Kati Marton Interview by Grover Gardner
GROVER GARDNER: Welcome to Downpour.com’s interview series. I’m Grover Gardner, and today it’s my pleasure to be speaking with Kati Marton. Kati is a New York Times bestsellingauthor, award-winning reporter, and former correspondent for NPR and ABC News. She is the author of several books, including Enemies of the People: My Family’s Journey to America, a National Book Critics Circle Award Finalist and the subject of an upcoming motion picture. Her other books include The Great Escape: Nine Jews Who Fled Hitler and Changed the World and the New York Times bestseller Hidden Power: Presidential Marriages That Shaped Our History. The memoir, Paris: A Love Story is her latest book. Kati, thank you for joining us today.
KATI MARTON: Oh, my pleasure. Thanks for doing this with me.
GG: First of all, congratulations on your book. It’s gotten rave reviews from Barbara Walters and Diane Sawyer, who said, “Kati Marton has written movingly about her love, loss, and the healing power of an elegant city. She takes readers on a journey as she writes to find a place where there is joy in remembered joy.” What does it feel like to get such wonderful reviews, especially from your colleagues, on something that’s so close to your heart?
KM: As you can imagine, it’s pretty overwhelming, alongside some early reviews from other publications, like Newsweek, Publishers Weekly, and Kirkus—I’m kind of floating at the moment. It’s bound to end soon. No writer gets a total free ride. But this book, of course, is unlike anything I’ve ever written because it’s really my own story. It’s a memoir and deeply personal as a result and it’s about a terrible loss that I suffered last year with the sudden death of my beloved husband Richard. So to get high praise from such sources is more than just, “Gee, great. Great reviews.” It’s really high praise of a very personal nature too so … quite wonderful.
GG: The book is titled Paris, and the city, of course, is at the heart of the story. What’s the draw of Paris and what role does it fill for you now?
KM: Paris has played a huge role in my whole life. This is really a love story about Paris. When I was a little girl growing up in Cold War Budapest I learned to love all things French, starting with the language from a French woman who lived with us with the purpose of teaching French to me. But in fact it turned out—and this I reveal in my last book, Enemies of the People—she was actually a secret police agent informing on my parents. As vile as that woman was, she did teach me the French language, which has served me very well, first as a student in Paris when I was an adolescent—and then got caught up in the student uprising there, which I write about in my book—and then, ten years later, I returned as an ABC News foreign correspondent. And this time I fell in love all over again with the city, and with the man who I would soon marry, Peter Jennings, with whom I conducted a very passionate and tumultuous love affair over the course of fifteen years, and also produced two terrific kids. Then, flash forward fifteen years, and I’m back in Paris, this time fleeing a failing marriage to Peter, and I encounter Richard Holbrooke. And we have our own Parisian adventure and life, and Paris becomes the place where we have our best times—particularly the last two years of Richard’s life, when he was President Obama’s special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Paris was where we would meet and, in fact, we bought a little place in Paris and spent some of our happiest times there. As a result, when Richard died suddenly, I fled to Paris to escape my pain and to escape the ghosts of our life in New York, which ended very abruptly. And so in Paris I have found the joy of life again, and the beauty and the comfort that comes from being in a place that is so full of wonderful memories for me.
GG: You mention your parents. They were reporters. Journalists.
KM: Yes, I come from a long line of journalists. Yes, they were arrested when I was six years old in Budapest under Soviet occupation in those days for the crime of being good reporters. They were the last independent media behind the Iron Curtain and they were convicted as CIA agents. I did not see my dad for almost two years and my mother for one terrible year. That’s part of the Paris story too. I basically weave that into the narrative because although Paris is at the focus of my book, it is a memoir. So, as I walk the streets of Paris, I recall these dramatic events in my childhood, namely my parents’ arrest and the terrible separation, and actually draw great strength in remembering how my parents conducted themselves under awful circumstances. Basically, the theme of Paris, other than the stories of a survivor’s life—which I think I am, a survivor—is that nobody escapes loss at some stage in life. And the trick is to move on from that loss. So this is not at all a book about grief. It’s a book about how to get on with your life after the inevitable blows that really none of us can escape.
GG: Was it strange or difficult to turn a cool journalistic eye on your own life and experiences?
