HélèneGestern author of ‘The People in the Photo,’ which is published today by Gallic Books, talks to me about her debut novel, her inspirations and hints at what’s to come next in French literature.
Your debut novel ‘Eux sur la photo’ has already won 15 literary awards in France, did you expect it to be so successful?</P
Actually, it has won 25 awards to this day. I never expected such a success. I had just written a text and didn’t even think about publication. A friend of mine, who had read the story, convinced me to send it to a publisher. I sent the manuscript by post, the most ordinary way, and I got a positive answer.
Do you feel pressure now to produce an equally successful second novel?
No. When I’m writing, I am totally involved in the project, and I do not think about anything else, neither publication nor success. In truth I refuse to take these dimensions in account. I’ve already published another novel, La Part du feu and I’m completing a third one. Obviously, I’ll be happy if they get as many readers as my debut novel, but that’s not my purpose.
The focus is on family history – are the experiences based on someone you know, or events in your own life?
This story is not mine. It is based on some themes (like silence around past) that sound actually very familiar to me, but they appear in the novel after major transpositions. I do not feel authorized to evoke my relative’s private life.
The leading lady shares your first name is this important/ meaningful in some way?
I suppose it is, even if I didn’t have a long reflection about it. As I said, this text was not aimed to be published and when I wrote it, it was obvious that its narrator should be called Hélène. I’m aware that this creates a strange autobiographical effect, but it was not an intentional one. At the end, I tried to replace this first name by another, but it sounds so unnatural that I preferred to give Hélène her name back.
How and why did you decide to structure the novel as being a series of letters?
The project was entirely based on an epistolary system : the challenge was to tell the story through two voices, two sensibilities, these of a man and a women who have a different look on their parents’ past. I would describe what happens in their memory, their lives and maybe their souls when they discover the truth. Their reactions (to refuse ? to accept ?) were as important for me as the events they discover. In fact, I introduced a third narrator, more neutral : the unknown voice that describes each photograph.
Are photography and the way it documents history something close to your heart?
I’m completely fascinated by photography, and I’ve observed and commented on it for years. I can spend hours in a museum or in a bookshop to look at pictures, observe peoples’ faces and try to guess which message these fragile tracks try to deliver us through years. Paradoxically (and maybe is it the main reason of my interest), I do not own family pictures.
Was the 1970’s a conscious choice for the setting of the original photo?
It was absolutely a conscious choice that the first plot, Pierre and Natalia’s meeting, takes place in the decade preceding May 68. At this time, women were torn between a compelling aspiration to independence, and social rules that prevented them from living on their own. This contradiction was awful and reached a point of no return in France; it was one of the reasons (even if rarely noticed) for social French revolt in May 68. Natalia’s destiny is a sad illustration of it. The People on the Photo is, among other thing, a tribute to this generation of women, and especially to those who sacrificed their dreams under social and family pressure.
What authors/books do you feel have influenced your writing?
As epistolary genre is concerned, certainly Madame de Sévigné, a French Marquess of XVIIth century who wrote thousands of letters to her daughter, Madame de Grignan, and, in another style, Choderlos de Laclos (The Dangerous Liaisons). I also read much poetry when I was younger, and it created a close relationship with language. I read now few novels (I prefer diaries and autobiographies), but admire very much Perec, Sebald or Munoz Molina, because of their art of construction. I am in love with Anne-Marie Garat’s books, a French author whose whole literary work is dedicated to photography; Annie Ernaux, who created a genre between autobiography and sociology, had also and still has a deep influence on me.
What book are you reading now?
Jean-Luc Bénoziglio’s La Pyramide Ronde. The story of a Pharaoh so convinced of his omnipotence that he orders his architect to build a spherical pyramid.
Can you give us an idea of what your next book will be about?
The project I am working on is based on a picture, taken during a tragic event and published in newspapers and on the internet. It destroys the life of the two persons appearing on it. The point is : is any counterattack is possible in the age of the internet ?
What’s your must-have writing snack?
I have none.