The Assay Interview Project: Eric Freeze
March 8, 2021
Eric Freeze is author of the memoir French Dive: Living More with Less on The French Riviera, the short story collections Dominant Traits and Invisible Men, and a collection of creative nonfiction Hemingway on a Bike. He has published stories, essays, and translations in numerous periodicals including Boston Review, Harvard Review, and The Southern Review. He is an Associate Professor of creative writing at Wabash College and lives in Crawfordsville, Indiana and Nice, France.
About French Dive: In the fall of 2014, Eric and Rixa Freeze moved their young family to Old Nice, a medieval town-within-a-city on the famed Côte d’Azur. They’d bought a 700-square-foot dive, an apartment in need of renovation only a stone’s throw from the Mediterranean. They were a family with a plan: to live differently. No home in the suburbs with a two-car garage, no bedroom for every child, no 24-hour conveniences. French Dive chronicles the Freeze family’s adventure of living with less, ultimately making a new home for themselves by the sea. The book examines questions of racism, displacement, homelessness, emigration, and parenting with wit, love, and humor.
Julija Šukys: Congratulations on French Dive, Eric! You wrote this book on sabbatical, immediately after buying a small apartment for your family of six. You describe taking on renovations, learning to spearfish, and helping your kids adjust to a new way of life. Talk about the form and process of the book: did you write it all in your little Nice apartment? Does what you recount in the book reflect your year on the Côte d’Azur or did you engage in some time compression?
Eric Freeze: I started writing the book first in little essay-like chapters with no overall structure in mind. Up to this point, I’d had limited experience with long-form narrative. I had written two botched YA novels and that’s about it. So coming to the memoir form started somewhat organically, first with essays as chapters starting to give it a shape. Once I decided to write a memoir, I was more deliberate, coming up with a structure that describes the three basic parts of a platform dive: Takeoff, Under Water, and Surfacing. But my process beyond that was fairly messy. During generation, I was writing 2,000 words a day till the book ballooned up to 200K words. I had all sorts of stuff in there, including a trip out to Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt’s house in Correns and an experience with a con man from Corsica. For a while, I was trying to answer the question of why creative people chose to settle in the south of France. But those narratives ended up clouding my own.
Most of my writing actually took place after my sabbatical but I tried to use that year-long experience as a narrative framing device. I did engage in some time compression but not much. The conversation I had with Djamel about les décroissants and living more with less, for example, happened a couple years later. It provided a theoretical framework for the book. After that, I tried to filter everything else out and focus on our own experience. For my process, I’m very much like visual artists who keep drawing, using lots of lines or brushstrokes till an image starts to emerge.
My favorite parts of this book were the spearfishing chapters. As you take us into the underwater world, you manage to act both as a guide but also to remain vulnerable, in that you reveal your mistakes, missteps, and even dangerous choices (like diving on a “red flag” day when beaches are closed). What has this new skill of spearfishing given you besides dinner fare for the family?
I’m glad you liked the spearfishing. I initially had several more spearfishing chapters that didn’t make it into the book, including an interesting trip to Monaco during a yacht show. I think the reason for the focus is it provided a contrast and sometimes escape from the other risks we had undertaken on the surface: all the home-renovating, cash-strapped risks, as well as the cultural risks of our integration. What spearfishing and freediving give me is what a lot of writers need: time for meditation or contemplation.
In On Writing, Stephen King talks about long walks, how important they are to his artistic process. The irony is his long walks are also what almost got him killed. When I’m under water, either freediving or spearfishing, the frenetic urban center of Nice disappears and I’m alone on the bottom of the sea with just my thoughts and the silence. Plus I love the exercise. I used to own a Dalmatian that needed at least two long walk/runs per day or he would be whiny and skittish. I’m kind of like that too.
I also enjoyed meeting Phillippe, who was one in a series of worker-travelers you had pass through the apartment via a program called HelpX (I’d never heard of this before, so it was interesting to learn of it). In exchange for food and lodging, these travelers helped you build stairs, plaster walls, and even put in new wiring. Phillippe struck me as the most likeable and affable of all your travelers, but also the most precarious. At a certain point, you realize after Philippe has ostensibly moved on to the next job, that he’s not simply eccentrically itinerant but, as you put it, “homeless-homeless.”
The precarity of Phillippe’s situation really struck me. You have a chapter called “HelpX Saves Lives,” and describe in the book how Phillippe eventually moves on to the US and beyond, doing odd jobs along the way. This is great, on the one hand, but I can’t help but wonder what will happen to Phillippe when he’s too old to work or when he gets ill. What news do you have of Phillippe and how do you personally reckon with the problem of precarity in this economy of exchange?
Philippe and I are still in touch. He actually may be coming to stay with us again in a couple months, COVID permitting. What’s important to understand with Philippe is that he actively chooses to live this way. HelpX was merely the vehicle that allowed him to move from place to place, to meet people and live differently. But he can be horrible at planning ahead and that sometimes leaves him stranded. He has skills that he could easily get a job as an electrician or even hunker down in some French hamlet with his petit café and live off the French dole. But he doesn’t want to do that yet. He values his autonomy too much. The precariousness of his life is part of its appeal, at least for the time being. Luckily he’s in a country with a strong social net that will help him when he needs it, and he has made friends around the world who know and love him. If he were in the US, I think he’d have a much harder time living like this.
