March 29, 2011

Behind the Book: A neighbor’s legacy inspires haunting debut

Behind the Book by
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Elena Mauli Shapiro was born in Paris and lived there until she moved to the United States at the age of 13. Her first novel, 13 rue Thérèse, tells the story of an American professor who arrives in Paris and finds a box of artifacts in the filing cabinet of his new office. Fascinated by the contents of the box, he begins to piece together the life of the mysterious Parisian woman who collected them. Here, the author reveals the real-life inspiration for her imaginative and beautifully constructed debut.

I grew up at the book’s titular address in Paris, 13 rue Thérèse. When I was a very little girl, an elderly recluse named Louise Brunet lived in one of the apartments upstairs. All I remember of her to this day is the sound of her television turned all the way up, echoing in the courtyard. When the speakers died, she watched without sound. When she died, none of her remaining relatives came to fetch her belongings, leaving the landlord the task of clearing them all out. He saved the best jewelry and silverware for his wife, then asked the tenants to come take whatever they wanted. They scavenged, taking away minor treasures: an embroidered tablecloth, a worn fur coat, delicate glassware. Whatever they didn’t want, the landlord would throw away: old stockings, endless bottles of pain medication, a plastic box filled with scraps of some sort—except my mother stopped his hand as he was about to drop the box down the maw of a big black trash bag. Don’t throw that away, she said, I’ll keep that.

In the box: postcards and letters from the front in World War I, dried flowers, a rosary. A datebook for the year 1928.


Two pairs of fragile lace church gloves: white ones for a little girl, black ones for a grown woman. There were many small objects in the box, all worth nothing but memories. As I grew up, I was endlessly compelled by this collection, by the tiny sepulcher of Louise Brunet’s heart. The fact that I could never know the story behind the objects only made the attraction stronger. I would write a book one day about these mute little witnesses. I had to.


I wrote reams of pages over many years in the process of whittling myself into a writer, but I did not write about the box. I would not get into the box until I was a strong enough writer to do it justice. I don’t know that I could have ever made the conscious decision to start, but I didn’t have to. One day the box came to get me in my dreams. The result was a short, countdown-shaped narrative of the life of Louise’s father that starts with a picture of him old and winds itself down to a picture of him young. I looked at the peculiar eruption that had burst out of me and I thought, uh oh—




The surge from below was so intense that it was difficult to hold myself together. There was some sorcery about what I was doing, channeling pieces of live people that I knew and loved into pieces of a dead stranger who had haunted me my whole life. My entire being hissed with the alchemy of it. The composite Louise Brunet I was carrying in my body threatened to rend me. I needed to put another body between hers and mine. This is when I made Trevor Stratton, the American academic who finds Louise Brunet’s artifacts and functions as the narrative frame for the story, a frame who helplessly bleeds into the portrait he surrounds. As playful a metafictional device as Trevor may be, he was first and foremost essential secondary containment. I will always be grateful to him for that, though he doesn’t exist.

Neither does the Louise Brunet I collated really exist, though she wears the name and face of a real person. It is my obsession with her image, with the image’s flickering in and out of existence, that drove the book from its inception. Louise Brunet came to embody the parts of ourselves that will never be seen, the stories we tell ourselves about each other that may or may not be verifiable, the memories that are lost and those that are secreted whole around a kernel of something that may or may not have occurred. Trevor’s possession by her was my rendering of the most human of traits: our total inability to see without interpreting and our relentless desire for sense and story, all driven, finally, by our simple need for connection.

Elena Mauli Shapiro is currently working on a second novel, set in Romania. Find out more about 13 Rue Thérèse on the book's website, where you can see more of the artifacts from Louise's box. Find out more about Shapiro on her blog.


Elena Mauli Shapiro

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