Up a narrow rutted road, surrounded by fields, and hills at a distance, sits a large farmhouse*, part of which is owned by a man who is so enthusiastic that he is the epitome of joie de vivre. Thin, his red hair on end as though electrified by his own energy, he greets us (me and my navigator husband) warmly. We are won over immediately: Jeremy Mercer is a nice guy. Funny, informed, and happy, he shares with us the cake that was part of a celebration the day before. His son is home sick, so after he shows us his “hell”, his office at the dining room table groaning under papers, we head outside. The view is fantastic. Standing with your back to the door, you can see fields, their horse and pony, and the hill-top village of Dauphin, where, he tells us — wrapping us immediately in stories — is where the mine owners settled. To your right is the less prosperous hill-top village of Saint Maime, where the mine labourers lived. The bright greens and deep browns of spring mud seem almost fluorescent in the strong sun after England’s cloud-filtered light.
His tour includes his office, which is around to the side of the house, with a view of more hills. At the back of the house one can just see the mine in question and La Roche Amère, the quarry from which he got supplies for the cement that he needed to convert the garage to his as yet unfinished office. “I’ve redone the electrics, the roof, and the cement. I’ve poured the cement floor and put in the window and the door. Take a look at that view.” He tells us what he of what he will do, such as making a terrace outside his office door. We ask about the neighbouring field. “I want to buy another field to grow pumpkins, I want to make St Maime the Halloween capital of Europe.” These are the plans of a new homeowner; he and his family have been at the farm for a year and a half.
We sit in the sun at a round metal table in the shelter of the house. And talk. I’ve edited out the bits of interest to parents only — comparing school systems — and the extraneous ums and dadedas.
By the time I turned the recorder on, we were well into the story of how the wanderer met Géraldine, his future wife, and transformed into a married man with two kids and property at the age of 44. Here is some of what Jeremy Mercer said on March 19, 2015, at his farm in the Luberon.
JM: Essentially what you need to know is that Géraldine had a very sunny rustic childhood. She went to Paris for nursing school, couldn’t stand the grey, moved to Marseille. We met in Marseille in 2007. She moved in with me because I had the incredible house [he lived rent free by running errands and doing repairs for the owner in the flat below]. When we said it’s time to grow up and buy, we realized … all the places you want to live are really expensive. My original choice was to move to Montréal. Started looking at houses in Côte-des-Neiges, which is a Montréal neighbourhood we can kind of afford. But I took my wife to see Montréal in December. [groans and laughter] She toured the hospital and was staggered: Canada is so impressive. But with our budget, to have something we could really love, we have to go to the countryside. And French countryside is very different from Canadian countryside — in terms of convenience, everything is so close, the schools, the hospitals, this great cultural network because of tourism in the summer. So we bought here as our only real option. Here we could create a pretty good life.
But that said, the kids, I’d like them to go to university in Canada, McGill University, especially my daughter. You’ve probably noticed this is a very macho culture. It’s astonishing.
We were back in Toronto, Niagara Falls and Ottawa this summer. When we were there, I took my kids to the Sunnyside library in Ottawa — wow, programs a-go-go, French books, English books, incredible librarian. This is Canada. There’s so much vibrancy and optimism among youth in Canada compared to Europe. There’s jobs and… I know people complain but there does seem to be a lot of opportunity. That’s how we got here and we’re happy for now. But I think we’d like to go to Canada.
DM: How did you manage to stay in France for over a decade with no identity papers?
JM: I’ve had my papers for the past three years, as the parent of a French child. We have a civil union (pacte civil de solidarité PACS). No one ever stopped me to check my ID because I look like a tourist. And I work freelance.
DM: During your fifteen years in France, have you noticed a change in racism?
JM: Since I have been in France, there has been a pretty steady throb of racism and anti-Semitism. Obviously, since Charlie Hebdo there has been a huge uptick in anti-Arab racism.
DM: At the Ottawa Citizen, you started quite early, in 1995?
