Mary Duncan croppedMary Duncan, founder and director of the Paris Writers Group, has lived in Paris since 2001. She is the author of a memoir Henry Miller is Under My Bed (new edition 2011) and is currently writing a book about a street in Paris where several French literary figures lived and worked. In her “life before Paris,” she was a professor at San Diego State University, an expert on terrorism, the Irish Republican Army and the author of numerous articles. Mary’s Ph.D. dissertation was based on research in Belfast, N. Ireland. Other research included children and play patterns in Mexican squatter villages, conflict in Nicaragua, Arab tourism and cultural conflicts in London.

Henry Miller under my bed Screen Shot 2013-05-13 at 11.48.50 PMShe has lectured at Oxford University, the Smithsonian Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars and has been frequently interviewed on national radio and television news programs. She spends the winter months in her writing studio in San Diego.

Mary is a member of the Advisory Committee for the Henry Miller Memorial Library in Big Sur, CA, and is a patron of the Shakespeare and Company Literary Festival. In 2008, she founded the Paris Writers Group. (Mary Duncan: Website / Huffington Post / Paris Writers Group / /

Henry Miller is Under My Bed: People and Places on the Way to Paris

“Professor, author, and unrepentant rule-challenger, Duncan is never bored, or boring.” – San Diego Magazine

“Loved your book. Max Lerner would have been both pleased and proud.” – Hugh Hefner

“Fun and interesting to read, especially with my French associations beginning in early childhood.” – Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Poet; Co-founder City Lights Bookstore, San Francisco


Henry Miller is Under My Bed: People and Places on the Way to Paris

AWP: You are the author of Henry Miller is Under My Bed. What inspired you to write this book?

MD: As a professor at San Diego State University, I wrote numerous academic articles about problems in Belfast, children, terrorism and political conflict. The academic writing style usually doesn’t allow for a personal narrative, anecdotes and emotion. A memoir allowed me to tell those stories and to explore the human side of my research as well as my life.

I now write for the Huffington Post, which provides similar opportunities.

AWP: Tell us about the making of this book. What were the challenges, and how did you unfold the story you wanted to tell?

MD: Like a doctor, I wanted to do no harm. This meant protecting people in places like Belfast, Nicaragua, Moscow, the Playboy Mansion and San Diego State University. The feelings and privacy of family members and personal friends were important to me.

After much thought and some false starts, the story unfolded chronologically. However, the first two chapters “Wanting Out” and “Wanting More” were the last to be written. These chapters about my childhood just flowed and I think they are some of my best writing.

AWP: Why was 2008 the right time to publish, Henry Miller is Under My Bed? Did you feel a need to share a particular time and place in the style of today?

MD: Opportunity. After hearing me tell a couple of stories about my escapades in Belfast, Chip Martin, the publisher of Starhaven Press, encouraged me to write my memoir and offered to publish it. This is so typical of my life—I start at the end of the process instead of at the beginning. I had a publisher before I had a manuscript. People see things in me that I don’t see in myself.

Many of my experiences are still relevant today. The sectarianism in Belfast is now a problem in Syria and other parts of the world. Universities still stifle creativity with their bureaucracies. In 2008, during my book tour, Hugh Hefner hosted a dinner party. I saw that an intellectual life still thrived at the Playboy Mansion amidst the centerfolds, film stars, directors, producers, scriptwriters and Hef’s friends.

AWP: Henry Miller is Under My Bed captures adventures in the world of terrorism, sex and academia in post-war years from the 1950s through the 1990s. What do you think it is about your book that makes readers connect in such a powerful way?

MD: We all have unfulfilled dreams. Perhaps readers see that if someone else can break traditional rules, escape from preconceived ideas of how we should live our lives, and then they might start thinking about small steps they can take to achieve some of their dreams.

AWP: In the writing of your first autobiographic memoir, Henry Miller is Under My Bed, what was the most surprising thing you learned?

MD: I’m still alive. I took many unreasonable and foolish risks in Belfast, Nicaragua and Tehran. I openly socialized with the IRA in Belfast, forged travel papers in Nicaragua and flew into revolutionary Iran. A guardian angel, perhaps my father, who died when I was four years old, was surely looking after me.

