Author Interviews

Let's Talk About Seduction, Part 2

By Kyanna Sutton   |   Tuesday, September 20, 2011
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(page 2)

Seduction And French Politics

Former IMF Managing Director Dominque Strauss-Kahn (International Monetary Fund/ Flickr/Creative Commons)

In her book, Elaine Sciolino discusses now former International Monetary Fund (IMF) Managing Director Dominque Strauss-Kahn (DSK) — who was controversial even before his now-dropped, highly publicized hotel maid rape case in New York this year. Many U.S. media outlets reported that DSK's political prospects in France are dim now that his reputation has been further tarnished by the rape scandal. Sciolino weighed in.

"DSK is back in France, but he has not been welcomed back. No matter what the truth about the encounter with the hotel maid in New York, too many tawdry details about his private life have been put into the public domain. Michel Rocard, the Socialist former prime minister, said publicly what others had said privately for years: That DSK has a 'mental illness' because he cannot contol his 'impulses,'" Sciolino said.

President of France, Nicolas Sarkozy with U.S. President Barack Obama in 2009 (

Sciolino also offered her take on why French President Nicolas Sarkozy is not exactly beloved by the French. "At first, one of the main reasons Sarkozy was perceived so negatively was that he wasn't seductive enough. He has a fierce temper and doesn't seem comfortable mingling with ordinary folk," Sciolino said.

Sciolino described Sarkozy's frank communication style and his tendency to use "naked flattery and insults rather than subtle wooing," as a turn-off for the French. She added that in France Sarkozy is seen as "contemptuous rather than enamored of the complicated codes of politesse. Unlike François Mitterrand, who used language to caress and mesmerize, Sarkozy contracts his words and salts his sentences with rough slang," Sciolino said.

Futhermore, Sciolino observed, in a country where food and wine are essential to the national identity, she said Sarkozy "prefers snack gobbling to meal savoring. French people of all classes disapproved of what they called Sarkozy's 'bling-bling' style early in his presidency: His Ray-Bans, his Rolex, his gold necklace, his penchant for hanging out with French billionaires."

A photo from 1972 depicting seduction at play in the office. (Mod As Hell/Creative Commons)

The Fallout Of Infidelity In France

Is it a cross-cultural misperception that French marriages tend to survive infidelities, sometimes for many years, while many American marriages and political careers crumble after an infidelity has been discovered?

"Private lives and politics are different," Sciolino said.

"Private life first. The French, like Americans, have not figured out a way to inoculate themselves against the pain of a partner's unfaithfulness. Jealousy and guilt are alive and well. Adultery is a major reason for divorce in France, as in the United States. When infidelity turns serious and the unfaithful spouse leaves to live with a lover, a scorned wife, especially if she is no longer young, can have a much harder time recovering than a scorned husband, even in France," Sciolino said.

Here's where the French and Americans in particular part ways. Sciolino posits that for Americans, infidelity is a black-and-white betrayal and the violation of a marriage contract that often means the end of a marriage. While an American might call a divorce lawyer when a spouse has cheated, the French tend to stick together. Why stay in an unfaithful marriage? Staying in an imperfect marriage keeps the order of things. "Parents stay together; the children are spared emotional trauma; property stays in the family; financial security is maintained; family history is kept; vacations are taken," Sciolino said.

In France, Sciolino has observed that infidelity is not as serious or as destructive as it would be for those "with an Anglo-Saxon worldview, especially if it is played out in secret and no one gets hurt." Sciolino cited a poll in 2008 that indicated that 46 percent of the French believe an infidelity should not be "confessed."

As for politics, Sciolino agreed that American and French cultures do tend to judge the act of infidelity differently when it comes to public figures.

"Politicians in any democratic country must woo the public, but in France it is assumed that their powers should not only be personal and magnetic but also extend to the bedroom. Appealing political positions are not enough," Sciolino said. "Politicians are not hounded out of office for sexual indiscretions, and the public is often happy to let their secrets remain officially under wraps. But seduction flows as an undercurrent in public and private life, so it is natural that talking about politicians' personal lives is part of the national discourse."

