PARIS – Marc Villard, wearing his trademark large and stylish glasses, lounges on the couch on the top floor of his 18th Century duplex apartment on a quiet back street in the Stock Exchange quarter of Paris.
Villard is a man of many careers, but none is even remotely related to stocks and bonds. He has been a poet, a TV and film scriptwriter, a rock columnist, and over the past couple of decades, art director at the Givenchy perfume business. That day job nourishes the writing habit that is his most distinguished career, as the author since 1980 of several dozen volumes of short stories, novellas and novels.
Poetry was the apprenticeship, through the 1970’s, that formed his « short » fiction writing style. After poetry, he said, if « you later turn to fiction you tend to have the same approach. You re-do your text, you pare it down, you cut the fat out of it, and you end up with a short text. »
While he was among the top 100 French poets, he weighs in at about number one among crime short story writers. More impressive than the size of his œuvre of more than 200 published short stories is that most of them are not only highly readable, but also reach a level of « literariness » rare in the genre.
« If you say a crime tale must have a highly developed plot and setting, be full of surprises, and be very intricately constructed, then the short story is not well adapted to it, » he said. « But if you say that a crime story can be a moment in people’s lives, an observation of people, where something happens – an explosion of violence – and at the same time bring us something emotional and literary, then yes, we can do it in the few pages of the short story. »
Those are the ingredients that make a Villard collection such a good read – not to mention that he is also a master of the « short » short story. Many are only three pages long, and have the effect of a bolt of lightning.
Marc Villard’s Parisian suburbs are those of the poor housing complexes, the projects, the apartment towers where the architects of the 1960s and 1970s experimented in making new human environments…and failed. They are inhabited by the poor immigrants who were pushed out of the beautiful, expensive Paris. They are also the place of crime.
« It’s much more interesting for a crime writer to write about areas that are very highly charged, and where anything is possible, than about the 17th Arrondissement, the bourgeois quarters of Paris, » Villard said. « An English writer of a cosies would know how to write a story set in one of those very chic areas. That’s something I wouldn’t know how to do. »
What Villard does know how to do is to write stories that have a natural growth as dictated through the actions of his characters, and that end according to the most likely outcome of such actions. Given the kind of characters he likes, this means the stories often end in tragedy or at the point where things go from bad to worse. Any other ending would be a lie.
« I’m profoundly pessimistic about existence, » he said. « Which doesn’t mean that I’m sad in daily life. But when I open the newspaper I see that we live in a world that is no bed of roses. It’s not a wonderful world like in Walt Disney. It’s better to write to say that things are going badly, that being a human being on this earth is not something that’s easy. This is not necessarily a literature of defeat, but a literature that points out what isn’t working in life. »
Unlike most of his characters, Villard is a survivor. He grew up in the bourgeois Parisian suburb of Versailles, but as a child he had no bathroom, no hot water, and he slept in the hallway because he had no bedroom. The apartment in Paris where he lives now with his wife, Christine Ferniot, and two children (another child from a previous marriage is grown up), is far from those humble conditions. But he keeps in touch with suburban life through his day job, where he goes weekly to the suburbs to do business with subcontractors. He also goes on book signings in suburban schools, and he has not forgotten what it is like to grow up in the suburb.
« I know the gangs of the suburbs, » he said. « I was in gangs. I know all about the Saturday night brawls, and I know about the boredom too. I spent entire months of August hanging out bored on the main square of our town, wondering what the hell we were going to do with our day, and ending up getting into trouble. »
His characters are often a step lower than that down the ladder of respectability, but he paints them sympathetically, and without making judgements. And unlike most male-written French crime fiction, most of his lead characters are women.
« In crime writing in general, » he said, « we have a tendency to kill the woman on about page 12. Or with the serial killers, when it’s about a psychopath – like « The Silence of the Lambs » – it’s always women he hunts down. When women characters are not killed, they have a lesser rôle. Or they’re perverse – like in « The Postman Always Rings Twice » – and they make men fall into their trap and then play with them like puppets.
Villard said that in the poor areas it is the young women who usually manage to break out of the misery, while the young men tend to get sucked into crime and despair.
« So when I decide to use a young woman character, » he said, « they’re frequently very strong characters – fragile too, but girls with energy, not just dolls. They’re women with drive, and who want to break out. »
In his novel « cœur Sombre, » the two women characters are a little older than usual. One is an American singer who lives in France, and a young guitar player of about 20 years old, who lives in a bad part of Paris. The guitar player also deals dope, but plays jazz music. The whole novel is organized around these two female characters, with one opening the story, the other ending it.
The musical theme is a common thread throughout his work, and his life. His 10-year career as a rock columnist for Monde de la Musique ; helped him keep in touch with the latest sounds.
« I am part of a generation that grew up with Rock and Roll, » he said. « I was born in 1947, and I started buying rock in 1957, the beginning of rock and roll, with Bill Haley. And I never abandoned it. »
Although he has written stories with a Jimi Hendrix theme, or one about Elvis Presley (who didn’t die but was kidnapped by his manager in order to raise record sales during a slump), his predilection in fiction is for jazz. The images of jazz, he said, lend themselves better to fiction than the clichés of rock. One story, « Chorus, » was inspired by the life of Chet Baker, the white American trumpet player who died in Europe last decade.
When Villard’s career as a writer started to take off in the early 1980’s, he decided to write full-time. But he soon realized that only the writing of TV scripts would allow him to earn a living, even though he was publishing fiction at the top Série Noire house and in many other excellent collections. In addition to a dislike of scriptwriting, he also realized he wasn’t mentally made for the full-time writing life.
« It was the solitude, » he said. « I have a very hard time staying alone writing in my little corner. For me to write I have to be completely involved in living, in action and daily life, even when it’s lousy. I’m nourished by life and the people I meet. My writing gets done during the holes of existence : at night time, in bed, on vacation. When I have too much time, I get anxious. I even started taking pills to fight anxiety. So I said to myself that I absolutely had to get a job. »
He said that, in retrospect, scenario writing helped him to learn to plot and pace his fiction better, but he’s glad to be out of it, and as with everything in life, he doesn’t look back with regret. As the critic Jean-Pierre Deloux wrote in the French magazine Polar in a special issue devoted to Villard :
« Marc Villard has a contagious case of the blues, but one that doesn’t make you want to return to the land of your lost youth, or to live again through that first love that fizzled out or went awry. No, nostalgia isn’t what it used to be. »