“In June of 1992, I left Boston for France with everything in front of me.” So begins the first story in The Balcony, debut fiction from Jane Delury, a professor in the MFA program at the University of Baltimore.
The narrator of this story is Brigitte, an American college girl working as an au pair for a French family at a manor house in the countryside. But any initial impression that this is an autobiographical coming-of-age novel is dashed when one hits the second story, set in 1890 on the same estate, with an upstairs-downstairs theme, all French characters, and a suicide. By the third story, in 1980, you figure it out. It’s centered on the place, and all the people who lived there, and all the things that happened to them over about 130 years. And Brigitte is about the only American you’ll find.
Take the fictional poet Rado Koto, from Madagascar. He appears in “Au Pair” as the subject of a book that the father of the family, a literature professor, is working on. We hear that he won a big poetry prize, slept with Andy Warhol, became a heroin addict, died a suicide at 42. In “Nothing of Consequence,” set in 1975, Koto is alive and well, having a romantic liaison with one of his adult students at a poetry conference on a coconut plantation in Madagascar. This woman, we gradually figure out by putting two and two together with information from another story, grew up in poverty in a cottage on the estate, pre-WWII. Aha!
Some of the most acclaimed books of 2017 were in the linked story format: Elizabeth Strout’s Anything is Possible, Joan Silber’s Improvement, Neal Mukherjee’s State of Freedom. Though this form offers the novelistic pleasure of lingering in a unified world for the whole length of the book, it also gives the author freedom to range around in time, place and perspective. It is uniquely suited to depicting the operation of fate and coincidence, and to showing troubled relationships and complicated characters from a variety of angles.
The Balcony has been blessed with a starred review in Kirkus calling Jane “a writer to watch.” As her colleague and friend, I’ve had a birds-eye view for the past 10 years. Honestly, with her talent, she could have been that 25-year old who gets the million dollar deal for her first book. Instead, fate made her wait quite a while. We caught up with her to talk about it all.
BFB: You seem to know so much about France and about French people. Can you tell us how that came about?
I fell in love with France as a girl, growing up in Sacramento. My father had cousins in Alsace, whom we visited, and he wrote to them regularly in French and encouraged me to learn the language as well. I started lessons young, then I minored in French literature at UC Santa Cruz. I spent my junior year abroad, in Grenoble. I ended up marrying a Frenchman I met that year, and we lived in Grenoble for four years. The stories in the book began with a forest behind his grandparents’ house near Chateauroux, France, a place we visited often. When we left France for Baltimore so I could start graduate work in the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars, I kept coming up with stories about that forest. There are other places in the book that I adore too, like Brittany, where we often rented houses during the summer and where his grand-aunt lived.
BFB: The history you provide for the estate and its previous owners seems so real. is it made up completely, or is it modeled on something? How did you do it?
The history of the estate and the lives of its owners are mostly made up. One or two of the stories have elements of local legends about the forest of Chateauroux. For instance, I wrote a story based on an anecdote about a boy who went out hunting with his brother and drowned in a pond. I love historical anecdotes, and I gather them everywhere on visits to France, so there are many of those fragments that inform the story of the estate. The description of what happened to the manor during the war is based on something I read years ago about a house that was plundered. I did do research when I wrote the original stories, and I did more research when I wrote the novel. I found villages near Paris like the one I created near the forest (Benneville) and I read about their history. I wanted my characters to drive the events of the novel, but I did want to remain in the realm of the plausible. And I had a French copy editor fact check for me once I had a draft.
BFB: How did you decide on the order?
Initially, when I was putting a manuscript together, I wanted to balance the voice shifts between the original stories. I wanted to set the more historical stories up against the more contemporary ones, but also have consistency from the start to the end of the book. And I wanted the greater story of the estate to build from each chapter. My partner, Don Lee, who’s also a fiction writer, was my first reader and he helped me figure out the initial order. The opening chapter, “Au Pair” was key—it set the tone of the novel for me and it laid out the history of the estate.
I was lucky to find a wonderful editor at Little, Brown, Jean Garnett. From the start, Jean understood perfectly what I was trying to do, and she and I worked together on the proper flow of the chapters. I recognize that I’m asking the reader to do some work here, piecing together a larger narrative while also living in the moment of each story. Jean and I were aware of that challenge for the reader, and we worked the book out like a puzzle. There’s also a bit of a cheat sheet on my website, a timeline that goes decade by decade from the 1880s to the 2000s, showing who was living on the property.
BFB: The way you slip in the French phrases here and there, translating just enough to make it legible for everyone — it reminds me of what Junot Díaz does in his work with Spanish. Talk a little about that.
When I was first writing the original stories, I moved without thought between English and French. I was living with a Frenchman (we are now divorced) and my daughters speak the language. The narration and the approach to French come from that state of mind. At the same time, there’s a wonder to a second language that never quite goes away. I love those expressions that only exist French, for which there’s no perfect equivalent in English. Although my French characters don’t speak French on the page, they are speaking French in my head. I tried to transmit that in the narration, though syntax and idiom. But it wasn’t a conscious act—it felt natural. Jean suggested that I include more French words in the book, so I did translate some words “back” to French, words that would strike a certain narrative rhythm. Again, I tried to do what felt natural to me. That, to me, is the most important thing. I’m glad you mention Junot Díaz, because he is a master at slipping in Spanish perfectly. I’d love to think that I got close!
Jane will be reading from The Balcony at events all over Baltimore in March and April, including Hopkins, UB, the Pratt, the Ivy Bookshop.