We had the good fortune of connecting with Francis French and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Francis, why did you pursue a creative career?
I’ve always been fascinated by science, whether it’s astronomy and space exploration, or natural sciences such as wildlife and the mysteries of our oceans. But in high school I could already tell that my physics and math ability were never going to propel me to doctorate level where I could do meaningful research. What I could do, however, was to write about it. I soon realized that fascinating work was being done in all of these fields yet the public weren’t always aware, because either those doing the research were too busy to talk about it, or their explanations were far too academic. Taking a human-centered, storytelling approach, I have spent most of my career either working in cultural institutions in the U.S. or Europe to share incredible science achievements, or writing books and magazine articles to do the same – finding a way the public can personally engage and share the wonder of discovery.
Alright, so let’s move onto what keeps you busy professionally?
When I moved to Southern California, I realized that many of the people I had been reading about my whole life – the original astronauts, maritime explorers, and legends of paleontology and natural sciences – were all within a short drive of home. Not only that, but they were approachable, accessible, and giving of their time, as long as I wasn’t wasting it. I learned, and fortunately not the hard way, if you have done your homework people love to talk about what they do. If you ask them the same generic questions everyone else does, their eyes soon glaze over. But if you dig deep for new and original angles, you see them light up and dig deep into original, remarkable memories. As such, I’ve been fortunate enough to obtain vivid first-hand accounts such as seeing the far side of the moon for the first time in human history, from someone who lives right here in San Diego. In my books about the first humans to venture into space, I spend a great deal of time researching the technical history and engineering, to make sure it’s all accurate. But it is all to support the human stories I love to tell… that “what was it like?” question that we all want to know, even if a subject isn’t one we pursue deeply.
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
If they had just landed at the airport, I’d probably drive them immediately to the La Playa neighborhood of Point Loma. Just a few minutes away from the airport, this quiet area has a beautiful bayfront path with colorful trees and gardens that reminds me of the south of France. It’s a wonderful introduction to town, because in many other parts of the world this neighborhood would be the jewel of the region, Here, it’s just one facet of a huge county full of variety and beauty. My favorite beach walk would be a must – the stroll below Torrey Pines State Reserve in the late afternoon, when the sun brings the bands of green, red, and orange rock into glowing, vivid life – it doesn’t seem like nature could create something so striking. Eating outdoors in this climate is a San Diego luxury, and the relaxed and easygoing feel of even some of the higher-end restaurants in town would allow any guest to enjoy the famous year-round good weather. The Hotel Del Coronado can be unbeatable for food and ocean views, but Caroline’s Seaside Cafe in La Jolla is also a favorite for the feel of fresh sea air, fabulous views of the cove, and a beautiful beach to walk on just steps away. C Level and Island Prime on Harbor Island, closer to downtown, offer a world-class view of the city across the water along with an opportunity to try the freshest fish possible, brought ashore that very morning. It’s not truly a trip to San Diego, however, without trying some of the advantages of living in a border city. Not only is there a great variety of Mexican food, but El Salvadorian, Peruvian, and other regional specialties allow a visitor to do some world traveling without leaving town. The legendary Las Cuatro Milpas in Barrio Logan would be a must, where lining up along the street is part of the experience to get some of the best Mexican food in the region, from a restaurant owned by one family for many generations. To get out of the city, I’d drive them up into the hills in the Alpine area, to Sky Falconry, where they can walk along an impressive mountain view path, working with a bird of prey as it flies from their gloved arm and returns. Interacting with raptors – a bird that can never truly be tamed, nor would you ever want it to be – is a magical insight into the world of wildlife, done ethically and responsibly.
The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there someone that you want to dedicate your shoutout to?
I’ve been fortunate enough in life to have had a number of people stop and listen at times I really needed it. Most influential, I think – because he caught me at the right time – was my school teacher when I was ten, a guy named Ron Gratton. Instead of writing me off when I was being disruptive, he talked to me like a human being. He got to me by making it clear I was disappointing him, but in a positive way because there was a clear path ahead to do better if I wanted. It turned me around, and I was fortunate to remain friends with him for the rest of his life – he passed away just the other year. Because of him I’ve always made an effort, no matter how busy I am, to mentor, and give time to people wanting to discuss their own ideas and projects, because I know how vital it can be.