AWP: Sense of place is central in your writing and treated often like a character. You take the reader on a fascinating journey from America—sitting at a faculty table, crossing the street in war-torn Belfast to poolside at the Playboy Mansion, Tehran, and Moscow—to literary Paris. Are there different things that motivate you now when you are writing?

MD: Curiosity has always been a prime motivator for me. I simply want to know why. Finding out is the easy and fun part. Writing about it is the difficult journey.

AWP: Terrorism. Anarchists. You write about Saul Alinsky, an American community organizer and writer, and his 13 rules for radicals Power is not only what you have but what the target thinks you have. This was your first experience focused on the conflict’s impact on children and the internal organization of the I.R.A. and its cell groups. What was that like? Where wouldn’t you go? What wouldn’t you do?

MD: Saul Alinsky is one of my heroes. He knew how to identify an opponents Achilles heel and then show powerless people how to use psychology and non-violence to conquer government bureaucracies and corporate entities.

Regarding the IRA, danger is exhilarating. The adrenalin rush and the realization that I am experiencing a piece of history is far more gratifying than sitting in a library or in front of a computer reading other people’s interpretations. Seeing for myself is essential. What I wouldn’t do or where I wouldn’t go—those answers probably saved my life.

I never wanted to know about an IRA operation in advance and never tried to learn about them. If something goes wrong, their first question is, “Who knew about it?” I never wanted to be on that list of names. I was an academic, not a spy or informer, and turned down lucrative offers to become one.

During my first trip to Belfast, I was so naive about the danger that the IRA assigned a couple of guys to keep me out of trouble. I have a video where British soldiers are pointing their guns directly at me and my camera, during a violent street demonstration. Being a short American female had some advantages. No one saw me as a threat.

I learned what I wouldn’t do or where I wouldn’t go on September 11, 2001. As I sat at home in California, watching the planes go into the Twin Towers, I realized this was a different ballgame from Belfast and Nicaragua. I didn’t have the knowledge, contacts or expertise to function effectively in this new arena of terrorism. I had just purchased an apartment in Paris and applied for early retirement from SDSU. It was time to move on to a new phase in my life.


AWP: Did academic writing stand in your way when you were starting to write memoir?

MD: Yes. Academic writing is a very specific style where facts, documentation and objective views are essential. It is usually third-person and not personal. I read other memoirs and practiced copying their first-person narratives until I could apply them to my own life. Reading old journals and research notes was also very helpful.

AWP: Could you talk about your process as a writer?

MD: The ideas come quickly. The writing is much slower. I mull over ideas forever. Slowly, they start to take shape. I jot down many notes, often on scraps of paper, a napkin or receipt. My academic writing has helped me be better organized. I tend to use outlines. Gradually, they lead in a good direction.

I also keep a folder for each idea. Those scraps of paper are thrown into those folders. My present book started in 1991 when George Whitman, the deceased owner of Shakespeare and Company Bookstore in Paris, told me a story about Simone de Beauvoir. The notes kept growing and the folder became two folders. In 2009, it started becoming a book.

AWP: Do you keep a journal? Is there the temptation to keep a journal just to preserve what you’ve experienced?

MD: Yes, I periodically keep a journal. Now I write it on-line even though I prefer pen and paper. It’s just easier to open my journal while I’m sitting at my computer. I use a Gmail account so it’s password protected.

AWP: Can you share experiences from your personal diaries?

MD: My journals weave between personal and family subjects to thoughts or problems with my writing. Occasionally, I mention political issues.

Recently, I wrote about a friend who almost died and how his advice has impacted my thinking and actions. I’m living much more in the present, spending more time with people I care about and focusing on completing my book. I’m following Simone de Beauvoir’s advice: “Change your life today. Don’t gamble on the future, act now, without delay.”

AWP: What was your first exposure to literature?

MD: The Encyclopedia Britannica. Some may feel this doesn’t classify as literature but for me it was a miracle. My mother couldn’t afford to buy books for us. We certainly didn’t travel. Food was more important. When I was in the sixth grade, a door-to-door salesman convinced her to buy a set of encyclopedias for my two sisters and me. She absolutely couldn’t afford them. I devoured those encyclopedias. When I didn’t do my household chores, which was often, my mother would threaten to take them away from me. They opened the doors to the biographies of writers, literature and the world.

AWP: What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever been given?

MD: Follow your passion. Write about what you know best. We’ve all heard it, but it’s true. Also, write something everyday. Set a routine and be disciplined.

