Interview: Author Chris Bournéa on Identity, Place and Dialogue

Chris Bournéa has written an epic feel-good novel.

Chris Bournéa

The Chloe Chronicles is a modern-day fairytale that spins story after story about the lovely Chloe Bareaux, daughter of a single, hard-working, style-conscious Parisian mom, and Chloe’s best friend, the boy-crazy Gigi Cartier. The satisfying 670-page debut follows the girls’ adventures (and misadventures) from their teenage years in Paris through young adulthood as they grow into themselves by challenging their moms, making their own decisions, falling in love and ultimately finding their place in the world.

The Chloe Chronicles is the kind of coming-of-age story where girls actually get to meet their heartthrobs. While the girls have fantastic adventures (and misadventures) as they pursue their dreams, Chris also delves into darker subjects, including abuse, grieving the loss of a spouse and alcoholism. He created his protagonist Chloe in 1984, as a middle school student, then working on several partial handwritten drafts in the ‘80s and ‘90s before really focusing on the book in 2002. “It took me roughly ten years of writing on and off and endlessly revising,” Chris told me. “I don’t know that you’re ever truly ‘done.’”

The Columbus, Ohio, author is an African-American male—not the typical women’s fiction author. He draws his strong women characters very convincingly, with a lot of heart, spirit and insight. Chris points to numerous stories by men featuring women protagonists, including Frank L. Baum’s Oz books, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Steig Larsson’s Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series, and African-American author Omar Tyree’s Leslie.

Carefully wrought details and other deft touches make The Chloe Chronicles more than just a entertaining romp through the world of modeling and high fashion. Chris visited New Orleans and New York a number of times during the writing process, and he also spent a week in Paris.

“It was really cool walking down the Champs-Elysée and other settings in the novel,” he said. “Contrary to the widely held perception that the French are rude to Americans, everyone I met was very friendly and went out of their way to give me directions, even with my limited French vocabulary.”

Chris did quite a bit of research in order to sprinkle occasional French terms into the text, giving the book a sense of authenticity. Along with paying attention to such details, Chris leaves no dangling threads as his novel sweeps toward its conclusion; a memorable photographer Chloe and Gigi meet in an early chapter plays a crucial role several hundred pages later. That, to me, is what makes the book epic, along with its page count, the many years it covers and the grand theme of racial and cultural identity.

The Chloe Chronicles is available as a paperback and as an e-book through Amazon. And in case you’re wondering, Chris’ last name, Bournéa, is prounounced “Born-AY.” Welcome to Seven Questions, Chris!

1. Tell me about The Chloe Chronicles.

The Chloe Chronicles is about a young woman’s “quest for fulfillment”—to uncover the mystery behind her family background, to realize her lifelong dream of being in the movies and, ultimately, to find true love.

The story evolved over a couple of decades—writing this book has literally been my life’s work! I’ve always had a fertile imagination and have written poetry and short stories since I was a child. I originally got the idea for the story that became The Chloe Chronicles when I was attending Catholic school in the mid-‘80s. Growing up as an African-American in an interracial family that has French Creole heritage, I imagined what it would be like to live in French and French-influenced cities like Paris and New Orleans, since I was born and raised in Columbus, Ohio, which is about as mainstream middle America as you can get.

I loosely based the main character, Chloe Bareaux, and supporting characters such as her mother, Maxine, and best friend, Gigi, on women in my family—my mother, aunts, sisters, cousins, et cetera. Family members have asked if certain characters are based on them, since they recognize some of their personality traits in the characters.

I always thought of The Chloe Chronicles as escapist fiction, so I decided to make Chloe a model and actress because fashion and movies seem exciting—an escape from everyday life. The book was originally titled simply Chloe, but I eventually realized The Chloe Chronicles was more fitting because I envision Chloe’s saga unfolding over a series of books and future adventures. Upcoming installments will find Chloe spending more time in New Orleans and uncovering other family secrets; meeting her biological father and confronting him about his mistreatment of her mother; and giving readers a behind-the-scenes look at the moviemaking process as Chloe stars in the big-screen adaptation of her fiancé Alex’s novel, Night Moves.

2. Chloe’s curiosity about her Creole heritage propels the novel. Was identity something you intended to explore when you set out to write The Chloe Chronicles, or did the theme develop as you went along? How did your own multicultural background play into Chloe’s determination to understand her origins?

Identity was definitely a theme I intended to explore when I began writing. From the very beginning, Chloe has a thirst to know where she comes from. The desire to find out more about her heritage is intensified by the fact that she never knew her father, most of her mother’s relatives were either dead or unreachable by the time she was born, and Chloe’s mother, Maxine, is mysteriously and stubbornly secretive about her background. Part of the reason why Chloe is so drawn to her love interest, Alex Michaud, is that his upbringing was the polar opposite of hers. He comes from a large, close-knit family and hails from New Orleans, where Chloe has roots and where she suspects something terrible happened when her mother was growing up, which is why she’s so uncommunicative about the past.

