An Interview with Writer Julia Deck
I met Paris-based novelist Julia Deck at the legendary Café de Flore after work. The Flore and the Deux Magots had long been rival St. Germain expat literary Parisian hangout cafes and are now mostly populated in the front terraces by tourists and avoided at all costs by Parisians for that very reason. The upstairs space of the Flore, however, is free of tourists and has a dedicated place for working and debating; I hung out there with my activist-philosopher friends for Susan Sontag and Bernard-Henri Lévy meetings during the Bosnian war in the early ’90s. This is where Julia and I met, though we had to give up our places after a few hours when a huge group of academics arrived for an evening session on nineteenth-century travel literature.
Both of us are bilingual—Julia speaks Franco-British and I speak Franco-American—and we decided upon meeting that we would conduct this interview in English (though it was punctuated by French). We focused on her runaway hit first novel Viviane Élisabeth Fauville, the year 2012, Paris, unreliable narrators, knives, and Columbo.
I. UNRELIABLE NARRATOR
THE BELIEVER: I’m having a whiskey, would you like one?
JULIA DECK: No, I think I will have a pot of tea.
BLVR: OK. I’m going to jump right in here. Do you know what the choice was for changing the title of your novel from Viviane Élisabeth Fauville [in France] to Viviane [in America]?
JD: The American publisher suggested making it shorter, and I was fine with it.
BLVR: In fact, the copy says “A Novel,” then Viviane. Where did that come from? Were the American publishers worried people would think it was a memoir? An autobiography?
JD: I didn’t really notice that, as French covers always specify roman [“novel”] below the title, sometimes even when it’s not a novel. Publishers here have the idea that it sells better like that. Anyway, I can understand that people would want to change the title in another language, as it’s already difficult to remember in French, but the book’s also been translated in Swedish, German, and Italian, and they all kept the full, three-part name. That was actually quite flattering.
BLVR: To me the full three names are so important, because the novel is so much about the question of “who am I?” and the identity of the unreliable narrator. You never know if the narrator is Viviane or Élisabeth or Fauville (faux-ville, or “false city”). Did you have any reservations about the change of title?
JD: Not really, though I wouldn’t have minded a completely different title. We just never really talked about it, and when they suggested Viviane, I trusted their judgment.
BLVR: I think that the city of Paris is such a big character in the book. Especially when, now, I mean, I’m taking the Metro and I’m back in Paris and every page in the novel has at least two Metro stations or a different street name or address. It reminds me of André Breton’s Nadja in that way. Nadja, by the way, starts with the question “Who am I?” and is about madness and the city—like Viviane, in a way, except of course it is narrated by a man about the absence of a woman, which has nothing to do with Viviane. The city of Paris is not only a background in Viviane, or stage or topography, it is a character.
JD: Absolutely. It’s probably one of the most important characters of the book. We start with this woman who’s completely alone. All that she can remember is that she’s just murdered her analyst—
BLVR: May have.
JD: Well, she has.
BLVR: Has she?
JD: [Chuckling] In a way, she definitely has, yeah. He’s dead, anyway.
BLVR: He’s definitely dead. It’s an Oedipal story for sure. [Laughs]
JD: Anyhow, Viviane seems totally lost. Her husband has just left her, she’s left with their newborn baby, doesn’t seem to have any friends or family, so the only thing that she can relate to is the city. And while she’s trying to figure out what she’s done by going around the streets of Paris, she starts investigating other suspects of the crime. There’s the analyst’s wife, his mistress, another violent patient, and deep down she’s very jealous of them all, as she’s the only one that the police don’t seem interested in.
BLVR: Did you make a map of Viviane in Paris to keep up with her meanderings?
JD: I did. It’s just a sketch; it doesn’t look like anything. But at one point I felt the need to draw everything out on paper to visualize her path.
BLVR: Right. I got lost in Paris while reading it, both in the book and actually, while reading it—I got off the wrong metro and got lost in the ninth. Is Viviane tracing real steps through the city?
JD: The description of Paris is extremely accurate. I had this idea that even though I was writing a novel, everything had to be true. So if a reader went around Paris looking for the buildings or all the places that are mentioned, he’d see everything exists and is in the exact same spot where I say it is. It was like a rule that I had.
BLVR: And the psychoanalyst is in the same building?
JD: No, the characters are all fictional.
BLVR: The narrator murders her shrink early in the story, and the murder is printed on the back cover of the French edition—in a way, the murder takes place before we even read the book. The rest of the story around the crime is told from the point of view of an unreliable narrator.
JD: I think what might be deceptive is that you don’t necessarily realize from the beginning that the story is told from her point of view. That becomes more and more apparent as you reach the end. So Viviane is telling everything from her perspective, then it turns out that what she can remember is not strictly true, and that’s obviously a bit confusing because the reader suddenly has to rearrange the facts from a different angle.
