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Jean-Hugues Oppel

Jean-Hugues Oppel

Jean-Hugues Oppel is a prolific author of French crime fiction who began his life working on cinema sets – as you will see in the interview below – but who published his first novel already at the age of 25 in 1983 at the famous Série Noire publishing house, and his latest one in 2019. He has also written many works for young people. His novel “Six-Pack” was made into a major film, and he himself has written scenarios. I met Jean-Hugues on several occasions and ended up working on a translation of one of his short stories, which was later used as a radio play on the BBC. When we were both invited to the great mystery festival of Paco Ignacio Taibo II in Spain in 1997, I decided to take the opportunity to interview him at a down moment, in order to later use the interview for several different articles I wrote. But here, for the first time, I am finally putting up the entire interview on this blog as part of the series I did in the 1990s on the French crime novel. The interview took place in July 1997 in Gijon, Spain, at the Semana Negra festival grounds on the terrace of the Official Restaurant. It was probably between about 6 and 7 in the evening, but it felt like the morning, as the activities of the day had not really begun. (Oppel had gone on an excursion to a nearby town earlier in the day.) We drank a couple of beers. It was the Friday, and he had been there since the Monday.

Q. Let’s start by talking about Semana Negra.

A. The keyword is “generosity.” The keyword is “blossoming.” A “flowering” of everything. Between the books, the roundtables, the bandstands, the amusement park, the fries stands. It’s really an explosion of humanity in every sense of the term. It’s not only about books, but it has them as the base. And one shouldn’t be naive about it either: there are people who come only to eat sausages and take rides and who won’t look at the books. But it’s good that these things co-habit, and that it’s not closed off. And it’s perhaps a cliche to say so, but there’s that Spanish side to it where nothing starts before five o’clock in the evening. And that ends very late [laughs]. It’s true that I think the Spanish cultural atmosphere has a large influence on it all. So I think it’s pretty logical, this sort of “flowering” this sort of human warmth. I think if we had a black week in Sweden…we’d have another kind of human warmth. A different pitch.

Q. I noticed there are a lot of titles of books here published in Spanish by writers who are also published in France: Charyn, Manchette, Behm, Taibo of course. It sort of looks like there might be a common spirit between Spain and France. These are authors who are not really well known in North America. I wonder if it’s a connection between countries, between the writing spirit, or a business connection?

A. I’m not a specialist, I’m not a sociologist, or a political expert. So it’s really a personal opinion. We have some writers in common, but I’m sure if you go into a bookstore, you’re going to find some North American writers in common in Spain in France in Belgium and in Germany. Because I have the impression that the Europeans are much more open to everyone than North Americans. There’s an economic side to things, whether it be books, cinema, and the arts, culture in general. American protectionism exists; we mustn’t mask our eyes. The preservation of the hegemony of the soi-disant American culture. Having said that, if we go and eat a hamburger and drink a Coke and watch American idiocies on the television, then it’s what we deserve. It’s true that it terrorises me. I was at a festival of television commercials, and there were also films of public announcements and things like that, and I remember a Canadian film. The commentary was in English. It was very simple. It was a grandfather, an old man, who spoke with his son–his grandson, with the little baseball hat turned around backwards–and the grandfather spoke in a French-Canadian French, joual, a very typical character, and he looked at him with big surprised eyes because he spoke only in English. And the point of the ad was: “It takes many generations to make a culture; and it sometimes only takes one to destroy it.” And that’s a little what I feel, and what I’d like to say — and I’m not the only one — and what we defend in our writing. At the same time what we write in our own mental universe, in our imaginary world, and in accepting also all the other imaginary worlds. So while there’s a similitude among writers in Europe, it seems pretty logical to me. On the other hand, I’m pretty surprised by the small number of quote “foreign” authors here [at the festival]. Having said that, I’m not sure we translate a lot of Spanish authors in France. A few of them, so I think we can make the same criticism in both directions. Well, that there is a possibility of a culture, yes, in the sense that we’re…not European in the sense of the Treaty of Maastricht…but we’re European in the geographical sense, in the cultural sense, and we have, unlike the Americans, some 2000 years of history of cohabitation that has not always been the best fraternal relations behind us, so it’s pretty logical that exchanges happen between neighbours.