Is there a double standard when it comes to women? The author acknowledged that there is one exception to the sexual indiscretion allowance: Gender. A female politician is expected to be faithful to one partner.

Three Wardrobe Essentials

Elegance and style are pre-requisites for seduction, so as we wrapped up our correspondence, I could not resist asking the long-time Paris resident to share what's on her must-have wardrobe list. Here's what Elaine Sciolino recommended for women:

1. A great black dress that fits perfectly.

2. Elegant shoes that are also very comfortable, enough for a lot of walking.

3. A well-cut jacket made from a fine fabric.

Sciolino was quick to be clear that clothes alone do not make someone seductive. "Much more important than a wardrobe is the willingness to find common ground with the other – the butcher, the newspaper vendor, the bureaucrat, the sales person – and to carry on a conversation. Seduction is nothing more than a conversation without end."

Let's Talk About Seduction

By Kyanna Sutton   |   Tuesday, September 20, 2011
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Oct. 1, 2011

Cover of Elaine Sciolino's book. (Courtesy Times Books)

BOSTON — For the French, seduction isn't simply a question of sex. It's a mindset that transcends sexual conquest, relating to how one approaches one's life as a whole. Elaine Sciolino, Paris correspondent and former Paris bureau chief for The New York Times, offers a few tips for Americans in her new book, La Seduction: How the French Play the Game of Life. She shared some thoughts on the book over email. 

Seduction ≠ Sex

Sciolino described seduction in France as omnipresent in everything: From sharing a meal, to the scent of a perfume; from a walk through the Versailles gardens, to a night-tour of Paris — or the elegant hand-kiss of a charming man. "It is an all-encompassing word that can stand for persuasion, attraction, influence; soft power," Sciolino explained.

Sciolino makes it clear that seduction is a force that seems to infiltrate all areas of French life, whether it is present in flirtatious conversation or political debate. "I was fascinated by newspaper headlines that more than often made use of this word, séduction, to qualify situations, people, or even objects. Saying that a politician is 'a seducer' does not necessarily mean that he is physically or sexually attractive, it can mean that he has great charisma, that he is a talented speaker, a brilliant mind," Sciolino said.

Nikos Aliagas demonstrates the je ne sais quoi of "the look." (via greekadman/Creative Commons )

The Look

In her book, Sciolino describes seduction in France, and in Paris particularly, as being inextricably wrapped up in a strong sensibility of quiet sophistication; much of which is transmitted and translated between people non-verbally throughout the culture. Sciolino explained the foundation of seduction as, le regard, "the look." It is without question, the first step in the art of French seduction.

"'Le regard' is the electric charge between two people. Their eyes lock and there is an immediate understanding. So much of seduction and seducing the other has to do with le regard, it holds promise and mystery, it's much more subtle than words, it has to do with the body without being overtly physical and sexual, but it can be enough to destabilize another, or to form a strong connection," Sciolino said.

I asked Sciolino to boil the game of seduction down to three rules (for busy American readers), or in this case, three acts of the "play." She accepted the challenge.

Act One: Le Regard

"Master the look. You never walk alone on the streets of Paris. (This is not New York!) Someone is always looking at you and you can look back. The look is powerful. There is something chaste and pure about 'the look,' as there is no sullying of the body. But there is also something inherently unfaithful about it, because with the look, you never stop falling in love. Stendhal, the nineteenth- century novelist, said, 'You can say everything in one look, and yet you can always deny the look, for it cannot be quoted word for word," Sciolino said.

This seemed to beg a question. Should "the look" be accompanied by a smile?

"Smiling is complicated in France," Sciolino said. "Avoid it in the beginning. Americans are accustomed to smiling at strangers; the French, particularly the Parisian, are not." That might help explain why some Americans find Parisians rude.

