The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry is one of my very favorite books of all time. You can imagine how thrilled I was when I heard that novelist Ania Szado had written a book about Saint-Exupéry. Here, she shares with us a little about the man himself.
On December 20, 1942, at his desk in eastside New York, French author-aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry pulled a stack of Le Petit Prince page proofs from a drawer to show to his English tutor, Adèle Breaux. Saint-Exupéry told Breaux that deciding upon the images’ ideal size and placement to best serve the story had been challenging, yet vital.
So it was for me as I poured over what I knew of Saint-Exupéry. I was determined to bring him to life in my novel, Studio Saint-Ex, but how to best do so? Which of his characteristics and circumstances had to loom large, and which could I seed in for minor illumination or just for fun?
Serving the story meant capturing the man Saint-Exupéry had been in early 1940s New York: a grounded pilot desperate to return to the war, a man conflicted in love, an author whose need for solitude fought against his love of companionship. He had come to the US to share his knowledge of the European and North African terrain with the American military and to convince them to let him accompany them overseas. He arrived a celebrity, poised to accept a National Book Award, but the French expats in Manhattan were tearing his reputation to shreds. His estranged wife was tormenting him. His beautiful American girlfriends couldn’t assuage his pain. In the midst of all this, he wrote one of the most beloved and beautiful children’s stories of all time.
Those were the broad strokes that needed full presence in Studio Saint-Ex, like the illustrations in The Little Prince that commanded their own page.
Then there were the details. Some, like a comment by fictional fashion designer Mignonne Lachapelle that the author has big feet, are a nod to real-life trivia: Saint-Ex’s feet could look huge because of his preference for too-large shoes.
Others are less innocuous. While showing the page proofs, Saint-Exupéry mentioned that the baobab tree, a significant threat to his Little Prince, was bright enough that it could be printed small. My “baobab tree” is the author’s identity bracelet, a seemingly little thing that looms large only in hindsight. In Studio Saint-Ex, Mignonne notices it glinting as the author makes love to her. Later, she refuses to accept it as a gift, insisting he should not be anonymous in the sky. This very bracelet, caught in a lone fisherman’s nets long after the time frame of my novel, became the first clue to the author’s whereabouts, more than 50 years after he vanished.
In 1942, Saint-Exupéry offered to give his tutor the proofs of The Little Prince. I hope he would be as generous to me: allowing me to draw him from a wealth of available information, to balance and highlight details to shape my novel, to bring him back to life.