A Taste of Garlic

The Marilyn Z. Tomlins Interview - Interview (Writer)

interview writer  The Marilyn Z. Tomlins Interview   because we all love reading blogs about life in FranceWhen I reviewed Marilyn Z. Tomlins’ blog on the 20th of September 2010 I mentioned that she has written a book.

I  found that she had also written about a nice recipe for Espadon (swordfish) which is in a post that also details fish fed on the urine of pregnant women!

I remember wondering, at the time, how the recipe for that one goes?

First find a pregnant woman, take your fish in one hand and then tickle the pregnant woman until she pees?

But it’s the book that I’m more interested in at the moment.

It’s rather interesting because instead of writing about jacking in the job, selling the kids, packing the TV in the back of the Volvo to start a new life in rural France, Marilyn has written a book all about the French WW2 serial killer, Dr. Marcel Petiot

The book’s title is DIE IN PARIS.

interview writer  The Marilyn Z. Tomlins Interview   because we all love reading blogs about life in France A spring night in Paris. The most beautiful city in the world is dark and silent. Uncertainty devils the air. As does normality: War time normality.

The Nazi flag flutters from the Eiffel Tower. The Parisians are huddled indoors.

Suddenly the night’s stillness is shattered by sirens and excited voices.

For days foul smoke has been pouring from the chimney of an uninhabited house close to the Avenue des Champs-Elysées.

Police and fire fighters are racing to the house to break down the bolted door.

They make a spine-chilling discovery.

The remains of countless human beings are being incinerated in a furnace in the basement.

In a pit in an outhouse quicklime consumes still more bodies.

Neighbors say they hear banging, pleading, sobbing and cries for help come from inside the house deep at night.

They say a shabbily-dressed man on a green bike pulling a cart behind him comes to the house, always at dawn, or dusk.

The house belongs to Dr. Marcel Petiot – a good-looking, charming, caring, family physician who lives elsewhere in the city with his wife and teenage son.

Is he the shabbily-dressed man on the green bike?

If so, what has he to say about the bodies?

interview writer  The Marilyn Z. Tomlins Interview   because we all love reading blogs about life in FranceFor more information, or if you wish to purchase…

I decided to find out more about Dr. Petiot and his biographer.

And what better way to do that than one of our famous A Taste of Garlic Interviews?



I was hoping to get on the TGV and scoot up to Paris to interview Marilyn in person but unfortunately the strike (in which I heartily believe) made that impossible.

Thus, I had no option but to fall back on that old standby and interview Marilyn by email.

I ensured that Marilyn was sitting comfortably and had a glass of medicinal brandy near to hand.

And then I began….

1).  Marilyn.  You’re an American writer living in Paris.  What made you come to Paris in the first place?

Marilyn –  Keith, I am not an American. I was born and grew up in South Africa, but unlike Karin Blixen, I can’t say that I once had a farm in Africa. If only, because then I might have written another “Out of Africa”. I came to Paris with my husband, an English journalist, who I met when he was on a sabbatical in South Africa to write a book. He did not want to remain in South Africa (and frankly neither did I) so we had to find another country to live in. He was a polyglot so language was not a problem and after having lived a little here and a little there, he said, “You know, I’ve always wanted to live in Paris, so why do we not go to Paris?” And we came to Paris. (I spoke of my husband in the past tense because, sadly, cancer had robbed him of his life recently.) Through my marriage I have British nationality.

2).  Paris seems to be (and has historically always been) very popular with writers.  What’s the attraction?

Marilyn - Paris used to give people the opportunity to ‘do their own thing’, but I’m not sure that this is still so. To choose a writer who had come to Paris to ‘do her own thing’, Gertrude Stein comes to mind. Here in Paris she could openly live with her lover Alice B. Toklas and no one found it distasteful and wrong. And look at Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway. Both, and especially Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda, lived very unconventional lives here in Paris. Would Fitzgerald and Hemingway have written those books if they had had to live in a strict WASP society? I don’t think so.

3).  There have been many terrible events in Paris over the last few hundred years.  I’m thinking of the terrors following the revolution, Hemingway slaughtering all those poor pigeons in the Parc de Luxembourg and Ford Madox Ford just being… well, Ford Madox Ford!

What made you choose to tell the story of Dr. Petiot?