My family background absolutely informed Chloe’s determination to understand her origins. Both my parents are African American; however, my mother’s side of the family has French Creole heritage, which is where I get my last name, and I have three white stepparents and four biracial siblings. I understood from a very early age that identity can be a complex issue. Like Chloe, I didn’t have a relationship with my father when I was a child. He was a complete mystery to me until I met him in my teens, and I always had a strong desire to know that side of my identity.

3. Chloe is raised in Paris, she moves to New York City and she has New Orleans roots. How did those three places inform your knowledge of her character? What was it like representing three very different cities on the page?

For Chloe, leaving Paris for New York is representative of how I sought to portray the contrasts in her personality. Though she is somewhat shy and naïve, she’s a risk-taker. She was overprotected and sheltered by her mother, who meant well and wanted to shield her daughter from the dangers and pitfalls she encountered as a young person. Unlike her rebellious best friend, Gigi, Chloe is a “good girl,” but she’s not afraid to defy her mother and strike out on her own when she realizes the cocoon Maxine has created in Paris is holding her back.

Chloe has always had a yearning to visit New York, where she was born and which serves as the backdrop for so many movies that she loves. Even though she doesn’t know a single person when she sets foot in the Big Apple and encounters a lot of danger, she feels right at home, knowing instinctively that this is the place where she will be able to realize her dreams. When Chloe finally makes it to New Orleans, her ancestral home, she also feels a sense of familiarity and belonging, a feeling of being “whole” once she connects with her roots.

In representing these three different cities, I wanted to take readers on a journey, seeing these places through Chloe’s eyes and sharing in her sense of wonderment in discovering new places. I visited these cities while I was writing the book and found them to be so exciting and alive with energy and mystery. I want readers to feel this same excitement when the story takes them to these places and other settings in the book, including the French Riviera, London, Madrid and Los Angeles. That’s what I love about books: if you can’t visit a place in person, you can go there vicariously by turning the page.

4. What is your writing process like, Chris? Do you like to write in a certain place? Do you work from an outline?

I’m a firm believer in writing wherever you can and whenever you can. If I only wrote when I felt “inspired” or when conditions were ideal, I’d never get anything done! I wrote The Chloe Chronicles in a variety of places—at home, in coffee shops, in airports during layovers, in hotel rooms, in guest rooms and at kitchen tables when visiting friends and family, and even the bathroom!

I gave Chloe’s love interest, Alex, a lot of my writing habits. He’s always trying to find time to work on his novel by “stealing time” in between deadlines at the magazine where he works and writing at Chloe’s place and in coffee shops when they’re hanging out.

I did create an extensive outline, synopsis and character descriptions before I sat down to write The Chloe Chronicles.  With so many different characters, I felt it was necessary to do this in order to keep everything straight. In the character sketches, I wrote physical and emotional descriptions of each character, what purpose they serve in the story and whether they are “good” or “bad.” For some characters, I determined that they were “between good and bad,” such as Roxy, Chloe’s temperamental roommate in the New York models’ loft.

5. Journalists often excel at inventing dialogue since they’re accustomed to listening carefully and recording real-life speech patterns. Does your journalism background affect how you approach dialogue in your fiction? Any advice for writers who struggle with dialogue?

I do find that a lot of novelists have written for magazines and newspapers. Interviewing lots of different kinds of people and having to literally write down what they say definitely helps in creating believable dialogue.

I’ve written for several newspapers in my hometown of Columbus, Ohio, and also for national magazines. I’ve interviewed dozens of entertainers, politicians, activists and everyday people. This experience helped enormously in picking up the speech patterns of people from different walks of life and writing dialogue for the various characters in The Chloe Chronicles, since it’s such a diverse, multicultural story.

Writers are often natural observers and absorb everything they see and hear. So my advice for writers who struggle with dialogue is to try to develop this skill. Go to public places like shopping malls, parks and restaurants to “people watch” and observe how people interact—without being too intrusive, of course. Pay close attention to how friends and family express themselves and try to write down what you remember. Pay close attention to movies and television shows and write down the differences you notice in dialogue that seems natural, versus “forced” or contrived. It also helps to travel, to make friends with people of other races and backgrounds and to expose yourself to different kinds of people in order to accurately portray them on the page.

6. I understand you’re also a filmmaker. How did your experience with that visual medium influence the scenes in The Chloe Chronicles? Did you find yourself thinking like a filmmaker when creating the world your protagonist moves through?