Q. All right, now more directly on your writing. You wrote your first book, “Canine et Gunn” (1983), with a collaborator, a friend. You’ve said it was a little just for fun.

A. It was a parody, but serious. That is, “in the manner of….” But all the elements of the crime novel–of the Série Noire and the authors that we liked at the time, were in it–principally, Manchette, and Claude Klotz–who did the “Reiner” series. And the parody was more on the side of Klotz than Manchette. On the crime novel and the classic situations and such, it was funny, but at the same time, very black, and I’d say, brutal. So it was a kind of game. We wanted to make a series out of it. “Le Poulpe,” before its time. We wrote it 1982. We had the idea to create a hero and a heroine…and as it always worked in couples, we looked for the archetypes of the crime novel, as Pouy did when he created the Poulpe. And we changed the typical idea. Princess Alexandra in SAS is brown haired, so we made her blonde, like Cheryl who is blonde [in Le Poulpe]. The hero would be a heroine. There’d be a couple, and a dog. And the idea behind the series was that you didn’t know if she and her dog slept together. There’s always allusions to it…. So, she knows how to use arms, can drive cars well, etc. The hero, classic, typical. A title with a pun, preferably horrible. And we wanted to do a series like that. The puns would play on titles of classic works, turned into jokes. So that was the first, and it was at the same time a parody, but also an homage. It wasn’t to thumb our noses up at the Série Noire, or to say that anyone can do that. It was serious. It was playing a little with the myths. It had a parody side to it, but it said things that were, I wouldn’t say poetically important, but looking back over my personal oeuvre, it’s a book that I’ll never renounce.

Q. Why did you turn to crime writing? Your first career, your training, was in cinema.

A. It was because with Philippe Dorison, my classmate at school [with whom he wrote Canine et Gunn], we went to cinema school together. That’s where we met. We liked the same things, whether it be cinema, books, or pure malts. So we did all our cinema studies together, all our first films together, we were very complimentary. And we were not, in the spirit of French cinema, on the side of the film d’auteur, getting big-headed, to be nasty, and caricatural. We really wanted more to, not make big crappy things, the question wasn’t there, but…my example for cinema was more Bertrand Tavernier than Eric Rohmer. Or the Sidney Lumet of many years ago. I’m thinking of “The Chase,” of Arthur Penn. That was more the kind of cinema I wanted to do. And so it was normal that we ended up at the crime story. Because it is telling a story, entertainment–which is not a pejorative word–without losing sight of the fact that while doing that we can get something across…. Denounce…and I don’t really like the word denounce, but rather, reveal. I think of “Un Homme est Passé,” by John Sturges, that is “Bad Day at Black Rock.” It’s wonderful because it’s entertainment, but at the same time it tells the story of the small American town. This kind of little dump in the middle of nowhere. The racism, the meanness of the people, the class relationships, and the social relationships, and all of this in an entertaining show. And it’s what we’re seeing less and less of these days. And this is where we see that the hegemony of the American culture is working well, in that we’re in the middle of losing an entire piece of the landscape of the imagination. That is, on the side of dream and entertainment. With us in France whether it be in cinema or in books. So it was logical that Philippe and I decided to go into writing crime books. It was exactly the place to tell the stories I wanted to tell. And I really talk about the crime story in the widest sense. I write books that are very different from one another. And I’m thinking of other writers who cover the range of crime books from thriller to suspense to the more traditional police procedural.

Q. So you wrote this book, and then what did you do with it? You just sent it to the Série Noire?

A. Exactly. It was Robert Soulat at the time [the editor]. And he answered very quickly and said, “I really enjoyed it, I like it a lot and I’ll take it.”

