Last year, I interviewed the very popular French novelist Katherine Pancol, whose books I have much enjoyed. The interview was published in Good Reading magazine, and as I am in France at the moment I thought I would republish it for readers here.
Interview with Katherine Pancol
By Sophie Masson
Katherine Pancol is one of France’s most popular novelists, who regularly tops best-seller lists with her enthralling books, which combine gripping plots, superbly-developed characters, vivid settings, zesty language, wry humour, romance and a hint of the surreal, even supernatural. Every book’s been a success, but the biggest so far was with a trilogy which started in 2006 with Les Yeux Jaunes des Crocodiles, (The Yellow Eyes of Crocodiles)continued in 2008 with La valse lente des Tortues( The slow waltz of tortoises) and in 2010,Les ecureuils de Central Park sont tristes le lundi(The squirrels of Central Park are sad on Mondays). This trilogy has sold in excess of 6 million copies in France alone. It was translated already into 29 other languages before an English-language version of the first book finally joined them in 2013, which in Australia was published by Allen and Unwin.
I only discovered Katherine Pancol’s work myself recently, despite being of French origin, though living in Australia. I read the books in French before the English translation—which carries the wonderful story and characters well, though in my opinion, missing a little of the spicy sparkle of the French original. And interviewing her, I discovered that the author is as intriguing and engaging as her novels.
SM: How did the idea for The Yellow Eyes of Crocodiles first come to you?
KP: Isak Dinesen used to say : “I start with a tingle, a kind of feeling for the story… Then come the characters, and they take over, they make the story”.
It’s exactly that. Every time.
I was spending the summer in a seaside village in Normandy. I like to go swimming early in the morning, when the beach is empty and the sea is all mine. One morning, just as I was about to go into MY sea, another woman came in. We talked. She was a researcher at the CNRS, a university research centre in France. She’d been working on the same subject for 30 years: travelling newspaper-sellers in 18th century France! She’d written and talked about this subject all over the world.
She had a certain old-fashioned, tentative charm, and as I listened, I felt that familiar tingle!
Josephine was about to be born.
The rest was like a snowball that turns into an avalanche, as I imagined a whole personal world for Josephine.
SM: When you started this book, did you envisage it as the first in a trilogy?
KP: Not at all. I wrote the first one and thought I was through with the story. Bye Bye, everybody ! And then… I kept thinking about the characters and I was missing them. All sorts of questions came to me. What was going on in their lives? Were they happy or sad? In the end I realised I was continuing the story in my head every day so I decided to write it down and there I was with another novel ! AM: The story is told from several different points of view. How did you handle that?
I think it comes from the characters. When they are well-developed, it is they who write the story, and me, I just follow them. I trust them. To write a novel you have to know your characters very well. Like yourself. You think like them, you laugh like them, cry like them, you share the same dreams, the same fears. You are them. Each of them. I never make a plan when I write. I am the characters and they write the story.
SM: Josephine is a specialist in the 12th century, which recurs frequently as a theme–is this period one you are interested in?
KP: I chose it completely by chance, because I did not know it at all. At school in France, you usually start with the 13th or 14th centuries. So, I thought it was a good way to learn. I love to learn new things.
The 12th century is very interesting because it is very like our time. It is a century of many tumultuous changes. European countries were opening up to each other and to trade, money became all-important, it was the start of the great European fairs, the first universities, religious fanaticism was raging, women worked and represented 50 percent of the active population. It was a very modern period in a very ancient time!
SM: To me, the novel has strong fairy tale elements. And yet it’s also realistic, with great social irony and comedy. How did you combine those things?
KP: I don’t know ! It’s just my way of telling stories ! When I was a child, I read a lot, all kinds of books. I was just as happy reading myths and fairytales from Egypt, Persia, Arabia, Norway as The Brothers Karamazov, Le Père Goriot(Balzac), David Copperfield. Everything was blended in my mind. And even if say I didn’t really understand Dostoyevsky I was still enthralled by the atmosphere, and loved discovering other words, other feelings, an other world.
SM: The portrait of French society in the novel isn’t always flattering. Do you think that your years outside of France have given you a different perspective on your country?
KP: I spent ten years in New York. In that time I came to understand what was wonderful about the US and what was less wonderful. Same for France, and for Paris where I live. There are things I love and others I love not at all. There’s no such thing as a perfect country, or perfect civilisation.
