An interview with Sarah Todd Taylor and Jo Clarke

Today’s post is an interview with Sarah Todd Taylor and Jo Clarke and I am super excited to share it with you! When I was thinking about it, my idea was basically ‘Paris Middle Grade Authors Assemble’. I knew that we were all authors who have set middle grade books in Paris (How To Be True; Alice Éclair : Spy Extraordinaire; Libby and the Parisian Puzzle) and I thought it might be fun if we had a chat about that….

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DMJ – Hello everyone! My first guest today is Sarah Todd Taylor. Sarah is the author of the Alice Éclair : Spy Extraordinaire books, the Max the Detective Cat series amongst many others, and somebody whose work I’ve enjoyed immensely over the years. Hi Sarah! Thanks for being here! 

Sarah – Hi Daisy, I’m utterly thrilled to be here, and to be chatting with you and Jo (I LOVE the Libby series and your How to Be series and am sure that Libby and Alice would be friends if they met).

DMJ – My second guest is Jo Clarke who I’ve known and admired for a long while as “bookloverjo” – a blogger and reviewer  of children’s books (bloggers are great, we love bloggers here). She’s now also the author of the Travelling School Mysteries – a middle grade series which travels the globe and has ADVENTURES (also something we love entirely here!). Welcome Jo!

Jo – Hi Daisy, such a treat to here chatting with you and Sarah about all things Paris. I can’t resist a book set in Paris so was so excited to read both of yours and see how you explored my favourite city.

DMJ – Let’s start with the obvious. Why did you choose to set your book in Paris?

Sarah – Originally, Alice was going to be set in London, but as I’d set the Max the Detective Cat series there, while chatting with my amazing editor at Nosy Crow, Fiona Scoble, we discussed moving the action to France. As Alice was a pâtissière, this made perfect sense, as there are so many gorgeous French pastries for her to make, and I knew that I wanted her first adventure to be on a luxury steam train, so the beautiful Train Bleu  that ran from Paris to the Mediterranean became my inspiration for the Sapphire Express, and Alice’s Paris adventures began.

Jo – The inspiration behind The Travelling School Mysteries came from a chance conversation at work. A supply teacher mentioned her daughter was going to school in Japan so she could learn about the culture. I’m obsessed with boarding school stories so it seemed like the perfect place to set a mystery but I wanted to do it with a twist so I decided to create an extraordinary school that travelled the world. Paris was my first location choice as it’s my absolute favourite city in the world and it’s the place I have visited the most. I fell in love with Paris when I took my boyfriend (now husband) there for his 21st birthday.

DMJ – And can I ask as well about the writing process? With publishing timelines being what they are, I was wondering whether either of you wrote your books during lockdown – and if so, how did you manage writing the city at a distance? I know for me, I watched a lot of Youtube (thank you Paris and plant youtube! you’re the best!) and ‘streetviewed’ my way around the city…

Sarah – The first draft of Alice was actually well underway by the time lockdown began. I drew a lot on photos I had taken on a trip to Paris way back in 2017 as well as steam train rides I have taken. I found some wonderful books about luxury train travel and also reached out to friends on Twitter who write about trains, who were very helpful. I wrote quite a bit of Alice’s next adventure in lockdown, using maps and documents of the event it is based around that I found online. I’d love to go back to Paris, though, to refresh my memories – and to try more of the pastries that I’ve been writing about.  

Jo – The first version of Parisian Puzzle was written over four years ago and I had travelled to Paris the previous year so it all felt quite alive in my mind. Unfortunately I had no agent interest and put it away in a drawer, it was only two years later when I entered it into a writing competition that I decided to rewrite it. By then we were heading into the first lockdown and my memories were slightly more hazy. I used children’s travel guides to Paris in the hope that they might help me with the child’s eye view of Paris that Libby and Connie were seeing. I also had a map above my desk with all the key locations plotted out. I created Pinterest boards with all my favourite places as I really need visual clues when writing.

DMJ – My research for How To Be True involved street mapping my way around the Arc De Triomphe and figuring out how to get there from the Ladurée shop on the Champs Elysées (a vital cameo in the book!). Did you do any particular research before you started writing? What are your top tips for people wanting to write about Paris?

