me with Apples, Garlic and Sapphires, Delicious, now the hardcover of the Paris novel, and Save Me, The Plumps.

So that's where I'm coming from. Tell listeners about what the Paris novel is about, please. 

Ruth: Well, for those of you who have read, save me the plums, there's a chapter in that book about my going into a dress shop in Paris and finding this dress that just transforms me completely. And it was the first dress that Yves Saint Laurent designed when he was at Dior.

And I wanted to be that person in the mirror so much, but it was 6, 000. So. I didn't buy it. And when I turned that book in, my editor, the late, fabulous Susan Campbell said to me, I love that chapter so much. Don't you think you could turn it into a novel? Can't you just take that idea and make a novel? And the minute she said it, I was, Oh, yeah.

Oh, yeah. I can see exactly where to go with that. And so that is what the book is about. The book is about someone who is very much not me, but who goes in and has this transformative experience with address, which I didn't know could happen until I, until that moment in my life and can really happen. And.

From that moment, her life starts over in a completely new way. And she has adventures. She goes from being a very timid person to someone who is just open to everything in the world, to food and art and music and literature and people. That's what the book is about. 

Zibby: It's so funny because in a book, you don't know where it's going to go.

So when she put the dress on, I was like, okay, is this going to become like a magical realist type thing? Are we going to now fly? Like, what's going to happen to her? Or is it going to stay in something that really might happen? Because it felt so otherworldly when she put the dress on. She looks so gorgeous.

She felt so different. So I was, Delighted that she stayed in the, in, that she stayed like sort of at Le Domego and it was like an actual story. 

Ruth: Yes. Yes. No, it's a real story. But you know, it's, it's a story, I, I feel like at this particular moment in time, we all need possible fairy tales. Yes. We all need to know that at any moment, something wonderful can happen to you, no matter how sad your life is.

Yes. You just don't know what's around the corner. And, I mean, that really very much, I mean, that's what I love about literature. I love that it can give you hope and joy. 

Zibby: Totally. I completely agree. And she had a tough go of it. She had a really estranged relationship, or she was estranged from her mother, and then her mother passes away and leaves her with this inheritance.

Meager, if you know, only not meager, but meager in that it only covers the dress, right? This is like, you know, she's like, should I spend my life savings on a dress or, you know, for to live for the next however many years? Tell, wait, tell us more about the dress experience you had yourself that you wrote about.

Ruth: So I literally went into there is. I think it's probably the best vintage clothing store in the world in Paris. I've been going there since I was like 20, but never, I mean, it's, it's filled with exquisite things and you go into it like it's a museum. And I, uh, when we were working on the Paris novel, uh, on the Paris issue for Gourmet, I again went in there and for the first time allowed myself to try something on because I had a clothing allowance and I did put on this dress and it was this moment, I mean, the shopkeeper in the novel says to Stella, Your dress is waiting for you.

And the shopkeeper actually did say that to me. Your dress is waiting for you. And I thought, Oh yeah, she says this to everyone. She gets out the most expensive dress in the shop and I put it on. And it really, if you've never had the experience of putting on real couture clothing, it is amazing because it is made for the body of the person who buys it.

I mean, it is handcrafted. And I obviously was exactly the same size as this woman. And it really did. I mean, I looked in the mirror and I was a person I had never imagined I could be. And I desperately wanted it. But 6, 000 for a dress. And also, how often do you have an opportunity in real life to wear a, you know, fabulous couture dress?

But for years, I wondered what would have happened if I had bought that dress? Would my life be different? What if I had gone out and I had allowed myself? to be that person. And so I got to imagine it for someone else and for someone who was much more in need of having a transformative experience than I was.

Zibby: Wow. Oh, I just love that. That's amazing. Well, I love also that she takes the dress and, you know, bargains her, gets this bargain where she can borrow it for the night. And if she doesn't like it, they'll let her return it, which was genius, especially as a plot device. And then she goes off on this lady's assignment and is just sitting there and meets the somebody who ends up changing her life and takes her all around and shows her Paris and everything else.

And she's just sitting there in this gorgeous gown. Like, why not? Why not eat oysters in this beautiful and a cold, what do you say? A cold Chablis or something? A cold. 

Ruth: Well, so she is a woman who likes to have, she's very orderly and she likes a plan and the shopkeeper says, do exactly what I tell you to do.

When you leave here, you will walk through the Tuileries, and then you will go to Les Demingots, and you will order oysters and a Chablis, neither of which she has ever had before. And so she experiences her first oyster, and it is, and I mean, and I got to try and imagine what it was like to have all these flavors for the first time when you were 32.