In Paris, I love the beauty of the city, the stone of its buildings, the light, the sky, the food, the presence of the past, the cafes, the restaurants, the Seine, the style of Parisian girls! In New York, I love the energy that emanates from the city, the optimism, the freedom, the mix of nationalities, of languages. In New York, you tell yourself that everything is possible. You dare to go out on a limb.
In Paris, you don’t. You are less daring. More self-conscious.
I love the two cities, but differently.
It’s because I’ve lived in New York that I realised how French I am. Or rather, European. I could easily live in Rome or Madrid. I love Latin countries.
SM: I saw the ‘yellow eyes of crocodiles’ image as symbolising fear: fear of death, fear of life, fear of becoming yourself, fear of losing yourself–is that a fair comment?
Kp: Yes ! It is.
Nearly all the characters are afraid.
SM: And the character of Henriette Grobz, which is the only one with no redeeming features–is that possibly because in her cold hardness she does not allow anything as human as fear in?
KP: Henriette is only scared of one thing: not having enough money. Money is the only thing which reassures her, the only value she holds dear, her refuge. And that is her fear: to be in need of money.
She despises her younger daughter Josephine because she’s fragile, sensitive, generous. Henriette loves only force and power. She supposedly loves her older daughter Iris, but in reality she loves an image: what she could have been herself.
SM: Why do you think so many readers worldwide have loved your book? And why did it take so long for the novel to be taken up by English-language publishers?
KP: I think that we are all, in a sense, ‘Josephines’. And not only women feel this. I have received many emails from male readers, young and old, who identify with Josephine. One young Chinese soldier, even wrote ‘I am Josephine!’
I replied in some surprise and he wrote back, describing how he’d always felt inadequate in the face of life. That he was always afraid he’d not measure up. Afraid he’d do the wrong thing, of not being good enough..
So I offered him Seneca’s words: ‘It is not because things are difficult that we don’t dare to take a chance; it’s because we don’t dare that things become difficult.’
As to why it took so long for the book to come out in English—I think the Americans waited to see how the book went in territories other than France. It reassured them, when they saw it went well in Spain and Germany, for instance, and so they took the plunge.
SM: What reactions are you getting from anglophone readers?
KP: Pretty much the same as in France. On my website, http://www.katherine-pancol.com, people can contact me directly, and I’ve had all sorts of emails from English-language readers. For instance, a man wrote to me about Antoine(Josephine’s faithless, hapless husband) a woman wrote saying my book had made her feel again that life was worth living, still another wanted the rest of the trilogy. I’ve had only enthusiastic messages. People write to me as though to a friend.
SM: Will the other two books in the trilogy be published in English too?
KP: I hope so ! I cross my fingers ! If “The yellow eyes of crocodiles” is a success in English, the publisher will have the other two volumes translated. If not, well..
SM: Can you tell us a little about your writing career? And a little about your new trilogy?
KP: I studied literature at university ,taught French and Latin in a Swiss private school, then back in Paris, I became a journalist. I remember the first time I saw my name in print in a newspaper. It was in Paris-Match(a famous French weekly magazine). I was 23. I was at newspaper kiosk, and I danced for joy around that kiosk!
Later, I went to work for Cosmopolitan. One day, the publisher said I must absolutely write a novel! I resisted for six months. Then I decided to do it. To please him. And because he was convinced of my abilities, he was also convincing! So I wrote my first novel, ‘Moi d’abord’ (Me first, 1979). It was a big success. My life changed. I discovered you could write for your own pleasure, and not just for readers. It was like entering into the most wonderful sweet-shop!
My new trilogy is called ‘Muchachas’ and tells the story of a woman, Léonie, who is a victim of domestic violence; of her daughter Stella–and of a man who is handsome, strong, brave, a fireman who saves lives but who at home beats his wife and rapes his daughter. It is Léonie’s story, Stella’s story, and the story of all those around them—those who pretend not to see what’s happening and those who try to help. It’s set in a small French provincial town. In the novel, there are characters who dream their lives away, those who endure it and those who decide to change it.And then there’s another story within it, another world, where readers will find again characters from the Josephine trilogy: Hortense and Gary, Josephine and Philippe, Shirley, Alexandre, Zoé. It’s set in England, in New York, in Paris, in Italy.
These two worlds meet in the new trilogy.
In fact, it is a single novel that I broke into three volumes when I realised it was 1500 pages long!