Erik Martiny

Between Fiction and Reality with Amélie Cordonnier

Could you give us a brief outline of your career?

Yes, well, I went through the French prep school system, specializing in philosophy and then I went on to become a freelance journalist. I now write reviews and novels. My first novel Cut came out before the MeToo# movement, so you could say it anticipated that to some extent, since it focuses on a man’s verbal violence towards his wife. I wanted to write about a form of violence that leaves no marks on the body or the page. It’s the story of a woman who has trouble leaving her husband because although he is verbally abusive, he’s quite a kind, gentle father and husband in other respects.

It is said that your work lifts the veil on taboo subjects: verbal violence in Trancher, loss of desire in Pas ce soir (Not Tonight), the difficulties of maternal love in Un loup quelque part (A Wolf Somewhere) and this time with En garde, the state’s surveillance of families. Have you always liked breaking taboos?

As a reader, I like to read books that disturb me, books that upset the applecart in some way, so when I write I try to do the same thing. Not Tonight focuses on the loss of sexual desire in a couple and its effects. Losing desire for your partner wouldn’t be that bad in itself, but it’s all that comes with it that damages the couple, sometimes beyond repair: tenderness, conversation, maybe even curiosity about your partner. So yes, I’m interested in a topic if nobody talks about it.

How autobiographical is On Guard?

The notion of a having a social worker stay at home to keep an eye on the family is fictional, but I got the idea for that from something that really did happen to me: just after the first covid lockdown, someone phoned social services to accuse me of mistreating my children. I was called by the governmental social services and that put an end to my sleep, I can tell you. I couldn’t stop thinking about it round the clock. I was scared stiff that they would take my children away from me. And what worried me the most was that my previous books (A Wolf Somewhere and Cut, in particular) would be used as evidence against me, proof that I was a dysfunctional mother who didn’t love her kids and that our family suffered from conjugal violence. It felt like my fiction was coming back to get me.

So, with On Guard, I wanted to write a domestic thriller in which the shadow of Orwell’s 1984 loomed large. It’s not that I needed to write to understand what was happening to me, but I was obsessed with the notion of governmental surveillance. I wanted to point out that the average family laughs and shouts. Most loving families engage in shouting matches from time to time.

Anyway, this phone call I received brought it home to me that all it takes is for one neighbour to make a call and you can get into serious trouble, even though you might be a good parent. Anyway, that’s why I gave my character my own name. It’s very hard to prove that you love your children when you’re asked to do it. Nobody asked me if I loved my children. Child Protection seeks to make sure that children aren’t being mistreated, but it’s hard to prove that you treat them well, even if you give them five fruits and vegetables a day, even if you read them bedtime stories and put them to bed early. I personally laboured under the impression that I couldn’t prove that I loved them. That kind of thing gives you a vertiginous feeling.

I was also inspired by an article on China which I read in Le Monde: it said that the Chinese government actually sends agents to stay in Uighur homes to make sure that they are not fomenting rebellion. So, I thought how would that work in a democracy like France.

I didn’t write the novel as a form of therapy, but pour réfléchir à la question de la surveillance dans notre société. It allowed me to leave a trace of what had happened to me. I was moved by the many testimonies I’ve received since the book was released.

Your novels sometimes flirt with fantasy. In On Guard, you imagine a French state which places child protection agents within the home; in A Wolf Somewhere, the heroine sees her baby’s skin colour unaccountably darken, which initially sounds like a Kafkaesque metamorphosis. Do you think you’ll be tempted one day to fully enter the genre of magic realism or full-fledged fantasy or do you prefer to stay on the margins of the genre?

Well, that fantastic atmosphere allowed me to explore the notion of maternal instinct, something that is sometimes used to shame mothers. Nobody bothers fathers with paternal instinct. It’s mothers who have to bear the brunt of society’s pressure on parents. What a lot of people don’t know is that mixed-race children are born white and it takes from three to six months for their skin colour to darken.

I’m glad you mentioned Kafka because I use that image from his seminal book throughout A Wolf Somewhere. The experience of having a strange baby troubles the heroine greatly because she discovers things about her past that feel pretty eerie and vertiginous. It brings the uncanny into her humdrum life. I like toying with the boundary between reality and the supernatural, while staying within the realm of the real.