AWP: Henry Miller is Under My Bed, has received great recognition. How has this experience changed your life?

MD: It has given me confidence to continue writing and to believe in myself.

AWP: As an expatriate writer living primarily in Paris, where do you situate yourself in the realm of expatriate literature?

MD: Hemingway, Stein, Joyce, Miller, Nin all contributed to the lure that Paris holds for many of us. Like them, I’m living the myth of being a writer living in Paris. A lot of people talk about it but never do it. They sit at home and say, “What if…?” Over the centuries, thousands of us have moved here. Some are famous, some have never published, but we still write and live in Paris. I fit in the realm of doers who are living their dream.

AWP: In general, what opportunities or challenges do you experience as an expatriate writer in Paris?

MD: The writing community in Paris is very inclusive. We help, encourage and inspire one another. The opportunities for growth and inspiration are in every neighborhood. We interact with other writers; attend cultural events, live in neighborhoods that are a part of history and we become a part of that continuing legacy.

The challenges are linked to some of the opportunities. My 9:00 to 1:00 writing schedule gives way to lunch with friends, wine in the afternoon, a literary event or new film. Dinner parties and a myriad of openings at museums and galleries all compete with our writing. Just walking through Paris is both a motivator and a distraction.

AWP: How did your interest in Paris unfold?

MD: My interest unfolded in college when I read about writers who lived in hotels. Then in 1980, an older American friend let me stay in his Paris apartment anytime he wasn’t using it. When Bradley Smith, a Time/Life photographer who wrote two books with Henry Miller, shared his stories with me, I was hooked.

AWP: Many notable literary figures, reactionaries and celebrities are noted in your book. In particular, you write about Max Lerner, American journalist and educator known for his controversial syndicated column, and Russian immigrant, who was in love with America and lived the American Dream to some extent. What modern trend do you think he would love the most?

MD: I think Max would love the easy access we have to information even though he hated computers. He was an avid reader and always had piles of books, magazines and papers all over his room at the Playboy Mansion. At my apartment, he had a special shelf for his notes and books.

He would love Google. I can picture myself saying to him, “Now Max, just move this arrow up to the Google space and type in what you want to know. Then press “Return.” When he saw all of those citations, his face would light up and he’d be hooked like the rest of us. He died in 1992 before Google and the other search engines entered our homes.

AWP: What modern trend do you love the most?

MD: The ability to self-publish and read digitized books, blogs, newspapers and magazines. Regardless of how we feel about Amazon and what it has done to independent bookstores, it has truly democratized and expanded our ability to publish, to be read, and to read the works of other writers.

AWP: You created the Paris Writers Group. What is the aim of your group? Who participates?

MD: The original aim was very selfish. I missed the San Diego Writing Women’s Group and decided to create something similar in Paris. Our main goal is to support one another and provide a place where we can share our problems, successes, failures and dreams. We are business oriented. Publishers, self-publishing, agents, marketing our books and other topics fill our meetings. We don’t read or critique manuscripts. We focus on helping one another solve problems and keep focused on our writing.

Our approximately thirty members, male and female, are primarily based in Paris. Most of us travel during the year. We represent various genres of writing from novels to non-fiction, scriptwriting, news writing, photography, travel writing, and blogs. The membership is limited because we each have three to five minutes at each meeting to update the group with our progress or setbacks. Please see our website:

AWP: What is it about Paris and writers?

MD: Paris nourishes our souls. We feel invigorated, alive and are surrounded by beauty and people who appreciate the arts. It’s normal to sit in a café, chat with friends, doodle, daydream, write, people watch and contemplate new and old ideas. In Paris they build statues and monuments to celebrate their writers. In America, we ask, “What else do you do?” Or if a child is sitting, we scold, “Don’t you have something to do?”

In Paris, we can just be. Aristotle said, “Contemplation, thinking and being are the highest forms of leisure.” The French practice this and have no guilt.

AWP: Napoléon Bonaparte (1769-1821), a reactionary pragmatist regarding women, said in a letter written in 1796: A woman, in order to know what is due her and what her power is, must live in Paris for six months. In what way does Napoléon’s statement hold true with your experience living in Paris? How is Napoléon’s statement understood by women of today?

