Interview will be held at The Poisoned Pen Bookstore on June 12th by Christopher Reich.
A Conversation with Joël Dicker
Q: Your website says that you wrote The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair because you wanted to try your hand at an “American novel.” Did you simply mean “set in America” or something else?
A: I simply wanted to place a work of fiction in a New England setting, a place I know well. Very quickly I realized that I was so familiar with the US that I could allow myself to create an American town with American characters. Actually, this book helped me discover a part of myself: that I could surpass my origins and my writing language, and recreate a part of the United States in French.
Q: What do you love most about this book, and what do you hope that your American readers will love about it?
A: What I like best about the book is the New England atmosphere, which reminds me of my childhood summers. While writing it, I was consulting my own happy memories on a daily basis. For 25 years now, I’ve spent one or two months a year in North America. Because of this, I really feel that I know America from the inside. I hope that my American readers will also feel at home, and will grant me the privilege of being accepted as an author who writes about America without being American myself.
Q: The structure of the book—the switches between perspectives and time periods, the reverse numbering of the chapters, etc.—adds to the mystery narrative. Why did you choose to structure the book this way?
A: It’s a countdown. I like the fact that the reader will know how many chapters are left before the end. When I watch a film, I like to know how long it will last in order to know where I am. Am I in the middle of the film, or near the end? When a book has chronological chapters, you never know how many chapters are left until the end. In my book, I wanted my reader to be able to know.
I wanted to entertain my readers, and give them a moment of pleasure in their busy lives. It’s a big book! So if readers are stressed about how many pages or chapters are left, that takes away from the pleasure of reading. If you know where you are in the intrigue, you can concentrate on each chapter instead of wondering when it will end.
Q: This is only your second novel, and already it’s a major bestseller in Europe. Could you talk about what inspired you to write this book?
A: I wanted to write a story about a teacher-student relationship, about the transmission of values from one person to another. Marcus and Harry were the first characters I created for this novel. Then I decided to create a universe around them, and that’s when I imagined the town of Somerset.
Q: Many writers fall victim to what’s called the sophomore slump. You did just the opposite and wrote a second book that was even more successful than your first. Did you—like your characters—experience a long period of writer’s block before you began Harry Quebert? Did you have any inkling that you had written a million-plus-copy bestseller?
A: No, luckily I’ve never had writers’ block. Sometimes I have doubts, as there are always lots of questions that arise while a book evolves, but I’ve never had a block. Doubt is good: it makes us re-examine ourselves and allows our work to progress. So no, I never thought this book would be a bestseller, because of my doubts. In fact, I was wondering who amongst my friends would accept to read such a long manuscript all the way to the end!
Q: It’s impossible to read Harry Quebert without thinking of Lolita. How much—if at all—were you conscious of Nabokov’s novel while writing your own?
A: The LOLITA image came to me late. I was well into writing the book when I decided that Harry’s character would have a relationship with a young girl. In my head I immediately made the link to LOLITA, from which came my reference N-O-L-A, like L-O-L-I-T-A. However, having read LOLITA when I was 15, I had an image which was much more naïve than the image that hit me straight in the face when I re-read the book a few months ago. I realized that we evolve with books, and that reading LOLITA at age 15 or at age 29 is a different experience.
Q: What about Marcus and Harry inspired you to create the very specific environment of Somerset around them?
A:I created Somerset before creating Marcus and Harry. I wanted to convey the atmosphere of small-town New England to my European readers, so I created the “character” of Somerset before creating the people.
Q: Like you, the novel’s narrator is a young, attractive, and incredibly successful author. Do the parallels between Marcus Goldman and Joël Dicker go any deeper?
A: No, not at all. There is a little bit of me in each character. That’s normal, since I’m the one who created them. But besides our common love of running, there is no more Marcus in me than there is Harry, Jenny, Tamara, Robert or Gahalowood.
Q: The central mystery of the novel—what happened to Nola Kellergan?—is extremely compelling. Why do you feel that mystery stories are so popular? As a European author with a mystery set in America, what differences—if any—have you noticed between European and American mysteries?
A: The truth is, I never read crime novels, so it’s impossible for me to compare how they’re written in different countries. As for the mystery of what happened to Nola, what happened to her is obviously terrible, but it’s also a “banal” crime. How many children disappear in the world every day? I didn’t want to tell a story just about a crime, but rather a story about banality in its most sordid aspects. I think that mystery novels are so popular because an investigation is guided by the principle of curiosity, and curiosity is what pushes us forward. We are all curious–that’s part of human nature.
