Q: I see a wide range of influences on you as a writer, even literary writers like Thomas Pynchon. What crime writers have influenced you?
A: All the great ones, Ed McBain, Chandler, everything since 1945, and earlier. But I have to admit that the latest big shock was guys like Ellroy, James Lee Burke, Tony Hillerman, Jim Nesbit, I love his stuff. To say what in all that has influenced me, I don’t know. It’s up to the reader to decide. I mean there are all the Beat writers too: Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Brion Gysin, that whole generation. But they particularly influenced me as a reader.
Q: There’s a very definite link to the Kerouac road novel.
A: Yes, I like novels that take place on the road. It’s the America we never had. Us little French folks living in the fatherland of arts and letters.
Q: You seem to have had a fast rise to success, but maybe it wasn’t? Maybe you wrote for years before your first book was published?
A: Yeah, but that doesn’t really count. A writer’s first efforts to write could stay in a box until one’s retirement. Writing is not just writing stuff down. It’s a whole job of application toward publication. It’s work on the road too: going to conventions and things. That’s the professional life of the writer. Otherwise, sure, I filled up three cartons with all sorts of stuff. But it could have stayed in that state for another 40 years. So, it doesn’t seem to me to have been all that fast. I started writing at around thirty years old. And the book was published in 1993, I was thirty-four already.
Q: What did you write before the first success at the Serie Noire?
A: Before LA SIRENE ROUGE, I did another book. A really big one. At least as big as LES RACINES DU MAL. It took a year and a half. And it was already something that mixed a little the genre of the noir novel, or crime novel, and the science fiction novel. I didn’t know quite what to do with it. When I was young I was in that Lycee over there [he points out the window across the street] and there was this guy who took care of something called a “foyer sociaux educatif.” It’s a thing that gathers together all the extracurricular activities: checkers club, dance club, music, whatever. And this guy, his name was Jean-Bernard Pouy, and he took care of the cinema club–I guess we could call it that to simplify–and he was a great reader of science fiction and of crime fiction. And when I was young, he helped to guide my reading a lot. Then I left the school and I lost sight of him for 15 years. And when I found myself with this huge manuscript, I didn’t know exactly where to send it. So I managed to contact him, and I said, “Look, I’ve done this thing and I’ll send it to you.” He got Patrick Raynal to read it [Raynal, a friend of Pouy’s, is editorial director of the Serie Noire crime collection at Gallimard]. Raynal said he couldn’t publish it in Serie Noire because it was too big and because it was mixed up a bit with science fiction, etc. So then I wrote LA SIRENE ROUGE, and he took it.
Q: Your books are very American somehow. Even the size of them.
A: Yes. In fact, I pride myself on being not part of French literature. Well, maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but I mean, especially contemporary French literature. I really don’t see myself as being part of French literature, or even French crime literature. I drank in as much American literature as possible from my youngest days. Also a little East European literature. America and the old Soviet Union. [Laughs.] Otherwise there’s a lot of world literature that I don’t know very well. I don’t know African writing very well–few do know it here, it’s not much translated–South American literature I don’t know very well, but there are two or three writers I like a lot. Like Paco Ignacio Taibo. I like Jim Ballard (J.G.). And all the writers that are neither science fiction nor crime writers, like David Lodge. But I must admit that 80 percent of what I read was North American in origin. I’m a–what do we call it here–I’ve lost my cultural identity.
Q: Maybe that’s what makes your stuff stand out.
A: But I’ve never calculated it. I never said, “Hey, I’m going to write fat books of 500 pages.” It’s not calculated, not a real desire just to do big books, really. It’s simply the story, and the way I write that has brought me each time to it–or at least for the moment–now I’ve done three big books.
Q: And you’re working on something else now?
A: Several. I always work on several things at once. The first that is finished will be finished.
Q: You write on a Mac. Your computer culture seems enormous in LES RACINES DU MAL. Do you know a lot about programming computers?
A: Pretty much zero. I know how to use my word processor really well. And I know all sorts of things about computers. But I’m not capable of writing even three lines of BASIC. It’s not the same metier. The job of a writer is not to have the obligation to know in great detail the precise functioning of a computer. What interests us more is rather it’s social impact, psychological, mental, or cultural impact. Programming itself…it’s not that that doesn’t interest me, but I just don’t know how to do it. The writer’s work is to fabricate fiction. I like to refer to and read serious scientific studies. But I know that I’m not writing a scientific essay, but fiction.
Q: Do you read a lot of fantasy novels too? We see several genres influencing your work.
A: Yes, I’ve read Stephen King, Clive Barker, Koontz, and even the old ones, Edgar Allen Poe, Lovecraft.
Q: Was it difficult to get your mixing of genres through the editorial process?
A: Yes. I had quite a bit of luck, of course, because in France our Cartesian spirit makes it so that we really like putting things in well-defined boxes. So it’s true that there are very, very few novels like mine that have been permitted to navigate between different genres. It seems to me that it is more normal to do that in the U.S.
