Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Phantom Lady of Paris by Calvin Davis: Interview, Excerpt

A suspense-filled love story, The Phantom Lady of Paris, tells of American Paul Lasser and his sojourn to the City of Light, where he meets the mysterious Phantom Lady, Bonnie Silver, a woman who is more question marks than periods. Why is she in Paris and why do French police investigate her and her “persons-of-interest” friends? One friend, a flower child, overdoses on drugs. Another morphs into a terrorist, bombing cafés. Is a communist agitator an associate of Bonnie’s? Slowly, Paul unearths answers, and while they quench Paul’s need to know, they will forever haunt him.


“Bonnie, let’s face it; we don’t stand a snowball’s chance of getting out of this mess alive, if we don’t make it to the other side of the street and fast.”

“I agree, but the question is how are we gonna do it?” Fright was obvious in her voice. Evidently she’d finally seen the seriousness of the situation, for her enthusiasm at witnessing something exciting had morphed into fear.

Stretching a city block, a line of French riot police stood poised between Bonnie, me, and the opposite sidewalk of Boulevard Saint Michel. Troopers were swinging truncheons so rapidly they blurred. Like a tide, the lawmen waded into screaming and scurrying student demonstrators. Batons ricocheted off skulls, others landed squarely on them, thudding like lead pipes pounding water-soaked two-by-fours. The lawmen seemed obsessed with cracking skulls and flattening bodies. I noticed that some policemen smiled as they clobbered, apparently delighting in the orgy of brutality. Seeing the flailing batons, I knew that nothing short of a miracle could get Bonnie and me to the other side of the street safely.

“Paul, are you seriously suggesting we walk into that buzz saw of baton-swinging French cops?” Bonnie’s voice rose with apprehension.

“Right. Unless you have a better idea.” I peered up and down the street, frantically searching for an alternative.

“I think I have a better one. Why don‘t we…why don‘t we…ah...” She looked around, wide-eyed with fear. Her shoulders slumped. “On second thought, that wouldn‘t work. The entire area is crammed with protesters and police as far as the eye can see. I thought maybe we could go further down the street and go around this mess, but the crowd’s too thick to walk through. Every one’s acting crazy. So, I suppose we‘ll have to do it your way—face the nightsticks.”

“It’s our only option. Granted, it’s a gamble, but, like it or not, what choice do we have?”

Bonnie and I moved toward the officers who continued to pound, flatten, and stride over fallen bodies. I imagined that her heart was pounding in triple-time, the same as mine.

Clenching my hand, she said, “Paul, what are we getting ourselves into?”

“I wish I knew, but we’ve got no alternative. Stay close to me. Better still, get behind me. Use me as a shield. I don‘t want you hurt.”

Our chances of reaching the opposing sidewalk were as murky as clouds of tear gas now hovering above Boulevard Saint Michel. What happened next made those chances even murkier. About 5‘2”, the protester beside me lowered his shoulders and, legs churning, charged bull-like toward the police line. His shoulder and an officer‘s shield collided with a loud, clunking noise, stopping the would-be assaulter as if he had slammed into the Great Wall of China. A trooper, his weight compacted into each blow, repeatedly pounded the demonstrator. Blood spurted. Other officers joined the spectacle of violence.

Bonnie and I continued walking. Her fingers coiled into the sleeve of my sweater. “Paul, when we get to the line of cops, what’ll we do?”

“There’s only one thing we can do: play it by ear. But remember one thing, Bonnie.”

“What?” I could tell she was frightened near tears.

“We still have a trump card. The fact that we’re Americans. French higher-ups don’t want to rock the diplomatic boat, and certainly not over a couple of Americans trying to cross a street in the Latin Quarter. It wouldn’t be worth the hassle. You have your passport with you?”

“Sure. As always.”

“You’ll need it. Me too. Are you ready?” I put my arm around her and drew her to my side, hell-bent on protecting her with my body as best I could. We inched toward the melee of officers and students. When we were within a yard of the line of officers and standing face to face with two of them, both stopped and zeroed their fierce attentions on us. We stopped, too.

The lawman fronting Bonnie was in his early twenties, about the same age as most of the protestors. His partner was older, graying, probably in his late fifties. The younger policeman slowly and methodically raised his nightstick, aligning it with the crown of Bonnie’s skull.

“No-o-o!” I blurted, shoving her behind me. “No! She’s American! American!” Neither lawman seemed impressed. “American,” I repeated. Nearing its apex, the cop’s nightstick slowed, then started its descent. I lunged, clamping the lawman‘s arm in a vise-like grip. “American, damn it. American!”

“Stop!” Bonnie screamed, joining the tussle.

I faced the older officer and drew myself up to my full height, hoping that alone would be an intimidation factor. Standing tall and wearing my stern teacher’s expression, I asked, “Do you want your retirement benefits? Harm us, and the American ambassador will see that you won’t get a single centime.”

It's my pleasure to welcome Calvin Davis today.  Thanks for taking time to be here today.  I'm excited to find out more about you and your book! 

I have to tell you how honored I am to be here today. I don’t do a lot of guest blogging, so I’ve been looking forward to this. Before we get started, I’d like to say I’m offering a copy of The Phantom Lady of Paris to TWO commenters. Leave a comment and enter using the Rafflecopter entry form, and you’re in the running. Your choice: paperback or eBook versions.

That's a fantastic giveaway opportunity for two lucky winners.  Thanks!!  So, let's get started...What does your significant other think of your writing career?

My wife is also a published author, Vonnie Davis (http://www.vonniedavis.com). You see I had to get that plug in so I get to eat a good supper tonight.