Q. Now, the second novel came a long time afterwards.

A. A long time after.

Q. The published book.

A. Yes, because we continued with the series, we did two more. But it didn’t work. Soulat said, “I really enjoyed it once, but I didn’t enjoy it the second time. I don’t want to have the rest of it.” So we proposed it elsewhere and no one wanted it. So it died. And at the same time I was writing science fiction. That didn’t work either. So then, finally it was in 1987, because it came out in 1988, seeing that science fiction didn’t work, I thought, well crime fiction after all…. My science fiction manuscripts always had a crime story in them. So I went back to the crime story, and since it worked, I continued. The second book was “Barjot!” and it came out in 1988. There was a small period of nothing, because I had problems in my private life. And then things started up again in 1990. I started to write again, and “Zaune” came out in 1991. And I’ve been writing about a book a year on average.

Q. Who took “Zaune”?

A. Soulat also, as with “Barjot!”. I did the first one at the Série Noire and so it was natural that I’d send the others there, it went without saying.

Q. Was there a moment when you feel your writing flowered, became more interesting? Or do you see it all as having gone along a natural progression?

A. I think it’s a constant evolution. Even since “Canine et Gunn”…but we’ll have to put that one aside since there were two of us, and it’s true that the writing was more a mixture. But from the first and through what followed, I would say it’s an evolution. Because, really, you work, you discover things, you explore different tracks. For me, too, with each book I change. It’s not a series character, so there’s no on-going story. There’s a relative variety of themes. I think too that each story generates its own style, its manner of telling the story for the equation between subject and form. The classic debate. So each time you mark a different stage of development. There are stories that you just have no idea how they came about, but that really come about because we’ve taken the next step. My next book, for example, is a salvaged one. The order of their appearance has nothing to do with the order of their writing. I worked on it all last winter. Going completely crazy, because I had picked it up again after five years away from it. And there were some bad things that I hadn’t seen, and that happens to everyone. There were other things that had no reason being there, as I’d already done them elsewhere. But at the time I did this manuscript, I had not already done them – the book to come, and two others that had come out that hadn’t yet been written. So at each stage things change and we discover new ways of exploration. And we have read different kinds of books too that open our minds and feed us. You know, you say, “Hey this guy…that’s a neat way to do that thing….” “How can I integrate into my own little cooking…” And this is not plagiarism or copying. It’s a mutual enrichment. There are things you don’t think about, but that you can discover in reading someone else.

Q. T.S. Eliot said that bad poets borrow, good poets steal.

A. It’s a little like that…I’m a real thief. And when I say thief, it’s thief in the good sense of the term. Let’s face it, the subjects of a story, the base of the story, since the moment that man started telling stories in his village, well, there aren’t 350 different stories to tell. Once we’ve written about love, vengeance, hate…. But what’s interesting is how each time one re-visits the thing, there are those…and I don’t pretend to have a monstrous talent…I’d say rather that as a reader and as a writer I make discoveries, like someone who revisits a story that is very banal and very classic, you may suddenly have a new way of seeing it. We find that with Fred Vargas in France, for example, who writes books that are completely classic in their structure. (Not in the imaginary side to them.) She doesn’t write hardboiled books in the manner of Ellroy, that’s clear. But in the classical structure that I’d almost want to call Agatha Christie-like. Which, in fact, is not quite true. But in the cosy style, she has a new manner to write these things. And so we discover something that I hadn’t yet read before. As a funny experiment, I just started to read a Harry Crews last night before going to bed. It just came out recently. But in reading the first three chapters, I thought [whistles], things haven’t evolved much since Charles Williams. But in fact, in looking at the copyright: 1968. So it makes sense. That’s why it’s written in an old style. I thought it came out in 1995, and I thought if that’s the new American crime story….they haven’t really understood everything. But when I saw the first copyright and saw it was the end of the 1960s, it made sense.

