What I say, quoi

This is a transcript of an interview with Marie Rennard’s website Melting Pot that will appear in French only. It will read excellently in French, because Marie is an excellent translator, but this is the interview in its original form. I love reading French, but don’t want to write it. Vive la difference.

I'm all for it

Françoise Sagan disait qu’on naissait écrivain, ou romancier, mais qu’on ne pouvait le devenir. Etes-vous d’accord avec cette idée ?

I hope not. The idea that anyone is born to anything, unchangeably, is both frightening and reminiscent of the beliefs of my old friend from Dry Bones, John Calvin.  Francoise Sagan and John Calvin.  Now there’s an unexpected match.

Quels sont vos écrivains (ou livres) préférés, et pourquoi ?

I’m a big fan of Georges Perec, especially La Vie Mode d’Emploi.  For me, this is the greatest European novel since the end of the second world war, or, if you prefer, the greatest modern European novel.  One of its growing virtues is that it seems prescient – making sense of information overload by creating stories. This is a skill that we all increasingly need in everyday life.

Comment s’organise la construction intellectuelle d’un roman comme Le porteur d’os, à la fois créatif et basé sur des personnages réels ?

At some stage, the writer has to believe that there is no difference between the invented and the real.  As in the Bible, which is historically as convincing a text as any. It’s one challenge to make a novel out of anything – that’s the traditional creative act.  Like Perec, I’m trying to make novels out of everything.

Comment vous est venue l’idée d’exploiter le thème des reliques dans le porteur d’os ?

I didn’t go to the relics, the relics came to me.  I was wandering around the Cimetiere des Rois in Geneva, and very gradually began to realise that I knew many of the names on the tombstones.  This wasn’t a delusion.  I did know the names, because so many famous people retire to Switzerland and die into the graveyards of that beautiful country.  Then I started thinking about the influence of the dead, and the influence on us all of our particular heros (dead and alive), and from that point onwards the novel becomes a work of research and creative  synthesis.

Qu’est-ce qui a guidé votre choix des personnages ? (Thomas à Becket, Burton, Jung, Chaplin…)

Becket is the most famous English relic (though not kept in Geneva, or not all of him).  As for the others, they’re buried in Switzerland.

Le roman oscille entre questions existentielles, spiritualité et loufoque : quelle est la part nécessaire de loufoquerie et de spiritualité dans une existence ?

For me, whatever the existential question, materialism isn’t the answer.

Pourquoi, alors que l’essentiel des détails du roman sont authentiques (anecdotes relatives aux personnages exploités, situation géographique etc) d’autres, pourtant mineurs, sont ils délibérément falsifiés (comme par exemple le lieu de sépulture de Zamenhof ?) Le plaisir de piéger le lecteur, ou l’envie de le voir s’atteler à des recherches personnelles sur les personnages évoqués ?

Vous écrivez, dans le roman, que l’Angleterre est toujours plus loin qu’on ne croit. Qu’est-ce qui selon vous constitue la part la plus inaccessible de l’Angleterre pour les non-anglais ?

That’s a good question.  Like all nations (even France, especially France) England is constantly engaged in an identity crisis.  It’s tempting to say that the European part of the English identity is the least accessible, at least to Europeans, because our idea of Europe is shaped by being English.  Not to mention the relationship with the United Kingdom, and with Great Britain, with the Commonwealth and the Empire, with history and the sorry football team.  Maybe one of the ways in which a united Europe works, as an idea, is that all nations can wilfully simplify their sense of identity by buying into a generalised idea of Europe.

Vous êtes Directeur de la National Academy of Creative Writing. Peut-on enseigner l’art d’écrire, ou, plus exactement, la créativité ?

I can help writers with some basic geographical aids – compass, milometer, bathyscope.   But no more metaphors.  The answer is yes.  Both writing and creativity.  I think you can.  Yes.