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Author Tatiana de Rosnay Turns "Sarah's Key"

Tatiana De RosnayToday's July 16, nearly 60 years to the day when occupied France corralled more than 13,000 Parisian Jews for mass arrest and deportation. Originally, July 14 was notched as the date, until the planners realized -- zut! -- that was Bastille Day.

The Vel' d'Hiv Roundup of 1942 spooks Tatiana de Rosnay's novel Sarah's Key (French: Elle s'appelait Sarah).

Next Friday, July 22, 2011, the movie it's based on opens in the U.S., where book clubs throughout the land are as stoked as Harry Potter fans for their big book-to-screen fix.

"You'll have snot running down your nose and shirt!" raved a fan of the novel in anticipation of the film. Starring Kristin Scott Thomas, this Weinstein Company release should generate strong word of mouth and braggable box office.

If you're among the slouches who let the book's 120 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list go by without so much as cracking the spine, here's the story in a nutshell:

In present-day Paris, American journalist Julia Jarmond (played by Kristin Scott Thomas) is researching the roundup; and in wartime Paris, 10-year-old Sarah Starzynski (Mélusine Mayance) tries to protect her family from that unspeakable fate. Haunting the two sagas is young Sarah's hope of freeing her little brother, whom she hid in a cupboard to save his life.

France only began publicly discussing its, shall we say, midnight in Paris as recently as 1995. And here on the other side of the Atlantic, ignorance about the French role in the Shoah was nearly complete until Sarah and her key broke hearts (and booksellers' expectations).

How was the novel -- and Gilles Paquet-Brenner's movie -- received on native soil? I recently sat down with cultural hybrid de Rosnay to cull some answers.

Q: Have you gotten any angry responses for dredging up the past?

TdR: The only nasty response I’ve had was from a French woman who thought I was an American, since I wrote the book in English. She completely thought I was Julia Jarmond. You know that one page, which is quite funny, where Julia describes Paris in a rather tongue-in-cheek way? She talks about the drivers driving around the Place de l’Étoile, the snotty concierges...

As a Parisian I know how we come across to tourists, to American or English people visiting Paris. Sometimes Parisians can be very rude. So this lady wrote me a scathing letter saying that I was a racist as an American -- which made me die with laughter -- because I was criticizing the Parisians, and how on earth could I have the right to do this as an American?

So I scanned my Carte d’identité that says, "Born in France, French Nationality," and I sent it to her and I put, “No comment.”

Q: No one else complained?

TdR: A bookseller. That was another response that I got, which is so Romanesque, when you think of it. In the book and in the movie at one point, Julia and [her colleague] Bamber interview a very old lady who has a bookstore right on Rue Nelaton. In the book she’s much more decrepit than in the movie.

There is a lady who has a bookstore on the Rue Nelaton, right in front of the Vél d’Hiv, and I went there the other day because I was with a Vél d’Hiv survivor who wanted to buy the French edition of the book. And as soon as I walked in there the bookstore lady jumps on me and says:

“Oh, you’re Tatiana de Rosnay, right?” with a very aggressive expression on her face.

And I said, “Yes, I am.”

She says, “Well, really, um, thank you, because really what you did to my mother in that book is appalling.”

I’m like, “Your mother?”

She goes, “Well you described this decrepit old lady living above the bookstore with her dusty apartment and her dying plants and her withered face, and how dare you describe my mother like that?! My mother was a…”

And I’m like, “Lady, I never met your mother. I invented this character.”

She goes, “Every day I have people coming in saying, ‘Is that your mother that the author is talking about?’ "

So I just walked out. And my Vél d’Hiv survivor friend, who was in the Vélodrome, said to this bookstore lady:

“Don’t you think you have something else to thank Tatiana de Rosnay for? I was in that Vélodrome d´Hiver."

Q: What did she say to that?

TdR: She shut up completely. It had been such a stupid, egoistic reaction. Especially as in my book this lady does say something so important. She says:

“These are the darkest days. We should never forget.”

Q: Does France want to forget?

TdR: Although Sarah’s Key was a big success in France, a lot of people did not want to read it. I've seen people in bookstores:

"Oh, Auschwitz again!"

I think they're like, "We don’t want to read about this, but we’d be curious to see who this woman is we’ve been hearing so much about.”

So when my next book came out, which is called A Secret Kept, they flung themselves on it. I think that a lot of people wanted to read something that was not about the Holocaust.

It’s a hard book to read, I know.

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