Marilyn - Because I knew nothing about him when I first came across his name, and being the kind of person who is always hungry for information, I had to know more about him, and once I did, I could not stop talking about him, bad as he was – and I was hooked. Just before that a London-based literary agent had asked me to write a book about the French which I did not want to do. He wanted a Bill Bryson type of book. Then, Petiot arrived in my life and he’d been in my life now for six years, and I now know him better than anyone else does.

4).  You seem rather attracted to the sordid underbelly of Paris.  Why is this?

Marilyn -  Bad people are more interesting than good people. This was however not something I’ve always believed. You could ask me why I believe that now, and I would have to tell you that once I had started to research Dr. Petiot something in me had changed. I toughened up. Before Petiot I had not even been able to read a true-crime book, and today, I can read an autopsy report without it upsetting me in the least. Just a couple of months ago I read the report of Princess Diana’s autopsy and those of Dodi and Henri Paul, the Ritz security chief, who had been behind the wheel of the Mercedes that night. I also read the reports of the three’s injuries, and I can tell you that in 1997 I would not have been able to have done so. I would have been sick, and I would have had nightmares.

5).  You could equally as easily write about serial killers and murderers in New York or Detroit.  What is the special appeal of French murderers?  Are they better dressed or are the croissants just better in Paris?

Marilyn - Not only the croissants, Keith! But seriously. I can’t write about American serial killers and murderers because I do not know American law – and as you will know each State has its own laws. I know French law and I know France’s Constitution, having studied both when I had first become interested in Petiot, and this makes it possible for me to write about crime in France. As I also have a little knowledge of the laws of another few European countries – Switzerland, Germany, Austria etc – I am fortunately not restricted to reporting only French crimes. For example I wrote about Josef Fritzl, the Austrian incest father, and about the murder of the French banker Edouard Stern in Geneva. I’ve also written about a famous South African murder, one which was committed in the 1940s, which I could do because I know the laws of the old South Africa, but as I do not know the laws of the new South Africa, I can’t report on the country’s current crime scene.

6).  Are you working on another book at the moment?  And, if so, what is it all about?

Marilyn -  I already have another book for which I am seeking publication. I was working on this book when I became interested in Dr. Petiot, so I set it aside. It is a novel and the title is ‘Sitting on a Stick’ and it is set in Stalin’s Russia – in the Soviet Union of the 1930s. You may not believe me, Keith, but the evil Dr. Petiot is not the only person I carry on about. I also carry on about Stalin, and in ‘Sitting on a Stick’, which is the story of Boris Pasternak, I am again writing about death and destruction.

7).  As well as its serial killers, excellent cuisine and great wines, France has also got rather a name for itself for great music.  And the name Johnny Hallyday comes to mind as its finest example.

Now, whilst some people have suggested that Johnny has, on occasion,  been known to murder a perfectly good tune (and I feel that those people should be first in line when they bring the guillotine back) I’m more interested in what you think.  Would Johnny Hallyday make a good serial killer or should he stick to the singing?

Marilyn - Firstly, I adore Johnny Hallyday. Secondly, being unable to carry a tune myself, I’m not able to tell when he murders one. I know that he sung Brel, and to me it sounded okay. Would he make a good serial killer, you want to know. I think anyone could turn to killing. There is good and bad in all of us. Dr. Petiot’s patients thought he was a saint and his victims thought he was God, so you see that we all have two faces.

8).  When you are not busy delving into the sordid underbelly of Paris and hunting down serial killers, you must surely take some time off to eat.

What, then, is your favourite meal?  And why?

Marilyn - Keith, I will murder for a Belgian chocolate any day of the week. But a Belgian chocolate does not make a meal, does it? So, as far as a meal is concerned, I wouldn’t say no to a starter of oysters, then a rabbit stew followed by profiteroles. I ate the three for the first time here in Paris. I always say that there is no scene more civilized than people sitting at a beautifully-set table eating oysters – and drinking champagne from tall flutes. (Don’t forget the champagne!) As for rabbit, there is a Paris restaurant that has a wonderful dish of rabbit served with two mustard sauces. One sauce is already poured over the rabbit and the second waits in a copper pot. The dessert moment is also special for me and if profiteroles are on a menu then that is what I will order. I just do not want the profiteroles to be served with the hot chocolate already poured over it. I want to pour the chocolate myself, but first I want the profiteroles’ ice-cream filling to melt a little.