Q: You are Swiss but your book is set in New England and the American dialogue is entirely convincing. Have you visited New Hampshire and are there any particular places there that you like? What do you like about them?
A: I am from Geneva, Switzerland. It’s a beautiful place but with natural barriers on three sides: the lake, and two mountain ranges. So when I was a kid, driving through those long stretches of trees really impressed me.
I love the Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine area. I’ve been going there every summer for 25 years, and I know the area like home. I spent a lot of time in the town of Stonington, Maine, in particular. I also like the town of Bar Harbor, Maine, and in my book, I modeled the town of Somerset on the layout of Bar Harbor.
My cousins, who live in Washington, DC, have a house in Stonington, Maine, so going there just came naturally ever since my childhood. How many times I’ve crossed New England, specifically Massachusetts and New Hampshire, to get to Stonington! Because of that, I put those places in my book in order to share them with my readers in Europe, to show them some of the regions and settings that live within me.
Q: Fiction about academics—both professors and students—is very popular now. Why do you think that these stories are so popular, and why did you choose to have your novel’s two main characters be a professor and his student?
A: Probably because students have the world in front of them: they are choosing their own road, their path, their destiny. Students still have their destiny in their own hands. This is not the case with professors, who in general have already settled into their chosen career. I think that this situation–having your destiny in your own hands or having chosen and accepted your destiny–is something that we all experiment with at some point in our lives, because we eventually fall on one side or the other. It’s a universal experience, one to which everyone can relate.
Q: You make very real the experience of daily life in a small, close-knit community. Did you base any of the characters or episodes on people in your own life?
A: No, this is a very important rule for me. Never mix reality with fiction. And the pleasure of writing a book is to invent scenes and characters. Reproducing something which I’ve already lived doesn’t interest me at all.
Q: In the book you write about the process of publishing a book (writers’ block, agents, editors, public response, etc.), which adds a fascinating, potentially self-referential element to the narrative. Why did you choose to write about writing, and what do you feel it contributes to the story?
A: I wanted to speak about writing because I wanted to use the first person “I” to give strength to the narration, but I was afraid of falling into writing a fictionalized autobiography. By choosing an author who is older than I, and with a completely different life from mine, I tried to give credibility to this “I,” while distancing myself as much as possible in order to be a veritable storyteller and not simply tell a story from my little daily life.
Q: You began your writing career early and founded a nature magazine when you were only ten. But then you went to law school before returning to writing. Why the detour?
A: Because I also wanted to study, and to get a diploma. There are no creative writing courses in Switzerland or France, and the Humanities Department at the university didn’t interest me. I’ve always liked law. For me, it wasn’t a detour. I like variety.
Q: Harry Quebert, the title character, is a great writer. His student, Marcus Goldman, wants to become one. What great writers do you admire, and why? How have they influenced your own writing?
A: Romain Gary is my favorite author. His work and his story touch me more than anyone else’s. He hadan incredible life story which is common knowledge in Europe: he won the Goncourt prize twice, but once under a pseudonym which wasn’t discovered until after his death. He was married to the American actress Jean Seberg and he wrote a lot about race relations in the U.S. in the 1960s.
Marguerite Duras, because I like her style. You get the impression that there’s not one word too many, that her sentences are perfect constructions, as if each word were a brick and if you took one out the whole work would fall apart.
John Steinbeck, because Of Mice and Men is the first book that literally bowled me over. Of Mice and Men is a true lesson of what the narrative force of a story should be. With few words, and with lots of allusions and hidden meanings, Steinbeck leads us across landscapes, a story, tension, and the distress of his characters. Steinbeck knows to go beyond words, and I think that’s exactly where storytelling resides: in the unspoken.
Philip Roth, because he is probably the greatest contemporary writer. Reading his work, you retrace the story of America of the last 50 years.
Dostoyevsky, because he’s the first author I read who made me understand the importance of narration in a novel. To open one of his novels is to enter a world completely.
Q: The novel has an incredibly cinematic feel. How would you feel about it being turned into a movie?
A: Excited obviously, because the movie world is very exciting. But worried at the same time: books are better than movies. The imagination is free, time is unlimited, and characters take the face you lend them. Cinema is not free: the film’s length is limited, you have to cut so it fits into two hours, and the characters faces are set as the actors’ faces who play them.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m working on a new novel. I prefer not to talk about it, because that’s my fun, and my freedom, to be the only one to know for the moment. I think it’s a pity to talk about the book you’re in the middle of writing: you deprive yourself of a rare and precious moment of freedom.