It’s starting now in France, but it’s perhaps because of the change of generations. People of my generation between the ages of 30-35 years old are coming along, and they’ve grown up reading science fiction, noir novels, quote “literary novels” of all kinds, and they don’t have all these preconceptions. And science fiction is starting to become very seriously the literature of the present. The enormous scientific and technological developments of the last 20 years were such that what was science fiction in 1970 is now everyday life. Yesterday I re-read an interview of Spinrad–a good one in L’Autrejournal–and he said, “When I wrote JACK BARON AND THE ETERNITY in 1970, when I said that one day a president of the U.S. would be elected by the TV everyone laughed. Twelve years later there was Reagan, there was the Gulf War.”
Recently there was a book published by Patrick Raynal in La Noire [another crime series at Gallimard] called REALITY SHOW by Larry Beinhart. A great book, a quote “crime book,” that a few years ago would be a science fiction novel or speculative fiction with all its descriptions of the way the Gulf War was done and put together and manipulated by the U.S. Government and all the media manipulation. I think 20 years ago it wouldn’t be considered a crime novel.
Q: There’s a whole generation of young crime writers now of about the same age, people like Thiebaut, Benacquista, Reboux and yourself. What do you see as the cause of this?
A: It’s a little bit classic, every 20 years there’s a new generation that arrives.
Q: Well, is it also happening in the so-called literary novel in France?
A: I’m not the sort of person who spits on the so-called mainstream literary novel. There’s stuff that’s very interesting that’s getting published, but it remains marginal. The bulk of this kind of literary novel in France, nevertheless, remains today something that is more or less intimate, more or less autobiographical, everyone takes themselves for Virginia Woolf or Henry Miller. But not everyone is Virginia Woolf or Henry Miller. In the last 20-25 years French literature has lost interest in a certain number of problems or issues. (Aside from a few writers, whom I continue to follow, like Qualaferte. He’s a marginal, an outsider, who writes novels that are pretty dark, pretty hard, very incorrect.) The problem in France is that we’re in a very scholastic country. You have to enter into a box. The crime novel is identified by a black book cover in Serie Noire, or Rivages, or some similar cover that shows it is a thriller, and the science fiction novel is highly identifiable by the way it looks, and the literary novel has its little universe. And they all communicate very little with each other. I don’t have this problem, I don’t care.
Q: You do seem to be quite outside the rest.
A: I come from another planet. [Laughs.] I stopped my studies very quickly after three or four months at university and I grew up with the punk music generation.
Q: You were a punk musician yourself. What kind of music do you listen to?
A: I listen to old and new stuff. Eclectic. Rock, rap, techno.
Q: Is there something in the air for serial killer books? There have been a number of them recently. What do you attribute this to?
A: The character of the serial killer in crime literature is not so recent. But in the past 10 years or so there’ve been so many studies on the serial killer that maybe now we can see things more precisely and profoundly than we could 20, 30 years ago. We didn’t understand the phenomenon then as much. But in the last 20 years the FBI has set up studies and put in place a structure and analysis of the phenonmenon. And paradoxically, the serial killer is perhaps the last totally free individual in our society.
Q: Are you trying to write a “European” novel?
A: It’s always difficult to tell what one does on purpose or not. I did a road book in LA SIRENE ROUGE, and to have this sensation of a big wide open space I needed to use all of Europe. From Amsterdam to Portugal.
Q: Your books are very politically oriented. Why the fixation on Bosnia?
A: It’s like the American writers of the ’60s, ’70s. It was impossible for them to write without mentioning Vietnam. It touched their whole generation. But bizarrely, in the U.S. the problem was going to war. For us the problem is that we didn’t. It’s strange to say that, but it’s true. It’s as if the West has done all it could to fight all the wars they shouldn’t have fought, and didn’t fight the wars they should have fought.
Q: Peace has been signed now, and things appear to be finished in Bosnia.
A: I’m not very optimistic about the near future.
Q: Drugs have a prominent place in LES RACINES DU MAL. I take it you personally share the opinions of your characters who take them. You dedicate the book in part to THC.
A: Yes, they’re important in my life. All the movement in the ’60s around people like Timothy Leary, Huxley, that all influenced me a lot. All the things that they wrote about in, quote, “the artificial paradises.” And back to Philip K. Dick, who used those substances, and William Burroughs. It’s all practically part of my literary tradition. And aside from that I have a relationship–discourse–with drugs that is, like Leary said, “software; programs for the brain.” A program for the brain. One we don’t know really well how to use yet, but that is out there in nature.
Q: Personally I find drugs make me a little nuts.
A: I don’t have an angelic relationship with them! For me it’s evident that hallucinogenic drugs, like LSD, are not at all anondyne. I’m completely conscious that they’re, quote, “dangerous.” I mean, they have a very strong impact on the consciousness. But I don’t know any examples in human history of things that are not dangerous…that have served in human evolution. It’s more a problem of education. If these substances exist, it’s because they have a role to play in human development. But in the materialist western societies, they’re very afraid of that for many different reasons–that Leary already pointed out. I don’t proselytize about drugs either. I say they’re there, that they logically have a utility and that it’s about time we took a look at the problem.