Q. There’s something pretty classic in what you do too. More particularly in BROCELIANDE SUR MARNE than in SIX PACK. SIX PACK is fairly classic in its genre, but what I mean is that when I read BROCELIANDE SUR MARNE, there were moments when I thought it was really very classic in the sense of Simenon. It’s a story, a fairly simple plot, but really in today’s world. And it’s very absorbing. But I’d say you prefer much more stories that are traditional rather than experimental. I don’t know.

A. You shouldn’t make affirmative phrases. How am I supposed to answer? You’ve got to put a question mark there somewhere. Now, I admit what you’ve said completely. I won’t say that I’m asking for it. Each person does what he wants to do. But I admit to being classic. But when I say classic, that doesn’t mean old or old fashioned. I have a vision, it’s my nature, that’s the way I feel it. I always have a problem with cinema, because it’s more a speaking medium, in the modern world we have not all read the same books, but we’ve all seen the same images. I’ll give you a recent example. “Independence Day,” this kind of madness, mariachi, for me that has no interest. Someone like Beineix, more than Luc Besson, the Doberman in France, this sort of thing. So what sort of images can we invent? They do everything and anything with their images. And I think in books there are things like that too. The most wonderful stories that I’ve read are, it’s true, simple. We’re not obliged to invent abracadabra situations to do something in a way we’ve never done before. Take the first 10 minutes of the film “Strangers On A Train,” (L’Inconnu du Nord Express of Hitchcock). How to be the most efficacious possible? It’s not in using a zoom shot in every sense imaginable. The situation itself is strong enough: the people are sitting in a train and you’re following them in a hallway … frame by frame we hear what they have to say. They’re talking about a murder. It’s really something that’s…you don’t have to put the camera in an ashtray, etc. It’s also a little like talk shows on television. People discussing. Someone who talks, and who talks well, I’ll listen to him with the camera flat on his face. There’s no need to have fancy camera angles…you know, like certain programs where they’ve got a close-up, a far-away shot, a shoulder angle…. Certain programs, as soon as they do a studio shot they get scared. The classic one: someone sitting at piano, we’ll turn around it. In literature it’s the same sort of thing, in the sense of, going out to try to find a way to torture the phrases or to fool around with what we haven’t done before. What I want to say is, do it simply. We tend to think of simplicity as poverty. That’s not true. If the subject is strong enough, if the situation is good enough, it’s not necessary to hit your head against the wall. Or else, create something. A complicated situation. As I said, each story will generate its own style. And you have to find an adequate form. An example from recent cinema is “Usual Suspects.” (Bryan Singer.) That has a really torturous and Machiavellian scenario. But that is also the essence of the story. It’s telling us a story that is torturous and Machiavellian. And he adapts perfectly his manner of filming to his subject matter. The manner of filming is in fact relatively simple, it’s the construction of the film that is very, very elaborate.

Q. On the other hand, when you watch certain films by, say Goddard, from the 1960s, you don’t see anything except the weird movements of the camera. You say, “Ah! He’s doing something new and weird and different now.” But you only see the movements, and you don’t see the story.

A. Goddard is the prime example of the experimental filmmaker. But he doesn’t make his experiments with banal situations. And that’s the error that a lot of young filmmakers do today. And also young writers. They think they’re experimenting, but in fact they’re writing about situations that are so banal it’s hallucinogenic. That is, for example, like someone who goes out and buys a newspaper and goes into the bistro and buys a cafe crème. It’ll be filmed in 14 different angles and a camera that’s running around everywhere. A guy like Peter Greenaway, really invents something. The question is not whether we like it or don’t like it, but his themes and subjects are perfectly in harmony with his style.

