Interview

The Writing

How did you become a writer?
 

As is often the case with authors, reading preceeded writing.

I fell in love with novels at the age of ten. My mother was a librarian, but books had always bored me up to that point in my life. To be perfectly honest, I only liked comic books! Then one day, I read a story that thrilled me: Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë. From then on, I spent the major part of my summers sitting in a corner in the library reading, instead of going to the beach! At that age, children are fearless, and I didn’t hesitate to throw myself into reading marathons. I remember reading War and PeaceAnna KareninaSentimental Education and Madame Bovary one after the other... From this love of reading, my desire to write was born.. The trigger was a short story contest organised by my 10th grade French professor. I wrote a romantic story imbued with supernatural elements that was halfway between Stephen King and The Wanderer. And I won... I was so surprised that my stories interested other people that it encouraged me to keep writing.

Do you feel you were predisposed to be a writer? Is writing a necessity for you?

Anaïs Nin once said she believes we write in order to create a world in which we can live. This is definitely the case for me. Writing is an extension of reading, which is my favorite way of escaping reality, daily life and its difficulties.

The frustration I experience in the real world is actually what drives me to write. It is what inspires me.

How do you find stories for your novels? Where does your inspiration come from?

In his book, On Writing, A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King astutely writes: "Good story ideas seem to come quite literally from nowhere, sailing at you right out of the empty sky." A writer's job is to sort them out and figure out, among the stream of ideas, which ones might become novels.

I have many sources of inspiration: my own experiences, current events, other works of fiction in all forms. I also enjoy people watching: in restaurants, cafes, the metro, in shops... Like Bacri’s film, I call it my “Taste of Others”. It helps me get a feel for atmosphere and to catch situations, dialogues, emotions... As soon as something captures my attention, I write it down on my computer or in my notebook, and at some point, the ideas come together, and a plot eventually emerges.

I have to say though that the creative process remains very mysterious: a spark, flashes of light coming together, ideas that piece together and, little by little, come to form the foundation for a story.

How do you construct your stories? How do you work?

I always keep one basic principle in mind: write books I would like to read. There is no recipe for it! It doesn’t work, and it corrupts the pleasures of writing. Rather than follow a schematic set of rules, I try to tell an “honest” story, one that expresses what I feel at the time.

As for the actual writing process, for the type of novel I write, I absolutely have to build a solid foundation and make sure the plot is coherent. For my first novels, I spent a few months refining the structure of a book. I needed to know where I was going, even if I didn't always know how I was going to get there.

Putting together this structure, as intricate as the mecanism of a clock, could be very time-consuming: working on chapter flow, slowly giving clues, laying plot twists and dividing scenes as if in a film...

At the same time, I work a lot on my protagonists. I have to know them through and through in order to identify with them so that over the course of the writing process the mysterious alchemy leading to the true expression of emotion takes place.

Over the years, have your writing habits changed?

Like a craftsman, I have a much firmer grasp of my art.

My stories have much denser plots and my characters are more nuanced. But I remain very attached to making sure my readers take pleasure in reading my novels and see them as an escape.

My priority is to make the story addictive and I use a modern narrative style, pulling the reader into my world, so that I can move much more quickly into the story. I let the plot unfold and trust myself to find a good solution when things get stuck, making sure to include plenty of twists, turns and surprises.

Being spontaneous and trusting my gut are rather new for me. Though this leads to more uncertainty, it also means I have to use my instincts which his frankly delightful! The most exciting moments are actually the surprises. When characters try to escape my control and take over, things happen that I might never have imagined.

What are your writing habits? Where do you work? Do you listen to music? Do you write on paper or on the computer?

My work day is similar to an artisan’s. I try to write every day and to be disciplined about it without getting caught up in overly strict rituals.

I try to work everywhere: at the office, in cafés, on trains and planes. In fact, I’ve noticed that many of my ideas come to me when I am waiting in airports or when I’m abroad. I write one chapter after another (always on a Mac and with finely-tuned word-processing software) and then I go through a long correction process on paper, then back to the computer, and so on and so forth, with as much back and forth as is necessary.

The Books

Where can I find your first novel Skidamarink?

You can’t…other than on online auction sites for a price I don’t recommend you pay! I am very fond of my first novel. Like many novices, I submitted it by post and it was accepted for publication by Editions Anne Carrière. This was in 2000 and the plot was about four people who got pieces of the Mona Lisa in the mail along with information about a mysterious meeting in an Italian chapel.

The Mona Lisa makes you think of Da Vinci Code, but this was four years before it came out and the style was more like Arturo Perez-Reverte than Dan Brown!

At the time, it got good press and there are a lot of people who want to read it today. So, I recovered the rights to Skidamarink and might one day rewrite it with the skills I have today. I’d like to make this debut novel into the novel I imagined, though for now it’s more like a chrysalis.

What are your literary preferences?

In poetry, Aragon and Apollinaire.

I like books more than I like authors. Among the classics: Her Lover (Belle du Seigneur) by Albert Cohen, The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Kundera, The Horseman on the Roof by Jean Giono. In poetry, Aragon and Apollinaire.

