PW: L'Affaire is a natural successor to Le Divorce and Le Mariage. How did you come to write them?
Diane Johnson: I went to Paris in 1995 with my husband, [a research physician] who was taking up work with an international nonprofit health organization headquartered in Paris. I've always been interested in comedies of manners, and it took a different society to illumine our own manners as well as those of the French. My focus is on Americans in Paris against the background of a very different culture, one that's rigid and codified. Our own culture seems very fluid next to the French. In fact, though, the French things don't strike me as much now. Now it's Americans whose characteristics I see more clearly.
PW: What are some of the subtle things that you, as an American, came to realize that the French see so differently from the way we do?
DJ: My apartment in Paris is a perfect example. It's on what the French call the first floor, above the ground floor. If you've read Le Mariage you know the French disdain to live on the first floor. So all of Paris is becoming inhabited by foreigners in these wonderful first-floor apartments.
In the past months, political differences [have emerged]. They have almost blotted out everything else. We have found that the French are actually very sympathetic to Americans. They are very down on Bush, but they make a point of being nice to Americans.
PW: You've had a successful career as a writer, both of fiction and nonfiction, and you are respected by critics and readers. But the sales of Le Divorce and Le Mariage brought you a new kind of visibility, and now the movie of Le Divorce will make you a household name. How do you feel about your new status?
DJ: I know people always say how surprised they are, but the fact is I have been surprised. I have been thrilled to sit next to someone on an airplane who's reading Le Divorce. Of course writers want to be read, but it makes me realize what a great responsibility that is. It also gives me great pleasure, of course.
PW: You've also become a spokesperson for the American expat's view of what is going on in the French mind and consciousness. You've contributed essays to the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. Do you welcome this role?
DJ: I used to be everybody's Californian when they wanted a review or an opinion from someone who lived there. Now I happen to be in France, so occasionally people call me. I feel I'm far from a systematic observer—of culture maybe, but I'm by no means a reporter or a journalist. Luckily, people have only asked for my opinions. I would never feel that I could speak definitively for either the French or the Americans.
PW: Do the French ask you to reflect on the opinions of Americans?
DJ: No, not at all. I think I'm completely invisible to the French, including my books. They don't like attempts to describe them. We'll see what happens after the movie. It was filmed on location, in recognizable places.
PW: In L'Affaire, you've introduced British characters who give vent to their own stereotypes about the Americans and the French, who of course have their stereotypes about the British. Was that fun?
DJ: It came to me that I know quite a lot about England, and that the English are even weirder than the French. I thought I would just get my toes wet with the British characters. And indeed, it was fun.
PW: Dutton has speeded up the publication of L'Affaire to take advantage of the movie release. How did that affect you?
DJ: I literally finished this book two weeks ago. So publication was really fast. It's kind of difficult because I now realize there's usually a kind of separation process, a space between the six or eight months one usually has before the book comes out. I wake up in the night now still writing it.