Brad Spurgeon's Blog

A world of music, auto racing, travel, literature, chess, wining, dining and other crazy thoughts….

François Guérif Photo ©Jean-Marie DAVID

François Guérif Photo ©Jean-Marie DAVID

This is the fourth in a series of Q&A interviews that I did 25 years ago and never published until now, in 2021. This one was again done for my article for The Armchair Detective magazine about the French crime writing scene of the 1990s. François Guérif was the editor of Rivages, which was one of the most important publishing houses for crime writing at that time, and right up until Guérif left his job there in 2017. So this interview, while old, is still relevant. The story of how Guérif discovered and published and then had a massive success with the American writer, James Ellroy, is one of the most interesting parts of this interview. In fact, there are many, many rich nuggets of information here about the links between the U.S. and French crime writing worlds that I had completely forgotten in the intervening quarter of a century…. In any case, here it is, untouched since 1996, the François Guérif interview May 96 – which like all of this collection it was conducted in French (and translated by me) – and which took place in his office at Rivages, Boulevard St. Germain.

Q: What American writers do the French like to read?

A: Charles Willeford, Jim Thompson, David Goodis. And I’m proud to say that I got Goodis’s career going again throughout the world. I called his agent and he would never give me any copies of THE MOON IN THE GUTTER, and OF TENDER SIN, I even did a collection of short stories that doesn’t exist in the U.S. (HOTEL BLEU), and the agent gave me only THE WOUNDED AND THE SLAIN, and I had to find by myself STREET OF THE LOST. All of the out of print novels of Goodis, I was the one who published them, and then they were made into films.

Q: Where did you work before you became editorial director of Rivages?

A: This is the fourth collection I’ve edited. And I’ve always tried to have a double approach with the Americans. In other words, publishing people who are not well known in France. With Charles Willeford for instance, curiously, and for me its a mystery, he was never published in France. He was published I think in America since 1948. So there’s this side to making the French discover these writers, these American writers. Then there’s the other side, which is to say all the writers who had been published in France already, years ago, and had been completely forgotten. A certain number of their books were never published here.

So that became my specialty for years, and that’s how I published about 20 books by Jim Thompson; HILL GIRL, by Charles Williams, that became a film, and that I published. The Goodis’s, as I said, Fredric Brown, people like that. William Burnett.

Q: I understand that James Ellroy is the locamotive of your collection?

A: The motor of the collection, the thing that made the collection take off. Ellroy I received through his agent. I discovered later that it had been sent to all the French publishers and been rejected everywhere. I read BLOOD ON THE MOON, and that really got me enthusiastic. I found that he had a way of talking about violence that was very different. I found that it was a book that was anchored in…there’s always a certain amount of nostalgia in certain American novels, the PIs, people like that. I thought this was someone completely modern. It was a “voice” that was different. I bought three titles, and it was a big risk for the house at the time. If it didn’t work, it might have meant that the house wouldn’t exist anymore.

An incredible thing happened. At first the book kind of upset readers. I learned afterwards that Série Noire had rejected the book saying it was too American. Then for about a month the book wasn’t talked about, didn’t move. Then I had an incredible bit of luck. I was friends with Jean-Patrick Manchette, who is still today the best writer of the 1970s in France and who created what we call the neo-polar. Almost all the young writers today praise him. So he is the father of the neo-polar and best writer of his generation. And he stopped writing in 1981. He was a mythic figure, who sort of didn’t come out of hiding.

And I was speaking to Manchette and he said to me in the course of the conversation, “I just read an incredible book–BLOOD ON THE MOON. Do you have many more like that?”

I said, “I’m glad you like it, but no one’s talking about it.”

So then when Libération [daily newspaper] learned this, they asked Manchette to do the review of the book. And he did. And the day the review appeared, the book…it was really, that was the kick-off. And it has never ended. That was in 1987. Every year I say to myself, well James, now he’s reached the limits. But no. It continues. And with all the books. Each year there are 10,000 copies sold of each title.

And Ellroy is a wonderful guy. We met and he’s been incredibly loyal. We’re a small house. And he was instantly recognized by the French press as a very important writer. He’s one of those that, when they write about his books, they don’t publish it in the crime novels column. You know how it is in France, the little crime column. He was covered by all the newspapers, interviewed, and when he became very important, of course, bigger publishing houses came along with bigger offers. It’s normal that these propositions came along. And James said, publicly, that he wanted to stay with me because I’m the one who made him known in France. And his agent, Nat Sobel, said he wanted to stay with me too, and that was very generous of them. Of course, I think we did our work, because Ellroy sells extraordinarily well in France. I think in grand format [equivalent of hard cover] we’ve sold 70,000 copies of “American Tabloid.” It’s a complicated book.

