Sunday, January 23, 2011

Catacombs are Swell When You’re Wearing Chanel by Bobbi Mumm

Bobbi Mumm is a mystery and thriller writer in Saskatoon, Canada where she works half-time as an event planner at the University of Saskatchewan. On the speaker’s bureau for UNICEF, Bobbi delivers presentations at dozens of schools every year. She speaks French fluently and continues her language studies. Married to a nuclear physicist, she has four children, two of whom are college-age. The twins remain at home. Bobbi practices Karate, as do her kids.

In 2009 Bobbi wrote her first novel, Cream with Your Coffin. This past year, Bobbi signed with a U.S. literary agent who is now pitching Cream with Your Coffin to New York editors. Almost finished her second novel, thriller De Rigueur Mortis, Bobbi has fallen in love, all over again, with the mystery that is Paris.

Catacombs are Swell When You’re Wearing Chanel
By Bobbi Mumm

Twenty years ago, nothing, not even the laughing taunts of my French boyfriend, could persuade me to face my fear and enter the Catacombs of Paris. So what compelled me to swallow my terror and venture down there two summers ago? It wasn’t a great dose of courage or even a bit maturity acquired over two decades. 

I was, and still am, morbidly afraid of rats. And I’ve only seen two rats. Neither was here in Canada. One was in a Paris Metro station, that same year, and the other was in Hong Kong. To my way of thinking, an underground Parisian catacomb—some parts of which are millennia old—equals rats.

The Catacombs of Paris have an ancient and fascinatingly horrible history. Ever since the time of the Gauls and Romans, Paris has been quarried—limestone for buildings, sand for glass, green clay for bricks and tiles. Paris’s unusual compulsion to devour itself from below is how the Catacombs came to be.

Even in more recent history, miners still exploited the rock under the Latin Quarter to produce the finest building stone in Europe. Notre Dame, the Palais Royal, and most Parisian mansions were constructed from this limestone. The hundreds of years of mining left a foundation of modern Paris that was, until recently, not much more than a honeycombed bed. Almost 300 kilometres of tunnels made Paris streets dangerously prone to sinkholes.

In the eighteenth century a Paris city administrator, Charles Axel Guillaumot, realized that the city was in danger of collapse. Sinkholes swallowed entire buildings and street intersections. For years his crews reinforced underground tunnels, matching them to the streets above—matching even to the extent of street names and building numbers.

When Guillaumot’s consolidation of the tunnels was complete he turned his attention to the problem of Paris’s cemeteries. And this is where it gets gruesome.

Cemeteries were overflowing with the dead. It was so bad that body parts burst through retaining walls and found their way into Parisian cellars.

Guillaumot decided that his newly reinforced catacombs would solve the problem of the overfull cemeteries. Workers hauled human remains from Paris’s graveyards to the ossuary beneath the streets of Montparnasse. When it was complete, the population of the ossuary was ten times the population of the Paris above. The underground ossuary of Paris covers an area of three acres.

In the summer of 2008 my family rented a large house in the centre of Paris, very close to the Catacombs. It was a wonderful place to gather our friends and family and we found that on most nights we had eight to ten people seated around the courtyard dinner table. That summer I cooked and I explored. Explored everywhere, that is, except the Catacombs.

The last week of our visit I knew that I couldn’t put off any longer the visit to the Catacombs. All of our guests had gone there, the entrance being only three blocks from the house. Not one had admitted to seeing a single rat.

From our guests came stories of how, in WWII, the catacombs had housed the headquarters of the Paris Resistance. Amazingly, the Resistance fighters were only a few hundred yards away, through the labyrinth of tunnels, from a German underground bunker. Neither knew of the other’s nearby existence.

In 2008, it wasn’t a newfound bravery that caused to me visit this probable rat-lair. It was something much more compelling. Research. A drive to do research for a novel that was already simmering in my brain.

Finally, one day, with my husband and children, I visited the Catacombs. I wish I could say I did it without fear. But the truth is that, for most of the visit, my rat-radar was on high-alert and I was teetering on the edge of running in blind, adrenalin-fuelled panic. But no rats were to be seen.

Later, in a much calmer state I began forming the idea to a story which would become my now, almost complete, De Rigueur Mortis.