And that was very fun for me to just imagine the joy of eating an oyster for the first time as an adult and really being in that experience and, you know, feeling the textures and the way it feels in your throat and the brininess and to take. Chablis and to take. your first sip of Chablis and she closes her eyes and she's like on a mountaintop and there's, you know, water running down the mountain and it's green and she has these really extraordinary sensory experiences when she's tasting and this lovely old man next to her says You eat with such intensity, and she's shocked because she hasn't even realized what she's doing.

I mean, she's so in the moment. And then they embark on this friendship, and he's I loved the characters in this book so much. From this wonderful old man who is kind of like what I would imagine a fairy godfather would be like. Totally. He's real and he's, he is, is, he's in his 80s. And so, and the book takes place in the 1980s.

So this is a man who knew Picasso, you know, he knew everyone in Paris in the 20s. And so he tells her about his childhood, which is so different than her. Because, you know, he was given a kind of freedom because of the war, and, you know, he'd grown up in this very stuffy, uh, aristocratic family, but in the war, all the rules went away, and suddenly, you know, he was following Cocteau around, and so he tells her about Cocteau.

All the things that he knows and loves about art, which, you know, he's, he's, he's an art consultant, and he introduces her to art in a way that she, that she had never known before. And, and then she discovers. the great bookshop in the world. And I, I'm kind of stunned when, when I think about it, George Whitman, the man who started Shakespeare and Company is such an amazing character.

And the more I read about him, um, the more I thought, why is, why doesn't he, why doesn't he walk through everybody's book about Paris? Because he's, you know, he was such an extraordinary person himself. You know, there's a sign in the shop that says, Take what you need, pay what you can because he believed that everybody needed books and they couldn't afford them.

They should just take them from him because it would change their lives. And he allowed people to live in his shop. 

Zibby: You know, I was going to ask, did people really sleep there? That was a thing? 

Ruth: Over the years. 30, 000 people have slept there and people you've heard of. I mean, Ethan Hawk did. Frank Sinatra sent people there.

And you can still live there. I mean, if you go on their website, Shakespeare Company, they tell you how to become a tumbleweed if you want to. And, I knew people who were tumbleweeds. I never did it myself, but I always thought, you know, what an amazing thing to live in a bookstore. Yeah. You know, it sounds like a fairytale, but it is not a fairytale.

And it, when you walk through the store, there are little signs everywhere from people who have been tumbleweeds and how it changed their lives. And when, you know, that their children are coming now to be tumbleweeds in the shop. 

Zibby: Wow. I have a tiny independent bookstore in Santa Monica now. And I'm like, I don't know that I, That there would be such a draw to sleep in the store.

Like, yeah, but obviously getting lost in the stacks is such a, it's such a dream, right? Just to have your imagination on play like the whole time. 

Ruth: It is, and you know, I think there's a reason why there are all these books about, you know, magic in the bookshop. I mean, bookshops are, I mean, kudos to you for opening a bookstore.

I mean, it's one of the great joys of my life is that bookstores are coming back. 

Zibby: Yes. There's something very special about just getting together, getting lost in stories. Amazing. What keeps you coming back? I know there was a specific idea to write. a novel now and where that came from. But you've done a lot of nonfiction writing and the novel, and do you find one harder or easier?

Ruth: Well, I have to tell you, I do not find writing easy. I hate to write, you know, like most writers. I love having written, but I hate writing and keep writing because having once, once it's, you've done it, it's, it's such a great feeling when good words appear on the page. And I, you know, I grew up in, in book publishing.

My father was a book designer. And so I. I've always thought that writing fiction was like the highest calling and I always wanted to write fiction. I wasn't sure that I could. I was very close with MFK Fisher who said that she wanted to write fiction and did in fact write one book which she made me promise never to read.

You know, she said, it's terrible. I can't do it. And I have it, but I've never read it. But I love fiction so much. I mean, it's my drug of choice. It's, you know, when things get bad, all I want to do is disappear into a book. And having been a journalist most of my life, I had this fantasy that writing a novel would be like reading a novel.

Can I tell you that for Galitius, it was absolutely not. I mean, it was harder than anything I've written. And I don't know why, but writing this book, was like reading fiction. I mean, I literally said to my family every day, I'm going to Paris now. And I would go off to my studio to write. And I was so convinced that it couldn't be good because I liked it too much.

It was too easy. It was, it was too much fun. I mean, I just loved being with these characters and I literally every day wanted to find out what they were going to do. And so, I mean, if writing were always this much fun, I would have written hundreds of books. 