Writing and filmmaking are closely related, in my opinion. Filmmaking is simply the art of translating the written word into a visual medium, so I think it helps for filmmakers to study the work of great writers and vice versa.

As a filmmaker, I’ve made several short films and am currently working on a feature-length documentary about the history of African-American women in sports, based on an article I wrote for The Columbus Dispatch, Columbus’ daily newspaper.

It makes perfect sense that so many novels have been turned into movies, from classics like Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations to populist fiction like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo toyoung adult series like The Hunger Games and Twilight. I’m a Generation X kid and grew up in the ‘80s, when a lot of glitzy books by Sidney Sheldon, Jackie Collins and Judith Krantz were turned into big, splashy miniseries. In many ways, I see The Chloe Chronicles as a throwback to some of those glamorous tales that span decades and take place in exotic locales, like Shirley Conran’s Lace.

In writing The Chloe Chronicles, I tried to think like a filmmaker in visualizing how scenes would play out. The challenge is always to balance dialogue and action with narration and description, so that the story moves along and readers can visualize the story as it unfolds. I’d love for readers who pick up The Chloe Chronicles to think, “Wow, I could totally see ‘such-and-such actress’ playing Chloe if this was a movie.”

7. Who are some of the writers and/or filmmakers who inspire you?

I consider myself a “cultural omnivore” and read a little bit of everything, from nonfiction to classic novels to young adult books, and watch lots of different kinds of movies.

A filmmaker who inspires me is Ava DuVernay, an independent African-American filmmaker who has found a way to tell character-driven stories and find an audience without the help of the mainstream studio system. Her independent spirit and determination is very much like Chloe’s.

A novelist I really admire is Danzy Senna, who, like me, grew up in an interracial family and writes books like Caucasia and Symptomatic about characters who struggle with identity and burn to know more about their heritage and the circumstances that made them who they are.

There are many other filmmakers and writers who influenced me when I was growing up:  Spike Lee, Francis Ford Coppola, Richard Wright, Toni Morrison, just to name a few.

Two of my favorite movies are The Wizard of Oz and Purple Rain, very different stories, of course, but both are about young people pursuing dreams and being helped by friends along the way, just like in my story.

Two of my favorite books are Anne Rice’s The Feast of All Saints, which is a riveting historical novel about the Creoles of color in turn-of-the-century New Orleans, and young adult author Norma Klein’s Bizou, about a biracial girl who sets out on a journey to find the father she never knew. I read Bizou when I was in middle school and fell in love with it, and as a tribute, in my book I named Chloe’s cat “Bizou,” which means “little kiss” in French.

Thanks so much for participating in the Seven Questions Series, Chris! His website is here: chrisbournea.com. His blog is chrisbournea.blogspot.com. If you want to get a feel for Chris’ writing, sample the prologue. The Chloe Chronicles is available in print and as an e-book. 

About Laura Stanfill

Publisher, Forest Avenue Press
This entry was posted in Books, Fiction, Seven Questions and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

34 Responses to Interview: Author Chris Bournéa on Identity, Place and Dialogue

  1. The Chloe Chronicles sounds really interesting. It always surprises me how few writers talk about movies when they’re asked about their influences. I know some don’t care for movies and seldom see them, so for them it makes sense, but if you enjoy movies (as I do), how can you not be influenced by them? They’re stories, after all.

    • Chris’ book definitely has a cinematic quality. I’m not surprised to hear he was influenced by movies as a writer, and of course it’s so cool to learn more about how he relates writing and filmmaking.

      Thanks, as always, for your comment, Anthony!

  2. Anthony and Laura, thanks for your insights. Anthony, I checked out your blog and enjoyed your post on “Les Miz” and “Django Unchained.” I have yet to see either of these movies, but I definitely want to check them out. I’ve heard mixed reviews of both. Anthony, I also look forward to reading “A Sane Woman.”

  3. Paisha says:

    wow, Chris! Thank you for sharing insights from your creative process. I’m thinking I’ll read and recommend The Chloe Chronicles to my Well Red Book Club!

  4. I’ve known Chris for a long time, and I can say this – no matter the medium, no matter the subject, Chris is a storyteller. Whether it’s a feature story for the community newspaper where we met, or a script for the 48 Hour Film Project, or now with The Chloe Chronicles, Chris has an ear for characters and what makes them tick. His commitment to his craft, and his dedication to shaping characters into real, flesh and blood people has always impressed me. I can’t wait to pick up my copy of his novel. Go get ’em, Chris.

    • Wow, Lin, what a wonderful comment. Thank you for sharing your perspective on Chris and his many talents. I’ve never met him, but from what I’ve seen of his work and his warm personality, I can imagine him excelling in all the storytelling roles you mention.