Q: So what other American writers do you particularly like?

A: Marc Behm is an American who is not published in America. But his books are translated from American. He’s a screen writer. He was co-writer of CHARADE–with Carey Grant and Audrey Hepburn. He came with the American army for the 1944 landing but he stayed in France. He lives here and he’s had a few books published in America.

He had EYE OF THE BEHOLDER. It was a scenario he wrote for Charlton Heston, Philip Yorda had asked for it. Heston didn’t like it. So the film wasn’t made. Behm transformed the scenario into a book. It was published in Série Noire under the title MORTELLE RANDONNEE. Michel Audiard bought the rights and it became a film. The funniest thing is that now, the Americans have bought the rights to the re-make. And now the film is coming out in the U.S., and so probably will the book.

For us Marc’s an American writer, but of the last four books we published of his, none were published in the U.S. He tries to sell them there, but apparently it doesn’t interest them. Three are set in the U.S. The last was set partly in France. He has a public in France. They’re very original books. They’re a cross between fantasy and crime novels. His character is a kind of headhunter, mercenary. He’s in the universe of the noir novel, but he’s one of Lucifer’s angels who comes to collect souls. So there’s a mixture there, with lots of humour. He’s impossible to classify.

Another writer like this who is not published in the U.S. is Jim Nisbet. His three first books were published there, but not the last two.

And I was the first to buy WILD AT HEART. I had published PORT TROPIQUE by Barry Gifford, and he sent me the manuscript of WILD AT HEART. It had no publisher in America at the time and I bought it.

Then Barry Gifford wrote me and said, “You won’t believe this, but they want to make a film.”

At first it was Monty Montgomery who wanted to make it in black and white with unknown actors–the new wave in France–but then, while Montgomery was going on the airplane to the set where they were filming “Twin Peaks,” David Lynch said to him, “Hey, do you have anything to read?” Montgomery said, “I have this manuscript.” And Lynch read it and said, “That’s going to be my next film.”

What’s interesting in my American approach is that frequently, it’s my authors who send me other authors. Gifford sent me Nisbet. Gifford said that he came to France and when he saw the books by Thompson here, he said myabe they could do the same thing in the U.S., and that’s how he created Black Lizard Press. He’s a fanatic of them. I discovered Charles Willeford because Jan Willem Van de Wetering sent me MIAMI BLUES, saying, “Have you read this?”

There’s a family resemblance between the writers in a way. Not that they write the same thing, but that they have the same interests, the same stylistic touch perhaps. I discovered later that Charles Willeford, who was the crime reviewer for the Miami Herald, was crazy about Robin Cook, for example. He said, “I don’t know who this Derek Raymond is, but if there are other books by this guy, if he has other books of this kind, he’s one of the great writers.”

Q: Are there writing cliques in France? Little bickering groups?

A: No. It’s more like writers who say the same things, who have the same preoccupations. For me, for instance, what I’m interested in above all is style in writing. It wouldn’t interest me to publish John Richard [?uncertain of the name?]. And he’s a best seller, so of course I’d be happy about that. His stories are well told, but I don’t hear an individual voice. What interests me is the work of the writing. And all these writers, Robin Cook, Ellroy, Nisbet, Barry Gifford, they all have this thing in common.

For the groups? We cross paths occasionally. As I said, since I’ve published all these out-of-print books by these great American writers, they were all already discovered the first time by the Série Noire 30-40 years ago. All the first Goodis, all the Thompsons. But they didn’t publish all their works, and I find that to be wrong. So there’s this family side to it. I’d say I’m continuing the Série Noire spirit, but as it was several years ago. Notably Elmore Leonard, Donald Westlake…I don’t know why they stopped him, but too bad. Marc Behm too. They started publishing him.

Q: This is rare in France. I’ve noticed writers here tend to be published in several different houses.

A: I think it’s bad for the writer to be published all over the place . Because people can’t figure it out anymore. I’ve been publishing Elmore Leonard since GET SHORTY. I told the agent at one moment that I didn’t want to do him anymore because he’s in Série Noire, he’s in Le Masque, in Presses de la Cité, in Belfond. People come up to one of his books and they say, “Oh I must have read that one,” and they don’t buy it.

