The interview, which has never been published before now in 2021, took place in the Série Noire offices housed in what was once either a storage space for books, or more likely, a crypt. It is under the ground level, but has windows at head height giving a view onto a parking lot. Raynal has a view of the wheels of his old BMW motorcycle out his window. He is a corpulent 50-year-old with half a head of closely shaved grey hair. He wore casual clothes and looked more like a biker than the director of a collection at a top publisher in France. He wore a white open-neck shirt and jeans or canvas pants. He is soft-spoken.
Q: Part of what we’re interested in is what American writers the French like to read, and how you were influenced by American writers.
A: My generation, the generation after the war, grew up on American music, American films, American jazz, American books…it was only natural that all this should have a profound influence on the way we write. We started writing in a manner that was more the harder American style. We started to introduce more in the writing of what was going on in the street. We started grafting the harder American approach to our writing, and the result has been something that has grown out of it that is completely our own. We’re growing our own writers now in the Série Noire. We’re starting to have a fusion of the different genres in one. Who do we read? Crumley, Ellroy, Hillerman, James Lee Burke….
Q: Yes, the French are particularly fans of the noir novel.A: There’s something in the air with the noir novel. You can’t imagine it, because the difference between the genres in the U.S. is not so strong. But in France it is very strong, here where the official literature–the Academy–fought for a very long time against the noir novel, throwing it into marginal writing. Now something very very strong is happening; two times recently a book in the Sréie Noire has won literary prizes that were not crime writing prizes. Dantec won the science fiction prize for LES RACINES DU MAL. It’s the first time in French literary history that the science fiction prize has gone to a crime novel. There’s something very strong growing, that goes beyond just a fad, and is more interesting than that.
Q: Where will it lead? To a crime writer taken into the Academie Francaise?
A: NO! That’s just it, we don’t want to go there.
Q: What is the role of the Série Noire in all this?
A: I see its role being just the way it always was, that is, the role of a leader. A role as a leader in finding new writers too. Why? Because the Série Noire is supported by the biggest French publisher, and one of the most important publishers in the world, Gallimard. So I have the wherewithal to go out and find writers. I can go out and explore things, and if I blow it, I blow it.
When I published LES RACINES DU MAL in the Série Noire, it could easily have been a catastrophe. It may not have taken off. Well, it did. But I’ve done other things that didn’t work so well. I don’t do so well with American writers. (I forgot to mention our big star at the moment, Harry Crews. I publish all his stuff.)
I think if the Série Noire didn’t play this role, it would mean it doesn’t know what it is, and so shouldn’t exist. So that’s it, to give this vision of what the noir novel is in France and in the world.
Q: And Dantec is your big seller of the moment.
A: Yes. Not far from 50,000 for each title. And that’s continuing with regularity because people are talking about Dantec all the time all the time all the time. He’s just had another prize and that’ll do more for him again. He had the [Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire] and now the science fiction prize given by a science fiction jury in Nancy or Messe. A prize that has existed for a long time.
Q: Literary prizes appear to be very important in this country, more so perhaps than in the U.S. Is that true?
A: There are so many prizes that it’s difficult to say which are important and which not. You’ve got to take a look at what the prizes are. If Dantec wins a crime fiction prize, who cares? What’s really interesting here is that a crime novel, a novel with the cover of the Série Noire, has won a science fiction prize. The other prize we had, which was for Herve Prudon, was the Prix Louis Guilloux, a very refined, very literary prize. That too was very important because it was the first time that a book of the Série Noire won a literary prize, awarded by people who are not at all readers of the crime novel genre. Now that’s interesting. That shows that we have obliged people who did not want to take any interest in this kind of literature, to read it, and to appreciate it. That’s very interesting.
Q: You also have another series, a larger format book called La Noire. Tell us about that.
A: I started the La Noire series because I wanted to do something that was just like the other Gallimard books, but the reverse. They’re the same. I am starting to publish crime writers from around the world too.
Q: There are no literary agents to speak of in France, so how do writers approach you as an editor?
A: The role of the publisher/editor replaces a little that of the agent. The agent is there on the one hand to sell the author’s rights for the highest amount possible. The other role of the good agent is to work on the book, give literary advice, before showing the book to a publisher. I, on the other hand, work with writers on a book when I sense there’s something good there, but that’s not quite aimed right, or written quite well enough.
But there’s one simple reason why you can’t have literary agents in France: there are only four to six big publishers in France. The system would become ridiculous very quickly. Though I work with the agents who sell American rights all the time.
Q: There’s a mass of new small press publishers now doing mystery fiction in France too.
A: All the better. It’s a good sign of contamination.
Q: Le Poulpe, for instance, is published by Editions Baleine. What was your role in the creation of this series?
A: The Poulpe is a character I created along with my friend Jean-Bernard Pouy. It’s a series character. It’s a character that fits in a little with a certain tradition we have in French literature…Arsin Lupin, Fantômas, Judex. Le Poulpe is something of an avenger, an outlaw, a Robin Hood and an anarchist. He always looks behind the scenes, to see if what we’re told reflects the truth.
But the great idea–Jean-Bernard’s idea–was that instead of it being always the same writer’s name on the book, there’s a little Bible, that is given to each author, and each author creates his own Poulpe. He finds his own story, and gives his own image to the character. The Bible helps it so that the character is always the same age, has the same parents, the same girlfriend. So that it remains a recognizable character.
Otherwise, there’s no other restriction. Each writer does what he wants with the Poulpe. It’s a collection that is pretty much left wing. It’s a collection that was created a little bit around the rise of the National Front in France. And it’s a collection that is very anti-fascist. Each edition of Le Poulpe has a little word to say about the rise of the extreme right.
Q: Relatively few women seem to be involved in the crime genre in France.
A: Since I’ve been here, we receive very few manuscripts from women. But when I do receive them I take a very careful look, and we’ve published six by women. And good ones, too. So it’s starting to happen. And of course, it’s a genre that is very masculine. Maybe women didn’t want to get into it.