II. DE MAISON
BLVR: I immediately thought of Alain Robbe-Grillet, the writer and filmmaker associated with the French Nouveau Roman along with Nathalie Sarraute and Claude Simon, and who published his novel Les Gommes (The Erasers) with your publisher, Les Éditions de Minuit, in 1953. We think of him when we think of Editions de Minuit, along with Samuel Beckett, whom you quote at the beginning of the novel: “I have been here, ever since I began to be, my appearance elsewhere having been put in by other parties.”
JD: Beckett is definitely a strong influence, even though Viviane is much more traditional in its structure than anything he ever wrote. As for Robbe-Grillet, I read him when I was at university, so that was a while ago. I think I was more influenced by the more recent generation of the authors published by Editions de Minuit, like Jean-Philippe Toussaint or Jean Echenoz. The thing is, they were very much influenced by Robbe-Grillet and his way of playing with the genres of detective and spy novels. So for myself, I’d say it’s more of an indirect reference.
BLVR: Les Gommes resembles a detective novel, like Viviane, and it contains within it a deeper structure based on the tale of Oedipus, too—but maybe all stories are Oedipal?
Les Éditions de Minuit is a very prestigious and small publishing house, and you are referred to by critics as “très maison” or your work as “de maison”—in other words, “very Editions de Minuit,” “of the Minuit home,” with its heady history of Marguerite Duras and Critique with Georges Bataille, etcetera. What are your other literary influences, if they are not “of the maison”?
JD: Until I was about twenty-three, I only read classics from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century. I studied at the Sorbonne, and in those days they had the idea that literature more or less ended with Sartre. It was the mid-’90s; all I had read beyond that were a couple of books by Samuel Beckett and a bit of Duras. Then after I graduated I went to the States to intern at a couple of publishing houses. That’s when I realized that if I was going to be serious about writing, I had to get interested in contemporary fiction.
BLVR: So you interned at publishing houses in New York?
JD: Yeah, I spent three months at Farrar, Straus & Giroux, and another couple at Henry Holt. That was very educational for me. I started reading the American authors that were talked of in France at the time, like Bret Easton Ellis, Paul Auster, Donna Tartt, Jay McInerney… I guess it was my introduction to contemporary literature.
BLVR: And I’m wondering if your second novel, Le Triangle d’Hiver, which I am about to read, is of the Éditions de Minuit genre?
JD: Not so visibly, I think. Le Triangle d’hiver is about a young woman who’s in deep trouble and decides that things would be much simpler if she assumed the identity of a character from a film. So she becomes the novelist Bérénice Beaurivage, a protagonist from Éric Rohmer’s L’arbre, le maire et la médiathèque. As it happens, she looks very much like the actress Arielle Dombasle, who portrays Bérénice in the film.
BLVR: Dombasle was made famous in Eric Rohmer’s Pauline at the Beach—and of course The Blue Villa by Robbe-Grillet! And she is married to Lévy—she could be here right now at the Flore with us. Is she?
JD: She very well might be around; this is totally her kind of place. [Laughter] So Arielle Dombasle is supposed to be a writer in the film, and my character thinks, Oh, that sounds like something interesting to do, and I do look like her, so let’s actually be her. Soon she starts going around introducing herself as this character she’s not, and for a while it goes alright, until she falls in love under this false identity, because—well, lies and intimacy, that’s obviously going to be a problem.
BLVR: Like the ultimate Viviane questions of “Who am I really?” and, second, “Am I guilty?”
JD: Yes. In the book there is virtually no information about who she was before she decided to become this fictional character, so it poses the question of what lies beneath the social persona.
BLVR: You mentioned Duras and you mentioned Sartre—you’re a very intellectual writer, very theoretical…
JD: I’m not sure about that. When I write, I try not to have a theoretical framework. I work more with intuition. I’m very interested in how the characters are going to develop, or in how I can include all sorts of tiny details that would pass unnoticed in daily life. That’s definitely what I’m sensitive to when I read, what I think makes the writing powerful. But I’m also aware that the book needs to be based on solid ground. My worst fear is that the reader is going to be bored, so I write intuitively and then rewrite and reorganize and rewrite and reorganize some more, until it seems to me that the book can almost be read from beginning to end without stopping. That’s why the two books are quite short. I’m working on a longer project right now, but I still think every word has to be essential. If you can get rid of something, then don’t use it.
BLVR: You are very Lacanian to me in your use of words. And Viviane is built around a very fateful session—or should we say “fatal”? So what about psychoanalysis for you? Have you been in Lacanian analysis?
JD: Uh, the analyst who was murdered in Viviane is actually a Freudian.
BLVR: He’s a Freudian?
JD: Yes, I admit it’s a bit ambiguous at times, but the thing is, he keeps going on about how he wants Viviane to have three sessions a week, and that’s something Freudians are obsessed with. I’ve also noticed that the book is a lot more popular with Lacanians here. It’s funny because I used to go and see shrinks, and now they come to see me. I’ve met quite a few at my book signings, and was even invited to talk at a Lacanian conference.
BLVR: That’s so funny. You have groupies that are shrinks. Even if—or especially because—a shrink is murdered in Viviane!