“A Paris Apartment winds between past and present, between two passionate women and their lives, loves and fortunes. Informed and assured, debut author Gable’s prose is fresh and emotionally complex. Glimpses into Parisian life, the arts, and the high-end antiquities trade are piquant accents to an exceptional mystery.” – Sophie Littlefield, National Best-selling author
The 5th three-day gathering of international enthusiasts of the bestselling historical crime series – The Sister Fidelma Mysteries by Peter Tremayne – will be held in Cashel, Co. Tipperary, Ireland, from Friday, September 12, to Sunday, September 14, 2014. The venue will be The Cashel Palace Hotel.
This year’s event will be opened by Irish Minister of State Alan Kelly TD of the Department of Transport, Tourism and Spot.
The series, which has appeared in 18 languages, is set in 7th Century Ireland whose sleuthing heroine is Fidelma, sister of King Colgú of Munster. With her companion, a Saxon, Brother Eadulf, she is an advocate of the Brehon Laws of ancient Ireland. There are now 25 books in the series.
Booklist (Journal of the American Library Association) has called it: ‘The most authentically detailed medieval mystery series currently being published.’ The Irish Examiner has also called it ‘the most detailed and vivid recreation of ancient Ireland.’ The Belfast Telegraph comments: ‘This is masterly storytelling from an author who breathes fascinating life into the world he is writing about.’
The organisers of the Féile Fidelma are a sub-committee of the Cashel Arts Festival Committee. The Féile Fidelma was first held in 2006 and has become an important part of Cashel’s literary world. This will be an extra special event as it will coincide with the twentieth anniversary of the publication of the first ever Sister Fidelma novel – Absolution by Murder in 1994.
An impressive program has been arranged. Among expert speakers is Professor Ed Rielly from Maine, USA, who is co-editor, with David Wooten, of the academic collection of essays The Sister Fidelma Mysteries: The Historical Novels of Peter Tremayne (2012).
Professor Pádraig Ó Riain of University College Cork, who is Ireland’s leading scholastic expert of the Fidelma’s period, will be talking about the Eóghanachta (Fidelma’s family) and the earliest writings at Cashel.
Dr Ann Buckley of Trinity College Dublin, a leading expert on liturgical music in Fidelma’s time and Dr Regina Sexton, University College Cork, leading expert on food in Fidelma’s time will be talking on their subjects.
A talk on horse breeds in Fidelma’s period, coinciding with a visit to the famous Irish Stud, Coolmore, will be given by equestrian expert Noel Mullins. He has not only authored two books about the origin of horses in Ireland, as well as countless articles in equestrian journals, but he is a expert advising and appearing in many films and television shows on the subject. In 2005, for example, he played a huntsman in the remake of ‘Lassie’ with Peter O’Toole.
David Wooten, the founder of The International Sister Fidelma Society, its director and editor of its thrice yearly journal The Brehon, will be introducing and chairing the evening with the author, Peter Tremayne. He will also be winding up the event on Sunday with his usual look at the state of Fidelma’s World. He will be reflecting on the Society’s thirteen years of existence (it was founded in 2001 and The Brehon was launched in February, 2002). And, of course, he will be examining the Féile Fidelma past and present and future.
The ever popular ‘Voice of Fidelma’, Irish actress Caroline Lennon who reads the UK Sister Fidelma audio books published by Soundings, Isis Publishing Ltd. Audible in the US will soon be issuing all the Fidelma Mysteries read by Caroline. Caroline is also well known on stage and screen. For nine years she played the character ‘Siobhan’ in BBC Radio’s popular soap ‘The Archers’.
On-line registration has already started from March 1, 2014. If you now register before May 1, 2014, there is a 10% discount at US$195 or currency equivalents. From May 1 the full registration amount of US$225 or currency equivalents comes into force. This covers entry to all the talks, the visit to the famous Coolmore Stud farm, the reception, coffee and biscuit breaks over the weekend and the gala dinner at the Cashel Palace Hotel.
Fidelma Society director, David R. Wooten says: ‘When registrations opened on March 1, we were highly delighted with the immediate response. Within three weeks, groups of fans for nine countries had registered and we are still a long way from September 12. Obviously, the Sister Fidelma enthusiasts believe this is an event that is far too exciting in the calendar of Fidelma’s World to miss. We intend to make it the biggest and most successful Sister Fidelma Mysteries gathering yet.’
