Q: The French Art of Stealing is set in Paris and concerns the theft of a painting. Is the novel based on an actual event?

Mark Zero: No, it’s a complete fabrication. I wrote the novel while I was living in Paris, and I wanted it to capture that feeling of excitement that you get from being there, the feeling that anything can happen at any moment and whatever happens will be part of the whole history of art and fashion and culture that Paris represents. It’s thrilling to be in Paris, and I wanted to give readers that feeling, so that’s why I wrote a thriller.

Q: It’s also a comic novel, a crime caper. Do you think that comedic sensibility is part of the Paris experience as well?

MZ: Absolutely. I’ll tell you a story about my introduction to Paris. I was staying in a friend’s apartment for the summer, so I was more than a tourist but less than a resident, and I didn’t really know where to begin my adventures. So on my second night there I went out walking, to see what I could see. I came to the Hotel de Ville, and there were police everywhere and a huge crowd of people chanting and waving placards. The streets were cordoned off, but I could see a group of clowns and unicyclists off in the distance, so I circled the police barricades and tried to get into the protest. I finally made it into the throng and asked this guy in pancake make-up what was going on. Turns out it was a clown strike! Not just clowns, but all street performers. In downtown Paris, near the tourist spots, there are buskers and street musicians everywhere, and they’re unionized. Well, the government had cut their pensions, and now the clowns were out on strike to protest, and guess what kind of protest they staged? A street performance! People were juggling and miming and eating fire, but it wasn’t fun and games—they were serious about their pensions and the leaders made fiery speeches. And as surreal as the scene was, the cops were taking it very seriously, all gruff and ready for a fight, bumping chests with Bozo and Pierrot. It was absurd, and that kind of thing is not unusual in Paris. The over-the-top politics, theatrical disagreements, that absurd element is part of everyday Parisian life.

Q: Did you become involved in the clown protest, then?

MZ: No, but when I tried to leave, the police stopped me because they thought I was a demonstrator. They had drawn the barricades closer and closer and weren’t letting anyone come or go for fear that agitators would start a riot. So I slipped into a corner pub that was in the protest zone, and it happened that they had an exit on the other side of the restaurant to a street that was outside the zone, and the cops weren’t watching that side at all. People were coming and going with complete impunity, and the cops could see them, but they hadn’t been ordered to watch that exit, so they stood by and let everyone do as they pleased, even though if you tried to exit by the other door they would manhandle you. It was ridiculous. So I just left and walked home.

Q: The painting featured in The French Art of Stealing is called “La Seine Herblay.” Is that real?

MZ: Yeah, it’s by Maximilien Luce, and it really hangs in the Orsay Museum. However, in the book, it’s part of a series of similar paintings that Luce did, whereas in real life, he only painted the one. It’s a fantastic painting, though, and all the details about it in the book are accurate. It’s the one painting I remember most vividly from the Orsay, so alive with rich and unusual colors.

Q: The painting is also the key to a moral dilemma shared by the characters, not just because it’s stolen, but because of the enormous value we put on such works of art.

MZ: Right, and not just art, but antiques, cars, wine, celebrities, collectibles. Despite the fact that the book is a comic thriller, at its heart is this serious question of values: why do we value two things with the same function differently based on aesthetics? What are these aesthetic values? Who governs taste? What does it mean to say that this dress is in fashion and that one is out, or this eighteenth century armoire is worth a million dollars more than this nineteenth century cabinet? The same with people—why do we value this person over another, as a friend, a politician, a lover? What are the subtleties at work in our evaluations? Giselle, the character who steals the painting, is an antique dealer, so she’s in a unique position to ask these questions, and the characters all grapple in one form or another with the question of values, moral, financial and aesthetic. The relationships between the characters in the book even reflect these ideas.

Q: Is that why you made the narrator, Luke, a war photographer, so that he could comment on the values we fight for or against in wars?

MZ: That’s one of the reasons. The photographer is a kind of neutral figure, an observer who doesn’t participate, but his observations are not necessarily neutral, in themselves or in their effects. His images can glorify war or condemn it. The fact that Luke chooses to photograph war implies value judgments, too. Luke’s girlfriend Severine is a fashion designer, and she wants him to be a fashion photographer. Instead, he goes off to wars and photographs bloodshed. Why? That’s a professional as well as a moral choice. These are issues, though, that aren’t belabored in the book. They inform the characters, but they’re in the background. Mostly, I want people to laugh and be engaged and take an exciting trip through the back alleys of Paris.

Q: Was it difficult to balance the serious and the comedic elements of the story?

MZ: Not really. I used to write comedy sketches for a theater troupe I performed with in the early 1990s, and I always found that the funniest subjects were also the ones with the most serious implications. There’s that old cliché that all comedy comes from pain—though maybe the guys who made the movie Airplane! would disagree.

Q: In the book, the narrator lives in a section of Paris called the Marais. Is that where you lived as well?

MZ: Yes. Actually, there are some direct correspondences between the book and my real life. Like the narrator in the book, I lived in the Marais, I’ve been a professional photographer, I did date a Frenchwoman, and I’m American. But that’s where the similarities end. In other respects, I’m completely different: I don’t necessarily share Luke’s politics or his views about art or relationships. So I drew on my experiences, but the plot and the characters are fictional. This book is mainly about thinking of the world as a fun and exciting place. It has serious issues and real dilemmas, but it’s an absurd comic romp, just as life can sometimes be.