JD: I know. For a long time I was almost obsessed with psychoanalysis. What worried me was how a person who seems completely normal, like Viviane, could from one minute to the next start doing totally crazy things that no one would have thought her capable of. That’s what I really wanted to write about.
BLVR: It’s a critique of psychoanalysis, too.
JD: It’s a loving critique.
BLVR: You think so?
JD: I think it is. Psychoanalysis is so much more inspiring than the so-called scientific approach that a lot psychiatrists are going for these days. Problem is, it’s not very effective as a cure. But nothing really is. You can only alleviate the symptoms. Anyway, that’s my personal experience. I tried and tried, but it never really worked for me. So the only other explanation is that I must be a very bad patient.
BLVR: [Laughs] Do you think that it doesn’t work for Viviane? [Pause] Is she a bad patient? Can I ask you a question, for me—and this is being so literal after being more conceptual—how do you explain the knives? There’s such a palpable description of those knives, and feeling the knife and plunging it into the psychiatrist’s belly. As in all the Nouveau Roman, objects take on such incredible significance.
JD: I wanted to be as literal as possible, because this idea of killing one’s analyst, in itself, is just so ridiculous. It’s like the ultimate failure of the cure. As shrinks are always talking about killing the father figure, I thought, Why not turn the tables ’round and kill the analyst? But let’s not do it symbolically, let’s stab him with a kitchen knife. You can’t get more literal than that, can you?
BLVR: That’s fantastic. [Laughter] It’s interesting because each review of your book or synopsis talks about the murder sort of immediately. No one cries “spoiler alert.” There’s a sense that the whole story is built around the crime that happens as early as page eight, exactly when we start to feel the unreliability of the narrator. The question then becomes, “Did I commit the crime?” It’s a really interesting perversion of the detective novel.
JD: That’s probably because I haven’t read that many detective novels, and most of my inspiration comes from American TV. Well, the American TV that I watched on French TV when I was a teenager, like Columbo, where you know who commits the crime right from the beginning, so the tension has to be built ’round something else.
BLVR: Well, that’s like Moderato Cantabile by Duras.
JD: Is it? I did read Moderato Cantabile a long time ago, but I remember Columbo a lot better. [Laughs]
BLVR: Is she Columbo?
JD: Well, it was my immediate reference, for structure at least. I do like working with stereotypes. For the scene of the murder that you were referring to earlier, I thought, “I really have to put myself in her shoes,” so I tried to imagine exactly how it would work for me, if I were stabbing someone face to face. That’s actually quite dizzying.
BLVR: Is the mystery solved at the end of the book?
JD: I think it is. [Pause] OK, let’s say there are two options left at the end. I have my own idea of what really happened, which I consider to be the most likely. But some readers like to see it differently, and that’s absolutely fine with me. When a book is published, it really doesn’t belong to the author anymore.
BLVR: Do you think it’s a happy ending, as they say?
JD: Not really, but I wouldn’t say it’s unhappy, either. It’s completely open.
BLVR: And do you feel that the strength of the novel is precisely the fact that you invite the reader in so intentionally and you confuse the narrator with so many possibilities, with the “you,” the formal French vous, the elle—that you become the narrator in a way? You become Viviane, Élisabeth, the psychoanalyst’s wife, his lover/student, the other patient, you become the policeman but also become the narrator, and you become the victim, in a way?
JD: Yeah, the reader definitely has to play the part of the character at some point, so I can imagine he must sometimes feel like he’s trapped in a maze. But it’s not an experimental novel, either—it’s just open to interpretation. That’s true of all the books that I like, so it’s what I tried to create.
BLVR: So you do like Paul Auster?
BLVR: And Sophie Calle.
JD: Oh, yes, very much.
BLVR: Because I thought that also when I read this book—that it reminded me of Sophie Calle and the pursuit of Paul in Double Game, the game of “je” or “I”; or in Suite Venitienne with her investigatory methods, her surveillance, and the composition of self-notated, diaristic, time-stamped entries in that project and in her other projects, as well, of identity constructed from the outside in, in a way.
JD: I’m very interested in the way Sophie Calle produces art and at the same time invents a game for both herself and anyone who’s willing to participate. To me, writing a book is also creating a game for both myself and the reader.
BLVR: That’s wonderful, because that’s how I felt reading the book. And I didn’t feel manipulated, but I felt like I was actively participating.
JD: Good. Because manipulating the reader, that’s something I would not be comfortable with.
IV. THE FLORE OR DEUX MAGOTS
BLVR: You told me you have never been to the Flore, but it’s right around the corner from all the major publishing houses in Paris, including your own. I just overheard two Gallimard editors talking about something scandalous before you got here—
JD: I did go to the Deux Magots next door once. In fact, I went with two American students I used to share a flat with in the ’90s.
BLVR: It’s just funny because the Flore is nothing like Deux Magots. The upstairs has always been a very, very literary, philosophical place, so I wondered what your perception as a Parisian was?
JD: It’s actually a lot quieter and cozier than I thought it would be. Thanks for introducing me to it!
BLVR: [Addressing the waiter] L’addition s’il vous plait, and please be sure that no knives are missing.