KM: (laughs) Well, even though I do still do occasional journalism, this is my eighth book, so I’m not sure I can still fully call myself a journalist. I think I’ve crossed into the territory of writer after eight books, but I do still love facts and documents, and I had an unexpected piece of good luck in that one of the things that death does is it forces you to make very practical decisions. I put the apartment where I had lived for twenty-five years with Richard and with my children up for sale, and in starting to pack up to move to a much smaller place, I found a box of letters that my parents had kept from the days when I was a student in Paris. Those letters really form the core of the section about Paris through a young girl’s eyes. And then too I found in the same packing process letters that Peter and I had exchanged and that helped to flesh out the section about my foreign correspondent days in Paris and my romance with Peter.
GG: Enemies of the People. There’s a movie, am I correct?
KM: Yes. Very exciting. The very gifted director who did The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is working on it. And that will be peculiar, to see my parents and myself up on the big screen. So, another jolt to the system.
GG: (laughs) Are you involved in the making of the film?
KM: Yes, I’ve become friends with the director, who’s a Dane. This will be, I believe, his first big American film. His name is Niels Arden Oplev, and he loves the project. We’ve had many, many conversations, and I will certainly go with him to Budapest when he starts shooting.
GG: Who are some of your favorite writers that have influenced you?
KM: Well, I’m of course a great admirer of another woman who’s written about grief and its effect on all lives and that is Joan Didion. And she actually had a big influence on Paris: A Love Story, because shortly after Richard died she hand-delivered to my apartment a note which said, “Dear Kati, this morning I woke up thinking about you and all the mornings that you will wake up and think about Richard.” And I found this to be a very moving note, but an infinitely sad one. So I decided that as much as I admired Joan Didion’s literary gift, I did not want to write the kind of book that she had written about her husband’s death, which was titled The Year of Magical Thinking. I wanted to write, in effect, the opposite kind of book—a book about loss being the impulse for a life fully lived and that’s what I set out to do. So I would say that she was one of the reasons I started writing and then she was also—how should I put it—the negative influence over my book. There are a great many writers who I would never put myself in the same league with, but I’m a big admirer of David Remnick’s long-form writing, as well as George Packer, who, at the moment, is writing a biography of my husband, Richard Holbrooke, so we work fairly closely. Farther back, David Halberstam, who also went from journalism to book writing, has been an inspiration to me. I very much enjoy the writing of Anna Quindlen. Gosh, I could go on and on.
GG: Well, you’ve given us some great names to look into. What’s next for you? Do you have a new project coming up?
KM: In the near term, I’m going to be promoting this book. I’m going to travel extensively around the country and that is really the reward for the isolation that writing books imposes. I love book touring and I’m just grateful that Simon & Schuster still sends authors on book tours. And then I, of course, will come up with a new subject because I can’t seem to resist. Writing is what I seem to need to do. After each one—and as I said, this is number eight—I tell my children: “Okay, that’s it. Now I’m rejoining the human race.” And my children roll their eyes and say, “Uh-huh. Sure, Mom.” (laughter) And they haven’t been wrong yet. So I’ll snoop around. But for now, I’m going to enjoy the … what so far is an entirely positive experience in publishing a book that really took a lot of heart and a lot of pain to write.
GG: We appreciate you joining us today and we’re thrilled to have the opportunity to produce the audio for Blackstone.
KM: I’m equally pleased, and it was very good to talk to you.
GG: Congratulations again and thanks for being with us today.
KM: Thanks for talking to me.
GG: Thank you for joining us for this exclusive interview with Kati Marton. You can find Paris: A Love Story and all of Blackstone Audio’s titles at Downpour.com.
This interview was recorded in August 2012.
Disclaimer: This audio and transcript have been edited slightly from the original recording for quality and readability.
This is a memoir for anyone who has ever fallen in love in Paris, or with Paris—and for anyone who has ever had their heart broken or their life upended.
In this remarkably honest memoir, award-winning journalist and distinguished author Kati Marton presents an impassioned and romantic story of love, loss, and life after loss. Paris is at the heart of this deeply moving account. At every stage of her life, Paris offers Marton beauty and excitement, and now, after the sudden death of her husband, Richard Holbrooke, it offers a chance for a fresh beginning.
With intimate and nuanced portraits of Peter Jennings, the man to whom she was married for fifteen years and with whom she had two children, and Richard, with whom she found enduring love, Marton paints a vivid account of an adventuresome life in the stream of history. Inspirational and deeply human, Paris: A Love Story will touch every generation.