JM: 1995-99. I worked with Ken Whyte at Saturday Night in 1995. Best education I ever had. Just being there. Talk about realizing, oh wait a second, just because I’m good at Carleton University doesn’t mean I’m good. First I read Saturday Night’s whole slush pile, ten years of slush, not the ones that were rejected, not the ones that were published, but the ones in between. Ken was brilliant. He’d send me out to work with writers. There was one who called Ken and complained about me, because my research skills — we’re talking international standards — what I’d done, she said my research was on an unacceptable level. That’s the greatest thing.
DM: That’s the real education.
JM: Absolutely. That’s the greatest luck. At Carleton I felt like a big shot on campus, then I wrote for the Citizen and I’m like, Oh I’m not that good. Then I went to Saturday Night with my clippings from the Citizen. Ha ha — nothing. Then I got hired by the Citizen. Then you publish books in Canada and think, Hey I’ll move to Paris. Whoa, in Paris you’re nobody. There’s something in constantly being…
JM: Challenged or humiliated, depending on… But it’s good, to gain a bit of respect for what you’re doing.
As Mercer explains in his book Time Was Soft There: a Paris sojourn at Shakespeare & Co (2005), he fled Ottawa after he’d been threatened by a source about whom he wrote in his book Money for Nothing: ten great ways to make money illegally (1999). In December 1999 he quit his job at the Citizen, gave up his flat and car, scraped together some money and went to Paris. He’d arranged to finish his journalism degree at Carleton by taking his missing French credit in Paris. By January 2000, however, he was out of cash, and persuaded George Whitman to let him have a writer’s bed in the bookstore Shakespeare & Co.
DM: And so Paris.
JM: I get there December 1999 and I stay until 2003. Six months in the bookstore, and then I managed — and rather poorly at that — the North American floor of a squat for 18 months. Near Gare Saint-Lazare and the Garnier opera house, a six-story building. It was a really dynamic period. I learned a lot. We ran underground theatre, shows, cabaret, music. Yeah, pretty good.
We published the first two issues of Kilometer Zero (KMZ) out of Luke’s apartment in the 18th near the Sacré-Cœur basilica in Paris, then we went to the squat and published two more. No more print magazine, an occasionally updated blog where we post our various meanderings: Kilometer Zero.
We started KMZ because you are drunk on literature when you are at Shakespeare and Company and you are surrounded by bold and audacious young writers who are so certain of their own genius that it becomes infectious and you want to be the first one to publish them.
DM: And you nipped off to Spain and Greece in between?
JM: So what happened then? The squat experience was … I think I’d lost 35 pounds. A squat is not a healthy environment. I had a girlfriend who is an art restorer, Julie, and she was going to India to help restore…. Outside of Delhi there’s all these old painted houses, wonderful art, she was volunteering on that project, so I followed her. We were there for three months. I wrote the first draft of the Shakespeare & Co. book in Udaipur, which was fantastic. Have you been to Udaipur? It’s hilarious because of Octopussy playing everywhere. It must have been 2003, a period of heightened tension between Pakistan and India, so there was a tourism advisory not to visit. It was really peaceful. Then we came back, Paris for a bit.
DM: Do you miss Paris?
JM: I have such a strange relationship with Paris now. Like Pavlov’s dog, the second I see the word I feel the bile rise in my throat because PSG (Paris Saint-Germain football/soccer team) is the hated rival of my beloved Olympique de Marseille. I also look at Paris and feel sheepish for my naïve love of it 15 years ago: Paris is a hard city if you have a normal life, a city that opens its doors to the wildly wealthy and the impetuous youth, but not so much the average Joe and Jane. But, of course, Paris was the transformative experience of my life. Anytime I get off the TGV and walk out of Gare de Lyon, I immediately get swept back up in the euphoria and possibility of the city.
Then I went to Marseille, we broke up. Then Santorini, Greece, where my friends run the bookstore Atlantis Books, so I was there for six months. Then back to Marseille for a bit.