Sarah – A big part of Alice is the cakes, so that was another set of reading up that I had to do. Thankfully there are lots of youtube videos from talented cake makers so I was able to look up the techniquest she uses. I wanted to make sure that the Sapphire Express’ journey through France was convincing so I based it on the journey made by a real luxury Train – Le Train Bleu. There is quite a lot of action in the book that is dependent upon where the train is at certain times so I had to make a lot of calculations about how fast it could travel, and at several points, how fast a car could travel to meet it. I think my top tip, if you can’t actually visit Paris, would be maps and YouTube. As Alice is set in the 1930s, I can’t actually visit ‘her’ Paris anyway, but there is so much footage available on the web so I was able to get a feel for the fashions and look of her world from that.

Jo – When I’m running creative writing workshops I always tell children to pick imaginary locations if they want to make things easy for themselves, using real life locations is really tricky. You have to pay so much attention to detail otherwise someone is bound to catch you out. I checked the timings of Metro journeys, the facilities in the library they used and used estate agent websites to check details about what they would be able to see outside their bedroom window. Street views, Pinterest and maps have been invaluable to my research. Also I had a French reader who used to live in Paris read the first draft and highlight any glaring errors.

DMJ – And were there any locations that you knew had to feature in your work?

Sarah – The Eiffel Tower. I fell utterly in love with it when I visited and I knew that I wanted it in the book. Alice doesn’t actually go to the tower in A Recipe for Trouble, but her Eiffel Tower cake centrepiece kicks off the action, and the tower appears in all her glory in the next adventure. 

Jo – As I was rewriting Parisian Puzzle during lockdown and had no idea what the world would be like I wanted to take my readers on a virtual tour around Paris and include as many as the landmarks as possible. I was thrilled when Becka Moor (my illustrator) created a map of Paris so that my readers could visualise where the events were unfolding. The thing I love the most about Paris is when the Eiffel Tower sneaks up on you and you spot it in the most unexpected of places, Libby glimpses it near the beginning hiding behind clouds but we never see her actually go up to the top. I did want to have the ending of the book set at the Eiffel Tower but because of the increased security from when I first visited, I knew it wouldn’t have been realistic.

DMJ – On a related note, what are your top tips for people wanting to read about Paris? I am going to sneak in a couple of my picks here as well: Les Parisiennes by Anne Sebba; Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky; and the Madeline books by Ludwig Bemelmans (bonus points if you spot the Madeline reference in How To Be True!)

Sarah – Obviously, Jo’s and your gorgeous books, which are utter treats. I also love the Madame Pamplemousse books by Rupert Kingfisher, a delightful mix of magic and food. Katherine Rundell’s Rooftoppers is another wonderful Paris book, with the action set high above the city. Katherine Woodfine’s Peril in Paris is a rollocking spy adventure that I adored, and Sylvia Bishop’s The Secret of the Night Train combines a brilliant heroine with a brilliantly plotted adventure and I loved it. 

Jo – I have a whole shelf dedicated to books set in Paris including Alice Eclair and How To Be True of course. I absolutely love Salvatore Rubbino’s A Walk in Paris picture book, it has the most exquisite illustrations and fascinating facts, it’s a beautiful walk through the city.

DMJ – And finally, if you were going to recommend one place in Paris for writers to visit, where would it be and why?

Sarah – Ooh, that’s tricky. I loved climbing to the top of the Arc de Triomphe and exploring the museum within it, but  I think I would say the river bank, just because there is so much going on there and it’s such a wonderful slice of the city, passing by the bridges, seeing life pass by on the boats, the gorgeous churches and the tower rising above it all. There are so many stories that could start from anything you pass by. 

JoShakespeare and Company. in Paris is the place literary lovers flock. Pop in and buy a book set in Paris and find a cafe nearby and read it with a hot chocolate and delicious pastry, just like Libby would. Avoid visiting during the Summer months when it will be very crowded and you will feel rushed. I think the perfect time is in Spring when the air is cold and the crowds are small. It has the most wonderful atmosphere and a career highlight for me was discovering that they stocked my book. 

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