Among the more modern writers: Human Stain by Philip Roth, and Bag of Bonesby Stephen King, whose capacity to create anguish within the mundane I admire, The Reader by Bernard Schlink, Mystic River by Deennis Lehane, An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears, Atonement by Ian McEwan, Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn.

When it comes to French writers, I’m a fan of Jean-Christophe Grangé feverish drive of every page he writes and of Tonino Benacquista for the universality of his characters.

Why are so many of your stories set mostly in the United States?

I don’t have a particular fascination with the US. I live in France, and I love my country, but it is true that many of my stories are set in New York.

Setting my novels in the US allows me to put distance between me and my story. This distance gives me the freedom to separate myself from my daily life.

The setting of a novel is important, because by creating the decor, it contributes to the credibility of a story. New York is a place where we feel anything can happen : the most wonderful of all love stories as well as the most atrocious tragedy.

It is a city I know quite well, since I lived and worked there for several months when I was 19. I left without having a real plan, and once there, I found a job as ice cream vendor, and would work 70 to 80 hours a week! Despite those hard working conditions, I fell in love with Manhattan, and every time I go back, I feel the same fascination with it as that first time.

Also, since 9/11, New York has become a resilient city. This state of mind often resonates with what my characters are going through.

However, for the last few years, Paris has also played an important role in my novels. Much of Call from an Angel and 7 Years Later... take place there.

The lives of your characters sometimes take on a supernatural dimension. Why is that?

There is often a misunderstanding when it comes to my novels. First off, because many of them (Lost and FoundGirl on PaperCall from an Angel and 7 Years Later...) have no supernatural plot elements. The supernatural, mysterious and thrilling elements are all excuses used to tackle deeper subjects under the pretense of playfulness and lightheartedness.

Afterwards... addresses the themes of mourning and of the frailness of our existence; A mix-up in Heaven, the role of coincidence and destiny; Will You Be There? is about old age, remorse and regrets. Lost and Found addresses the subject of resilience, the psychological capacity to overcome adversity, to conquer ordeals, to come out the other side strengthened by those experiences. One DayPerhaps is about second chances, and opens up for the debate the subject of responsibility for our choices, the tricks of fate and the opportunity to change its course. Next is about true love and its excessiveness and how it can make is change completely and do unimaginable things. It is a novel about appearances within a relationship that asks, How well to I really know the person I am sharing my life with?

The paranormal is thus a dramatic tool I sometimes use as a parable to evoke what I feel most passionately about: feelings, the meaning given to life, absence and fear.

These thoughts came to me when I was 24 after a car accident that had a deep impact on me. Luckily, I wasn’t badly hurt, but my car was totally destroyed. I had never before seriously thought about death, and I suddenly realised, in a split second, that it could come without warning at any moment. And so I wanted to write a story about this experience – the desire to live provoked by an encounter with death – but I didn’t know how to proceed. I was afraid that the subject matter was a little too morbid. Poeple are somewhat reluctant to read books about death, but they are more than happy to read ones filled with mystery, magic and the supernatural. Then I remembered those American films from the forties, that playfully disguise crucial questions: Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, Jacques Tourneur’s La Féline, Joseph Mankiewicz’s The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. More recently, Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire and M. Night Shyamalan’s The 6th Sense have also used these techniques to talk about mourning and human nature.

With Call from an Angel, 7 Years Later… and Central Park, you have left aside the paranormal dimension in favor of police investigation. Is this a definitive change?

It’s not really new for me. The structure and pace of my novels have always been reminiscent of thrillers, though the stories are more cross-genre.

Currently, my preferred genre is suspense because it allows for an enjoyable read and the flexibility to address (maybe even more than the supernatural) subjects that are dear to me: family, relationships, world changes, human debauchery…

I really love mixing genres. I think it’s what makes my writing unique: playing with pre-determined codes and tackling themes in new and different ways.

I also try to make sure my writing does not become automatic. I’d rather die than write the same book twice. He who knows how to innovate and manages to surprise himself can take pleasure in writing.

Emotion is very present in your stories. What is your perception of what love is?

Love is the subject matter of all my books, and to tell you the truth, I can’t imagine writing a novel without a love story in it! In life, love is one of the most interesting things, isn’t it? It is love, or the lack of it, after all, that guides most human behaviour. To quote Christian Bobin: “Love is always the cause of our suffering, even when we think we are not suffering at all.”

Your readers have grown accustomed to your spectacular endings. Is this your signature style?

Be careful: this is not at all a writing system! It just happens that until now many of my stories have ended with a dramatic crescendo. Americans speak of “twist endings” when qualifying films or novels whose ending is a complete surprise.

As a reader or viewer, I’ve always liked plot twists that, at the end of the story, change the meaning of the rest of the story. I still remember how surprised I was as a child when I got to the end of certain Agatha Christie movies (Ten Little IndiansThe Murder of Roger Ackroyd) or films such as Psycho (I mean, the mother, stuffed in her armchair, what a fabulous twist!), Citizen Kane (the infamous Rosebud in the last frame) or Diabolique. Clouzot actually put on the movie poster: “Don’t be diabolical! Don’t give away the ending to your friends.”

More recently, director M. Night Shyamalan made this type of ending his signature (The Sixth SenseUnbreakable) as did David Fincher (Fight ClubThe Game). For those who like this kind of ending, I would also recommend Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane.

The Success

You are one of the most-read novelists in France. How do you feel about this success?

I am pleased and proud because, even though writing is not a competition, this kind of success does in a certain way validate my work.

I’m most proud of the fact that I got to this place without having any contacts in the publishing world. When I was 23 and started sending my manuscripts by post to publishers, I didn’t know anyone, not even a journalist. I wasn’t even from Paris et no one had recommended me.

Considering your success, you are said to be a “popular” writer. Would you describe yourself as such?

What I personally find reassuring is that I've never strived to be a popular writer at any cost. So the enthusiasm for my novels gives me free reign and doesn't force me to make any concessions.

There is nothing more gratifying for me than seeing people read my books on the metro or on the bus. Popular literature such as Agatha Christie, Barjavel or Stephen King...- is what first gave me a taste for books. It is the work of storytellers, written solely for the pleasure of reading. I have no qualms about being a “popular” writer. On the contrary, I am very proud of it...

Every time I meet my readers at book signings, I’m surprised by their diversity: all ages and sexes, but mostly young adults and teens. I think that’s what surprised me the most: that I managed to touch a generation that has a reputation of preferring video games and comic books to reading books.

How would you explain your success?

I don't think I'm in the best position to explain my own success, but I rather agree with the publisher Bernard de Fallois when he saus "a writer's most important skill is to captivate an audience". I've always wanted to write stories where the reader isso engrossed in the book that they can’t put it down.

Suspense is crucial for me and I work hard to constantly innovate. I want my stories to be original. I want every page to scream to be turned, and the end of every chapter to make the reader want to read the next one.

I also want them to experience what my characters experience. I thus do a lot of work to construct characters with depth that are not one-dimensional and are not superheroes.

Finally, I always try to structure my novels so that they can be read on two levels: one for entertainment, where we escape into the suspense, atmosphere and pleasure of page-turning and another where I try to address deeper themes and provoke thought.

At the end of your novels, instead of thanking your loved ones, you thank your readers. Why do you choose to do that?

Because I owe everything to my readers. For the past four years, they have been with me through my novels, by my side, and by that of my characters. They have made my stories their own, and they have heard them resonate in their own lives. They write to me and come to my book signings in large numbers. I owe my success to them.

Such a “love story” deserves at least a few sincere thank yous at the end of a book. It’s the least I could do… And, as I have often said, there is nothing that makes me feel prouder than seeing my books read on the metro. Because it’s popular literature, that of storytellers, and of the simple pleasures of reading, that as a child, led to my love of reading.

The Movies

Your novels often read like movies. Do you think so as well?

Movies are one of my main sources of inspiration, so it’s quite natural that my novels are structured like certain films.

I am a part of the VCR generation: the generation who discovered many movies not in theaters but directly on the TV screen with the possibility of watching the same scene over and over again…in other words, with the possibility of “deconstructing” the movie to better understand its structure and techniques. I am sure that this had an influence on my writing: very visual, with a halting structure and tension that mounts throughout the story.

Another major source of inspiration for the last 15 years or so: high-quality TV series such as Six Feet UnderLostThe SopranosMI5The West WingMad MenThe Wire… This is currently where you can find the most innovative plot lines, the least formatted subjects and the most inspired authors.

Are you afraid of your stories being misconstrued when they are adapted to the big screen? What did you think of the movie made out of Afterwards?

Yes, it is a risk. It’s easy to think of any number of books that were butchered when they became movies, such as…no, there are too many to name!

Nonetheless, it is a huge privilege to have a movie made from one of your books. When producers push each other out of the way for the chance to adapt your work, it proves how solid your story is and how strong the characters are.

The movie version of Afterwards was visually magnificent and the casting was top notch: John Malkovitch, Romain Duris, Evangeline Lilly. However, I know that some readers found the pace of the film a bit slow and the tone much darker than in the book…

Do you already think about the movie adaptation while you’re writing?

No, not at all. My writing is often very visual, but my territory is the novel. My medium is words and sentences. Bringing that to the big screen is another form of expression.

Have you ever thought about writing a screenplay for a feature film or for TV?

I’ve been asked to do this many times but have always refused up to now. As Jean-Christophe Grangé says “In writing, anything is possible, but in film, you have limits.”

Plus, in France, contrary to the US, the role of the screenwriter is reduced to “author-director”. The budget dedicated to writing is only a tiny part of the total budget compared to over there. This explains why so many French films have botched and self-centered storylines.

Nevertheless, it’s possible I might do this one day. But only if I’m convinced that the story I’m writing is better suited for the screen than for a book. And on condition I find competent and ambitious people to work with.

Le livre « Cent ans − Tout ce que tu apprendras dans la vie » de H. Faller et V. Vidali est un chef-d’œuvre de justesse et de poésie. Un bouquet d’émotions universelles qui vous emportent dans un éclat de rire et vous serrent le cœur quelques pages plus loin. Cc @BoscAdrien...