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  • Max Byrd will give a presentation and sign books at 7 p.m. Friday at Barnes & Noble, 3561 N. Freeway Blvd., Sacramento; (916) 285-0387.

Books: Davis author Max Bird aims high but is down to earth

Published: Sunday, Oct. 14, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 7AANDE

Max Byrd has been kicking around Davis since 1976, 30 years of that as an English professor at the University of California, Davis.

He's a professor emeritus there, and also has taught at Stanford University and, once upon a time, at Yale.

During those decades, he wrote 14 books, including historical novels based on the lives of presidents Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson and Ulysses S. Grant. His detective novel "California Thriller" won a Shamus Award from the Private Eye Writers of America.

He co-founded the independent publishing company Willow Bank Books ( which has published, among other titles, "First of Hearts: Selected Letters of Mrs. Henry Adams," and a limited-edition specially bound edition of Davis author John Lescroart's thriller, "The 13th Juror."

Byrd is a regular contributor to the New York Times Book Review and has lectured at Yale and the Sorbonne.

Given this résumé and academic credentials (a graduate of Harvard and Cambridge universities), one might expect some well-earned intellectual pretense during a conversation.

Quite the opposite.

Byrd is one of the most down-to-earth, self-effacing writers this column has encountered.

His latest novel, "The Paris Deadline" (Turner, $27.95, 320 pages; on sale Tuesday), is set in Jazz Age 1920s Paris, a city filled with expatriates including the cynical Toby Keats, a journalist for the Paris edition of the Chicago Tribune.

His life is suddenly turned inside-out when the legendary (and real) 18th-century automaton Vaucanson's Duck is mistakenly delivered to his office. The duck contains a gyroscope that "holds the key" to weapons-technology development by Germany.

Soon, squads of "Euro-thugs" and a mysterious banker are in pursuit, forcing Keats to run for his life.

He is joined on his adventure by the lovely "doll hunter" Elsie Hunt, dispatched on a "shopping mission" to Europe by Thomas Edison.

Byrd, 70, and his wife, Brookes, have two adult children and three granddaughters. Visit him at

Vaucanson's Duck is a big player in "The Paris Deadline." There was a craze in 18th- and 19th-century Europe for mechanical "toys," and inventor Jacques de Vaucanson created a duck with 400 moving parts.

The duck disappeared after Vaucanson sold it, but there were repeated sightings of it afterward, not unlike sightings of Elvis. Someday, somebody is going to rummage in an old attic around Lyon and find it in a trunk.

(For research on it) I spent a lot of time in Le Musée des Automates (automatons), which is what the duck was. It's a collection of very ingenious mechanical gadgets that look like people and animals, inside the Conservatory of Arts and Trades. When the automates were made, they were a "Wow!" They're quite wonderful to look at, but very spooky. There are private collections, too, and I talked my way into a couple of those.

What other research did you do to immerse yourself in 1920s Paris?

There were a lot of documents to draw on. I spent time with old maps and newspapers in the Library of the History of Paris. There are parts of Paris which are still physically like what they were in the 1920s, and there is a huge number of memoirs people wrote about their time there.

I also walked around, looking at the old buildings. Toby spends time on the Rue du Dragon on the Left Bank, and I've walked it maybe 20 times, taking it in. I don't know how much you can absorb history through the air or the eye, but that's my illusion anyway. That's what I tell the IRS.

You've also gone to Paris for years to study French.

I've taken French immersion courses because I think I'm a better and finer person when I speak French. I started out going to an excellent language school for (10-day periods) for four years. We spoke nothing but French from 9 to 5 every day. Then I would go to plays, never speaking English the whole time. I was getting pretty good, but somewhere over Greenland as you fly back, it all leaks out of my head, so I have to keep going back. Now I have a private tutor.

You specialize in historical fiction.

Mark Twain wrote a certain number of historical novels, such as "The Prince and the Pauper," because he was so disgusted with the present time he lived in. (Writing historical fiction) is a wonderful escape, not necessarily because you don't like where you are, but because there's something glamorous and exciting about the past.

What is the advantage of historical fiction to the writer?

You have so much material ready at hand that can be spliced together. I wouldn't say it makes the business of writing easier, but it does give you a sort of comforting structure. Also, it makes it possible to be extremely realistic. (I have) a powerful drive to make my fiction as real as it can be.

Philosophically speaking, why would you want to make fiction be like reality?

Historical novels are wonderful bags of facts that make the fiction seem not so much a made-up, trivial thing, but a real thing.

It was P.G. Wodehouse who said there are two ways of writing novels. One is to go long on the surface and be silly, the other is to dive way down deep and try to grip the reality. It's a way of fastening on to reality, which is what almost any kind of art seems to aim for. John Updike (called writing) just hieroglyphics to get you to an inner meaning.

You taught humanities at UC Davis for 30 years. What do you miss about it?

I miss my favorite course – freshman composition. And the introduction to how to read poetry.

But I quit the English department six or seven years ago. I was quite interested in undergraduate education, and that is the kiss of death in the (10-campus) University of California system. The quality of undergraduate education really disturbed me, and that's one of the things that made me quit in discouragement.

Please go on.

I was troubled by the lack of ability of the undergraduates I saw to read and understand anything complicated. One of the consequences of the university's indifference – if not its outright hostility – to undergraduate education is that its graduates have a very tenuous grip on language, compared to what they used to have. I'm not being a curmudgeon. I'm a Jeffersonian, and if (graduates) are going to go out and vote, they should be able to read a sentence all the way through.

What are you working on now?

A book titled "After Lincoln," about the year 1867 and what happened after Abraham Lincoln died.

What do you read for pleasure?

I really like the mystery novels of Donna Leon, set in Venice, Italy (featuring Commissario Guido Brunetti). Right now I'm reading "Brain Bugs" by Dean Buonomano. It's about how the brain is not such a great instrument after all.


Max Byrd will give a presentation and sign books at 7 p.m. Friday at Barnes & Noble, 3561 N. Freeway Blvd., Sacramento; (916) 285-0387.

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