"The reluctance to smile does not indicate the absence of kindness in the French character, but it does signal reserve. A French smile is fraught with too much meaning to be bestowed as a mere pleasantry," Sciolino said.

Act Two: Intellectual Foreplay

"Turn conversation into a verbal caress and learn the pleasure of process. For the French, life is rarely about simply reaching the goal. It is also about the leisurely art of pursuing it and persuading others to join in. How much fun would sex be without the flirtation, or dinner without the bouquet of the wine? What joy is there in words without wordplay, or in ideas without fencing and parrying?" Sciolino said.

Act Three: The Kill

"Where an American might see 'the kill' as the sex act, the French might see it in the moment of pre-consummation. Some of the most unlikely characters throughout French history have valued the sizzle more than the steak. Georges Clemenceau is best known in the United States as a French prime minister. But he was also a novelist. There's a line in one of his novels that I love: 'The most beautiful moment in love is when I climb the staircase,'" Sciolino said.

This idea of anticipation as the apex of seduction is clearly illustrated on the jacket of Sciolino's book. In this case, a well-heeled woman climbs the staircase. One of the things a reader takes away from Sciolino's book is that for many French women in particular seduction = war. But is war a good metaphor for seduction?

"Arielle Dombasle, a singer and actress who is a character in my book, told me that seduction is war," Sciolino said. "So did Moliere's fictional character, Don Juan. Seduction can be war, but it's much more than that. Seduction has so many different facets. It's not simply war, it's not simply persuasion, it's a combination of all these different tactics, skills, emotions, processes. That's what makes it so complicated," Sciolino said.

Part Two: The Fallout Of Infidelity In France & Seduction In Politics

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Wild Swans: A Memoir Brought To The Stage

By Jared Bowen   |   Wednesday, February 22, 2012
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Feb. 22, 2012

BOSTON —Wild Swans, a 1991-memoir by Jung Chang about her family’s survival during much of 20th century China’s upheaval, has long been a global bestseller, with over 30 million copies in print. For years, Chang refused attempts to adapt her story for film or television. For theater, however, she gave the go-ahead. Its premiere production is now playing at the A.R.T.
The play covers a wide swath of time in China during the 20th century, a period of extraordinary upheaval and ferocity. Idealism is wrenched into oppressive ideology under Mao Tse-tung. This is the first and only adaptation of Jung Chang’s phenomenally successful 1991 memoir of the same name, which recounted how three generations of her family endured China’s transformation from fledgling communist state to world superpower.
“Wild Swans is a personal book,” said Chang. “China is the background. And of course when I wrote Wild Swans I made sure the personal descriptions were absolutely accurate and what I wrote about China was accurate. It has stood the test of time.”
Chang’s story is often the stuff of horror. She relays such events as her grandmother made a concubine of a warlord general, rendered on stage in puppets. She tells of her parents’ relationship, shredded by the Communist Party and Chang’s own efforts to withstand her family’s traumas.
“This is my personal story and my mother is still alive and everything is in my heart. I so fear that something will go wrong and the portrait is not going to be accurate, and the description of the times is not going to be accurate. So I was very reluctant to let go,” said Chang.
But when David Lan, Artistic Director of renowned British theater Company The Young Vic, approached to adapt her story, Chang finally acquiesced.
“It took me quite a while to persuade her to let us do it. And I still don’t know why she did,” Lan said.
In response, Chang said, “What they’re trying to do is be faithful to the spirit of the characters and the spirit of the times. I help them be accurate to these issues.”
"What’s distinctive about this story is it’s about a woman who really is so clear about who she is and is so committed to trying to work out a good way to live. The whole family is like corks bobbing on a very troubled sea. We tried to find scenes which are resonate in every way, and which when put together are coherent and give you the most you can expect,” said Lan.
In partnering with the American Repertory Theatre, the Young Vic took a huge risk, adapting Chang’s 800-page book for the stage. The result is a remarkably streamlined production. At just 90 minutes, it still feels epic. It begins in 1948 in a Manchurian marketplace, then moves to a peasant-filled field. From there it glides into the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and onto 1978, a modern China.
“The book is very critical of the experience people went through before the cultural revolution immediately afterwards. But it’s not about China now. It’s about how China got to be, how it is,” Lan said.
We are treated to glimpses of how Chinese policies affected the individual and how initiatives like Mao’s great purge—stripping homes of writings and books—affected people and families.

