I owe my debut novel to a neighbour’s snoring. It might seem strange (depending on your neighbours) to be so indebted to the vibrations of a stranger’s airways, but for me it is true.

Fran Cooper

Fran Cooper

I moved to Paris is August 2012. The city was sticky and sun-baked, the nights utterly airless, and on that first evening as I lay in a strange bed, in a strange apartment, in a strange city where I knew only two people, I was astonished to realise that I could hear – and I mean really hear – a man snoring. This wasn’t a gentle, snuffly kind of breathing; these were deep, grunting snores, the kind with which you occasionally wake yourself up, mortified. This stranger didn’t wake, though, and long into the night I lay listening to the reverberation of his nasal passages and faint sirens rolling up and down the distant boulevards.

I lived in that apartment for three years and I never met the snorer. His presence became more intriguing as the months passed and I learned that the apartments around mine were occupied by single women. One night of snoring and the seed was sown. Perring out into the courtyard I became fascinated by proximity and distance; how intimate we are with our neighbours, witness to their most private moments, and yet how distant. Five years later, my first novel These Dividing Walls – the story of a Parisian apartment building and its residents over the course of a hot and politically troubled summer – came into the world.

I was so lucky to have that chance to live in Paris. The city itself was my way into writing. I wanted to write a Paris that was true to what I saw around me: a Paris that was beautiful, yes, but in which fear, racism, extremism and hatred were simmering away, bubbling up. I wanted to write the city that my friends were shocked by when they came to visit and accidentally stumbled into Far Right protests; the city that was unfamiliar, that went beyond the usual clichés of baguettes and romance.

All my favourite fiction does this: pulls me back in time or hurls me forward, whisks me around the world to places I might not visit and around doors I wouldn’t otherwise get to peer behind. The greatest books are agents of transportation and transformation, their words forcing us to imagine what it’s like to be a murderer, or an empress; a grieving Parisian, a nascent extremist.

In our increasingly nationalistic world – this age we live in of walls and fences, barriers and deportation – it seems to me more important than ever to take up our books. To read ourselves into other people’s shoes; to try and understand, however partially or indeed impartially, what their world is like. For me, this is absolutely the moment to be turning to travel writing, whatever you conceive that to be: words and stories that take you somewhere unexpected. Books have always been a way of gaining perspective: they’re the closest thing we have to living someone else’s life, and today that seems more valuable than ever.

Fran Cooper


Fran Cooper’s These Dividing Walls (Hodder and Stouton, £8.99) is out now and has been shortlisted for the Edward Stanford Travel Writing Awards in the Fiction, with a Sense of Place category.