Visiting Paris’s off-limits catacombs: Part 1

One of the first attempts I made at fiction-writing was when I was 24 and living in an ancient building in the Marais. Every time I went down to my basement storage space, I would gaze longingly at a separate set of stairs that went down even lower…old stone stairs that descended into the darkness. Each time, I had this intense longing to follow them down, and would even tiptoe down three or four steps. But there were rats. Big rats that seemed to scuttle around with supernatural speed. Rats were a deal-breaker for me.

I ended up writing a story about Paris’s underground tunnels as a sort of time traveling machine. When you came up, you’d be in a different year than when you went down. Unfortunately, there were large talking rats in my story, and one of my friends read it and said it was total crap. So I trashed it and didn’t try my hand at fiction for another fifteen years.

Even then, when I began writing the DIE FOR ME series, I still couldn’t stay away from underground Paris. It’s a feature in every book of the series. I have visited the official Paris Catacombs (the Ossuary, where all the bones are) four times, and drew my knowledge from that and a bit of online research. But I had never experienced the true non-touristy catacombs of Paris…the fabled areas where all of the fascinating history I had read about…dreamed about…took place. Until yesterday.

I decided that for my 50th birthday, I wanted to do something I had never done before. I contacted a guide I had used a few times for private tours to ask if he would take me to the illegal part of the catacombs. He told me he couldn’t, but he knew someone who could. But he wouldn’t give me the guy’s name. He said he would contact me.

“The guy” turned out to be Gilles Thomas, who told me he’d be happy to take me and my friends on a two-hour tour of the abandoned tunnels under the Cochin Hospital. They are lit with normal lights, you don’t need equipment, and it’s not hard-core. I said that sounded wonderful, but what I really wanted was The Other Tour. *nudge nudge* He kind of waffled about it and said I should come to his office to clarify what I was looking for.

Now I believe that it was a test. He wanted to meet me in person and make sure I wasn’t a complete wimp. Also, once our meeting began, he had me define very specifically what I wanted. “The illegal parts…yes, in the dark…yes, in the water…yes, for hours and hours…yes, I understand we could be caught by the police and given a fine.” He warned me that if I was in the least bit claustrophobic, I shouldn’t go. That if I freaked out in the middle of the tour, it could be an hour and a half back to an entrance. I put on my most confident nothing-scares-me expression and told him that’s exactly what I wanted. I could tell that I had succeeded when he got a little gleam in his eye. I had passed the test. I asked him what his fee was. He said, “Homemade chocolate cake.”

I choked. “For a nine-hour tour?”

“It has to be homemade,” he repeated.

“But can’t I give you something else? I could translate one of your articles. I’ve translated historical documents, t.v. shows, books…”

He looked hurt. “My fee is chocolate cake.”

“Chocolate cake. Fine!” I said quickly, before he changed his mind.

He gave me a time and a place to meet him—on a street corner in the south of Paris—told me to wear a head-lamp and shoes I didn’t care about ruining…but not rain boots because they would just fill up with water. And that was that.

Until I went home and did some research on him. And I discovered I was getting a tour from The Expert of all experts. The guy who, for the past thirty years, has held a mythical role in the hierarchy of cataphiles. (Those whose passion is exploring the off-limits catacombs.) The guy who has written seven books on the topic, including:

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Les Catacombs: Histoire du Paris Souterrain, which the Académie française awarded with the Ève Delacroix Prize in 2016. (!!) Which kind of says it all, right?

Not to mention that he is the go-to guy whenever anyone important wants a visit. Including George R. R. Martin. And Pixar’s team planning Ratatouille. And the makers of As Above, So Below (which Gilles swore he never saw). And every other important thing that is written or filmed about the catacombs. I thanked my lucky stars that I had somehow stumbled into this chance of a lifetime, and began getting my ducks in a row: buy headlamp, get dogsitter, plan a chocolate cake that would be worthy of a Gilles Thomas tour.

Gilles phoned me the night before my tour, and from his voice I could tell he was wondering if I had decided to back out. I reassured him that the cake had already been baked and iced and I was ready to go. I was excited. And a tiny bit nervous. But I went to bed, knowing the next day I would have one of the most amazing experiences of my life.

I woke up yesterday with full-blown jitters, after having a series of complicated nightmares where Gilles had given me a list of things to take that I wasn’t able to get together, that the cake wasn’t acceptable, that my kids were along for the trip and I had to protect them. I choked down my breakfast, drank about four cups of coffee, and got together:

supplies(I decided on buttermilk brownies instead of cake.)

