Delphine de Vigan is striking: tall with long, blonde curly hair and a smile which lights up her face, powerful and gentle at the same time. We found a quiet corner in the café of her hotel in Brive, which was bustling with publishers, writers and journalists, and she talked about her career as a writer.
Two of her novels, No et Moi (No and Me) and D’après une histoire vraie (Based on a True Story) have been made into successful films. Many more have been translated into English, and her latest – Loyalties –was published by Bloomsbury in January. Her books explore the relationship between fiction and reality and are often based on her own experiences – in Based on a True Story the heroine is an author and called Delphine.
Tell me a little about your latest book in English, Loyalties
There are four different characters: two women, one a biology teacher and the other the mother of a young boy who is the third character, along with another young boy both of whom are 13, so on the threshold of being adolescent. The four characters are at a crucial moment in their lives, where – in a painful way – they will have to face the question of loyalty, for different reasons, for each one.
Why did you choose this theme. Was it because you think it is one which is of interest to many people?
No, because I don’t really think about the reader when I write. It was more that I chose a theme which interests me because it is something I often ask myself – am I loyal or disloyal?
I have wondered if the importance of loyalty for me was linked to the fact that, when I was a little girl, my parents separated. I think children in this situation ask themselves these questions early on.
I have since discovered it is a central theme for many people, not just those with divorced parents. In the book, I wanted to explore the idea that loyalty is a positive value, and that we need it to help us look at ourselves in a mirror in the morning, but there are times in our life when loyalty prevents us doing or saying things, so that we are often caught in the conflict loyalty presents us with.
To answer your question, I did not think to myself this is a universal theme, so I will write about it, but it was something I personally wanted to explore and then it became evident that it touched a chord in people in a far greater way than I had ever imagined.
So when you write, it is about your own emotions and experiences and is very personal?
Yes, even if it is not necessarily autobiographical, all my books are born from the emotions, sensations, amazement, a revolt that I have felt. What pushes me to write is the fact that sometimes I find myself over-sensitive to the world around me. My writing is there, and then it either communicates with the reader, or not. I am sure that even science fiction writers are talking about their emotional experiences and their way of seeing the world.
Is it in a way a therapy for you? I am in particular thinking of your books when you explore the anorexia you had as a teenager in Jours sans faim and Nothing Holds Back the Night, when you talk about living with a bipolar mother.
No, I wouldn’t say that. I believe in the therapeutic virtues of words when you lie on the psychiatrist’s couch or when you write a diary, but then you can reveal everything. When you write and you are going to be published it is very different.There has to be an element of self-censorship – you don’t necessarily want to share every personal detail with someone else.
When you are writing, even if you do not reveal everything, is it important to find the right words to bring out the truth, and do you think that is why your books are popular – because they reflect real emotions?
I realise now, after some years of writing that I do have a very wide-ranging public. Some who are very literary minded, but also a broader public who do not necessarily read very much.
It is difficult of course to explain why, but what I try to do is to lift up a mirror to the contemporary world which is ours.
I like the idea that my books are very anchored in today’s society and something I try to do is to describe the things, the sensations, the mechanics of violence, to write about class relations, the relations between people and to be as close as possible to what I am writing about.
Often it requires a great deal of effort to find the words that will hit the mark. Often people say to me that I have managed to put the way they have felt into words in a way that rings true and which they couldn’t manage to do themselves.
Your books have been translated into other languages, including English. Do you think your books work well in other cultures and languages?
It is difficult to know. There is always a cultural approach to books, but I think I have an extremely good English translator which is very important.
Many people who speak English but who also know my books very well in French, tell me that the translation is very good.
I am lucky to have someone who has worked with me since I started publishing, so he knows my style very well. He is called George Miller and he is worth mentioning. I have discovered in some countries, from the questions readers have asked me, that perhaps the sense in the translation does not put across exactly what I meant. You have to accept that you cannot control everything.
Do you think that a reader from another country can learn a lot about France from your books?
Yes, I think so. I think my books have a definite French flavour even if they talk about universal themes.
They must tell something about French society. I think that of my book, Nothing Holds Back the Night, which gives a panorama of society, via the story of my grandmother, my mother and my family.
You are at Brive for the Foire du Livre, and there are many book festivals and literary prizes in France. Is it a good country in which to be a writer?
I think the answer has to be yes. The book is seen as very important in France. There is a festive dimension to reading, with the great number of literary prizes we have here. Literature is celebrated.
I think we are lucky, as we have dynamic publishing houses. Contemporary literature is particularly diverse and there is something for every type of reader.
Despite films and the internet is reading still popular?
Yes, I have the impression books are holding up well. There are other factors which mean there are good years and bad, but on the whole books are doing well.
There is a very strong literary culture in France and the book is seen as something sacred, sometimes too much by the way, but it means it will survive.
Is it important for authors to win a literary prize, as you have done on several occasions?
Yes, undoubtedly. It is a way of being recognised, and it is especially heart-warming to be chosen by readers for a prize, that is amazing. You are put in the spotlight and this is a good thing.
Is it important for you to meet readers?
When you are a writer you have moments of great solitude as you see no one and don’t go out when you are writing. I am in that phase at the moment and so it was a pleasure to accept the presidency of the Foire du Livre.
I like these moments a lot as there are times when you are a little bored of sitting alone in front of your computer.
I am happy to meet readers; it is interesting to see how a text is seen by others and what is fascinating is that you realise there are as many different types of readers as there are writers. And there is not necessarily one way of reading that corresponds with what you have written.
Did you know from a young age that you would be a writer?
No, I think I always thought it was a world which was not accessible to me.
It seemed so impossible it was not even a dream. I began to write when I was 12 or 13 years old in a diary but I wrote my first novel when I was over 30, and I don’t have any memories of writing in between, other than therapy writing not intended to be read by anyone else.
Later, when I was lucky to have my first manuscript published I could begin to think that, maybe, I was a writer.
I worked for a long time in an opinion poll company and I published my first books while I was working there, so I did not think I could call myself a novelist then.
How do you work?
I have tried several ways. I did have an office outside the home, but it did not really suit me – though it was when my children were younger, and it was more difficult for them to understand I was working when I was at home. But I like it better being at home.
I work mostly in the morning with a certain discipline and need to have a rendezvous with the text.
But if I get stuck on a paragraph, I can get up and hang out the washing, or I empty the dishwasher and it clears the head and the writing is better afterwards. Being in my little office was rather suffocating sometimes because I had nothing else to do but write. I like working at home and starting as soon as I wake up, early in the morning.
Do you work a long time on your ideas?
Yes, but it is more than just the idea of a novel, which comes to me little by little. Often as well I think about the characters; how I will write the book; will it be from the first person or third person.
I have to work out everything until I have quite a precise idea about how the story will develop before I start writing. I often call it the incubation period. I take notes but I don’t actually write it.
Is it difficult to create your characters?
Not particularly. They appear as silhouettes and little by little become defined.
At the moment I am working on a character who is a speech therapist and I have not completely captured her yet. My editor has read the first pages and I am sure I will have to make some changes, but it is always interesting and I like all my characters, even the baddies.
Do you know why you write your books?
It is impossible to know and it probably changes from one book to another.
For me, it is a way to feel human and to live. It is difficult to explain in just a few words why I write, but perhaps in the end writing for me is a way of trying to discover why I write.
Is it a difficult job, difficult to find the right words?
It can be hard, yes, but above all it is a great privilege to be able to make your living from writing.