A new voice came roaring out of British Columbia a couple of years ago and blew the crime reading public out of the water. The Professionals was an amazing debut with a fresh conceit, a startling band of outlaws and an unusual odd couple for detectives. The razor sharp plot and the page turning execution led to huge sales and many awards. The affable and handsome young lion of an author took the reading public with him for his second book, Criminal Enterprise, and let everyone know that there would be no sophomore slump from this Canuck. It has been a long wait but Mr. Laukkanen’s new book is finally here. Kill Fee brings back the odd pairing of Carla Windermere, a black female FBI agent and Kirk Stevens, a married father and Minnesota state cop. How they come to be working together is skillfully portrayed in a slam-bang opening scene. The book once again features a novel idea ripped from the headlines.
What do we do with our damaged soldiers who are returning from a fruitless war. How do we treat the psychic wounds they carry with them? This problem is cunningly “solved” in an unexpected way by the author.
Like an action film that never lets up, Kill Fee wends its way through a labyrinth of clues as the two detectives find themselves embroiled in a Manchurian Candidate nightmare. As the tension builds they find unexpected feelings rising between them and how they deal with these only keeps the pages turning. This is a police procedural and a first-rate thriller. Do not miss it.
What would you do if a young man you knew only vaguely started work at your office, and asked you to share a picnic lunch? How would you feel if he then started to bombard you with gifts, emails and phone calls? At just what point would you decide that this was more than a crush… and needed to be regarded as serious stalking? Questions like these are the starting-point for Names of the Dead, a recent crime thriller by Katia Lief. This author is best-known for the Karin Schaeffer private eye series, but the heroine of her standalone novel, Darcy Mayhew, is an investigative journalist at the New York Times. That means the book will appeal to anyone who enjoys reading novels set in newsrooms, such as Julie Kramer’s Delivering Death, recently reviewed here at Poisoned Fiction.
A 30-something widow who has moved from Martha’s Vineyard to the Big Apple to rebuild her life, Darcy is an appealing heroine. Anyone who enjoys the whole female private eye style of fiction will immediately be sucked in by her wry, humorous first-person narration, which is compulsively readable. However, as Darcy finds her home life with her young son Nat under threat from a stalker, the appropriately-named mailroom worker Joe Coffin, the book also has strong elements of the “domestic suspense” genre, highlighted in the LA Times.
The novel is quite short, so it can almost be read at a sitting – and it might be a mistake to pick it up if you have to do something urgent in the next couple of hours. The newsroom atmosphere is convincingly created, and, refreshingly, Darcy actually has to work on more than one story at a time – unlike many fictional journalists who can spend weeks at a time on one investigation without their bosses batting an eyelid! All the same, most of her effort becomes focused on one particular scandal, after a whistle-blower approaches her with a story which carries deadly undertones. As she becomes increasingly obsessed by this investigation, it’s all too easy to ignore Joe’s obsession with her, and to convince herself it doesn’t matter all that much. Maybe he was outside her door by coincidence – and maybe leaving a bagel and coffee at her desk for breakfast was just a friendly gesture. Maybe.
The book builds up the tension well, with little details adding together to make Joe an increasingly scary figure. In the UK, the novel is published under a different title, focusing more on the threat he poses – Watch You Die. However, the US title is more true to the book’s main theme, because this is a novel with dark underpinnings, focusing on bereavement and grieving. Darcy is struggling to come to terms with the loss of her beloved husband, Hugo, and to allow herself to love again. Her own emotions also give her an insight into the suffering of her parents, who were both Holocaust survivors. Meanwhile, as she gains a greater understanding of her mother’s feelings in the past, she has to face up to the risk of losing her in the present, as she is a victim of advancing Alzheimer’s Disease. These are grim themes and there is a danger that the piling up of misery could get a bit much, yet somehow the novel never feels depressing. This is mainly because of the witty prose style – and also because there are lighter sections woven in, such as Darcy’s vivid memories of her life in Martha’s Vineyard, and her tentative second-time-around romance with her son’s gorgeous teacher.
It’s not just this novel which goes by more than one name. The author, who is a creative writing tutor, has herself published under three different names. Her first books were issued under her maiden name, Katia Spiegelman, next she wrote her first thrillers using a pseudonym, Kate Pepper (the surname was borrowed from a pet cat) and then she started writing her married name, Katia Lief. She has written a lighthearted essay asking “What’s In a Name?”, where she admits that at times she has ended up confusing herself. Many of her heroines also have similar names, adding to the muddle. It all means that, if you get hooked on this author’s style and want to catch up with her various books, you’ll have to do quite a bit of searching to find them all.