Then China, where Adrian Hornsby and I did the China project in Beijing. The Dashanzi International Arts Festival is run out of an old factory near the fifth ring road. We were part of the second edition; I was in charge of logistics, which mostly meant recruiting 400 foreigners; Quinn did most of the engineering and technical work, Adrian the conception and direction. The theme was generally a paradoxical look at the Long March and how there was now a business-driven stampede to Beijing being led by Westerners. We opened the festival with a show called The Short Step, where we dressed 400 white people in blue Mao worker’s uniforms and marched them through. And then we got shut down by the military police. But it was a great opening. It was a commentary on many things. But you need a permit in China if you’re going to get more than 50 people together. And that we didn’t have. That would have been 2005/2006.
After Mercer published Time Was Soft There in 2005, he worked on a book about capital punishment in France, focusing on the last case for capital punishment: When the Guillotine Fell: the bloody beginning and horrifying end to France’s river of blood, 1791-1977 (2008). This book was swiftly followed by his translation of Abolition: one man’s battle against the death penalty by Robert Badinter, a criminal lawyer who, as Minister of Justice, proposed the law abolishing the death penalty in 1981.
JM: And then I went to New York for six months, where I finished the Guillotine book and where we did a wedding with friends. Then I came back to Marseille in the summer of 2007 to finish up research on my book. And I was pretty lost for a while. I was just about to move either to Berlin or back to New York when we got pregnant.
DM: The Guillotine book is huge. How long did that take?
JM: About two and a half, three years. So that was a long time. Then I had reason to stay. One, the love is incredible — because you love your kids, right. Fantastic. But also in terms of a deeper understanding of humanity. It sounds pretentious but. You look at the guy who wasn’t a father and how little true understanding he had of his fellows, and human motivation and all those things. We have a culture so fixated on writing about and understanding sex. The way sex impacts life is secondary when you become a parent. I know there’s a whole genre of parental literature but for me it is still overwhelming. The brain changes. And your perspective changes on becoming a father.
We had Santoline in November 2008 and Rosco in May 2010. And then I stopped writing the book about Christian traditions in the south of France. I think it’s pretty good but after I talked to my agent I realized she was right — I’d been pretending to be me. There’s been a fundamental change in my…. I was trying to write like I’d been writing before. So amazingly I agreed to put it in the desk. That’s another one of these big books. I spent a lot of time in Jerusalem researching. Yeah it’s just a little book about God, you know, [laughing], nothing too complex.
Now I want to do a really basic… There’s a fascinating murder that took place here. I think it’s pretty challenging just to try to do something simple and well. Did you guys listen to Serial at all this summer? It’s the most successful podcast in world history. It’s done by This American Life team. Do you ever listen to This American Life? Greatest radio show ever done. In any case. You can take anything, you can be a chef and try great new recipes, and then sometimes…. It’s like the movie Ratatouille. In the end he just makes ratatouille. I’ve got my book on God in there, but I’d rather just go back and make a simple ratatouille. So I’m working on a historical murder case.
DM: So that’s your next project when your office is done?
JM: I’m also doing another project, a great project, as a translator and editor. I’m working with an 84 year old woman. So she was a six year old girl and her mother was eight and a half months pregnant, and it was summer in Paris, super hot. The mother says, I can’t take it anymore, Why don’t you go spend the next six weeks with your grandmother, right. They had Romanian roots, she lived in a big country house in the Romanian countryside, So the girl’s aunt takes her on a train to Romania. Right? Good? Except that family was Jewish and it was June 1939. She’s written this biography four times in French. Taking these four books, putting them together into a proper narrative, translating it, and well I’m working on that.
DM: Where are you teaching?
JM: Technically I teach at L’Institut Européen de Journalisme (IEJ) and the idea is that I teach one day a week for 20 weeks a year. That was the plan, I’d go into Marseille one day a week.
JM: But I’m buying that land down there, I’m building this office here, so then I took more courses, and then I took courses at a community college. It’s been catastrophic.
DM: So now it’s six courses. Full time.
JM: It’s been about 18 hours a week. My semester just ended. So now I have six months off. So I’m not gonna cry but it’s not how I envisioned it. But at the same time anybody who has ever bought a house has experienced the exact same thing I have. Catherine Burns, director of The Moth, does a podcast called Strangers. She did a big interview with Gay Talese. He was like, when I was doing [his book] Thy Neighbour’s Wife (1981), I lived in a nudist colony in California for four months and had sex with all these people, that was hard on my kids at school, but then the feedback was so bad that I went to Italy to research a book on my family and I had a mistress, that was hard on my kids and my wife but I needed to do it for a year and a half. Like? [laughter all round] Chapeau for being so focused on your writing that you can do that. But I can’t. I find it really hard to balance my desire to be present in my kids’ lives, to provide them with everything, and to be egotistical enough to take the time I need, or to say, Hey you know we don’t need a vacation this year or to pay for the piano lessons, we don’t need piano lessons. Every creative parent, every parent, who’s not Gay Toulese, has had to find the balance between being a parent and the spouse you want to be and continuing to pursue either your dreams or what’s necessary to you to survive. I wouldn’t say writing is even a dream. If you’d told me in Ottawa that at this point in my life I’d be published in a dozen languages and been to all these writers conferences, I’d be like: Done.
DM: Time Was Soft There, that one little book has…
JM: It’s a bit embarrassing in a sense. You don’t want to be a one hit wonder. Right? But at the same time it’s better to be a one hit wonder than a no hit wonder.
DM: But really When the Guillotine Fell didn’t take off? It’s interesting, it’s fascinating.
JM: No, it’s interesting but I think I should have done that book as ratatouille. As opposed to, you know, playing with narrative and all that. I think it would have been more accessible to readers. Which is why I want to do this one that way.
DM: It was easy to follow.
JM: I thought so.
DM: So the Guillotine book should have been more ratatouille. Did you get the idea while you were in Marseille?
JM: I was living in an apartment in an Arab neighbourhood, no papers, my girlfriend was an art restorer. We had nothing. There’s a luxury hotel in the vieux port of Marseille, that gets all the newspapers. Every night at 11 pm they threw the newspapers away and the night man would keep them for me. He knew what I did and he would tell me stories and he told me all the crime cases and then I figured I wanted to do something. But the best thing that came out of that time was when I was interviewing Robert Badinter in Paris; he asked me to translate his book for him. He is such an impressive and inspiring man. And I initially told him, No, I don’t translate. I came back to Marseille and told my friends and that would be like the equivalent of a French person in Canada saying no to Trudeau asking them to translate his book. So I called back and said Yeah maybe I’ll do it. That was such an important project and something I’m proud of out of that period. I can’t have any regrets about it.
DM: Why the interest in crime?
JM: My trouble as a young man certainly made me think about human instinct and human law and the weird ways they entwine. Civilisation is such a thin veneer, so easily punctured. Rage and lust are everywhere, so it makes sense that crime is fascinating. My experience definitely made me more aware of the complexity of crime and the ‘there but for the Grace of God go I’ aspect of it.
DM: The man who led to your departure from Ottawa — at the end of Time Was Soft you mention the two of you reconcile, become friends. You mentioned that your book also led to his departure, and he prospered as a salesman in Toronto.
JM: He is now is selling business equipment. He admires Jordan Belfort, deeply. We’re thinking about doing a project together, a book that discusses how much easier it is to make money straight than through crime. Kind of like those economics studies of Chicago drug gangs that show that 95 per cent of gang members would earn more working at McDonald’s.
DM: You mentioned in Time Was Soft that you enjoyed the competitiveness when you were a young crime reporter; elsewhere you mention the arrogance of youth in connection with this kind of reporting: has your attitude to crime reporting changed? What do you think of it now, particularly as a father and a journalism teacher?
JM: In terms of competitiveness, if I hadn’t been so competitive I would have never gotten a job in journalism or written my first book. That said, I now find my competitiveness the biggest single barrier to my happiness and sense of peace. I try to tamp it down and destroy it, to practice mindfulness and gratitude, but some part of me still wants to ‘win’ at life by accruing more fame, more accolades, more money, more sexual opportunities. It’s really pathetic and thankfully my love for my children and my family is strong enough to drown out those negative urges. In terms of crime and its role in my life and broader culture, this is one of the reasons I am so eager to revisit crime reporting with the next book. I want to think about it again, about how people are so attracted to visions of their worst nightmares, about how we exercise our worst fears through a sort of crude, wincing voyeurism. If anything, I am more attuned to the horror of crime and loss now that I am a parent because I realize that if anything ever happens to my children, my world crumbles and anything I ever accomplished would be for nought.
DM: You mentioned in your email ten years of wandering and feeling “dissatisfaction at the ‘half-assedness’ of my existence” and after buying the farm feeling “something deeply gratifying at looking at a chore or a repair and taking the time to find a 10-year solution as opposed to a 10-month solution.” Is there a satisfaction in fixing your own place?
JM: My knuckles are cut and raw from three straight days of sludging out the sewer pipe under the house. I bought a Karcher high pressure water house yesterday and finally got rid of the blockage. That feels really really good. I was actually thinking about this idea of owning a horse this morning, while rinsing off my material. Santo and Rosco do judo, Santo has a white belt, Rosco has a yellow stripe. Home owning should have similar grades. I count my basic knowledge of electricity, plumbing, and masonry as some of the most valuable things I have learned in life, but I think I am still only an orange belt when it comes to being a true home owner.
This question gets us on our feet, as Jeremy talks about the learning curve when doing something for the first time, off he goes, showing us the beams in his barn, comparing it to the woodshed, talking about the well. Here are other bits of conversation.
On raising a family abroad
JM: You know something. I’m not giving my kids a great financial heritage –well you never know – but two passports, two languages, you gotta figure, a good education and…
The Robert Badinter book opened the window onto translation for me, which has turned out to be so rich. It’s almost illegal that you get paid for translation, because it is as fun as doing the New York Times crossword puzzle. You spend four hours solving puzzles and then you get paid. You have a profound contact with the author or artist. I worked with a Madagash photographer last year. It was a 1200 word introduction to her book of photography, but she cared so much, we spent hour after hour on Skype, every word. It was painstaking. …
I get offers all the time for English to French. I work with a big German publisher — “Oh we have a great book it would be perfect for you, can you do English to French?” Never. Unless you’re Nabokov or Conrad. No. You translate one way. It’s just asking for trouble. Beckett did it well too.
On not writing fiction
I considered writing fiction at the age of 19 and then for my first four months in Paris. But not since then. I really enjoy the research and interviewing and learning that comes from writing non-fiction, and the challenge of finding connections between disparate facts, and trying to build a harmonious and honest narrative out of them. It would seem like cheating if I could just invent something to solve my narrative problems. That said, I do write scripts now and again and I have a brilliant TV script that I did with Sparkle Hayter.
On Nancy Huston and Arles and Actes Sud
Nancy Huston. Oh god she’s beloved here. Oh my god yeah. She’s very accessible. She’s at Actes Sud. Paul Auster’s one of those authors who is very well respected in America, and a superstar in France; and Nancy Huston, well respected, but superstar, superstar here. Every apartment you go into you see at least three Huston books. My wife has read four or five, my best friend Julie has read four or five. Really engaged. Dynamic dynamic lady. They love her, they just love her.
Do you know Arles at all? Arles is worth going to. In September there’s the biggest photography festival in Europe, one of the most important [les Rencontres d’Arles]. It’s held in the old SNCF train warehouses. Great experience. All the van Gogh stuff, Roman ruins, really great cultural city. Arles is home to Actes Sud, which is the non-Paris publisher, a list that will knock your socks off. Actes Sud. Everything you read about how to save books and publishing and bookstores, and there you go, you go in their incredible book store, incredible cinema, all in this big complex in antique Arles.
*Like Isabel Huggan’s house, the Provençal farmhouse or le mas is similar to a townhouse, in that several families lived in one building, or several family dwellings are attached to each other.
Watch for Mercer’s forthcoming essay in The Intelligent Optimist.