When I spend hours in my den, writing, Vonnie understands. When a particular passage wakens me and tells me it needs rewritten, she comprehends why I’m crawling out of bed at four in the morning. If I walk around the house talking to myself, she knows I’m having a conversation with my character or talking my way through the rewrite of a scene or a snippet of conversation. My wife is also my best cheerleader. I couldn’t do without her.

How long have you two been married?

Next month will be 9 years. We met online through match dot com. She was my destiny, my angel in waiting (If I keep this up, I might get dessert, too). It was our shared desire to write that brought us together, gave us a common bond. That, and our love of laughter. Our house is filled with laughter.

Where do you dream of traveling to and why?

My mind journeys to Paris every day. I was born in Lynchburg, Virginia, but my soul came to life in Paris.

What do you mean?

I grew up in the South under Jim Crow, graduated from an all-black high school and then majored in English at Hampton University, only back then it was Hampton Institute. Diploma in hand and with the draft hanging over my head, I joined the Army. 

During my tour of duty in Germany, I went to Paris in 1956 for a long weekend. You see, I’d heard of black musicians and intellectuals who visited Paris and never left. What was it about the city that entranced them? How had the City of Light seduced their souls? I had to find out.

Walking the streets of Paris was a feast for the senses. For the first time in my life, I could look a white person in the eye without fear of repercussions. If I wanted a hamburger, I could step into any café through the front door, sit anywhere I liked and order. I could drink a cup of espresso next to a white man. I was truly their equal. One can’t describe the feeling—to be considered a man, a member of the human race. So, at the age of 23, my soul sprang to life. I made a promise to myself that one day I’d return.

Now, having said all that, please don’t think I’m bitter over Jim Crow. We were all trapped by that oppressive system—whites as well as blacks. Don’t you think struggling white restaurant owners would have loved our business? But their hands were tied by the laws and attitudes of the time. They had to refuse our patronage. It’s a period in history I hope we never forget lest we make the same mistakes again. The next time, the laws might aim at people with freckles or those who write left-handed. Prejudice is a pitiful thing.

Ah, but I digress. After the Army, I earned my Masters at Howard University and taught in Baltimore high schools. As soon as I was eligible for sabbatical, I moved to Paris for a year. I lived on the Left Bank, wrote at sidewalk cafés every day and absorbed French culture. Heaven.

Does travel play in the writing of your book?

My time in Paris plays heavily into my book. In fact, the city becomes one of the main characters. The time period I was there was 1968-69, a time of political and social unrest.
21 rue Galande
I rented a two-room apartment on rue Galande, not far from Notre Dame Cathedral, and soon settled into a routine. Every morning I’d shower, dress and run down the three flights of steps and up the street to the neighborhood bakery for fresh croissants and then across the street to the dairy for a container of milk and yogurt. I’d step back into the foyer of my apartment building to get my paper out of the mailbox. 

I should explain that the mailbox was a communal apparatus mounted onto the wall of the foyer. A wooden box into which the postman dumped everyone’s mail twice a day. You had to sift through the various newspapers, magazines, ads and letters to find things addressed to you. I subscribed to an English newspaper. My one link to the English-speaking world since everyone around me spoke French.

One day my paper wasn’t in the mailbox. The address band was there, but not my paper. Someone had stolen it. I was incensed. Who would steal a person’s newspaper?

I took my food and writing things around the corner to my favorite writing café. I went there every morning to eat my breakfast, drink espressos and read my newspaper before I began hours of writing. Only this morning I was without my link to the outside world. I was highly irritated.

Soon my anger cooled down and my creativity heated up. Hey, there out to be a story in all this. What if an American came to Paris…a teacher on sabbatical, like me. I wouldn’t need to research it; I’m living it. Someone could steal his newspaper and have the audacity to leave a note on the bulletin board above the mailbox...and signs it “the phantom lady.” Then the teacher could leave a responding note in anger. Soon the two are involved in a goofy, light-hearted correspondence via this bulletin board. Yeah, that’ll work…and so The Phantom Lady of Paris was born, thanks to a newspaper thief. Odd how life works, isn’t it?

Do you listen to music while writing? If so what?

I love music, all styles. Depending on my mood, I’ll listen to the Beatles, Whitney Houston, Ray Charles, Willie Nelson, Miles Davis or Kenny Chesney. I also enjoy Bach and Beethoven. Oh, and who can resist Lady Gaga? I love her style and her philosophy. She tells young people to believe in themselves. As a teacher of 40 years, I commend her for her message.

Forty years? What did you like most about teaching?

I taught beyond normal retirement age simply because I loved it. Hated the faculty meetings, but loved working with the kids. So many teens have lost hope. They simply don’t believe there’s a place for them in society. I once gave an assignment to write what they hoped to be doing in five years. Some wrote they expected to be dead by then. I wanted to cry.

I worked hard to see my son obtain a better life; to encourage him that learning and reading gave him power. I read to him every night when he was small. He went to MIT and carried a double major in Math and Physics. He has a PhD. in High Energy Theoretical Particle Physics from Rutgers. I don’t care how trite it sounds: He is my pride and joy.

We need to teach our kids they can be anything they want with hard work and perseverance. Education is the key for us all. It was the mantra I heard in my Black community growing up. “Get your education so you can do better in the world.”

That is so true! I agree and I am concerned that our educational system is floundering in so many ways. But I guess that's a topic for another day!  Thanks so much for sharing with us and giving us a glimpse of life through your eyes.  I wish you and Vonnie the best in all your endeavors.


Originally from Lynchburg, where I currently reside, much lies between leaving here after high school and returning post retirement. I attended Hampton University, served in the Army, completed graduate studies at Howard University and taught in the Baltimore City School System for 40 years. I helped raise an incredible son, who has brought me nothing but pride and much joy. I've also had the thrill of doing what my heart desires: teach and write.

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