Exclusive interview with author and restaurateur Craig Carlson discussing his book about his American restaurant in Paris
By Gabrielle Pantera
HOLLYWOOD, CA (Hollywood Daily Star) 2017/8/22 – “If you’d known me as a kid, Paris would probably be the last place you’d think I’d end up,” says Pancakes in Paris author Craig Carlson. “As a kid, France wasn’t even on our radar. But all that changed when I took my first foreign language class in seventh grade. My dad had wanted me to take Spanish because we lived in the rough part of town, next door to a Puerto Rican family, and he wanted to know what they were saying about him. But in a funny little twist, when I told my teacher I wanted to take Spanish, two of the popular kids in class, Ann and Dan, overheard and said to me, ‘Don’t take Spanish; we’re taking Spanish.’ Even though I knew I wasn’t the most popular kid in class, their remark still stung. But I shrugged it off, turned to my teacher and said, ‘Ok. French then.’ That serendipitous moment changed my life forever.”
American Craig Carlson came from a working-class town in Connecticut and had never worked in a restaurant. In Paris he found a new home. But, he missed the big hearty breakfasts he grew up with in America. How about opening a restaurant?
Pancakes in Paris is the story of the ups and downs in his quest to open the first American-style restaurant in Paris. The book Carlson tells about the challenges of raising money, finding the perfect location, working within the rigid rules and regulations in Paris, and sourcing American ingredients for use at what becomes the restaurant Breakfast in American. While following his dream he also finds love. Founded in 2003, Breakfast in America becomes a hot tourist spot that’s also frequented by locals.
I’d been wanting to go to Breakfast in America for a few years, and on Christmas Day in 2016 while I was in Paris, I ate breakfast there. Craig was charming, the food scrumptious. The location was easy to get to by metro. The neighborhood was fun to roam, with many little shops, an area I’d not yet visited from previous trips.
Carlson says his favorite breakfast at his restaurant Breakfast in America is the CCs Big Mess, a breakfast scramble with nearly everything in it, served with a short stack of blueberry and white chocolate chip pancakes.
Carlson got the idea of writing a book while lying in a hospital bed in Paris.
“I had collapsed one morning while jogging along the riverbanks of the Seine,” says Carlson. “At first, the doctors thought it was a heart attack. But after many tests, we determined that it was caused by stress, and in my case, the difficulties of running a business in France. My first thought when I awoke in the hospital was, ‘How the hell did I end up here?’ The question took on a deeper meaning when, after realizing how close I’d come to death, I began to ponder my life and how I had ended up in France. A place that had literally saved me from my miserable upbringing, but now had almost killed me. Then, as I started connecting the dots of my life, I began to think that my story might make a good book.”
“The most satisfying thing for me, personally, has been the feedback from readers,” says Carlson. “So many people have told me that my story has inspired them to pursue their own dreams…just as I had hoped. Lots of readers have also said that they don’t know how I didn’t give up, especially when it came to dealing with all the draconian French labor laws, where employees have lifelong contracts and can’t be fired, no matter how bad they are. I’ve also received many touching letters from readers, such as a man in his 40s who was having a hard time coming out. He said my story had given him the courage to be himself and take the risk at finding love.”
The first time Carlson lived in France was as a student. “It was very difficult. I thought that the French I’d learned in school would prepare me for the French that’s actually spoken in the country. Wrong. Text book French is very different from every day French. Then there was the host family I lived with during my junior year abroad. Not at all the warm and loving family I’d always longed for. However, the second time I lived in France was a completely different experience. I ended up moving to Hollywood to pursue a career in the film business. Thanks to my French, I landed a job on a TV show in Paris, an international co-production between France and America. By then I felt as if I were practically French.”
“I’m a big believer that everyone should live abroad at least once in their lives,” says Carlson. “Even if it’s just for a few months. It is so enriching and gives you such a different perspective on life. My advice would be to dive in and don’t be afraid to learn a new language. That’s the number one thing I think that holds people back.”
“One day at the diner in Paris, an elderly woman came in asking for me,” says Carlson. “Turns out it was my teacher from high school who was now in her 80s. She had read my book and came into the diner to see me. Thanks to my book, I’ve reconnected with my junior high school French teacher, my fourth grade teacher as well as many classmates I’d lost contact with. Including the infamous Ann, who made me take French.”
Pancakes in Paris has been optioned by a Hollywood production company headed by a successful director and producer.
“At first they wanted to adapt my book into a film,” says Carlson. “But, after getting feedback from people in the industry, they’ve decided that the book would be better adapted into a TV series, such as a Netflix production. The head of development is currently looking for a show runner. From our discussions, I will be involved creatively with the show, which I’m very excited about.”
In organizing the book, Carlson thought about the many questions that diners at his restaurant asked him. How did he come up with the idea of opening the first American diner in Paris? Had he ever had my own business before? Did he already speak French? Had he worked in a restaurant before? Did he have to adapt the menu for French tastes? Was it hard finding the right ingredients? Did he encounter any cultural problems? Any anti-Americanism?
“The more I pondered these questions, the more I realized that the journey I had taken was quite unique,” says Carlson. “And, that it might inspire other people to pursue their own crazy dreams. However, writing the book turned out to be a much bigger challenge than I expected.”
Anna Michels at Sourcebooks is Carlson’s editor.
