Growing up, Patti Flinn always dreamed of traveling to France, tracing her interest to a high school teacher who introduced her to French films, which then served as a gateway into French culture at large. But it was only a few years ago that Flinn began in earnest to plan her first visit overseas, browsing websites and trying to home in on the things she hoped to see and experience once she touched down.
“And I was browsing French art … and I came across this portrait of a man who I had never heard of before – a Black gentleman who lived at the Palace of Versailles,” Smith said in a mid-November Zoom interview. “And so, I started doing a little research. And then the pandemic hit, and I went all in.”
The man depicted in the painting turned out to be Louis-Benoit Zamor, a French revolutionary who at age 11 was taken from modern day Bangladesh by slave traders and later gifted to Madame Jeanne du Barry, who kept Zamor as a servant.
Flinn, the author of four novels, said her research started on a surface level with a skim of Zamor’s Wikipedia page and then went increasingly deep, building to an hourlong, middle-of-the-night phone call with a librarian at the National Library of France, who assisted Flinn by digging up materials from the archives. Though there wasn’t an excess of public information about Zamor available, Flinn said she was gradually able to sketch out a better-defined portrait of the man, which helped inform her latest book, The Greatest Thing, a work of historical fiction based on Zamor’s experiences living enslaved in France and due for release on Thursday, Nov. 30.
While Zamor’s life bore little resemblance to her own, Flinn said she was able to tap into her experiences growing up in a military family and the frequent moves that often left her bewildered by her new surroundings.
“I was an Air Force brat, and I lived on military bases until I was 12,” Flinn said. “And a lot of Air Force bases, they’re in rural communities, and are predominantly white. So, when I was in elementary school, it wasn’t uncommon for there to be two or three [Black children] in the whole school. And you do feel this sense that you're trying to learn who you are in an environment where you’re nothing like anyone else. And that might be one of the reasons why I picked up on his story, and why it felt so compelling to me – that shared feeling of being out of place. Often, [Zamor] would be the only person at the Palace of Versailles. And how must he have felt? And I thought, well, if anybody knows this, it’s probably me.”
Flinn said that literature helped her navigate these discomforting spaces as a child, and she could often shake off any lingering feelings of unease or otherness in the pages of a book, citing authors such as Judy Bloom and Stephen King as early favorites. (“I probably shouldn’t have been reading [King],” Flinn said, and laughed, “but my parents didn’t worry about me in that respect because they knew I had the proper headspace.”)
This early love of reading led Flinn to pursue a degree in English Literature, eventually setting her on the path to becoming a published author.
But with The Greatest Thing – the first in a series of works intended to center on Zamor – Flinn said she finally started to find her stride, describing how her decision to embrace a first-person approach unlocked something different within her as a writer. “I started by putting myself in his shoes, trying to understand what he must have felt when he was sold into slavery,” said Flynn, who had traditionally written in the third person. “And when you’re writing in the first person, you don’t have the luxury of a narrator who sees everything that’s going on, and it forces you to develop these different skills, almost like working out a different muscle. And now that I’ve written that way, I’m wondering if I can ever go back.”
While Flinn completed most of The Greatest Thing prior to making her first visit to France, she said the jam-packed week she spent there in the fall of 2022 brought a needed richness to some of her descriptions, which benefited from the author having set her own eyes on locales such as the Palace of Versailles.
“My ultimate goal was ‘I want to find Zamora! I want to see some sign of him! I want to feel what he might have felt walking these grounds,’” Flinn said. “And I did feel a little of that while walking at Versailles. I had no real understanding of just how large the palace was, and, oh my lord was it huge. And I could imagine how it was overwhelming to him. And so, I tried to find those quiet moments away from the tourists where I could let myself get lost in the space. But again, I didn’t get enough time there. And I can’t wait until I can get back.”