"It made me realize on a personal level how grateful and how lucky I am to be in this generation and away from all the politics of China and stuff, because my gran emigrated from there to Britain, eventually, and one can see why she did that,” said Katie Leung, who plays Chang on stage and is already known for playing Harry Potter’s love interest, Cho Chang, in film.
Leung says she had concerns about tinkering with Chang’s already beloved book.

“It’s not as big a pressure as being introduced as Harry Potter’s first girlfriend, but certainly it’s a big thing as well, and I think we just want to make sure that we get it right,” Leung said.
As for Chang, she’s maintained a respectful distance from the production. To her, the play is a new work of art. “I did whatever I can. What I have, what is my baby, is my book. And now they’ve created Wild Swans on stage,” she said.
Participate in the Wild Swans Community Memior project, created in collaboration with Harvard's metaLab and Zeega. The memior is an immersive experience of the community's relationship to China or Chinese culture.  Meet new people and explore their stories in any order you choose. 

William Giraldi On His Fantastical New Novel, 'Busy Monsters'

By WGBH News   |   Tuesday, July 26, 2011
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July 26, 2011

Boston novelist William Giraldi stopped by "The Emily Rooney Show" to discuss his hotly anticipated new book, Busy Monsters. But he also treated us to two short excerpts on the air. Check out those clips below, as well as a link to the full conversation with fellow author Steve Almond.

BOSTON — William Giraldi has worn a great many hats in his career: he is known as an author, a respected literary critic, a writing teacher at Boston University, and, for a time in his teens, a professional bodybuilder. But as he awaits the release of his new novel, Busy Monsters, he has found himself at the center of a new and rarely-seen level of media buzz and praise.

Listen: Excerpts from 'Busy Monsters'

William Girardi reads two excerpts from his novel. Click to listen.

As he told Steve Almond, guest host for “The Emily Rooney Show,” Giraldi feels immensely lucky, not only for the critical notice he’s received but for the apparent excitement in the broader public. “I think in this day and age you write a novel and you expect it to register not at all,” he said.
But Busy Monsters has caught on as that rare expression of a seriously comedic voice in literary fiction. It is the tale of Charles Homar, a “memoirist of mediocre fame,” whose fiancé abandons him in order to chase a legendary giant squid. To win her back, he traverses the country, encountering Bigfoot hunters, aliens and a menagerie of mythical creatures.
The voice Giraldi achieves is a unique mix of the absurd and the lyrical. He says the approach was born from the combination of a certain emotional state with the mix of works he was reading and re-reading at the time – like Don Quixote, The Odyssey, and the short stories of Barry Hannah and Lee K. Abbott.
“I was living back home in New Jersey, and I was pretty miserable. And as I always do, I go to books when I’m feeling at my worst,” Giraldi said. “So there was something about those books that gave birth to the voice of Charles Homar.”
He acknowledges that writing with this degree of candor, and conveying so much of his own personality, was liberating. And he hopes this sense of freedom is what his students and other young people take away from the book: “Like, ‘This can still be considered a serious book — whatever that means — and still be so much fun?’” he said.

About the Authors
Jared Bowen Jared Bowen
Jared Bowen is WGBH’s Emmy Award-winning Executive Editor and Host for Arts. 
The WGBH News team comprises the WGBH radio newsroom, The Callie Crossley Show, The Emily Rooney Show and WGBH Channel 2 reporters and producers from Greater Boston and Basic Black. 


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