Author, screenwriter and actress Sylvie Granotier loves to weave plots that send shivers up your spine. She is an acclaimed crime fiction author in France, with over thirteen novels to her name. Her novel, THE PARIS LAWYER, a legal procedural that doubles as a psychological thriller, was recently published in English by Le French Book. Sylvie splits her time between Paris and Creuse.
ME: You and I were both born in North Africa (you in Algeria and I in Libya) and raised in the Arab culture in a region that has certainly seen its share of violence (particularly now that Algeria has, once again, been in the news). What are some of your earliest memories of Algeria or Morocco . . . memories that have influenced your writing?
SYLVIE: My parents married young when my father was barely finished with his medical studies. They had two children in the next two years, lived in a hotel, and life was not easy. Then my father was sent to Algeria and the change was enormous: they had a house, a housemaid, nice weather, and a comfortable life. (This is beginning to sound like my childhood in Baghdad.)
So, I was born at the best of times and the home movies my father made then show a sunny, joyous atmosphere. My parents always referred to these four or five years as their happiest, a kind of lost paradise. (Yes, definitely like Iraq in the early 60’s.) Much later, I read a book on the Algerian War and realized that meanwhile there had been mass massacres in this Eden of ours, and even though my father was a doctor and a good man, he still belonged to an occupying army. Violence was the background of this idyllic place of birth. (As it was for us in Iraq–three revolutions, but I was hardly aware.) I’m now convinced this latent and actual violence had a huge impact on me and made me choose the thriller genre.
We left when I was two and I have no precise memory, except I still have a very strong feeling of familiarity with everything Algerian. Morocco came later, when I was seven. It may surprise you, but that’s where I developed such a liking for everything American. There was an army base near where we lived, and being an American teenager seemed to me the most desirable state. Their freedom, their active social life, their music. So I tried to look American and my triumph was being hailed in English.
Less fun: I remember this good Moroccan friend of mine who was taken out of school at 13 or 14 because she was to be married. She visited me once in a car with blacked windows and we tried to play except, all of a sudden, she had the seriousness of maturity, while I was still a careless child.
ME: I, too, have long felt a certain rootlessness because of my background. Did this sense of being a “nomad,” as you put it, have any effect on the protagonists in your novels, and, if so, how?
SYLVIE: No, strangely enough, I don’t think it did. In one novel, my lead character is a French woman living in New York, but mostly my stories are rooted in France. One thing, though–I have never dealt with a really settled character. They all yearn for stability but have real difficulties attaining it. Deeply rooted people fascinate me. My ex-husband of 16 years comes from the north of France and has very strong links with this area, its culture and its traditions. I wanted to swallow it all and belong . . . some place.
ME: So many writers I know have a background in theater. Please tell us about yours and how you think such experience makes its way into the writing process for you.
SYLVIE: My background is both in theater and in movies, and I think the important factor is acting. I know, and have been told many times, that my strong point in my books is characters. I’m convinced this comes from having become so many people as an actress. I start with a vague outline of this woman, or that man, then they grow on me, as if I allowed them to take over, until they become so alive and surprising that they obey their own nature rather than follow my directions.
Then I know I’m doing OK because they are alive, not rational and predictable, but strange and exciting. And they keep their mystery. At the end of the novel, as well as in real life, I don’t know all there is to know about them. I have a new novel coming out in February in France, and for the first time I’ve kept my lead character, Catherine Monsigny, from THE PARIS LAWYER. She was very familiar, of course, but I know I can go further with her because she still intrigues me.
ME: You were fortunate enough to spend time with the acclaimed short story writer and poet, Grace Paley, before she passed away. Please share some of what she taught you about writing, including her comparison of literature to a cathedral.
SYLVIE: I had not started writing when she came to Paris, and we took long walks and we talked about many things as women do, from the most frivolous or pedestrian to more cultural subjects such as films or books. I remember her buying a postcard showing a first of May demonstration (France celebrates International Workers’ Day on May 1), the Parisian streets dark with joyous crowds of united workers. It thrilled her. She was amazed at the number of bookstores around the city. She had a real knack for enthusiasm.
