At last! Stromme's fiction is published in her own country by City Lights Books. "Joe's Word" is the story of a writer-for-hire working in the Echo Park neighborhood of Los Angeles, who finds his emotionally-distanced world jeopardized by a client's taste for mail-order brides.
What exactly is a writer for hire?
For the long answer read the book, available at independent bookstores, at Barnes & Noble, or order directly from City Lights or Amazon. For the short answer, read the following:


I met my first public writer in Paris, back in '93. I was strolling nostalgically through a neighborhood I used to live in, when I passed a storefront bearing the sign " Ecrivain public. " It was a happy coincidence. I'd been considering writing a novel about the profession and knew a thing or two about the work.
The writer was speaking Arabic with a client when I walked in, but he excused himself for a moment to give me a flyer listing his hours, services and rates -- which varied according to the request but could be set at $60 an hour. That struck me as expensive given the clientele he must've had. His name was Jean-Thierry. He was young, dark, on the small side, and his manner at once generous and reserved. The room was spartan, furnished with folding chairs; his " desk " was a metal slab that looked like it could've been scavenged from a school. Among the services he offered, I noticed on his list, were typing up documents and scanning already-written letters for spelling and grammatical errors. This must've been appreciated by the immigrants who then populated the district.
The street was Théophile Roussel, near Place d'Aligre in the 12th arrondisement; the whole area has since gone upscale. In fact, the last time I checked it out, the writer had moved on, and one of the nearby storefronts had become a chic bookstore.
Still, it would be a mistake to think public writers are only useful to immigrants, or the poor and disenfranchised. No matter how they're called -- writers for hire, ghostwriters, scribes -- their function is to serve their community. There are public writers in the bougeois quartiers of Paris, for example. Their offices may be more suptuous and their fees better padded, but they write for a clientele that can also be illiterate (and afraid to show it), insecure about compositional skills, or too busy to bother with government correspondence and job résumés.
No matter where public writers hang their shingle (you also find them in Egypt, Mexico and Brasil -- witness the film " Central Station "), they're always asked to write the same thing: anything and everything, from eulogies and love letters to Dear John letters and memoirs.
Though I couldn't stay long at the Parisian storefront, I noted and observed, and mostly felt. I didn't do further research for my book on the subject, neither in France nor back in Los Angeles where I lived, and where -- as far as I knew -- public writers didn't exist. A novelist needs to know when to stop the research and let the imagination take over.
I imagined myself as a public writer in L.A.'s inner city. " Joe's Word, an Echo Park Novel " is a very personal account. On my most recent trip to France, this past spring, I again stumbled across a public writer -- or rather, I chanced on her sign on a street in Cannes and was received in her second-floor office. Here was another type of public writer. She was officious and wary, her furniture as stuffy as her style. She was among the new generation of public writers in France, holding a now-required diploma from a state university. The curriculum apparently is weighted towards learning French administrative law, and she seemed proud of that distinction. As much as I'm sure that kind of knowledge can be helpful, I'm dismayed that the French have actually legislated the field. One of the defining aspects of the profession is its close contacts with humanity -- in all its glorious mess, its desires, its secrets. One needs to be bright, think critically, and write clearly in order to set up shop, but you don't need a degree to have empathy, perception and good ideas. These are the important cirteria required of a good public writer -- of any kind of a writer, for that matter -- and qualities that can really be helpful to the public.

"Joe's Word, an Echo Park Novel" is due out this October 2003 at City Lights Books. It was first published in France (Editions Gallimard, 1999) under the title "L'Ecrivain public."


(c) copyright Elizabeth Stromme. All rights reserved.