Zibby: Oh my gosh. Yeah. It's, it's the unexplained subconscious, right?

Who knows why some books are so much easier. 

Ruth: Right. And I'm, you know, I'm not sure it'll ever happen again. But. 

Zibby: Don't, don't, don't say that. Don't jinx yourself. Maybe it'll always happen. Now you know how to write books. Now you know how to write novels. Obviously you know how to write books. But you know what I mean.

Ruth: I'm working on, uh, I'm about to work on a sequel to this book. Oh no way. Because I love these characters so much. I just didn't want to give them up. I didn't want to end the book. And then I thought, you can end it. Because you can, you can pick them up at another point in their lives. 

Zibby: So what point will you be picking them up?

Ruth: About 10 years later. 

Zibby: Oh, so exciting. Well, see, that's smart of you, because you gave yourself enough leeway by saying it in the 80s. You could actually have, like, multiple sequels. 

Ruth: Exactly. But now we're moving into the 90s, and it's a different time, and they will be in a different place. And, you know, I'm very excited to find out what they're going to be doing.

Zibby: That's great. Oh, I can't wait to read that one. Oh my gosh. So I actually wrote my own novel recently called Blank, and in it, there's a woman who goes to open houses in secret, in costume, and so in the book I say, she's just like you. Oh my gosh. Oh, I have to read this. I have to find the quote. I was like, I should have had it already, but I said something like, just like Ruth Reichel and, um, well anyway, I can't find it now.

I can send you a copy. But anyway, I thought of you every time I I'm going to go buy a coffee. As soon as we end this, I'm buying a coffee. Oh, thank you. Well, you're in there because you've, you inspired me with the whole, you know, eating at restaurants and hiding yourself and all of that. It was, Brilliant.

Ruth: That was fun, too. The strength. It was fun. 

Zibby: So a lot of your career has been in food, with food, loving food, giving us scenes like the oyster binge fest at the restaurants and, and just communicating that joy of eating. As you said, books are all about joy. What is it about food When did you know that this was your thing?

That like, you were a foodie before a foodie was a thing? That you loved to read and write about it? Like, was it something? That you always knew you would write about. Like, loving it is different, but. 

Ruth: Absolutely not. I mean, I always knew I loved food. And everybody thought I was really strange. I mean, that, that jacket on Tender at the Bone is me cooking at seven.

Zibby: Amazing. 

Ruth: And, so I always knew. That I loved food, but it never there. There wasn't such a thing as a career in food other than being a chef. I mean, there were like 10 people who wrote about food when I was growing up, you know, not even so it never crossed my mind. that that's something that I could do. And I, after I, after graduate school, my husband and I moved to New York and I got a job that I really hated.

And we were living on the, at that time, very scary Lower East Side. And, but it was a great food neighborhood, you know, it was still, you know, little Italy still existed. I mean, all the moms would be there at the Pioneer Market and Alos and Chinatown. Um, we had this new influx of, um, people from other parts of China other than Canton and the Jewish part of the Lower East Side was still a vibrant neighborhood.

And so, you know, I would just wander around the neighborhood and people were so enthralled with this, you know, 21 year olds who wanted to know how, how to cook things. And people kept giving me recipes and I would go back and all our friends from college would come and crash on our floor of our loft.

And I'd make these huge dinners for all our friends. And one night, a friend of mine said, you're such a good cook. You ought to write a cookbook. Now, you know, today, that would be ridiculous, but in 1971, when I went to a publisher and said, You know, I have this idea for a cookbook. They didn't say, Can you cook?

Who's testing your recipes? Where are the recipes from? They just said, Oh, a cookbook by a young person. What an interesting idea. And they gave me a contract so I could, they gave me enough of it advanced to quit my job. And so I spent a year writing this very of its moment cookbook. And I realized how much I loved writing about food.

I mean, I wrote about roaming around New York and I got to put anything I wanted in it and all my friends made art for the, I mean, it's, it's, it's a very strange little cookbook, but I then realized. That one, I loved writing and that maybe I could do some of it. I mean, I didn't, I still didn't think I could have a career in it, but I thought I could write.

So I started writing for, we, we moved to Berkeley. I started a restaurant with some people and, but I was also writing for. magazines, mostly about art, which was my field. And one of my editors came to eat my restaurant a few nights a week. And one day he just said to me, you know, have you ever thought about being a restaurant critic?