Q. When I spoke to Francois Guérif, he said that the period of the 1970s and 1980s in France was a very difficult time for the French crime novel. He said that after Manchette and the 1968 cultural revolution, as it were, Manchette put politics and the social side into the crime novel, and that afterwards everyone thought they were obliged to put politics into the crime novel. He said that was not Manchette’s message at all, in fact, and that the young writers had missed the point. He said Manchette’s message was really, you start with a small situation and you make a story out of it. It seems to me that in your books there is nevertheless–particularly in “Broceliande sur Marne” and “Ambernave”–a pretty strong social message. In “Broceliande sur Marne” it’s a town that’s losing its character, its citizens, its history, etc., because the big developers are coming and buying it out and remaking it. It’s a similar situation in “Ambernave”–like Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men”–and there’s a similar theme, but the way you describe the town it is through glasses that are NOT rose-tinted. There’s a socio-political side that is very strong to your work.

A. A moral point of view. The example that you give is good. I don’t know, I never met Manchette. I don’t know if we understood him or not. But one thing is certain: when he arrived, he threw a monkey wrench into the works. He said, “We’re going to stop writing stories about delinquants in Pigalle. We’re going to stop writing fake American novels. We’ve got material to write about.” When he said, “tell stories,” it’s also saying, “having a moral point of view.” That is, seeing. That is, we live in a world, in a society, take a look at it, and we’ll find stories. Now, what I add myself, is “education through fiction,” in quotes. Let the journalists do their job. Let non-fiction writers do their work. And for us, novelists, tell stories that are suffering and strength. Because Manchette also always spoke of style, he always spoke about the manner of writing. There’s that too, though it’s been forgotten now. Many have forgotten it, and I’d say it’s vital. A book is first of all an entertainment item. I mean a book of fiction. We read a newspaper to keep informed, we read a non-fiction book to learn things and have certain references, but we read fiction as an object of pleasure. And that too is vital and important and not demeaning. Manchette is not the first. I always cite the example of Victor Hugo. It’s literature, it takes a point of view, and politically it says something. Socially too. All that along with the pleasure of the words. Because the guy had talent. And that’s what Manchette brought back to center stage.

I wouldn’t put it quite the way Guérif does. I’d say he was followed really up until 1981. And it’s true there’s a break in 1981, in the French hardboiled novel, in any case. Because you find yourself in the situation where the good guys won. [The leftist party of Francois Mitterrand came to power.] So what are we going to write about now? But in fact, we’d made a mistake. Because, precisely that. Some people took the message — I started writing a little later than that — some took Manchette’s message to the letter: politics + social = the left. So then when the left came to power, “What can we write about now?” But in fact, that’s not what he wanted to say. With the political engagement in France we always have a tendency to say, “Either there’s no political engagment so it’s purely escapism; or if there’s a political engagement, then it is automatically an engagement on the left.” There are writers on the right. Even crime writers on the right, or even the extreme right. Who have a perfectly clear political engagement, that is very far from my own. And who defend their thesis through literature. And once again, I want to say that this is not the analysis of an expert, but my belief as a reader, writer, and spiritual son of Manchette. He said you should remain vigilant and awake and not take the reality out of our stories, as it has been done more and more and is continuing to be done by the general literature. It’s a little bit like that, and what is being caricatured in the sitcom and soap-operas. It’s really the Beverly Hills of Santa Barbara that is really…there are no poor people in the streets, etc., etc. Some writers took it so literally that it became a caricature. That is, books that are only political manifestos, that are tracts. With no literary point of view. We can’t attack them on what they say. We can’t attack someone who says racism isn’t good.

Q. Of course, of course.

A. The question isn’t there. But there are people who say the same thing with obvious talent. And the example that I like to use, because for me it’s the essence of the noir novel, is “Of Mice And Men,” by Steinbeck. It’s exactly that: a piece of fiction that is a pleasure to read, a very psychological adventure about two characters, but with 180 pages, that says about twelve thousand times more about the Great Depression of 1929 than every issue put together of the Herald Tribune of that same year. (To be nasty.) But this is precisely because he put his story in a socio-politico-eonomical setting that automatically affects the life of the characters. And I took on this same sort of thing in “Broceliande sur Marne” where my heroine — in both senses of the word — [the heroine is a heroin addict] drug addict, and infected with AIDS and whatnot, but who doesn’t give up because she has a job as a saleswoman in a clothing store. And she wants to keep the job because it’s the final barrier against total desolation. It’s in a world that makes sense. Life changes in the book because there are the building promoters making deals. They’re making deals that send people out of the area.