De Rigueur Mortis is a mystery thriller is set in 1954 Paris. American school teacher, Amelia Erickson, has come to Paris to uncover the truth about her brother—a brother long thought killed in WWII. Amelia poses as an au-pair and through her investigations finds that, hidden beneath the elegance of the haute couture houses, secrets fester.

British scientist, Nate Hall, is swept into this conspiracy and he, together with Amelia, must race to stop a former Nazi war criminal, who is intent on forcing the United States into another world war. A war against Britain.

De Rigueur Mortis is a story that couldn’t have come about had I not forced myself to swallow my fear and go down into the Catacombs of Paris.

For a riveting history of the catacombs I highly recommend reading Parisians: An Adventure History of Paris by Graham Robb.

So tell me, readers of Meanderings and Muses, have you had to conquer a fear to accomplish something important? What fear was it?

I’d like to thank the fearless Kaye, for inviting me to be her guest. 


Mason Canyon said...

Kaye, thanks for hosting Bobbi.

Bobbi, I'm glad to know there is someone else who has the same morbid fear of rats as I do. I'm in awe that you visited the Catacombs, but they do sound intriguing as does your book.

Thoughts in Progress

Anonymous said...

Kaye - Thanks so much for hosting Bobbi!

Bobbi - Wow! How cool that you've taught me about the Catacombs! I never knew that much about them. Thanks.

Oh, and I am a confirmed fan of historical mysteries and buried secrets. The minute your book comes out, I am buying. I am pre-ordering it. I will wait at the publishing house, watching the production of the first copy and I am buying that copy.

Bobbi Mumm said...

Mason, Yay! My fellow rat hater. :-) Someone once suggested that I get a pet rat or mouse in order to conquer my fear for good. I can't do it. Can't even look at them in pet stores. Thanks so much for stopping by and for your nice comments!

Bobbi Mumm said...

Margot, you're right, the catacombs are so interesting. Centuries old graffiti, etc. I can't imagine people being down there, with only torch-light, in the old days. You are a doll to say such lovely things about the book. Thank you!

Eve said...

Fascinating post, Bobbi. I had only the vaguest idea of the catacombs, and to think you visited them. I'm convinced De Rigueur Mortis will be a great read!

Okay, a fear that I conquered: Setting aside my fear that I was too stupid and venturing the halls of higher learning at the mature age of 32. I aced that one, so I thought, hmmm, maybe I could write a novel. Now, I conquer my fear everyday. I'm even quite blasé about it--nah, not really.

Best luck in your work!

Bobbi Mumm said...

Eve, two fears conquered! You inspire me because neither of those fears you faced were quick fixes. You stuck with each for a long time and proved to yourself and everyone you could do it, and do it well. Unfortunately, I still haven't overcome my fear of rodents. Thank you, Eve, for your wonderful words of support!

Anonymous said...

I am scared of writing myself, I could visit catacombs, walk past a cemetery at midnight, jump out of airplanes and shrug off being shot at. But to write,....There is hope, I finally started my own blog!

I enjoyed your post and I am certainly looking forward to reading your forthcoming novel. Really looking forward to that novel in about 65 sleeps? ;)

Bobbi Mumm said...

Dean, I'm looking forward to reading your blog. Keep me posted! Interesting that you (and Eve) mention a dread of writing.I just found a list of the 20 most common phobias and neither rats nor writing made the list. And here, at Meanderings and Muses, we have two rat haters and two writing dreaders.
Thanks for checking in, Dean!

Unknown said...

I've read several books that use the Catacombs as a setting, but they all seemed to be vampire books. I'll be interested to see your take on them.
No fear of rats here, but somehow I missed the Catacombs when I was in Paris.
I can't say I fear writing, but it does get the better of me all too often.

Diane said...

Your WIP sounds so inviting. I have posted it on my list to purchase. I understand your fear of rats, they creep me out as well.

My fear I faced (shivering): our son lives in NYC. I was on the subway when everything died, lights, for a few seconds, we sat for 20 minutes without moving. I thought we would have to exit and walk back in the dark tunnel sidestepping rats. Didn't happen! But the next time I went to the subway station, fear came in waves. I got on, and still do when I visit, but I don't think the fear will ever totally be gone.

Thanks for your delightful post.

Bobbi Mumm said...

