Frédéric Ploussard on storytelling & American literature
Frédéric Ploussard is published by the renowned French publisher Héloïse d’Ormesson. Mobylette (Scooter), his award-winning debut novel, is set in the world of special-needs education. It’s a rumbustious, rollicking rollercoaster of a novel. Ploussard is also an award-winning sculptor. Here, Ploussard is interviewed by the novelist Erik Martiny.
It’s been said that you’re a French John Kennedy Toole. Has American literature had an influence on your work?
I always find that kind of comparison challenging. Being compared to a writer who was never published in his lifetime. The man was paranoid and committed suicide a year after I was born. Be that as it may I do see him as an encouragement to stay strong against adversity. A Confederacy of Dunces is the book I have most often given as a present…
American literature and translated literature has had a great influence on my life, before it had an impact on my creations, both in sculpture and in writing.
It all began in the local library of my small town with the discovery of James Hadley Chase during my teenage years. Realizing you could tell stories in such a way was a real slap in the face. And then came my reading of Chandler, Exbrayat, Crumley…
I’m a voracious reader of all kinds of literature. Works like A Confederacy of Dunces, A Prayer for Owen Meany, Factotum will always have a special place in my heart, as will writers like T. C. Boyle, Stephen King, James Lee Burke or Edward Bunker and Paul Auster…I enjoyed so many motionless journeys thanks to these authors which I read in my teens lying on my bed while life moved on around me and without me.
It left me with a hero or two. Donald Westlake to begin with. I imagined him bursting out laughing as he wrote his Dormunter’s novels and all the others. These books always amazed me. They made me weep with laughter at times when I really needed to.
I started writing in secondary school. My first manuscript was written at that time. I moved on to other artistic pursuits like drawing and sculpting, but these authors remained especially inspiring. They demonstrate that all you needed was perseverance, a thirst for style, a few ideas. You just had to keep immersing yourself in writing until one day, finally…
I used to write for myself, for my three alcoholic friends, for my wife, in snatches, trying to find the right tune, laughing to myself. I would relax, interleave stories, words, ideas, endings, various hypotheses: I’d try to intertwine lengthy stories with the short ones that filled my mind …
I’ve always had all kinds of stories inside me. I’m the exact opposite to a problem man without a past but I’ve done my best not to become a mere muddler.
Jean-Patrick Manchette, Virginie Despentes and David Lodge have also been important to me. The University of Rummidge…
As a student in pharmacy, I remember having to leave a bus because of David Lodge: I was in such stitches of laughter reading Small World that I was lacking air to breathe. I had to get off the bus to get some oxygen into my lungs. I didn’t die in the process, but I did arrive late at the lecture I was supposed to attend. I got expelled by the department: I suppose I wasn’t suited for that type of study anyway.
Reading and swimming have always been my favourite sports. Along with writing and drawing as breathers. Aside from that, I’m a pretty contemplative guy.
What do you like in particular about Paul Auster and T.C. Boyle?
What strikes me in Paul Auster’s writing is clearly his way of dealing with character. His way of padding them out to make them one of a kind. His refined way of making his characters interact and of course his treatment of the setting as a character in its own right. His way of endlessly exploring the city of New York and of making it tangible to the lay reader I used to be. I also like his way of representing the feeling of solitude. That feeling of isolation in the midst of the crowd, either in introspection or in wanderlust. There’s a gentleness about his novels that I find deeply touching …
Leviathan is my favourite work but his New York Trilogy allowed me to spend some wonderfully contemplative evenings.
I’m like Harvey Keitel in Smoke. Like him, I regularly take photographs out the window of my house, snapshots of life as it unfolds amongst the immobility of buildings and the renewal of vegetation, but not only that…
As for T.C. Boyle, I’ve always been fascinated by his ability to write so persuasively about extremely varied topics.
I discovered Water Music as a teenager, the tribulations of Mongo in his search for the Niger’s springs, and I’ll never forget that recipe for stuffed camel which left me stirred: my appetite was excellent in those days.