When you write, you cannot not be interested in what you’re writing about. And let’s face it, I’m not going to hide my personal political beliefs. As soon as you start writing crime novels, and you start becoming interested in crimes, you’re obliged to be interested in why there are crimes. And I take it in the very large sense of the term: it’s true the big real estate boom of the 1990s in France was absolutely scandalous. It completely changed towns. Even Paris has changed. There are no longer any little people, the poor are always pushed outside, creating ghettos that are absolutely horrendous. And from what I can see in certain reports from the U.S., this sort of closed-off town that is only inhabited by old retired people who are rich and with private servants…it’s unbelievable. That can only lead to a catastrophe. Because one day it’s going to be these people who live on an island who will be taken seige by the hungry. It’s clear.

With “Ambernave,” which takes place in a port town, I cannot not talk about the ship-building grounds. And if you talk about shipbuilding grounds when you write a story today, you are obliged to talk about Korean shipbuilding grounds, where they make boats, or about the situation of the French dockers. And without falling into being black and white about it, French dockers are not angels. And also about the monoply of hiring, and the defence of workers’ rights, and whatnot. And when I talk about questions of crime, I did “Six-Pack” also to get out a book that talked about this crime that may be explained socially and economically.

With the theme of the serial killer we pass into another area with peope who have most of them had a very serious psychological problem, but not all of them. It’s not just because capitalism is a lousy system that there are serial killers. There we’re touching on the human being as he is. It’s human. And I want to say that too. But on the other hand, guys who go mad and who get a gun and start shooting people from the top of a tower, it’s because the tower was built, there’s nothing more in the area, there’s no commerce, there’s no food, sure, we see the explanation.

But there are also other territories we can explore. Now, I write about that because I want to talk about it. Not in a denunciation, or a tract, but to say that that exists. And these are the stories that are the strongest, because they are anchored in a reality that can feed the imagination. As a reader I can read things that are totally horrendous, and it’s difficult, but I didn’t invent anything. In a totally different realm I can say that the theater of Shakespeare talks about politics. The theater of Molière too. That we have forgotten. Now, street theater is about the man whose wife cheats on him and he’s thrown in the closet. And we laugh. But even with that I’m sure we can make some very wonderful shows. In France it’s a bit difficult, I know. I went and saw TRADING PLACES (Un Fauteuil Pour Deux) that’s a funny film, and it speaks about the rich, and the poor too. You have a good time without becoming brainless.

Q. So now with your next book you’re changing styles again?

A. The basic idea is the phenomenon of sects. But it’s not an exploration of a single sect. At the center of the book, I was a little bit ahead of the times five or six years ago, when that was starting to be felt in the air, and it really exploded afterwards. But again, I think it’s important to say certain things. And where I’d be militant, without trying really to teach a lesson, but where I want to say something, is about things where I hear nothing being said. For 99 percent of these sects, it’s clear that they’re simply money-making machines. It’s very clear. And you can never fight them if you approach them emotionally, rather than trying to approach them reflectively and intelligently. It’s always right away passionately, “Yeah, they’re idiots!” It’s like the Martians have landed. The question isn’t there. They’re not any more ridiculous than to say that the body of Christ is incorporated in a piece of bread. It’s purely a question of belief. You can make people believe X. And people believe it. But if you go looking behind it all you can find the fraud. The typical example of the moment is the Church of Scientology. It started calling itself a Church the day it needed to for taxation purposes. That shows the nature, the purity of their intentions. Before it was the Dianetics of Ron Hubbard. And it was in the same vein as, “How to Make Friends and Influence People.” Some guy suggests something, and it works or it doesn’t. There’s also something that people forget to mention: I’m sure there are people who have got a lot out of Scientology. There are people who believe in it, and it does them good. We can’t neglect them.