Q: They may be part of the reason LES RACINES DU MAL is developing a kind of cult following.
A: True. It’s a big surprise for me. It is becoming a cult book.
Q: But you can still go out in the streets?
A: [Laughs.] I’m not a rock star. I haven’t been able to analyze all this yet. It has been noticeable that there are a lot of young guys, often younger than I am, who read my books, and who weren’t interested before that in crime literature. Maybe it’s because I put other things in my books, so maybe these young guys get into them because there are other doors into them than just the simple whodunit.
Q: You were also interviewed on prime time TV in September ’95. That must have helped.
A: Television is a bloody resonating box. My book really started to sell since I appeared on TV.
Q: You then published a short story in [the national establishment newspaper] Le Monde.
A: It was a thing done together by Le Monde and Serie Noire for the 50th anniversary of Serie Noire. I don’t know whose idea it was. It was very surprising since French newspapers are not in the habit of publishing fiction. And then, Le Monde is the big old institution of the French daily press. First it was surprising they did it with Serie Noire, but then even more surprising that they used a text of science fiction.
Q: When we think that your books sell 50,000 copies each in France, how many would that be for the U.S. in terms of a ratio of population?
A: We’re at the heart of the problem. The fact is that French literature is exporting with more and more difficulty. The French market is pretty small: it’s France, Switzerland, Belgium, Quebec, and some of Africa. So if you count just the first four that’s about 80 million. It’s not the North American market. So you have this first obstacle: a small market. Then you’ve got the problem that in the last 20 to 25 years the big publishing houses in France have been living on their laurels, on their past: the French literature that was the big literature of the end of the last century and beginning of this century, with the NRF, Gide and all that, the whole troop. Every year they sell thousands and thousands of books by Andre Gide, by Roman Rolland, or whoever.
In other words, I think the problem we’ve had for the last 20-25 years is that the French publisher has privileged the part of French national literature that is very autobiographical, very psychoanalytical, very intimate. I don’t know if it’s true, but I’d say that the American publishers probably got tired of it. Because it’s the kind of book that doesn’t interest anyone. There’s a certain inertia here that means that these books win prizes, but don’t get read. People buy them and put them on their bookshelves. But in the U.S. where the market is different, a book has to please the public. So maybe they said, “Well, the French, you know…they can’t write real novels anymore.” So little by little they let go of them. So today, for example, the books of the Serie Noire are generally not published in English. And I’m not even touching on science fiction here.
Q: What it may need is for one writer to come along to break down the barrier perhaps?
A: I’d like to be that person. Sure. But there are probably too many obstacles. I imagine that in the mind of the decision makers in the U.S. the image of French literature for the past 20-30 years is a literature that is either really intellectual, or really intimate. “Oh, the French, they’re romantics…”
Q: They really don’t know much beyond the Nouveau Roman?
A: There were some things that were interesting. Perec, for instance. But most of the gang, Arnaud, Alexandre Jardin, I think we probably tried to influence the Americans too much and said, “Here, this is great French literature…and this is what you must translate.” But for me, the General Motors car salesman in Kansas City, well the stories of Alexandre Desjardins…he couldn’t care less.
Incidentally, I’m going to be translated into Japanese. The Japanese translate everything from France. They’re insatiable. We’re not even translated–not systematically–into Spanish, Italian, or German. And we’re supposed to be building a Europe!
Q: I think it is probably true that if you publish in New York, you’re published everywhere.
A: You’ve got to be honest. It’s true that America dominates the world. Not just economically, but culturally. When I see the books that come to France, the uncorrected proofs, they’re already real books. There’s already a whole lot of work that has been done in the U.S. It’s not yet corrected, not yet ready, but it is already sent to a French publisher for consideration. Not for us. For a French writer to be susceptible to be published over there he has to have won the Prix Goncourt here, or sold 100,000 or 200,000 or 300,000 books.
Q: You use the suburbs extensively in your writing.
A: That takes us back to the French literature thing. I think that the literature of a nation is the image of the nation. I call our age the era of nostalgia: France is living on its glorious past. On the one hand there’s the charm of old Paris, and on the other, the charm of rural France. The nostalgia, the roots. That doesn’t interest me. I live in the banlieue [suburbs] and I see that half the population of France lives in the banlieue. There are no more peasants, and in the old towns, it’s only the old bourgeois who live there. Now, when I read American books, I saw that they weren’t afraid to set a book in, I don’t know, Des Moines, or some improbable town in the Midwest or some suburb where there’s nothing, three supermarkets, a K-Mart, a Texaco station. We live like that here, but no one talks about it. Or when we talk about the banlieue it’s always to talk about the social problems, to say, “Oh the poor adolescents.” The desire to write the reality isn’t there. We live on myths, nostalgia.
Q: You’re an Angry Young Man of the ’90s.
A: Yes. [Laughs.]