Then packed a bag with this:

IMG_3075Towel in a plastic bag (because Douglas Adams), apple, sandwich with 10 euros and a metro ticket sealed in the bag with it in case I dropped everything in the water, my identity card in case someone needed to identify my body, scrunchie to tie back hair, and no bottles of water because I knew there wasn’t a bathroom down there.

I waited nervously on the appointed corner until I saw Gilles walking toward me in thigh-high green waders. Within minutes, another person joined us—an artist who has gone through the catacombs with Gilles several times and is working on a catacomb-themed art project.

And we were off. Through a gate, down a hill, down a very long, dark passage (Gilles has asked me not to be more specific) until we reached this hole:

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“Here we are!” Gilles said.

“Where?” I asked. “In that gutter?”

“The hole’s right there,” the artist said, pointing to a crack in the wall.

“I’m going to have to squash the cake,” I said, trying to think of anything besides hyperventilating.

“That’s fine,” Gilles said, and started squeezing his 6’2″ body through the crack.

I mashed the bag I had holding the cake in into my backpack, and got on my hands and knees, and thought of wide open spaces, and followed Gilles and the artist through the crack in the wall and down into the darkness of the catacombs.

[Continued tomorrow...but if you want to see something similar to the crack-entrance (but not half as strenuous), look at the 1:13-1:50 mark of this video. And then watch the rest just because it's fascinating!]

 

 

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Classic Children’s Book Quiz

A couple of weeks ago, I gave a baby shower for one of my favorite people here in Paris, Celeste Rhoads​ (who is the Children’s and Teen’s Librarian at the American Library of Paris). It had to be book themed, of course, so everyone brought a copy of their favorite children’s book for new baby’s library.

And then there was this…

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We also played a Classic Children’s Lit trivia game (with potted pansies as the prize).

I thought you would enjoy playing. How many of these classic book questions can you get? (The winner got 22 points!)

Classic Children’s Book Quiz — Celeste’s Baby Shower

1. What did the narrator of the Little Prince like to draw as a child and what did adults think it was?

2. What is the name of the mutinous ship’s cook in Treasure Island?

3. Who is Curious George’s roommate?

4. Give one phrase Charlotte weaves into her web to save Wilbur?

5. What is Violette’s vice in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory?

6. What species is the villain in Jungle Book? (Extra point for his name.)

7. What book acts as the world-building compendium for Lord of the Rings?

8. What species is Puddleglum in the Silver Chair (and VotDT)?

9. One point of each of the names of the three witches in A Wrinkle in Time.

10. What is Paddington Bear’s country of origin?

11. Who are Toad’s two best friends?

12. Where does Toad live?

13. What was TinTin’s dog’s name (either French or English).

14. Name one of the main themes of Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret?

15. What is the name of Frodo’s Uncle in The Lord of the Rings?

16. Who is the musician in Asterix?

17. What is the profession of Pippi Longstocking’s father?

18. What is the name of the love interest in Anne of Green Gables?

19. What do Digory and Polly use to travel between worlds in The Magician’s Nephew?

20. What is waiting in Max’s room when he returns from ruling The Wild Things?

21. What animal appears on every double-page of Goodnight Moon?

22. What is Dr. Seuss’s real name?

23. Who is the nun who runs Madeleine’s boarding school?

24. What did Pooh use to reach the beehive?

25. Who are the witches in The Wizard of Oz? (Names not needed.)

Bonus contemporary questions:

1. What is the name of Hermione’s cat?

2. What are the five factions in Divergent?

3. What flower is President Snow associated with in Hunger Games?

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Rooftop Ramblings Live Facebook Interview + win DREAMFALL ARC!

So happy to have my first in-person interview for Dreamfall. It’s one that ALL OF YOU can attend because it’s live on Facebook. (And I’ll be giving away an ARC!)

Join me on Rooftop Ramblings this Saturday (March 4) at 2pm Paris time (that’s 8am New York time) by going to this Facebook page: Paris in Person. If that’s too early for you, the video will be posted later. The interview is with Boris and Sam, these two guys from my book club:

bandsWho knows what they’ll ask? (Be prepared for anything.)

And if you send a question ahead of time, I’ll put your name in the hat to win an ARC of DREAMFALL. Your question can be about anything – just send it any time between now and 8am EST to : podcast@parisinperson.com

See you Saturday!