One has to take the system apart piece by piece, and then say it’s on the level of the bucks. They sell you a box, the electrometer, a thing that costs, I don’t know, 25,000 francs, lots of money. To just say that it’s an idiocy is not the thing to do. You should take a screwdriver and take the box apart. Which is what someone did in a documentary program. They said, “If you hold onto the two handles, it’s supposed to be the difference in your potential. There’s a meter here with three wires, and no matter what you do, the needle isn’t going to do anything.” It’s not a fraud, it’s just a way of grabbing bucks.

And you must say also that for such a sucker grabber to work, you’ve got to have a sucker. For me the interesting question is, why are there so many suckers? That there are people who are sincerely lost, that there are people who are spiritually lost, without a point of contact, and who are the perfect prey. And for some of whom this thing is going to help. It’s true that in the ads they always cite John Travolta, or whoever. These people have money. And it’s certain that Scientology pumps them for as much money as the others. For these stars the thing has obviously done them some good at some time. I don’t think we can condemn them outright.

But on the other hand, we must listen. And exactly as with a completely different system, the problem of the National Front party in France today. Or any extreme right party in any country of the world today. We are still at the stage where we’re reacting emotionally. We go right into the wall. Because people who belong to the Front are there by an emotional attachment, and not a rational one. So afterwards it becomes emotion against emotion and it’s “My God is better than yours.” “My leader is better than yours.” So if you start to take this apart…. There was a French television program recently that did precisely that: it tried to take it apart and study it dispassionately. You set out a theory and try to find out if it’s true or false. And here’s another example: that a journalist lets Le Pen say, without reacting to it, the declaration: “If we have to be invaded, I’d prefer to be invaded by the Germans than by the Arabs. The Arabs never invented anything.” Thatís a completely assinine false historical statement. Universally. It’s not even a debatable opinion. It’s an idiocy. Arab civilization was much more flowering than the Christian civilization at a certain period.

Q. They guarded the works of Euclid.

A. Euclid, yes. If they didn’t invent, they certainly enriched mathematics, the arts, poetry, architecture. We’re in Spain. Can you explain to me Spanish architecture and right up to Poitiers in France…how do you think you can explain certain points of our architecture if you don’t talk about the Arabs? And that’s where I come back a little to the job of literature; rather than denouncing them by yelling, “Hey, they’re a bunch of bastards!” Come along with me, we’ll discuss this, and we’ll explain a few things. They’ll say, “Hey, I heard this….” And you say, “There they’re saying something that really doesn’t make sense.” And in that way, it’s not a question of passion or no passion. You can’t say in a crime novel, “Each time I turn on my radio I hear that Company X fires its employees and its value increases on the stock market. Company X hires people and creates jobs and its value decreases on the stock market.” People don’t hear that.

Q. How do you see the French crime novel in France today? Do you think it’s in good health?

A. It’s unfortunately in good health. Because in general when we have an interest, a look at the socio-politico-human…and we’re interested in how things are going, and in general things are not going well…when society is not going well, in general the crime novel is going well. It’s a dramatic thing to admit. But it’s a barometer that is very good for the publishers and for the writers. At the same time there’s a positive side, in that I hope for the readers they’ll be more and more interested, because through stories — I mean, during the moment of pleasure and entertainment — they just might open their eyes to something. Without the books being tracts, or denunciations, virulent ones. It’s true that the crime novel is doing well, maybe even a little too well. That is, there are a lot of mystery collections in France — and I almost want to say, too many. You know, as soon as one person does something that works, there are five others who do the same thing. And not out of love for the crime novel, but because it’s a market to occupy. I write crime books for the youth market, and you can see it clearly in that market. All the publishing houses are now doing books with a crime novel structure. Because there were three or four who did it and who sold well.