You were in France during the Charlie-Hebdo attacks in Paris. The slogan, “Je suis Charlie” arose from that attack. It was meant as a message of unity and solidarity, of course. But the other day, I read an article that gave me pause. Here’s a quote from the New York Times piece in question:
“I am Charlie” gave birth to “I am not Charlie,” giving rise to a question that demands picking camps: Are you or are you not Charlie? The answer puts people on either side of France’s major fault lines, including freedom of speech, secularism, race, national identity and, of course, Islam.
You’re very clear in this book that France is no racism-free panacea, especially when it comes to “les Arabes,” that is, the many North Africans who have long lived in the South of France (and in other regions of France).
How do things look to you in 2020-2021? Do you have a sense of growing racial and class solidarity or division in Nice? How has the pandemic affected social-political relations?
It’s hard to live in a way that’s truly inclusive, that doesn’t intentionally or unintentionally marginalize others. Any statement of solidarity will immediately have its detractors. France has had particular difficulty with this since calls for solidarity are often coded conformity to a secular state that doesn’t provide enough space for believing Muslims. So it’s complicated. Nice has become a target for these divisions. Nothing says exclusion better than the Côte d’Azur. But as a humanist, I have to believe that people can learn to live with each other, that respect can come through exposure and understanding. But it requires effort on both an individual and a societal level.
Nice itself is a very conservative city except for Old Nice and parts of the Port neighborhood. People call where we live the “petit Marais” after the liberal right bank quarter in Paris. I would love to say that it’s a truly inclusive neighborhood and that the pandemic has helped people come together. I see some evidence of this as people have struggled to get by. In March and April, the community put up these “paniers solidaires” where anyone who had something to give left it for others. Food banks and soup kitchens have been busy. Because we sometimes have the impression that everyone here comes from someplace else, that also creates a built-in tolerance for difference. I was talking with a French mother yesterday who marvels at how accepting it is in Old Nice, how her daughter who used to stand out now feels accepted. But it’s not perfect. Some of our Muslim friends have been the quickest to accept a secular orthodoxy and that can create tension for those who continue to openly practice their religion. I still see the tolerance much greater here than in areas I’ve lived in the US that are more rigidly segregated along lines of class, race, and socio-economic status, even with Nice’s headline-grabbing terror attacks. The cost of belonging here isn’t so rigidly enforced, the fear not so palpable. Nobody has guns.
You’ve now spent several years shuttling back and forth between the US and France, living half a year in one place and then the other. What has been the hardest thing about moving this way? What has surprised you most? What are the pleasures of living with less?
Our original plan was to buy an apartment that we could rent during the school year and then stay in during the summer. In this model, we would leave after I finished teaching and put our kids in the last couple months of French public school. We tried this the year after my sabbatical and realized that our kids would constantly be falling behind, that they would never become truly bilingual even with me speaking only French at home. Our current plan, the one that you mention at the end of the book, is to stay here half the year and spend the other half in the States. On the surface, it sounds fantastic—our kids get most of the school year in the US (August-December) and the most of the school year in France (January-July). It cuts their summer vacation to a month but they’re able to keep up. Having a home in both places and returning to the same community, the same schools, the same peer groups, etc. has made the difficulties of constantly transitioning more manageable, especially for our kids to whom it has become largely routine.
The real difficulties for me have little to do with the constant moving back and forth and living with less. The hardest thing has been the uncertainty as I’ve negotiated my current half-time position. I may have damaged my relationships with colleagues in the States. I hope that this isn’t the case because I truly love the people I work with. But living in a way that bends the rules or differs from the ways that others choose to live their lives has at times created an enormous amount of strain. As for the pleasures, I could go on and on. I have bought myself more time to write and more time with my family. My kids privilege experience over stuff. They are deeply connected to our environment and committed to recycling and reusing and avoiding conspicuous consumption. That has been my biggest pleasure: raising children who are responsible stewards of the world.
You and your family went on House Hunters International when you first moved to France. Was this choice a conscious nod to Dave Eggers’ Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (in which he describes his audition to appear on the Real World)? What did you hope to accomplish – in terms of the book – by doing so? And did it work? That is, did you accomplish what you were trying to do?
A friend of mine wrote one of the first academic books about reality TV. He said that whenever he met people at conferences, they all assumed that he was a reality TV junkie. But no. He wrote about reality TV because he wanted to find out what it said about our values and aspirations. I had a similar goal by going on House Hunters. I wanted to see what society expected from a family like ours moving to France. It’s still astonishing to me how the most impossible version of our story was what the producers saw as the most appealing. They jacked up the price of our apartment because otherwise everyone would know which property we had bought. They told us to say that we were leaving our jobs in the US so I could pursue being a writer in the south of France. Everything in the episode revolves around the romantic fiction of an artist pursuing his dream. Where am I going to write? Where will I receive inspiration? I couldn’t care less. But that’s what TV wants people to think is important. So for me, yes, it did accomplish what I was trying to do. I got to compare what people wanted to see with our actual story. What I couldn’t anticipate was how people would romanticize the House Hunters narrative, how eagerly they would consume that version of reality. Even when I explained that, no, that wasn’t our narrative at all, people wouldn’t believe me. My denial, even like I’m doing here, somehow confirms people’s preconceptions of an artist in the south of France.
