Former Writer in Residence Returns to Campus

Anya Gruber ’16
Staff Writer

Russ Rymer, former Jacobson Center Writer in Residence, returned to Smith last Wednesday, Sept. 25, to read from his latest book, Paris Twilight, at 7:30 p.m. in Neilson Browsing Room.

Over the course of his nonfiction career, Rymer has written award-winning articles for magazines such as National Geographic and Smithsonian, as well as several books, including Genie: A Scientific Tragedy and the upcoming Out of Pernambuco. Paris Twilight, however, represents his first foray into novel writing.

Asked whether he had ever wanted to write fiction, Rymer said, “Yes, always. But in the same way I’ve wished to be a famous composer or important statesman – I never thought the ambition plausible enough to give it a serious try.”

Smith English professor Michael Thurston gave an introduction to the novel and discussed Rymer’s ability to transcend genres with Paris Twilight. He mentioned a number of generic categories under which the book could fit, including mystery, political novel and romance, also commenting, “We may be reading an update of a Gothic novel.”

Rymer himself said, “I’ve heard complaints that Paris Twilight is ‘genre-less’ … But if I had to characterize it, I’d pick one [Thurston] didn’t mention. I would call Paris Twilight a religious novel.”

Not only did the switch to fiction put Rymer in unfamiliar territory, the novel’s focus on a complicated surgery also required a comprehensive knowledge of medical vernacular. To do this, Rymer “sat through a bunch of open heart surgeries” and had the Paris Twilight manuscript fact-checked.

Rymer was supposed to be working on Out of Pernambuco when he began Paris Twilight. “After I’d written a chapter [of Paris Twilight], I called my editor and decided to switch books,” he said. After his publisher semi-jokingly gave him “some time to get over it,” Haughton-Mifflin agreed to publish the novel. Rymer said this “was remarkable and [I am] very grateful.”

The novel was finished and ready for publication a year and a half later, a millisecond in the publishing world. Rymer remarked, “It took eighteen years to write my first book.”

Rymer’s initial inspiration for Paris Twilight came while on a train from Boston to New York. “It was snowing and I was intrigued by the landscape from the moving train,” he remarked. Out of curiosity and boredom, Rymer took digital photos of the view out the window.

“They were blurry but I loved them. I had to explain to myself why I was so fascinated by these photos, so I wrote a paragraph about them,” he said. Through this exercise, he found the voice of Matilde Anselm, the central character of what came to be Paris Twilight. This initial paragraph now appears as the last paragraph in chapter one.

Utilizing photography as a writing tool is not unusual for Rymer. “I like using photos as a way of thinking about something that has caught my eye…Words are what I distill out of the photograph,” Rymer remarked.

In fact, during his last semester at Smith last spring, Rymer taught a class called Writing Through Photography, which integrated the two disciplines. Mariel Bell ’16, who took the class, said that photography was used in a variety of ways to supplement and inspire written material. She said, “Some [students] used the photographs as a starting point for inspiration and some used it for illustration while the story itself inspired the photograph.”

“I just started writing – I didn’t know where it would go,” responded Rymer when asked about how he went about starting Paris Twilight. “Writing the book felt like the interview process of a non-fiction piece…the characters were telling me what should happen,” he said of the experience.

Rymer had the last lines of the novel written early, and filled in the middle to meet the predetermined end. Along the way, his characters surprised him at times.

Though he had an established voice for Matilde Anselm from the start, he didn’t know very much about her. “She was originally a surgeon…I didn’t know she was an anesthesiologist until I wrote that [part],” Rymer commented. The same goes for Daniel, whom Matilde addresses directly, as the novel is in the form of a letter. “I didn’t know who he was, just that he was Matilde’s long-lost love…I needed someone she could write to,” Rymer reflected.

“When I actually got into writing Paris Twilight, there was so much rearranging of sentences and paragraphs, it was like moving heavy objects. I could feel it in my back. It felt like physical work,” Rymer said.

When asked whether he would write a sequel, Rymer expressed interest in possibly writing a companion novel explaining the backstories of secondary characters in Paris Twilight. In any case, he said “I’ve been bitten by the bug and would like to write another [novel].”

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