When I started on my first novel, I realized how much she had helped me unknowingly. She was a late starter compared to some and that did not bother her. She always insisted that one had to be modest to become a writer. Deciding to write the novel of one’s generation was a sure way to fail. You have to be modest and honest. That’s what came with her idea of literature being an intimidating cathedral. A cathedral is made of masterpieces, sculptures, paintings, stained-glass windows, and intricate tiles, but it also needs little stones to stand straight. I loved that idea, and still believe it: there’s room for all good writers, the giants and the midgets alike.
She also said that she never started on a story without the same impulse that drives a little kid to come running from school: “Mommy, I’ve got to tell you…” And knowing when to stop, that moment when you cannot go further without ruining what you did, even though you may still be far from the mark you had hoped for. And reworking: hunting for those bits and pieces you’re so pleased with and which are, in fact, complacent. Her story, “A Conversation with My Father,” is wonderful about how to write a story.
(That’s a book I’m definitely ordering.)
ME: What was your very first attempt at creative writing and how old were you at the time?
SYLVIE: I was 37. I had translated Enormous Changes at the Last Minute and met its author, Grace Paley. She left Paris and I started on my first novel. She had made me jump the first hurdle: allowing myself to try and write a novel. It took time and effort, and I learned a lot in the process. I had the plot–a good one, I thought–and I could not find the right way to tell it. I may have done five or six versions before I understood it was a long letter written by a woman to her mother to explain the murder of her lover and the consequences on her own teenage daughter. The book suddenly made sense. It was about the load each generation passes on to the next. And I easily wrote the final draft. I’ve known since then that point of view is capital. Anyway, it was a long and arduous process, but it finally got published. It’s called COURRIER POSTHUME (available in French only).
ME: Please describe your writing process. Also, which is more challenging–short stories or novels?
SYLVIE: I have lots of stories floating in my mind. There comes a point when I have the detonator, a kind of matrix, usually the opening scene, a situation that intrigues me. I want to know more. I start by hand writing a sketchy outline from beginning to end. Every morning, rain or shine, after breakfast, I set to work with a minimum word count to produce daily usually four pages. I drive on, never stopping to catch my breath. The tone may be wrong, the style sketchy, but I need that quick first draft to find the pace of the novel and to follow almost blindly the path my characters are opening. Normally, if things go right, I have my whole plot then, which is often different from what I thought it would be.
Then starts the actual work. I’m reassured at this point that I have a story. It’s a matter of polishing, rewriting whole passages, usually shortening because I tend to write long. I also try and track all the useless, artificial, ungraceful bits. Then, I give it to one or two good and trustworthy friends. I listen to them and rework a bit. Then I give it to my editor. I never have a prior contract. I hate feeling bound and never know when I start whether I’ll actually have a worthy novel. So, thank God, the editor usually accepts the novel and we rework a bit together. Experience has taught me how to use the various comments made on my work. Very often, a reader may pinpoint a problem whose source is actually some place else. It’s a tricky process. Critics are always worth listening to, especially when their criticism hurts.
I love writing short stories because I can have a first draft in one day. It’s like in painting, when you face a huge canvas and start and have to keep the whole image as you work on bits, as opposed to a miniature where you can rapidly have an overall image. Everything counts in a short tale; you have to be extremely rigorous, so it’s difficult. I don’t understand why, but I’ve always written short stories on demand.
ME: What are the differences between American thrillers and French thrillers other than location, or is location in itself a big enough difference?
SYLVIE: More than location, I would point to the cultural element. After all, some French novels take place in the United States, and some American novels are set in Italy or Greece, and other locations. Though, thinking about it, Americans live in a huge territory and space counts very much in fiction. A character can change states and still be in his country; ours have to pass borders and deal with foreign languages, so they act in restricted areas usually.