9).  I’ve heard it suggested that, if everyone in the world were forced, during their youth, to take a year off and go and live in Paris (or, indeed, any other part of Frrance), then the world would be a far happier place.

There’d certainly be less of all that Invading Iraq, working 800 hours a week and getting stressed about the shopping channel on TV stuff going on.

There’d probably be far more emphasis on looking chic, fine dining,  enjoying great wines and having affairs, for example.

Would you care to comment?

Marilyn - I agree that everyone should have a year in France before setting out on adulthood and the world will therefore be a far happier place. And yes, once they’ve been to Paris, they will be having affairs, for sure, because the 5 à 7 (cinq à sept) is a national pastime here: at five o’clock the offices close but the spouse does not get home until after 7 because from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. they are with their lovers. They will also know that there is a difference between eating and dining. Brillant-Savarin said, “Animals feed, human beings eat, only the wise man knows how to dine.” They will be chic too because lets admit it that there is nothing more chic in the world than a Frenchman in a dark suit, but I am going to say that I do hope that in their year in France, they won’t get to enjoying wine too much.

10).  What advice would you have to offer anyone thinking about becoming a writer?

Is is essential to live in Paris?

Are there any serial killers left to write about?

And, if we leave serial killers out of the equation, are there any other subjects worth investigating?

Marilyn - From a purely personal point of view, I’ve always wondered whether I would have become so focused on writing had I remained in South Africa, or had I not come to Paris but had gone to live somewhere else. I would say that my life would have gone another way, had I not come to Paris, because Paris is a daily soak in a bubble-bath of knowledge. One must be a moron to remain indifferent to French culture. So, Keith, I will say to someone who wants to write, “If you can somehow come to Paris, then, do so, and when you are here listen and learn, and then you can go back home and write.”

Oh yes, there are several serial killers and murderers left to write about. I am now talking of French ones. I can give you the names of two, and I’ve done some research already but … well, I will see how it goes.

And yes, there are other subjects worth investigating. Bin Laden is a subject worth investigating. He has very many brothers and sisters and I am sure that they have things to say about him that we do not know. And there is the wife of Saddam Hussein, and there must surely be a book in what she has to say. Keith, can you see that I am still with the baddies?

11).  I once heard a lovely story about James Joyce when he was in Paris writing Ulysses.

One evening, Joyce was found in his favourite bar, unhappy and frustrated.

“What’s up, James?” He was asked.

“Only wrote six words today!” Joyce relied.

“But James, six words!  That’s good for you!”

“Yes,” Joyce agreed.  “But I don’t know what order they go in!”

How many words so you write each day?

And do you always get them in the right order?

Marilyn - Keith, I write every day of my life, but I do not write books every day. I do not even write something every day that I intend pitching to an editor. But write I must, so I am boring people with my blog and my facebook comments and my e-mails. When I’m working on an article, I keep going for hours, from the time that I get up in the morning to about 5 or 6 p.m. when my brain shouts “halt!” And, no, for the first draft, I do not get the sentences or paragraphs in the right order, and this makes being able to copy and paste a wonderful invention. When I was still using a typewriter (and yes I can remember typewriters and ribbons and carbon paper and Tippex that always got stuck to my fingers!) I had to retype entire pages to get the sentences in the right order.

12).  Corporal Punishment – what are your thoughts on that?

For example, the Guillotine?

Is it really a deterrent or do some serial killers go on to kill some more afterwards?

Marilyn - If the urge comes over a man or a woman to kill, I am sure that the thought of being caught and being punished, won’t stop that person, because it is an urge they would not be able to do anything about. That is what I believe, but who knows, maybe corporal punishment had stopped some people from murdering.

When I started researching Petiot I was a sound believer in an eye for an eye etc. Then, when it came to that part of Die in Paris when I had to write about Petiot’s guillotine execution, I became terribly upset. I mean, I knew what this man had done, I had gone through each of his murders, I knew what a monster he was, yet I felt terribly sorry for him. I kept on thinking of the little boy Petiot – he was a beautiful toddler but he had a very unhappy childhood – and I couldn’t help crying. And I know people who had read the book in its manuscript form who had told me how terribly upset they had become reading about his execution.