Do you read magic realist writers?

Practically never.

One of the things I like about your work is that in the face of disaster, you always manage to add a touch of humour. In On Guard, for instance, one of the governmental employees that your autobiographical heroine has to deal with is called Mrs. Trajic, a name which partially serves to deflate the gravity of the situation. Do you make it your aim to steer clear of pure tragedy?

Well, I think we all have a different sense of humour and I think it’s important to lighten the darkest moments of existence. I’m glad you picked up on that. It’s not usually mentioned. In fact, I don’t often find my texts funny.

Among tragicomic authors, do you feel closer to: Beckett or Kafka?

I like them both and I studied them in school. I take my interest in the notion of waiting from Beckett. I read Kafka’s Metamorphosis in early secondary school. It disgusted me back then, but it stayed with me. It came back to me as I was writing A Wolf Somewhere.

You have a playful attitude to language. Do you find that wordplay is disappearing from literature these days?

I haven’t noticed that it’s disappearing. It’s true I like to pun occasionally. We play with words in my family so I tend to do that in my fiction too.

You regularly put forward the notion of desire and sexuality. In Cut, your heroine goes back to her husband because she likes the way his bottom looks. She also has street sex with him. Do you find that the representation of sexuality is disappearing in French literature too these days?

Well, it’s certainly true that in French films these days, there’s frequent recourse to ellipsis. You see the characters in the evening and then by morning they’re on familiar terms with each other, using the Tu form. And the sheets are always immaculately folded as if no one has slept in the bed. I haven’t noticed that sex is disappearing from fiction that much. I was at a conference recently with Mazarine Pingeot and Claire Berest, and Claire Berest said that she had a lot of trouble writing dialogue and sex scenes. Everyone agreed that they’re the two hardest things to do in fiction. I tend to avoid dialogue, but I tried to write about sex in a number of my books.

Your texts sometimes go from prose to more indented lines. Do you sometimes write poetry?

Yes, I frequently embed references to poetry in my texts but people don’t always notice them. I love Rimbaud, Verlaine and Baudelaire. But I never write poetry myself. The last time I did so was as a teenager, like everyone else. My parents used to love them. On social media, Twitter and text messages, I do try to couch my messages in eloquent, pithy words though. It seems important to me.

Would you say that your activity as a journalist has an impact on your literary work?

Well, I use everything I come in contact with. I get inspiration from my children, my work, exhibitions and films I see, and books I read. Writing fiction feels like a miracle sometimes. Things you never thought you would write about crop up. I get my curiosity from journalism, I suppose, but you can be curious without being a journalist.

Who are your favourite authors?

Marguerite Duras was a major first influence on me. In Not Tonight, my male protagonist is reading L’Amant (The Lover) in the metro when he meets his future lover. All the books I read give me something to think about. My job as a literary reviewer allows me to be nourished constantly by books.

Do you read fiction by English-speaking authors?

I love Philip Roth but I don’t read English-speaking authors that much, no. My two latest favourite French novels are Les Alchimies (The Alchemies) by Sarah Chiche and Marchands de sable (Sandmen) Agnès Mathieu-Daudet.

Do you have any favourite films?

Oh, that’s a hard question. I loved Anatomy of a Fall. I was struck by how close the film is to my novel On Guard. I was also drawn to the Korean film Parasite which came out when I was writing On Guard. I love Hitchcock. I made a reference to Psycho in the book. Before writing the novel, I reviewed a few of his films and tried to recreate the constant tension that prevails in his films. One scene that was instrumental for the writing of the book was the scene in which Norman Bates watches his victim through a hole in the wall. It’s exactly the eye that I wanted to write about in On Guard.

One last question: do you think you will continue to write domestic fiction or do you intend to diversify?

Recently, I told myself that I would stop writing about apartments. My new book is set in a house, so there’s a little improvement there. I suppose I’m condemned to write about families. They’re a microcosm for society at large. I like to delve into the secrets they hide.


Amélie Cordonnier is a novelist and a freelance literary journalist for the French press.

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