Can a book about being homeless and suicidal be poignant AND funny? After reading Naturi Thomas’ memoir, HOW TO DIE IN PARIS, I would have to say the answer is yes. Within a few pages of the book, the narrator’s voice had completely captured my attention with her ability to portray the isolation and desperation of homelessness in one breath and make an acerbically funny observation in the next. Here’s a quick example from page 94/95:
When I finally make it to a bench, facing the river, I drop into it, lowering myself with my hands. For the first time, it strikes me, the futility of struggling to get from one place to another, when I have nowhere to go. Stillness, however, requires a self-possession I lack these days. If I sit somewhere and do nothing, I’m afraid people will know why. After three days, I’ve acquired a few poses:
1) Time Out for Nature! The calls for gazing at my surroundings with a peaceful expression.
2) Let’s Get Organized! Here, I study my day planner with a pensive expression, occasionally drawing a flower in the blank squares of October.
3) The Reader. During which I take out the same paperback I finished days ago, careful to hold it right side up.
Today I decide to give myself a treat and just look homeless.
Here’s what Naturi has to say about the process of writing and publishing HOW TO DIE IN PARIS:
Theo: This is your first memoir. How did you get started writing it? How did your idea for the book evolve?
Naturi: I actually started writing things down while I was homeless. At first, I wrote in my journal. When that ran out, since I had no money to buy paper, I would use napkins from cafes, took flyers off of buildings and wrote on the back. Good thing I never ran out of pens, God only knows what I would have tried to use for ink…My thinking was, if I didn’t make it, I wanted the people I would have left behind to know that yeah, I tried to kill myself here, but mostly, I fought to make sense of things, and to stay alive.
Naturi: After 19 days on the streets, I was able to contact people I knew. With the money they wired, I stayed in a youth hostel near the Gare du Nord. There was a café on the first floor, and every day, I would sit at a table and look at the notes I’d taken when I was homeless and try and put them in some kind of order. At first, I wrote it in the 2nd tense, ‘You were freezing. You hadn’t eaten for two days…’ It started out as therapy. When I realized that it might the makings of a book, I changed to the 3rd person, desperate to put some distance between myself and what had happened. But in doing so, my memories sounded like they belonged to someone else; the book didn’t flow. Only when I started writing ‘I’ did the narrative really begin to take shape.
Theo: Did you face any struggles in how to structure the book, and if so, how did you overcome those?
Naturi: When I got back to NYC, I began studying at the New School. My wonderful teacher, Cris Beam, read my manuscript and asked me why I hadn’t put in anything about my early years. I was really reluctant to do that, but in most cases, you probably don’t end up trying to hurl yourself off the Eiffel Tower if you’ve had a great childhood. But as hard as growing up in my family was, it wasn’t some endless tale of Dickensian hardship. There were beatings with a belt but also puppet shows at bedtime. Sometimes there was a knife brandished at my dad at dinner, and sometimes there were lively, funny discussions of books we’d all read. Trying to reconcile Heaven and Hell existing on the same plane was probably the biggest challenge I’ve faced as a writer, and a person, so far.
Theo: Who influenced you as a writer?
Naturi: Every author I’ve ever read, for better or worse. In fact, reading the book over, I’m shocked at how many literary allusions I use, books and authors I mention. A lot of my chapter titles are borrowed from literary works. I’ve read so compulsively all my life, that I can’t point to one specific influence on my development as a writer. It’s all mixed up inside me, like the food from some magnificent feast.
Theo: What was the publication process for HOW TO DIE IN PARIS like?
Naturi: When I first started sending my manuscript out to agents, all I got were the one-line form letters. As I continued to polish and re-edit the draft though, I began to get specific feedback on my early chapters. “Strong writing, but dark.” “Suicide doesn’t sell.” “Well-written, but we’re only looking for upbeat memoirs. For instance, if you’ve had a special experience with a pet…” It got to the point where I started to miss the form letters. Then I attended the BEA conference in New York, where you get to meet a variety of agents and give them a 5 minute pitch about your book. I practiced mine like mad. If you’re going to go up to a stranger and say, ‘I’ve written a memoir about being homeless and suicidal…’ you’d better tell a few jokes. All of the five agents I spoke to expressed interest, and I signed with the first one who offered to represent me, about a week later. I think it’s an invaluable experience, these pitch seminars. They give you practice condensing your book into its main elements and gives both the agent and the writer the chance to see that sitting on the other side of the table is a person, just like them.
Theo: Are you working on another project? If so, can you tell us a bit about of it?
Naturi: I’ve got a novel I’m putting the finishing touches on as we speak. It’s called The Devil, the Diva and Mia Malone: The night of her 30th birthday, Mia Malone discovers that her former best friend is in town shooting a movie. She sneaks onto set to confront Jordana Devine, the woman whose betrayal landed Jordana a prime place in Hollywood, while casting Mia in the shadows. This time, however, Mia’s daring results in her being cast in a co-starring role. She also gets some very tempting attention from the movie’s director, who, as luck would have it, is also Jordana’s lover. Finally, Mia has a role to kill for. Unfortunately for her, Jordana Devine feels the exact same way.
Theo: HOW TO DIE IN PARIS gives a gripping account of a period of homelessness and utter brokenness. I thought one of the many strengths of the book is that it portrayed homelessness in a very visceral way in which the reader can’t help but put herself into the narrator’s shoes. Another was that the book ends with the narrator’s life improved, but more internally than externally—not everything is tied up in the end. It did make me curious how the narrator ended up getting back on her feet, though. Could you tell us a bit about that?
Naturi: It took me several months to make it back to New York, and from there, things got worse. I moved in and out of crappy living situations and crappy jobs, surrounded by people who were just as lost as me. I have a few friends who ride motorcycles, and one of the first things they learned was, ‘Point your bike in the direction you want to go.’ It’s so easy when things are tough to get mired in the day to day and lose all hope. It’s a constant battle to remind yourself that just because you’ve hit rock bottom, it doesn’t mean you are rock bottom. I decided I was going to get my story published and put all my spare energy into doing that. I immersed myself not only into books, but every free or cheap reading, workshop, writing group, just to keep focus and be amongst the people who were living the life I aspired to. I’d been writing constantly since I was a little kid, and never took it as seriously as I should have. But when push came to shove, I realized that my favorite way of killing time was the only thing that could save my life.
I have friends who’ve been published, and they tell me, now that my book is out, my job is just beginning. There’s always going to be rejection, uncertainty about the next project, hustling to make ends meet in between; I know I’ve got my work cut out for me. But all things considered, every time I sit at my desk to write, I can’t help but feel pretty damn lucky.
Learn more about Naturi Thomas and HOW TO DIE IN PARIS at her website.