And it literally had not, I mean, it hadn't crossed my mind. My mind. And I didn't think, Oh, this is my new career. I just thought they're going to pay us to go to restaurants. My friends, I was living in a commune, you know, but I can take all my friends to restaurants. This'll be fun. And so, I mean, that was really the moment that, but even then I thought I was doing that until my real life started.

I don't think it was till the LA times hired me as the restaurant critic that it hit me that maybe that was my real life. 

Zibby: Is there anything you miss about the earlier days? 

Ruth: Oh my God. I miss, I miss so much. I miss, I mean, I loved living in this commune. I mean, I loved living in a group of people. I mean, you know, there's always someone to talk to.

There's always someone to cook for. And I miss, I mean, those early years in the food world were amazing. amazing because now the press and restaurants have become kind of adversarial. But in those days, there was this little group of us who were all in love with food and we were all in it together. It was like chefs and writers and, you know, and we were, sort of jumping up and down and saying, you, we could have good food in America.

We could grow good food. And I miss that, that the excitement of it being something new and trying to pull other people in to appreciate it as much as we do. And that the way it was all changing, you know, I mean, when I started writing about food, there weren't farmers markets. And, you know, watching food become part of popular culture has been very exciting to me, you know, where, you know, when I had no money, we didn't go to restaurants.

It just didn't occur to us to go to restaurants. My son has no money. It doesn't occur to him not to go to restaurants. I mean, he doesn't go to fancy restaurants, but, you know, it's just, he would no sooner not go out to eat than he would not go to movies or buy books or, I mean, it's just, food has really come into the culture and it's been fun to watch that happen.

Zibby: Wow. I was out to dinner with my brother and his kids recently and my little niece, who's nine, is now basically a real foodie and she's like, loves everything and knows everything. And we sat down and she was like, What's the grade of this Wagyu beef, you know, is it, she's, she's like, Oh, it's a four. And I was like, what does that even mean?

And she went off and told me the whole thing. Well, there's this a and the secret, but I was like, where are you, where do you get this stuff? So yes, I feel like it has trickled down. So now a nine year old can, can tell you the ins and outs. 

Ruth: I mean, and I wonder what she'll be eating when she's 20. 

Zibby: Mm hmm.


Probably a lot. And she loves to cook, too. So there you go. I'll be, I'll be eating at her house.

Ruth: Yes. You will not, you will not go hungry. 

Zibby: I will not go hungry. Yes, exactly. So what advice do you have for aspiring writers of all kinds? 

Ruth: Keep writing. Follow your passions. I mean, I think, you know, the thing I learned from this book is if you're writing about things you really love.

It really can be fun. And I mean, the other thing is. It's very interesting. When I, when I wrote my cookbook, my, my kitchen year and I was on book tour for it. One of the people who interviewed me on stage had me read from my first cookbook, which I wrote when I was 21. I'll read from my kitchen year, which I wrote a few years ago.

And the interesting thing to me was that the voice was the same and that's why she wanted me to read it. She said, you know, this book was written 50 years ago. I mean, they're 50 years apart. These two books and your voice is exactly the same. And so I wasn't conscious of having a voice. But it seems to me that it's important, whether you know it or you don't know it, to write with the way you speak.

To use your voice. I don't know if that makes sense.

Zibby: It makes total sense. I love it. And it's why people who have loved your nonfiction, like me, are very happy to read your fiction as well, because it's the same type of thing. Like, you kind of know what you're getting, because you've felt a brand around the way you see the world, which is a way a lot of us want to see the world, and your sense of humor, and your descriptions, and your wit, and all of it.

So, yeah, I think it makes a lot of sense, and it's on the receiving end of that. It is, it is very welcome, so. 

Ruth: Thank you. You are very good for my ego, may I say. 

Zibby: I'm sorry, I've been a fan. I've been a fan for a long time. I don't often get this way. I mean, that's not true. I get this way a lot. But I mean, like, you know, I've been reading you for, I just love the way you write.

I just love it. I'm, I'm a fan. That's all I can say. So, thank you, thanks for coming on the podcast. Congratulations on the Paris novel, and for having me. I want this outfit. 

Ruth: Oh yes, I have actually, for book tour, I finally, so I, I'm just starting book tour, but when I was in D. C., all these women showed up. dress the cover. So I thought, yes, that's what I need to do. So I, I now have my book tour outfit. 

Zibby: Perfect. Excellent. All right. Well, thanks so much, Ruth. It was a pleasure. 

Ruth: Well, real pleasure for me and I'm getting your book right now. 

Zibby: Okay. Thank you. 

Ruth: Okay. 



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