Since I’m the kind of guy who likes to go all the way, when I publish a writer I follow him all the way. And that’s what’s important also in the collection. I published Jonathan Latimerí DARK MEMORY because it was the latest book by him, but was not a crime novel. I published MORT AU COIN DE LA RUE by David Goodis, even though it wasn’t at all a crime novel either. I published OF TENDER SIN and that wasn’t a crime novel. But it didn’t bother anyone. Because these are writers, after all.

This is what bothers me about crime collections. They say, “Oh, this one is a crime novel, so we’ll publish it.” And then they say, “What’s he trying to do here?” And they don’t publish it. I find that stupid. That’s how I published the lost works of Jim Thompson. I treat them like writers because they are writers. So their complete oeuvre interests me. I had to fight in the beginning because they didn’t publish NOW AND EARTH by Jim Thompson because it isn’t a crime novel, but I find it to be his best novel. So I published it and no one said to me, “Hey you’re crazy.”

Q: I find that the crime novel is taken much more seriously in France than in the U.S.

A: It’s true that over the past few years there’s been a recognition of the crime novel. Ellroy and Hillerman helped this enormously. Ellroy with AMERICAN TABLOID, where all of the newspapers, all the weeklies, and news magazines wrote about it. And not little tiny articles. Le Nouvel Observateur did three pages, L’Express 3 pages, Telerama, Le Monde, Le Figaro, Le Figaro Litteraire, Paris Match, Les Cahiers du Cinema. It was extraordinary. And the same thing with Hillerman. When we published THIEF OF TIME, it came out in the cultural pages of Le Monde.

It’s true that today there’s a recognition. And it’s a bit of an old French tradition. Ellroy knows this and likes it, that the French recognized the early Dashiell Hammett, Horace McCoy, and people like that. People like Albert Camus wrote that Horace McCoy was great. And James Cain too. THE POSTMAN ONLY RINGS TWICE was published in Gallimard and he was received by people like André Gide and the people of the NRF, and they said he was really a great writer. Ellroy knows this. And he’s very proud of it.

Q: Well, let’s talk a little about French writers now. We’ve spoken primarily of your American writers, because they are your specialty. What about the French writers of today?

A: I also have a German writer, a Mexican – Paco Ignacio Taibo II -, I’ve just published a Cuban writer, Daniel Chavarria. I have a Scotsman, William McIlvanney, I published a Swede, Svensson, and a Japanese woman.

In the beginning I didn’t do the French because the editorial landscape of the crime novel in France changes often. When I started the collection, my number 17 was a French writer that didn’t work. And people said to me, “Why do you do what other people do, and others don’t do what you do?”

In the beginning when the collection started, Série Noire published a lot of French writers. There was a collection at Denoel called Sueurs Froides–that still exists–and that published lots of French writers. Le Masque published lots of French writers. Livre de Poche. French writers were everywhere. It doesn’t interest me to do what everyone else does. It doesn’t interest me to go and try to steal a writer from the competition, or to do one here, one there. So I said at the time, I’d be happy to do some French writers, but only if they come to me.

In otherwords, I wanted to have MY French writers. And I found that the editorial landscape changes quickly, and lots of houses have disappeared, and Patrick Raynal took over the job at Série Noire, and he got rid of a lot of writers to have his own. Denoel slowed down a lot, Le Masque published fewer French, and certain collections disappeared–like Engrenage, that specialized in French writers.

I also found the French crime novel, between 1980-1990 approximately–aside from a few writers–went through a difficult period. It was a difficult time because they all imitated Manchette, without having understood the lesson of Manchette. Manchette had introduced politics into the crime novel. These were books with a social message. So all of a sudden there were a bunch of writers who thought that having a social message was the most important thing.

So there were a whole series of novels with always the same stories: Frequently it was the same setting, the banlieue, and we fell into all sorts clichés and stereotypes, and they said, “the Polar is the Polaroid.” That is, a photo of society. But Manchette never said that. On the contrary he said you work on the text. On the contrary, what was interesting, was often to start with a banal situation and to make something interesting out of it.

So, I think that what’s interesting today is that today’s generation, the one that came afterwards, like Dantec, has digested the lesson of Manchette and has not made the same errors of the preceding generation. And I think today a completely new generation is here that is sharing the same preoccupations of that older generation, that is to say: Writing.