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Valentine’s Day blast from the past

On this Valentine’s Day, I thought a few of you might like to re-visit the DIE FOR ME universe.

This is Charlotte’s Valentine’s letter to Ambrose. The one she wrote every year, but never showed him. And you all know how that ended up! (Some people totally deserve their happy endings.)

So here’s paean to unrequited love for your Valentine Day…

Charlotte’s Valentine Letter

Today is Valentine’s Day—le jour de la Saint-Valentin. The day of lovers. The only day of the year I can’t look you in the face. Because on this day, I can’t keep my mask from slipping just slightly, and I don’t want you to see what’s behind.
I have known you now for almost seven decades. Lived under the same roof as you for sixty-eight years. I know you as well as my own twin brother.
I know how you’ll react to any given situation. What you will say. How you will respond.
Which should mean that by now I should be totally bored of you. Your predictability should make me yawn. Seeing you in the same scenarios day after day, year after year, should make me roll my eyes. And yet, it doesn’t.
Instead, I find myself anticipating your reactions and congratulating myself on guessing them right every single time. When I hear your laughter ring through the house when you come home, I am unable to resist the smile it brings to my lips. I love you, Ambrose. Passionately. Irremediably. Hopelessly.
It wasn’t love at first sight. When Jean-Baptiste carried your body back from that Lorraine battlefield, I found you intriguing in your complete Americanness—your Yankee bravado. Your passion for jazz and film and dancing brought a welcome breath of life to our household of kindred. I liked you for all those things. Loved you as a brother.
Until I got to know you better. Your joie de vivre was infectious. It infected me. It made my heart swell with happiness—not only when I was with you, but when I learned to see the world through your eyes. You brought me joy, and I should be satisfied with that. But I’m not.
When Charles told you how I felt and you admitted to him that your sentiments weren’t the same, I spent the next decade hoping you would change your mind. Doing everything I could to make you see me in a different light: desirable, not little-sister-ish.
When that didn’t work, I spent the next ten years trying to be okay with my lot. To find someone else. But while you are here living with me, walking with me, joking your way through every meal, my heart can go nowhere else.
Now I’m resigned. As I do every year, I will finish this letter, feel a bit better for it, and then place it in the back of my journal. It will join the other forty-three letters to you. Forty-three declarations of love that you will never see.
On this Valentine’s Day I wish I could tell you that even though you don’t love me the way I love you, every day with you is a gift.

 

[If you want to read more excerpts, behind-the-scenes material, and deleted sections, download INSIDE THE WORLD OF DIE FOR ME.]

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Dreamfall Interview: Who’s My Favorite Character?

I hope you’re busy playing the YA Books Central Scavenger Hunt, which started yesterday and lasts for a whole week! There are so many amazing authors participating, and too many prizes being given away to count!

I’ll be featuring parts of my Scavenger Hunt DREAMFALL interview this week to lure you into the game. The first question:

 

YABC: Who is your favorite character in the book?

 

AMY PLUM: This is always the hardest question to answer. ALL of the characters are my favorite! Don’t ask me to pick which of my children I love the most. :)

But I’ll tell you about one who is very special to me. Jaime is a pre-med student on full-ride academic scholarship, having been raised in a super-rough part of Detroit. The thing that’s different about this character is that I never reveal their gender. I didn’t even let myself think of Jaime as a boy or a girl. My daughter begged me to tell her…just her…which Jaime was, and I said, “I don’t even know that myself!” “But you have to know!” she pleaded. “I won’t let myself know,” was my answer.

Jaime is an experiment in reader expectations…half of my Beta readers thought Jaime was a boy and half a girl, so I felt like I had succeeded. Because just how important is gender, anyway? And which is more important—what the author wants you to think, or how the reader interprets the characters and the story in their mind? The fate of the sleepers depends on Jaime, who will have to risk everything to save them.

But then there is the dreamy (no pun intended) Fergus, who suffers from narcolepsy. There is Cata, who suffers PTSD from her violent childhood. Ant who is…just Ant. Quirky, strange, and super-intelligent. George who is kick-ass and funny. BethAnn who is trying to overcome overwhelming guilt over her part in her sister’s death. Sinclair, the spoiled rich kid with moviestar looks. And Remi, who was the only member of his family to survive a genocide. They all have enormous problems to overcome, and you should see how that plays out in their nightmares!

Read the rest of the interview and enter to win a signed hardback of DREAMFALL here!

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