The Americans have a sense of evil we French don’t, and we are naturally more skeptical and more cynical. Evil to us is part of the human nature, not a dark force that “the good people” fight against. We fight against the dark side of ourselves or of society. So we’re often more political in our views. We denounce, but know it has every chance of being a losing proposition.
Of course, generalities tend to be wrong, and every writer is an exception to the rule. So…It’s interesting that many American writers refer to the Old Testament as a source of storytelling. Culturally, we’re more familiar with the New Testament. I would find it hard to explain how that difference actually works, but I’m sure it does. Also, the French are obsessed with style and form and will be less exacting when it comes to the mechanics of plot.
ME: You say that the part of France where you live–Creuse–has become almost like a character in your stories. How so? And are all your stories set there? (I’d love to post some pictures of Creuse and you in that setting.)
SYLVIE: I don’t live in Creuse full time–I’m still a Parisian–but I spend a lot of time there, where I have a house that feels like my true home for mysterious reasons.
It has helped me settle down and taught me that you could look at the same view for years and find it different every time. It’s taught me to slow down and has changed my sense of time. Nature and its toughness force you to think more and go deeper.
It took me years to use Creuse in a novel. I could not do so as long as I felt like a tourist. Not all my stories take place in Creuse, but little by little it has infiltrated my work. The setting of a novel is important to me. It influences both events and characters, and I’ve always known that taking the thriller out of the big cities to the countryside would open a new range. So, yes, it works a bit as a character.
ME: What are you currently working on and where do you do most of your writing? I’d love a description of your writing space or office in the voice of Catherine Monsigny, the protagonist of THE PARIS LAWYER.
SYLVIE: At the moment, I’m preparing for the new novel, LA PLACE DES MORTS, which is scheduled for release in France in February. It’s a sequel to THE PARIS LAWYER (Le French Book hopes to have this in translation soon).
I write in corners, facing a wall. I write in Paris as well as in Creuse; if necessary, I can work in a hotel. As long as there’s no distraction. Hence the wall! I’ve just moved so my new Parisian writing space is not quite in place yet.
In Creuse the study is the only modern room in a very old house. It used to be a separate bread oven, but has been linked to the main building by a glass door. It’s very luminous. It is all white with big black tiles on the floor and it has a high, tilted ceiling with windows that open on the sky, the passing clouds and the occasional sun. Shelves filled with books line the longer exterior wall of the house then make a corner that encloses a big oak table that turns its back to the door, half window pane, half wood, and to the only window that opens on the garden. There are dictionaries within easy reach on the right side, lots of notebooks, and a gas heater on the left against the other wall, which is all stone and painted white.
On the shelves in front of my workspace is an old doll, the portrait of an unknown red-haired Elizabethan youngster, and on top of that, a Dick Tracy doll holds the foot of a lamp that’s never used.
(I can picture it perfectly!)
ME: Finally, what draws you to read and write thrillers?
SYLVIE: As I said, I was born in a land of violence and am convinced it drew me to the genre. I started reading in English by reading thrillers. You just have to go on, and they’re usually an easy read. I love suspense and popular literature. It always seemed to me an incredible achievement to write books that grip the reader and hold on to the end. Easy read is often hard write. Good thrillers are accessible and give you more if you dig deeper. They helped me in times of sadness or difficulties and opened me to worlds I could never have known first hand. The same curiosity guides my writing: Unveiling what’s hidden and discovering who I am by understanding strangers and their strange doings.
Again, if you want to know more about Sylvie, look her up at Le French Book, where you can read other fascinating interviews.
(By the way, I apologize for the mixup last Wednesday. I had expected to interview Craig Everett then but due to a miscommunication I’ll be posting his interview on February 13th, after I’ve concluded my interviews with these wonderful French authors.)
Next Wednesday, I’ll be talking with Jean-Pierre Alaux and Noël Balen, the writing duo responsible for a whole winemaker detective series, so popular it’s been made into a TV series in France.
Originally posted 2013-01-23 06:00:53.