Books that console and writing that praises modesty: this is the credo of Jean-Claude Mourlevat, whose L’Enfant Océan (The Pull of the Ocean, 1999) marked his lightning-fast arrival in bookshops – with over a million copies sold – and in schools, where his works figure amongst the classics that young people study. More than 15 novels later we meet with the writer, who has just returned from a residency in San Francisco.
Your life as a writer began relatively late, at over 40. What was the trigger?
I was first a German teacher in a college for five years. I was happy with it but I wanted to do something different, express my creativity differently. So I got involved in theatre as an actor and director. I put together two clown shows, one of which, Parlez-moi d’amour (Tell Me About Love, 1990), toured extensively abroad, especially in Asia and Africa, because it was silent. People in the theatre often advised me to write, which I eventually did for the stage, and I had a few stories published. Then I wrote novels. The third was L’Enfant Océan. It was then that everything changed...
How would you define your literary world?
I do not see myself as a youth author, a status that is often attributed to me, but simply as an author. I feed off literature in general and wander through every possible literary landscape. L’Enfant Océan is a sort of tale, of Petit Poucet revisited, with 25 narrators and with a very dark atmosphere. Everything you’re not supposed to do to make children happy! While La Rivière à l’envers (The Upside Down River, in two volumes published in 2000 and 2001) is an adventure novel… Jefferson, my latest book, is an animal detective novel.
Why have you moved on to the detective novel? Is this a genre that speaks to young audiences?
I am careful not to wonder what children like and what speaks to them! More than anything, I like to explore territories where I have not yet been. Jefferson is a socially engaged novel about the condition of animals. I chose the detective novel because it was a new genre for me. Moreover, 15 years earlier I had written La Ballade de Cornebique (The Ballade of Cornebique), where characters are also animals who behave like us, and I remember having a lot of fun with it.
You are returning from a six-week residency in San Francisco. What did it give you?
I left to work on a novel set against the backdrop of the city of San Francisco, on the theme more or less imposed by the A room with a view residence: “After Tomorrow”. A theme that invites, if not science fiction, at least the anticipation of it. I started writing a few pages there, and I'm going to continue here.
I loved San Francisco for its freedom, its open-mindedness. The city touched me and left me dreaming: ah, if only the whole world was like that! I attended high school meetings and the Litquake festival. Le Combat d’Hiver (Winter’s End) and L’Enfant Océan were also translated into English.
What is your relationship to American literature? And more specifically to the classics of its youth literature: Mark Twain, John Steinbeck, Jack London...
I try to read in English! And I like this very direct, very effective aspect of American authors, and also their somewhat hidden talent: we don't see much of their stylistic effects, even though they are there! Americans know how to tell stories. I am thinking of Paul Auster, Douglas Kennedy and John Fante. You mention John Steinbeck, so I’m thinking of Of Mice and Men, which is outstanding. I'm jealous of that book! On the British side, I admire Animal Farm by George Orwell. Not to mention Roald Dahl, of course, full of humanity and so funny, with this obsession with not bothering people. You have to read Matilda and The Witches!
You've been around the world a few times. What have been your most memorable destinations?
With my books, I actually went to a lot of French high schools, from Sydney to Moscow...but what inspires me most is where it's cold! It is the climate of my novels Le Combat d’hiver (2006) and Le Chagrin du roi mort (The Sorrow of the Dead King, 2009). I love Iceland, Scandinavia, those countries where you look for the warmth of human relations. I was born in a remote corner of Auvergne. I remember my fingers freezing on my way to school...and on my way home in winter seeing the light and warmth of the house in the distance.
You often go out to meet the public. Who are your readers?
My readers share with me a way of perceiving the world and understanding people. Between them and myself there is the idea that we need to be humane and be more considerate to one another more, keep the hope that we can overcome a lot of things, and that we’ll keep on being trusting.
Jean-Claude Mourlevat was in San Francisco in November and December 2019 for a 'A room with a view' writing residency supported by the Institut français.
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