That beautifully complicated story of marijuana, America, revealing the two facets of a fake jewel, the real and imaginary California, to After the Slaughter, about the ridiculous excesses of ecological-mindedness in our societies: interlinked subjects which he broaches with a sense of realism that often surpasses reality – I just love that. Both Auster and Boyle are simply brilliant.
Black humour occupies a place in your writing, a rather rare phenomenon in French mainstream literature. Were you ever scared you might not make it to publication?
I was indeed afraid of not being published, but not for that reason. There are just so many applicants and so few are chosen.
I just aiming to tell a good story, an interlacing of several stories: special needs education, the oddity of childhood, swimming outdoor at night, drugs and humour (another grey area) – comedy imposed itself early on in my work. “To be able to laugh at everything including myself while providing food for thought” – that’s what keeps me busy these days. Only later do I get round to polishing the text.
A novel should carry the reader to unknown lands, places that aren’t necessarily far from the reader’s world but are too often misrepresented in partial, monolithic or leaden ways. A writer’s job is to do things in a different way with a tightly-knit plot. An alternative way. I try to be funny and profound at the same time.
I try to pamper and shake the reader at the same time. I aim to make the reader laugh, reconsider received wisdom, and at times to shed a tear or two… I’d like readers to remember the emotional trip I took them on when they close the book. I’d also like it to be more than just a constitutional walk for the elderly, or a look into a little-known social phenomenon but a bit of all that laced with a strong strain of humour to make it all credible and sensitive …
Mobylette is the fourth manuscript I’ve written since I started writing seriously and by seriously I mean not writing at work when I’m supposed to be doing something else but 8 to 10 hours a day without feeling the time flying by. It might not have been my first published work if the other ones hadn’t been sent back by various publishers with a standard letter congratulating me and advising me to send it elsewhere or simply to stop writing altogether …
Your allusions also draw on popular culture (from Fast and Furious to The Shining): do you find that French literature cuts itself off from the modern world?
I love popular culture. I personally feel closer to rednecks than to eggheads, even though I’ve found myself at various junctures in the company of the cultural elite without having to blush.
As a teenager, I had a fascination for American trucks (we all have our flaws) – it didn’t help foster my efforts at integration. Already a subscriber to France-Routiers (French Drivers), I asked my grandmother to subscribe at Lui (a naked ladies magazine) so I could improve my general knowledge (I was hoping that she had never heard of the magazine).
I never found out what happened in her head. She must have known that Lui was an erotic magazine and wished to open me up to the woman’s cause by taking out a pernicious subscription for Elle instead, a magazine for which I still have a certain amount of tenderness. So I was probably the only reader in the world who owned a subscription to both France-Routiers and Elle for a whole year. Is that the source of my crazy allusions to popular culture. I’ll never know for sure.
Does French literature cut itself off from the modern and postmodern world? I don’t really think so. French literature is so vast that I think it latches onto every possible theme. However people tend to leave the find-grained quality cultural magazines on their tea-tables more than they would leave pulp fiction made out of paper that leaves ink on your fingers. I personally like both and I have no tea-table at all…
Erik Martiny has taught Anglophone literature, art and film in Cork, Aix-en-Provence, Saint-Germain-en-Laye and Paris. He currently teaches literature, current affairs and translation to prep school students at the Lycée Henri IV in Paris. His short stories and articles have appeared in The London Magazine, The Times Literary Supplement, World Literature Today, The Iowa Review, Litro Magazine, Fjords Review, Frieze, Whitewall, Aesthetica. His debut novel The Pleasures of Queueing came out in 2018. He has since published a novel in French entitled Ne soyez pas timide about Jean Cocteau. His dystopian satire of Brexit, Night of the Long Goodbyes, came out two years ago with Riverboat Books. He has since published a postmodern crime novel, Crown of Beaks, as well as a short story collection, Waiting for Gaudiya. His latest book is The Moose, the Mouse and the Little Irish Boy, an environmentally-friendly children’s book.
For more on Frédéric Ploussard and his most recent book Mobylette, go here.
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