Larry, a vampire book set in the Catacombs would be too much for me. You've hit on my big childhood fear. Garlic was hung above my bed from time to time. Crosses cut out of paper. And this was before there were any really scary vampire films out. Okay, now I'm never going back in those Catacombs!

Bobbi Mumm said...

Diane, that would be a nightmare for me, too. Dark tunnel, rats. My sister once had to pet-sit someone's ferret while I visited her in Toronto. It was very rodent-like. She'd let it go out of the cage for exercise and it would scurry along the wall perimeters and then,eek, try to run up the men's pant legs! Thanks so much for your kind words about the novel. I'm excited to finish it.

Jill said...

Great post! I now have a fear of small snakes. I lived in a house that was actually very nice and the apartment that I inhabited was only a year old. One day the upstairs tenant asked me if I had seen any snakes. I said no and he will. I though okay no problem. I am not too worried about it. I worked in a pet shop and handled snakes all of the time. Then sure enough, I started seeing a small snake or two in my apartment. I would just take them out and set them free. Then one night after a camping trip. I was very tired and figured that I would unpack my backpack the next day. I went to bed and in the middle of the night something crawled over my shoulder. I jumped up and searched my room and found nothing. I thought it was just a dream and went back to sleep. Then the next day I picked up my backpack and guessed it...a small snake. After another snake incident I did end up moving out of that apartment and now have a fear and very strong dislike for small snakes. The last incident involved quite a few snakes all at once. Still gives me chills.

Kaye Wilkinson Barley - Meanderings and Muses said...

Snakes! OMG! I was hoping no one would even mention the nasty creatures. I know, I know - someone wants to tell me there are some good snakes. Good. I'm glad. But I do NOT want to meet 'em.

Jill. I would have died. surely to goodness, I would have died.

Vicki Lane said...

What a great setting for a mystery! A fascinating history too.

I was afraid of snakes - nightmares and all -- when I was a child but overcame it by -- you guessed it -- picking up a friend's pet snake on a dare.

When one is a schoolteacher, as I once was, you can ruin a small boy's day by reaching for the snake he's hoping to scare you with.

Bobbi Mumm said...

Thanks, Jill! I would have said that I wasn't afraid of snakes. I've held them in petting zoos and other non-threatening places. But a snake crawling across my shoulder in the night is another thing altogether. And little snakes popping out all over the place in my apartment would be reason enough to move. Yikes... I'm glad you stopped by!

Bobbi Mumm said...

Vicki, I love the image of the teacher reaching for the snake that was meant to terrify her. Fabulous! So you think picking up a rat would cure me? Thank you for stopping to chat with us!

Bobbi Mumm said...

Kaye, I see I need to amend the title I gave you. "The fearless Kaye" perhaps would be justified in all non-snake situations.

Kaye Wilkinson Barley - Meanderings and Muses said...

Ha !
Bobbie - yes, that would work.
I am pretty much fearless (or manage to pretend I am in a lot of cases, which I've found works pretty much the same and achieves the same results).


a snake?

Whew. Even the smallest one can reduce to a a puddle. No idea why. I've never experienced a "snake trauma," that I recall.

Joanne Carnegie said...

Enjoyed the blog entry, Bobbi, and what a great title! I'm looking forward to reading your book. (And I hope you put at least a couple of rats in it.)

Bobbi Mumm said...

Joanne, Thank you! I have managed to squeeze a few fat,greasy rats into the story. Both rodent and human.

Cathy Olliffe-Webster said...

Thoroughly enjoyed your story about the catacombs and the picture? Amazing! Makes me want to go there immediately! And the rat thing wouldn't bother me. I used to have a pet rat when I was a kids. He'd tangle up in my long hair and fall asleep and I'd walk all around town with him there. Quite honestly, he was a very good pet. Much better than gerbils or mice or guinea pigs. He never bit and he'd come when called. Plus he'd freak out visiting ladies, much to our vast entertainment. As for conquering fears, I used to be terribly shy and afraid to talk to people -then I went to journalism school and I had to force the shyness away. It was the best thing I ever did.

Bobbi Mumm said...

Cathy, Thank you for your nice words. I'm glad to meet someone not afraid of rats. It gives me great hope for my future. Maybe they aren't so evil, after all.
Conquering your shyness is huge! I know several people who've struggled with this and it's terrific that you found a way to get past it. Way to go!