So, I must say, that we should not kill people because they have killed. Yes, I know about the recidivist issue, so we can’t lock them up for a few years and then let them go, but we have to work out how to make criminals pay for their crimes.

13).  Following this interview, are you worried that complete strangers will come up to you in the street asking… “Aren’t you that famous writer; the one who writes about Parisian serial killers?”

I only ask because I know that this can be a bit of a problem!

Johnny Hallyday was telling me, only the other day, that he is constantly being accosted by complete strangers asking him.. “Hey, aren’t you that famous guy?  The one that that chap from A Taste of Garlic keeps waffling on about?  What do you do, then?”

Are you…

a).  Prepared for all the attention that sudden fame brings?

b).  About to become a recluse, not venturing out of your apartment and calling out for writing paper and ballpoint pens?  Or,

c).  Planning only to hit the streets (in a totally non-prostitute sense of the word) after dark and wearing a disguise?

Marilyn - Every famous person was once unknown and dreaming of being famous. For this reason I have no time for celebs who complain about paparazzi snapping them. So, Keith, I will be the nicest person in the world when I’m famous. Each morning, I will go to the same bistro I go now, and I will kiss everyone on the cheek, and I will say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ and ‘have a nice day’ just as I do now. And I will be very nice to aspiring writers asking me to read their manuscripts; I will tell them that I love their books and that I am sure that they’ve got a bestseller.

14).  Strunk and White.  The writer’s bible or something handy to keep in your purse just in case there’s no toilet paper?

Marilyn - Funny you should ask this because I always have a rejection letter in my handbag just in case there’s no toilet paper. First, I reread, the letter: “Dear Ms Tomlins, Thank you for thinking of me and my agency. I however feel that I am not the right agent to represent your novel, ‘Die in Paris’ because your antagonist does not speak to me as he should, should I represent you. I wish you the best of luck.” Dr. Petiot was, by the way, guillotined for the slaughter of 26 people. The police, judging by the amount of human remains they had found at his house, thought that he had probably murdered 200.

15).  If, as a direct result of this interview, you get invited to appear on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and, on the way to America, your plane crashes into the sea and you are the only survivor (managing, of course, to swim to a handily placed desert island), which three books would you want to have in your hand bag to give you something to read whilst awaiting rescue?

Marilyn - Dan Brown’s ‘Da Vinci Code’ because, with so little to read, I will be forced to read it and not put it down after the first 50 pages as I’ve been doing. Rhonda Byrne’s ‘The Secret’ in order to remain positive: I will have to believe that I will be rescued. And Concetta Bertoldi’s ‘Do Dead People Walk their Dogs’, so that I will know what to expect should ‘The Secret’ not work.

16).  And if there were another survivor from this terrible accident (and it really would be terribly bad form to be late for an interview with Jay Leno!) and the other survivor was a man, which man would you want to share your days and nights on that desert island with whist you were awaiting rescue?

Please be aware that, in order to make that question excruciatingly difficult to answer, you may not choose Johnny Hallyday, Johnny Depp or me to be your desert island partner!

Marilyn - English actor Colin Firth. But not to sing, please, no, because he can’t sing and I know this because I’ve seen ‘Mama Mia’ six times! But I would want him to talk to me all the time, just so that I could listen to his beautiful English voice.

And that, I think, just about wraps it up.

Marilyn, thank you very much, on behalf of all the visitors to A Taste of Garlic,  for taking time off from your serial killing stuff in order to answer my questions.

I’m sure that all the readers of  A Taste of Garlic will be desperate to get their hands on a copy of Die in Paris to investigate further.

Shall we tell them about our little competition now or shall we make them wait?

Marilyn - Oh, I think that’s enough for one day.  Shall we do the competition thing tomorrow?

OK – tomorrow it is, and once again, thank you very much for agreeing to be interviewed.

For anyone who can’t wait, please take a look at The Website of Author Marilyn Z. Tomlins.

All the best

interview writer  The Marilyn Z. Tomlins Interview   because we all love reading blogs about life in France


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1 Comment

  • By olga kotova, November 10, 2010 @ 9:16 pm

    Hi Keith, I’m your newest follower.Thanks for stopping by my blog.
    I love this post and enjoyed reading it. But …” Bad people are more interesting than good people.” ????

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