Here at The Poisoned Pen, we never shy away from the grittier things in life. In fact, we like it grisly, murderous, complicated, metaphorical, fantastic, and everything else in the entire range of literature. Maybe because we can see our characters losing control over their lives, we are instantly drawn to the drama that will ensue, or maybe it is the vicarious thrill of doing something dangerous and illegal, something that we would not dare to do in real life. Whatever the reason: murder, incest, violence, sex ‘n’ drugs ‘n’ rock ‘n’ roll, they are all superb backdrops to a really great story. We have reviewed books about drug culture before. The Panopticon was a huge success as a novel and is reported to have secured a movie deal to be made by Ken Loach. Annoyingly, it will have to have a different name as there is already a movie that came out in 2012 with the name “Panopticon”.
Right name, wrong movie
It is the same situation with “Narcopolis”. The novel by Jeet Thayil won the DSC prize for South Asian Literature in 2013, quite an achievement for a first novel, but if a movie version is ever made it will have to be under a different name to avoid confusion with a futuristic thriller coming out later this year (2014). The novel is set in the Bombay (now Mumbai) of the 1970s and is the story of several characters who are already part of the opium scene descending further into their own personal hell. Part of the fascination with the novel rests with the author himself. Thayil was an alcoholic and drug addict for twenty years so when he writes of the hallucinations and the cravings, you know that he is speaking from experience, which makes the fate of his characters even more poignant. If you are worried that this genre of fiction glamorizes drugs and substance abuse, rest assured that there is nothing glamorous about the actions of any of the characters. In fiction, as in real life, the reality of addiction is dark and desperate.
The main characters
Rashid is an opium house owner and it is in his den that we meet the other characters. In a way, he is proud of his den. He has the best opium, the best hostess, and the best reputation of all the dens. As he begins to get sucked down into the opium life, however, he starts to lose his grip on it all. His business falls away, unable to compete with the newer, nastier, quicker and harder hitting drugs of the 1980s, and yet he is now powerless to do anything about it.
Dimple is the center of this almost plot-less novel. She is the opium den hostess, a eunuch who turned to opium to relieve the pain of her operation, only to find a whole new world of pain opening up. It is her skills at making up pipes of opium that help to draw other people into the den, yet she is more aware than anyone else in the novel of what is waiting at the end of the line. She is a truly tragic figure, in that she cannot escape her fate. Customers who come and go from the den have a choice of whether to walk away from opium, or stay and spiral into addiction. Dimple has never had that choice, and she faces her ultimate demise with fortitude, fighting only with an attempt to educate herself in order that her life not be wasted.
Mr. Lee’s story is, in a way, the story of opium itself, escaping from China to India. It is he who leaves Dimple his genuine Chinese opium pipes in his will, in exchange for her promise to return his ashes to China, a promise she never manages to fulfill. Of all the characters, we get more back story of Mr. Lee, possibly because it is through him that the opium pipes come to Dimple and thence to Rashid’s den. By the book’s end, heroin and its offshoots have taken over as the self-obliteration of choice, and Rashid’s son runs the den like a business, with total contempt for his staff and customers. In the way that we all love the era in which we were young, no matter what the economic and political situation around us, the opium den with its horrors is viewed with nostalgia.
Thayil was a poet before he was a novelist and his skills with words shows throughout the novel. The first chapter of the book is one long, breathless sentence that makes your head spin and your heart race, much as an opium high might do. It is a book both painful and sad, and yet it manages to be funny in places as it flicks from one character to another without much happening directly, while outside the den, Bombay grows up and changes into a harsher version of itself.
Flirtations of the most dangerous and serious sort entangle Frances Stuart first in the court of Louis XIV and then in the Restoration court of Charles II. Despite the luscious gowns and extravagant jewels she wins for herself, we don’t envy her the high-wire balancing act she must maintain as she tries to win first one king’s influence and then another, while concealing the tragic secrets that would destroy her family and herself. That she manages to hold onto her virginity and her dignity for much of this engaging book while obeying the selfish commands of various powerful women and men is a testament to the inner strength and resiliency of Frances Stuart, the famous mistress of Charles II. This remarkable woman carries the book—we deeply want her to find happiness and an identity that will allow her to remain true to herself. The first step that she must accomplish is to understand her own nature and sense of purpose. That isn’t easy in the treacherous seas of the courts she grows up in, nor is it easy to find when everyone who should love and protect her is out to use her. Frances carries the weight of her mother’s and siblings’ futures as well as her own. This is a book about an admirable woman in morally ambiguous circumstances where the price of failing at any one moment can destroy a family or a country. That’s a lot of pressure on one young woman, and the turns and twists of her life will keep you thrilled on every page. That Jefferson has so fully and accurately recreated the splendor of the Restoration court—its rich fabrics, gems, palaces, dalliances and betrayals—adds to the delight.