  5. Kevin Parks says:

    I had forgotten just how far back The Chloe Chronicles date in the author’s creative life. I think you have to respect the way he’s stuck with a character and situations that he obviously feels profoundly about. This was a nice interview with a lot of good insight into writing in general and this writer in particular.

    • One of my heroes is Selden Edwards, who spent 30 years working on the same novel (The Little Book), which then became an “overnight” bestseller. I, too, appreciate when writers take their time and keep working with the same characters for years. It adds a really rich dimension to their work, I’ve found. Thanks for your comment, Kevin.

    • Chris Bournea says:

      Thanks, Kevin. It’s true that I’ve probably been working on “Chloe” for as long as you’ve known me.

  6. I completely agree with Mr. Bournea’s perspective on dialogue. “People watching” and adventuring outside the ordinary are not just great ways to learn more about writing dialogue, but also great ways to learn more about the world and ourselves. In my own travels, I’ve noticed that no matter how different people seem on the outside, on the inside we’re all really just people.

    • Well said, Evan! Often there’s a misconception of writers as hiding someplace with their computers, but I agree with both of you that the work comes alive much more effectively when we venture into the world, listen and take notes on others’ behaviors.

      • On another blog recently we were comparing the worst writing advice we’d ever received. Mine was when somebody told me that my dialog could be better and I should go see more movies to find out how people really talk.

        That was over 25 years ago, and I still haven’t thought of a sufficiently witty and crushing reply.

    • Chris Bournea says:

      Evan, I totally agree. Traveling really broadens your understanding of other people. Thanks for the insight.

  7. Anna Dandridge says:

    I look forward to reading your book! Lately, I’ve been interested in different perspectives on growing up with mixed heritage. (I’m the product of an interracial relationship.)

  8. coutorilove says:

    It’s always nice to hear about the creative process of a writer. Writing a book is such an accomplishment…it’s interesting to see how it came to be, how the author views their work, what motivated the story.

    • So true, Coutorilove! Hearing about the creative process, whether it’s from the perspective of an author or another type of artist, always infuses me with fresh creativity.

  9. Chris Bournea says:

    Thanks, Coutorilove. I appreciate your insights.

  10. Bob Beasley says:

    I really enjoyed reading Chris’s insights, and admire his commitment to completing this project. It’s clear that Chris has an incredible passion for storytelling. I particularly liked his thoughts on being a “cultural omnivore.” Having such diverse influences adds tremendous depth to his work. Keep writing, Chris!

    • Commitment is the perfect word, Bob. I especially admire Chris’ tenacity in sticking with this story over the years; oftentimes, authors abandon long projects because they change as human beings and then can’t unite those changes with their work-in-progress. Chris kept going where many writers give up, and the result is so lovely. Thanks for your comment!

  11. Jennifer Nesbitt says:

    I can’t wait to read the book, Chris!

    I agree on the insight on newspaper reporting and writing dialogue, but I think Chris gets some serious credit for off-shooting into fiction. I report for one of the papers Chris used to write for, and I find writing in other formats to be incredibly challenging. When you’re using a straight-forward news voice day after day (after day after day …), it’s really difficult to put yourself in another mindset. It also takes a lot to motivate yourself to do outside writing.

    I also can’t wait to hear more about the documentary!

    • That’s a great point about journalism, Jennifer. It’s hard to break out of that standard sound and mold–plus making up a world is way different than taking notes on a real event.

  12. Neil Thompson says:

    I’ve known Chris for the past few years, but I didn’t realize how long he had worked on The Chloe Chronicles. Truly, the novel seems a labor of love, and I’m look forward to reading it.

  13. Erin Holl says:

    I already knew most of the information Chris shared about his heritage and upbringing. Part about dialogue and the writing process was interesting to me. Also, nice to know which books have left a mark on Chris over the years-some always speak to us more than others. I want to read that Anne Rice one and Bizou one now.

  14. Juicey Adoir says:

    I really enjoyed how in-depth this interview was. This book obviously took a lot of creativity, research and hardwork! I love the author’s background and how he used it to positively influence the book! Great job Chris!!

  15. Kelley Y. says:

    I cannot wait to read this because no matter what subject matter Chris writes about, I know I’ll instantly be hooked!

  16. Scott H says:

    Chris is one of the most talented writers I know. I remember when he first completed Chloe. It’ll definitely be a good read.

  17. Bryan R says:

    Great interview, and I’m so happy to see The Chloe Chronicles make it to publication. Chris is a tremendous storyteller and I admire his dedication to his craft. I’m hoping for more Chloe books in the future!

  18. Chris Alexis says:

    I need to read this book. Chris is an outstanding wordsmith and I’m anxious to see how he spins this tale.

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