MD: In Paris a woman can reinvent herself. There is a wide tolerance for varied lifestyles. Many role models paved the way for us from Josephine, Empress of France, wife of Napoleon to Simone de Beauvoir. Without dowries they created lives for themselves using wit, intelligence, seduction, education, guile and even deceit. If she chooses, a woman in Paris can shed her past and become a new person. We can live our fantasies instead of dreaming about them.

AWP: An underlying theme in the 1950s and 60s was the message of freedom for women to experience their different selves or codify an articulate self. Why is this message significant, especially today?

MD: In some ways it is easier today. In the Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir wrote about the concept of alterity, a woman who lives her life through another person. Traditionally, this was as a wife or mother. Today, women have a myriad of options.

A woman can articulate herself by writing a blog. Many make a living with it. We can have a male or female partner or no partner, with or without children. Globalization has created more opportunities for us to function in other worlds, far from our own home. Men are more open to sharing family responsibilities and encourage their wives to have fulfilling careers. The most important thing is to decide what we want and then do it.

AWP: Are there things that you feel haven’t been said about the 1950s and 60s that you are trying to explore in your work now?

MD: Yes and no. The combination and influence between love and intellect fascinates me. Sections of my present book focus on how the romantic lives of some writers contributed to their writing. Others have explored this but I’m attempting to take a different approach.

AWP: You write about your strong motivation for “always wanting out,” “wanting more,” which I imagine offers new territory to write about. Was wanting out, wanting more one of the things that saved your life growing up? What are you trying to explore in your writing now?  

MD: “Wanting more” definitely saved my life. I was never satisfied and was always reaching for the “gold ring.” I always knew there was “more.” This also has a down side because I don’t stop to enjoy what I’ve accomplished. I think the previous question partially answers what I’m exploring now.


AWP: Name the single book or movie, work of art or music, fashion or cuisine that has inspired you.

MD: Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl

Frankl survived the Holocaust. His book focused on why some people died and others lived. He said the Nazis could control how he lived, and if he lived, but they could not control his mind, his attitude about life or what gave him his sense of meaning. To that extent, we can control our destinies. Attitude is a key to survival and a happy, fulfilling life.

No matter what subject I taught, his book was on my required reading list.

AWP: What is the latest book you read? Would you recommend it?

MD: It’s timely, that during the week of the Boston Marathon bombing, I am reading The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Moshin Hamid for the PAN Book Club. (Paris Alumni Network). Following September 11, 2001, this novel weaves its way through the conflicts imposed by religion, ideology, cultural identity, American power and Pakistan. Without being dogmatic, it provides insights into what may alienate an immigrant and motivate a terrorist. I highly recommend it.

AWP: Describe your own “Paris.”

MD: Several years ago, my sister asked me (with some sarcasm) if I ever had a bad day in Paris. “Yes,” I replied. “Wednesdays and Sundays. On Wednesday my favorite bakery is closed and on Sunday, I don’t receive the International Herald Tribune.”

My Paris leaves me alone. I can retreat to my sunny apartment, write, read, think and ignore the phone and emails. Then when I need outside sustenance, I call friends, visit a favorite café, buy a tarte des pommes at Poilâne Boulangerie, chat with my French neighbor who reads tarot cards, grocery shop, buy flowers, participate in the myriad of cultural events or bask in the beauty that surrounds me.

AWP: What is the best part about living in Paris?

MD: Access. Excellent public transportation and access to other writers, stimulating people, a beautiful city, museums, history, cafes, good food, wine and international films plus the excellent inexpensive health care. I often ask myself why I feel free here and restricted in the U.S. Perhaps the baggage related to our backgrounds, families, careers and disappointments are left behind us. We start a new.

On a practical level, France has very inexpensive cable access.

For approximately $60 a month, the competitive cable companies feature many French and international television stations including CNN, BBC and Al Jazeera. We also have internet, wifi, almost unlimited free local and international phone calls. Time Warner and Cox are not monopolies here. On this issue, competition rules in France.

AWP: What French cultural nuances, attitudes, ideas or habits have you adopted? In which areas have you embraced a similar aesthetic?

MD: My friends in San Diego have learned that I don’t eat and run. I dine. In San Diego, I can sit in a cafe or restaurant until they throw me out or slam a bill on my table. I scold American waiters when they give me a bill or clear the plates before both of us have finished our meal. “Turning the tables” rarely happens in Paris.