It’s true that since a little over a year I’ve been publishing about one [French writer] a month. I got Tonino Benacquista from the Série Noire, who is a wonderful writer. Marc Menard, because they don’t publish his short stories apparently elsewhere. Jean-Hughes Oppel, who left the Série Noire. Marc Menneville who had never published before. Jean-Jacques Busino, who had never published. Ellen Couturier who had nver published. Pascal Dessaint who had just published a book at a small publisher.

And it’s true that I’m starting to have a very interesting stable of French writers. I also have this wonderful writer, Tobie Nathan, who is psychiatrist director of the Centre Georges-Devereux. Who is the illustrator of ethno-psychiatry who wanted to express his theories through a crime novel. We’ve published two of them.

Yes, there’s an interest shown by the readers. And the agreeable surprise is that a lot of the books I’ve published have been turned into films. Which not only brings more money to the writers and the publisher, but makes them better known.

Q: Can you tell us a little more about your beginnings?

A: I started in 1978 with a collection called Red Label. The four first titles were, a REAL CHILDREN by Fredric Brown, Robert Bloch’s FIREBUG, THE MAGICIAN’S WIFE, James Cain, and the WOUNDED AND THE SLAIN, David Goodis. Red Label was a small publisher that went out of business. I then went to Fayard and that’s where I published THE MOON IN THE GUTTER, BEHOLD THE WOMAN, by David Goodis, THE CRIMINAL and THE KILL-OFF of Jim Thomson. Then Fayard stopped.

And that’s why I say the landscape changes a lot. I found myself at Fleuve Noire, in a collection called Engrenage International, where I also published Jim Thompson, etc. The thing that wasn’t great at Fayard and Fleuve Noire is that these were people who published crime novels, but they could have published anything else. It wasn’t really something that they were especially interested in. I was lucky when Rivages came looking for me, because, well, they make beautiful books, and they gave me the funds I needed. We’re celebrating our 10 anniversary this year.

It was a small regional publisher based in Marseille, specializing in tourist guide books. Two cousins directed it, and they wanted to develop it, and they created a branch in Paris. And when they created this branch, they started by creating the foreign literature collection, Alison Lurie, David Lodge, etc. And then right after that, Rivages Noire. And thanks to James Ellroy I could create the Rivages Thriller. Because that way, in a pocket book, when you buy a big expensive book with the cost of translation and all the rest of it, it doesn’t really pay for itself. And in pocket books at the time there weren’t really any collections in an expensive edition like this in the French market. They always had the idea that apart from the best sellers like John le Carré and that, everything that was mystery must be in a cheap pocket book edition. So it was a risk too, and the first two writers in the collection were Robin Cook and Ellroy.

Q: There’s also a collection devoted to lighter mysteries, that you direct, no?

A: Rivages Mystery is a collection I do with Claude Chabrol. Our idea is not to be in competition with Le Masque, the big house of mystery with Agatha Christie and all that. Claude Chabrol has an incredible memory, and he’s read it all, all the styles. And it’s true that there are novels that fall through the net that are classics in England or in America and were never published here. But they’re always sort of curiosities, for example the book that was the original for “Drole de Drame,” the film of Marcel Carme, an English book that’s great. And we just published THE CASQUE of Freeman Wills Croft from 1912. I like it because there are very important mysteries that are not at all Rivages Noire. But we put out fewer of them and take our time with them.

Q: Tell us a little bit about the review you edit, “Polar.”

A: “Polar” has been through several periods. The first period was when it started in 1979, and it was a monthly. But it was smaller and came out on the newsstands. There were 21 issues. The second version was born at a small publishers, who wanted it to continue, and it became trimestrial. Then we took it over here again.

I stand behind it. I know we lose money with it, but I stand behind it because it’s an instrument of work, it’s all sorts of things. It’s surprising because in “Polar” in 1979 we had an interview of Jonathan Latimer who was still alive. We had an interview with William Riley Burnett. So it has always been the same principle: Each issue being about either a theme or a writer, with a complete bibliography…a maximum of information. There are short stories too. It’s funny. When I visited the Mystery Writers of America a few years ago, people gave me short stories. Lawrence Block just gave me a short story! That’s extraordinary. Gregory Mcdonald wrote a short story for us. I don’t think it will be published in the U.S. I hope the review will continue. It’s a job that is not exactly charity, but the review doesn’t bring in any money. We sell about 1,000 copies. But the Ellroy number sold 4,000 copies. That’s precisely the Ellroy thing.

Powered by
%d bloggers like this: