The American Francophile is a strange creature. He or she often knows more about France than many French people; can, depending on his or her preference, quote Montaigne from memory or sing Gainsbourg like a born and bred français.e. In short, his or her fascination with France fascinates us French, who like nothing so much as to look in the mirror held out to us by these informed observers.
It is to these Francophiles that the podcast The Thing About France gives the floor – in English. The third season will premiere on July 14th. Produced since its very beginning by the cultural services of the French Embassy, the podcast now has a new presenter – and a new partnership with French Morning. Literary critic for the New York Times, teacher and translator, Liesl Schillinger will take over from Bénédicte de Montlaur, the former cultural adviser who created the podcast. For this new season, “we wanted to see what a conversation about France would look like if it were this time led by an American, in the hope that listeners would identify and learn even more,” explains Gaëtan Bruel, the cultural adviser, who succeeded Bénédicte de Montlaur last year.
If Liesl Schillinger is now in charge of interviewing these American writers, artists and other intellectuals, it is not by chance. She has been cultivating her francophilia since she was very young. “I was so in love with the French language from a very young age that my parents enrolled me in French classes in college and enrolled me in an exchange program at the age of 12 to spend a summer on a farm in the Nièvre,” says Schillinger. That summer with Mr. and Mrs. Jamme in the village of Langeron, and others that followed, made the little girl from Indiana a lifelong Francophile. She sang Daniel Balavoine, loved Tintin, and became, among other things, a translator of Alexandre Dumas fils. With the title of Chevalier des Arts et Lettres, awarded in 2017, it was more than enough to earn her a guest spot on the first season of the podcast, alongside such famous Francophiles as Dee Dee Bridgewater, the writer David Sedaris, and the journalist and essayist Adam Gopnik.
Now in the interviewer’s seat, she wants, she says, to question these American Francophiles about “how their French experience has transformed their identity.” By the force of circumstances, this third season was recorded against the backdrop of Covid-19. The biographer William Middleton, who contracted the disease in Paris, talks at length about the differences between the French and American health systems – but also about “the infinite pleasure of returning to the Parisian terraces at the end of the quarantine.” Graydon Carter, the legendary editor-in-chief of Vanity Fair, whose interview will be broadcast in the 6th episode of this season, told Schillinger about his confinement on the Côte d’Azur where, now retired, he spends most of his time. “He simply talked to me about how happy he is to live there, his fishmonger who delivers him to his home, and that kind of thing… That’s what’s wonderful about it: our guests can’t stop talking about ‘their’ France, like a lover – or a sublime chocolate cake!”
Interviews won’t avoid the hottest topics of the moment, including Black Lives Matter, and will include one with essayist Thomas Chatterton Williams, author of Self-Portrait in Black and White. Married to a French woman, he lives in Paris, where he carries out “the same kind of intellectual mission as James Baldwin did in his time,” notes Schillinger.
The guest on the first episode of Season 3, which comes out on July 14, is Lauren Collins, a journalist at The New Yorker. She tells the story of the challenge of explaining the Académie Française to an American audience, of what one gains and loses by translating, and what it’s like to mourn during the pandemic.
Each episode of the series will be broadcast every two weeks and available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, SoundCloud, The Thing About France website, as well as on French Morning, a media partner.