You end the book with plans to buy the apartment downstairs from yours in Nice. The long-abandoned apartment belongs to the Young Communist Association (I will refrain from commenting on the ironies of communist ownership of prime Nice real estate!). I know from social media that you have finally secured the purchase. So, given this development, what’s next in your Nice adventure?
Last week during vacation we started demolition. As a family. Rixa has been doing these great time-lapse videos of ripping off wood paneling and tearing down false ceilings. Our kids have been pulling nails and smashing plaster with hammers. This is a much larger renovation project than the work we did in our own apartment and it will take time. We’re doing all of the work ourselves. Philippe might come when we’re starting the electrical. The plan is to connect part of it to our apartment for a little more room but to make another stand-alone apartment with a mezzanine for people to stay with us longer term. Both my parents and Rixa’s are retired and eager to spend more time with their grandkids. When they’re not using it, we’ll open it up to other visitors or rent it out. Because of so many elements converging that are similar to French Dive (apartment renovation, Philippe, Cavigal soccer, a sabbatical year, etc.), I’m working now on a sequel that I’m tentatively calling Pioneers of France after the youth organization Pionniers de France that split off from the Young Communists in the 60s. They also have property in our building. The memoir will include even more Nice history, less spearfishing, and recent work I’ve been doing on James Baldwin.
What were the challenges of writing about Old Nice? Can you talk a bit about your research process for French Dive? What did you learn?
I do research in a kind of scattershot way. I often don’t know what research will apply till I’m writing about it. As for challenges, they were mostly cultural. I keep thinking of Eula Biss’s 2015 essay she wrote about white debt in The New York Times. Old Nice is a neighborhood in transition and our presence here is symptomatic of change. It makes me uneasy. As much as I’d like to say that we’re not like those expatriates who pay cash for property in the Old Town and then stay in it for a couple months per year and congregate in their anglophone-only bubbles protected by the illusion of their fiscal and cultural superiority, we’re not all that different. People still see us that way.
About her own multi-ethnic neighborhood in the throes of gentrification, Biss says, “I suspect whiteness is costing me, as Baldwin would say, my moral life.” The themes I write about in French Dive: homelessness, what it means to be part of a community, and living more with less are coming from a subject position that people don’t question as being able to write about these things. So the big challenge for me is writing about a place in a self-conscious enough way that it doesn’t exclude the people who have made it their home. But my relationship to the community is still bound by rules of ownership. I’m stuck with that illusion. That’s the paradigm that late capitalism has given us and I have to live with it because that’s how we’ve been able to negotiate our presence here. COVID has perhaps stalled things for a while as people focus on larger societal problems but I worry that as soon as the economy starts going again that people will forget. We’ll go back to talking about price per square meter and seaside views.
I’m even conflicted about what happens with this book. While I would love more people to read it for its inclusive message and change the way that they live in the world, I don’t want people uprooting themselves and moving here à la Peter Mayle. I can’t think of a greater failure. Luckily, I’ve published the book with an independent press that will likely only reach a small audience. In other words, my relative obscurity should help keep gentrification at bay.
Can you recommend a few books that have helped you see the south of France differently? What should people who want to read beyond the literary clichés of Provence and the Côte d’Azur pick up?
Hmm. The south of France is funny because you really have to look to get past all the guidebooks. It’s hard to find anything about the south of France that doesn’t rely on its location and the stereotypes associated with it. I’ve enjoyed reading a lot of the history of Old Nice and learning about authors and artists who have made their home here. A friend of mine, the French author Carine Marret has this great book called Promenades Littéraires (again, a guide book!) that talks about various writers from Nietzsche to F. Scott Fitzgerald who lived here. I enjoyed Tobias Smollett’s 1766 book Travels through France and Italy. Emmanuel Desclaux, an academic and archeologist at the Université Côte d’Azur, has been very helpful sharing his work about early human habitation in this area. But some of the most important books for me have been fiction: novels set in the south of France or ones that I’ve read while living here that have influenced how I thought about the place. If you put Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night, Carol Shields’s Unless, and James Baldwin’s Just Above My Head in conversation with each other, you’ll get a sense of how I see the south of France.
Thank you so much for talking to us, Eric! I look forward to seeing what comes next in your writing and to see how Old Nice continues to make its mark on your work.
Senior Editor Julija Šukys Associate Professor of English at the University of Missouri, Columbia, where she teaches the writing of creative nonfiction. She is the author of three books, including Siberian Exile: Blood, War, and a Granddaughter’s Reckoning and Epistolophilia: Writing the Life of Ona Šimaite. Epistolophilia won the 2013 Canadian Jewish Book Award for Holocaust Literature.
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