Q. Do you see yourself staying in the crime novel genre all your life? Or do you see yourself moving into a completely different genre some day? Would that be voluntary, or would it be because of the climate, or what?

A. Change…it’s a question of a book’s cover in France. I consider Steinbeck a writer of noir books. [Everything from hardboiled to simply a “black” point of view in a book.] Would one ask him if some day he was going to write something else? I know one thing: there’s little chance that I’ll change my writing. If we put aside science fiction, which is what I started with, and that I might want to go back to, for different reasons, then I know that I’ll always want to do crime writing within science fiction. Even in my first manuscripts, it didn’t matter if it was set on the other side of the universe, I always had in the corner somewhere a character who spoke about his night pay, or his salary, he was fed up with working on the moons of Saturn. [laughs] Could never be at home. But that’s because that’s the human part, and the center of everything. If you look closely at DUNE by Frank Herbert, it takes place in the future, but it’s a story of humanity. He borrows from all the great myths, all the great themes, and it’s power struggles, struggles to influence, it’s a crime story too. It’s not that I’ll never leave it, it’s that, the stories I want to tell, I don’t want to say that I won’t ever change. But write what else? I don’t want to take the militant side and say, “Those who don’t write crime novels are idiots.” There are people who know how to write other things really well. While on the other hand, when I write a crime novel, I’m not writing a whodunnit, like an Agatha Christie, who wrote the same novel throughout her entire career, with more or less degrees of success according to the book. I change the theme and the way of telling the story each time I have stories in reserve. There are certain subjects that really don’t turn me on. I doubt I’ll ever write a love story, that’s for sure. Stories of searching for one’s roots, of the family…but then, who knows? Maybe later. I’d say, it’s not impossible. For the moment I have 12 stories on hold, I say 12, I must have 50! They’re all in the area of the crime novel. I don’t have the kind of story in my head like about a lawyer who lives in St. Germain des Pres and who has to decide between going to bed with his secretary or the cleaning woman or his mistress. Or about two guys changing the carpet in the living room and you do 15 pages about changing the carpet. I’m sure there are people who do this with talent, but these are not the kind of stories that come to my mind.

Q. Both your parents were actors. Your father left your mother immediately after you were born, wasn’t that it?

A. Pretty soon after. But that’s not a big deal.

Q. And your mother married someone else?

A. She lived with someone who then died relatively soon after. And then she got together with someone else, with whom she still lives. My father got married pretty soon after.

Q. How were you brought up?

A. My father is Swiss and my mother French. To simplify–between the stories of being kept in a childcare etc.– they decided on a common agreement that I’d pass my education in France and my vacation with my father. To equalize a little the time passed between them. I was not unhappy. I always loved both my step-mother–because my father remarried–and my successive stepfathers. I probably suffered like anyone through the divorce of my parents. But it isn’t a subject that preoccupies me, far from it. I’d say rather, on the contrary that it, not armoured me, but gave me a good philosophy of life. Because we weren’t one on top of the other. My mother lives in Toulouse, my father in Switzerland. I live in Paris. We’re not obliged to go and eat at each other’s house every Sunday. There are people who do that and who are probably happy to do so. But I know families where that happens and where they get on each others nerves.

Q. They were both actors. You’re a writer. There are similarities between these two crafts. The two are entertainment, in a sense.

A. Yes, and for me there was the cinema before writing. It’s not by accident. Let’s be honest. There’s no point in being naive and masking one’s eyes. There wasn’t much chance of me taking up the job of a cashier in a supermarket. There’s no hiding it, the world is completely unequal. You have more chance when you’re born into a family where there are people who reason, and where there are books at home, and where they think, and there are people who read articles…. It’s true that that helped. But I have a friend who went through more or less the same upbringing as I did. A friend from high school. He decided to become a carpenter. Wood was his passion, and he became a carpenter. Later he changed, and he now goes and helps on archaeological digs. And his parents were artists too. I have a half-brother, and he repairs elevators.

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