Carolyn Burke, a seasoned biographer, born in Australia, spent many years in Paris, and now lives in Santa Cruz, California. She is the author of the recently published “No Regrets: The Life of Edith Piaf”. Her “Lee Miller: A Life” (2005) was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and a finalist for The National Book Critics Circle Biography award. Her “Becoming Modern: The Life of Mina Loy” (1996) earned prominent reviews in the New York Times, Washington Post, the Atlantic, the New Republic and The Nation. Burke’s essays have appeared in many magazines. She is an engaging, entertaining speaker who tailors her talks to her audience. We are privileged to publish this exclusive interview.
Interview by Stephen Thompson, Ph.D.
OpenBeast: Hello! For those who don’t know you yet, please introduce yourself.
We meet at an amazing period in my life. I’m nearing the end of a three-month whirlwind of book tours, starting with the publication of No Regrets this March. Since then I’ve presented the book in Santa Cruz, San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, Paris, London, Auckland, Sydney, and Melbourne. It has felt as if I were on tour with Edith Piaf. (I did several gigs at jazz clubs with current interpretors of her repertoire and illustrated my readings with her recordings.) I’ve been moved by the warm reception by all sorts of people, young and old, in so many different countries—a tribute to my subject and a demonstration of how alive she is today.
What’s your natural characteristics?
I’m an Aries and do tend to have a laser focus while taking a project to completion. I can’t say if I’m typical but find that Rob Brezny’s “Free Will Astrology” advice seems to fit.
Can you tell us more about your latest book, No Regrets: The Life of Edith Piaf? And how long did it take to complete?
No Regrets takes a fresh look at the iconic French singer’s life by setting it in the time and place that gave rise to her unprecedented international career. Based on hitherto unavailable sources, including her correspondence with the man she called her spiritual mentor, it explores little-known aspects of her life. Although she was raised by turns in a brothel, a circus caravan, and one of the poorest Paris neighborhoods, Piaf became a student of poetry and philosophy who also aided Resistance efforts in World War II, wrote the lyrics for nearly 100 songs (including “La Vie en rose”), and a crucial mentor to younger singers, like Yves Montand and Charles Aznavour. In writing the book, my wish was to show readers how “the little sparrow” endures as a symbol of France and a source of inspiration to music lovers and entertainers worldwide.
It took me four years to complete No Regrets, which felt very fast. A friend commented, “you wrote it at the pace your subject lived!”
What is special about these celebrated ladies, like Lee Miller, Mina Loy and Edith Piaf, made you want to tell their stories? And had you met any of your subjects?
All three were creative forces who struggled to find within themselves the resources to pursue their arts in spite of restrictive social conventions. I was drawn to each of them by their determination to find their way. I met each woman in different ways, often in acts of imaginative sympathy: Mina Loy, when I lived on the same street in Paris (la rue Campagne Première, where she lived not once but twice) and in her poetry; Lee Miller, whom I sat next to her by chance at a lecture about her friend/lover/colleague Man Ray and then befriended; Edith Piaf, in the records that I sang along to when learning French as a student at the Sorbonne. I was been extremely fortunate in each of these encounters!
Who were you before starting to write? How did you start writing?
I’ve been writing in one way or another since childhood. So I’d have to say that I was the same person even when engaged in other pursuits, like making a living as a translator or a teacher, and raising my daughter, who is also a writer. Perhaps the gene runs in families?
You mainly write biography. Did you ever want to write in another genre?
Yes. Several years ago I began a novel set in Paris before World War One. I plan to finish it this year, fingers crossed.
Do you already have or planned for other projects?
Yes to that as well although it’s too soon to say much about it, except that it will be a group portrait.
Do you have some advice for young writers?
Just keep writing in whatever form occurs to you. Don’t censor yourself. Carry a notebook so you can jot down anything that comes to you. Af circumstances permit, establish a regular writing time and place so that you can go there, sit down, and see what happens. (I write best in the morning.)
To learn more about Carolyn Burke and her book events, visit www.carolynburke.com
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