I do not own a car in Paris or the U.S. I walk or take a bus. Occasionally I rent a car, use a taxi or friends give me a lift.

AWP: Tell us something we don’t know about Paris.

MD: According to the Association of American Residents Overseas (AARO), there are approximately 70,000 Americans living in Paris. This is a soft number because many Americans live here illegally and aren’t registered with the American Embassy or any French agencies. The French don’t seem to overly concerned about illegal Americans as long as we spend money, pay our bills, don’t create problems and don’t take jobs away from the French. ARRO estimates that an additional 30,000 Americans, live in other parts of France.

Approximately six to seven million Americans live abroad for reasons related to marriage, jobs, retirement, lifestyle and inexpensive but excellent medical care. This does not include tourists. Each year hundreds of Americans give up their passports due to our complicated tax laws.

AWP: How do you express your own style or fashion?

MD: Confident. Friendly. Casual. I’m open to others and new ideas. Giving instead of taking. I like clothes but I don’t like to shop for them and I hate thinking about what I’m going to wear to a function. For me, it’s a waste of valuable time when I could be writing or reading. I once told a friend that I wish we could just brush our fur and go out. She laughed and said the only problem was that I’d want to be a sable and not a rabbit.

AWP: Tell me about your cooking and eating habits and traditions.

MD: My cooking has definitely improved since I moved to France. I watch my friends and learn from them. Unless I’m eating out, my eating habits are very simple: salmon, chicken, fruits and vegetables. I try to limit sugar and sweets. This isn’t easy when you live on a street with three bakeries and is near the Bon Marche Epicerie. I love good wine.

My mother was raised during the Great Depression. Our tradition was large pots of cabbage, beans, ham hocks and chili. Meatloaf or chicken on special occasions and homemade lemon meringue pies because our neighbors had lemon trees.

AWP: What was your most memorable meal to date?

MD: Sitting on tarps, under a bridge in New Delhi with a family of homeless musicians, eating from a pot of strange boiling ingredients. The family played delightful music on homemade instruments that were made from small tree limbs, tin cans, bells, foraged violin strings and bamboo flutes.

After seeing them entertain tourists, I had followed them home.

AWP: Your passion for life is extraordinary. What’s next?

MD: Completing my present book is a top priority. Two years ago, I quietly purchased the rights to four out-of-print books and started The Paris Writers Press, which is located in New York City. It has an address, a domain name, is incorporated and is waiting to be launched. I know very little about the publishing business but lack of experience has never stopped me before. Revolutions are my forte and publishing is certainly in the midst of a revolution.

You may also enjoy A Woman’s Paris® post, Stars, Stripes and Seine: Americans in occupied Paris 1940-1944, by Alan Davidge. 5,000 Americans refused to leave Paris after war broke out in September 1939. Who were they? Read the stories of how Josephine Baker, Sylvia Beach, Arthur Briggs, Drue Leyton, and others lived and breathed Paris during the war.

What’s in a Word? There’s more to French class than you thought. Jacqueline Bucar, French teacher and immigration attorney, invites us to stimulate a way of thinking and learning that expands our understanding of the world and ourselves through the study of a foreign language. She shares “what’s in a word,” a way of thinking, a “mentality” that helps define the people who speak it and their culture. 

Vive La Femme: In defense of cross-cultural appreciation. Writer Kristin Wood finds Francophiles around the world divided by Paul Rudnick’s piece entitled “Vive La France” in the New Yorker magazine. As is often the case with satire, there is a layer of truth to the matter that is rather unsettling. Including comments from readers worldwide. (French)

Paris, a particular shade of gray, by Mary Evans a former cooking school director and founder of The Write Cook. Mary recalls the cozy refuges in her long ago memories of Paris and shares her recipe for Chicken Bouillabaisse.

A Woman’s Paris — Elegance, Culture and Joie de Vivre

We are captivated by women and men, like you, who use their discipline, wit and resourcefulness to make their own way and who excel at what the French call joie de vivre or “the art of living.” We stand in awe of what you fill into your lives. Free spirits who inspire both admiration and confidence.

Fashion is not something that exists in dresses only. Fashion is in the sky, in the street, fashion has to do with ideas, the way we live, what is happening. — Coco Chanel (1883 – 1971)

Text copyright ©2013 Mary Duncan. All rights reserved.
Illustrations copyright ©Barbara Redmond. All rights reserved.