“I first heard about Craig’s book when I was having dinner with his agent,” says Michels. “I happened to mention another memoir I was working on at the time, also set in Paris, and she told me about Craig’s book, which was in development. As soon as Andrea started describing Breakfast in America, the classic American-style diner located in Paris, and the amazing story of its founder and owner, I was hooked. A few months later, Andrea sent me the proposal for Pancakes in Paris. I fell in love with Craig’s story and his engaging voice. It was a joy working with Craig to share the story of Breakfast in America, and my favorite parts of the book are definitely all the coincidences and strokes of luck that led him to where he’s at today.”
“Since this was my first book, I’d obviously never worked with a publisher,” says Carlson. “To prepare myself, I read books such as Stephen King’s On Writing. One great takeaway from that book was learning how to, what he calls, ‘kill your babies.’ What he means by that is every writer falls in love with a clever sentence he or she has written, or a humorous line. But he or she may not be able to see that it doesn’t belong in the story, no matter how clever it is. That’s where a good editor comes in. Anna was quite adept at explaining to me why lines I’d fallen in love with should probably be taken out.”
“We had a bit of an interesting journey to land on the final cover design,” says Michels. “We had a different cover produced that we all loved, but then when I was at my local independent bookstore one day, I saw another new memoir sitting on the shelf that had almost the exact same cover. Because of the extreme similarity between the two, we pivoted our direction and ended up with the current cover, which is even stronger.”
Andrea Hurst is Carlson’s agent.
They met before Carlson had written the book. With the goal of getting his book proposal in shape before submitting it, Carlson attended a writers workshop retreat in Pacific Grove, California.
“At the workshop, there were two agents,” says Carlson. “When I met with the first one, she closed the door in the room we were in and said that if she had received my proposal at her agency she would have done a little dance. In short, she wanted to sign me on the spot, but she didn’t want anyone else in the workshop to know about it. While she was explaining this to me, my cell phone buzzed. I looked down and it was the other agent from the workshop. Her message said not to tell anyone, but that she had read my proposal and wanted to meet me at a café as soon as I was done with my meeting. Turns out, she wanted to sign me, too. So here I was, a first time writer, with two agents wanting to sign me. As a former Hollywood screenwriter, I couldn’t have come up with a more amazing story.”
“When I first met Craig, I thought he was funny, intelligent, and would be great to work with,” says Hurst. “His book resonated with me almost immediately and I loved the story and his voice. I knew that Sourcebooks loved stories about France. So I pitched them. They fell in love with the book, and the book was published the following year. Craig is one the most motivated and innovated authors I have worked with. I hope some day to see his story on the screen.”
Carlson says the toughest part when writing is hearing suggested changes. “My agent had some good advice for moments like that. She said that naturally I would react emotionally to suggested cuts, that my knee-jerk reaction would be to resist them. But her advice was to sleep on it and look at the editor’s notes the next day. She was right. With fresh eyes, nine times out of ten I would see that I should follow my editors suggestions. I had to sometimes take out extra salty language that might offend some of my audience. There are still some bad words left, but I used them sparingly.”
Carlson has done two book tours so far, one on the West Coast from Los Angeles to Vancouver, the other on the East Coast, including New York City, Long Island, his hometown in Connecticut, his alma mater Uconn, plus Vermont and Cape Cod. He’s planning two more, a southern tour to Atlanta, New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Austin, Arizona and Colorado), and a northern tour to Detroit, Chicago, Minneapolis, Wisconsin and St. Louis.
“One of the highlights of my book tour, was when I did a signing in my hometown,” says Carlson. “Nearly everyone from my past showed up.”
In addition to being on several best seller lists, Pancakes in Paris has been nominated by Expatriate Magazine for Best Book in Paris 2017.
As a journalism student at Uconn, Carlson was studying in his dorm room late one night when a letter was slipped under his door, an invitation to a meeting for the Junior Year Abroad in France program.
“On a professional level, I’ll never forget the day I received an email saying that my book had just made the New Times Bestseller list,” says Carlson. “I’m still in awe over that.”
Carlson says nothing about his family is French. “My mom’s side of the family were your classic poor immigrants from Poland. And on my dad’s side, poor immigrants from Finland. My grandma Lizzy used to say that people in Finland believed that if you came to America, the sidewalks were paved with silver dollars. All you had to do was bend over and scoop them up. Of course, it didn’t quite work out that way. Both sides of the family ended up working long, grueling hours in either sweatshops or tobacco fields.”
Carlson is working on three projects now. He’s adapting his book into a TV series, writing his next book, and writing episodes of the 3D animated children’s show Alvin and the Chipmunks. The series is co-produced in France, where half the episodes are written. All in English. A woman who lives in Paris read his book and loved it so much she introduced Carlson to the head writer of the show in France. So far, Carlson has written three episodes.
Carlson spends most of his time in Paris with his diners and his French husband. They also own a little bungalow in northeast Los Angeles near Highland Park. They’re in Los Angeles three to four times a year for at least two to four weeks a pop.
Carlson is originally from the small agricultural mill town of Enfield, Connecticut, Enfield built huge commercial shopping centers located directly off the highway, now deserted and closed due to Amazon and the Internet.
Facebook and Instagram: @pancakesinparis.com
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Pancakes in Paris: Living the American Dream in France by Craig Carlson. Kindle Version. 322 pages. ISBN: 1492632120, Publisher: Sourcebooks. September 6th, 2016. Amazon ASIN: B01ENNQ22O, $15.99