Would you introduce French Exit, and your inspiration for it, please?
Hello, this is French Exit, it’s my new novel, the dreaded fourth try, the gory fourth go — heaven help me. The inspiration: I wanted to write about mothers, sons, cats, Paris, and death. Each of these topics should have had their own unique book, probably, but with the Apocalypse bearing down on us I thought it best to smash them all into the one story.
The phrase ‘French Exit’ is one I only came across very recently - to leave without saying goodbye. How did this come to be your title?
I’d finished a draft but didn’t have a title. I was calling it Animate Objects for a while; also, Frances and Malcolm — pathetic. One night at a social function here in Portland I left without an official farewell and the next morning a friend called to compliment my French exit. I was familiar with the phrase, and I’m a diehard fan of the practice, but it hadn’t occurred to me to use it as the title of the novel until that moment.
How did the novel come to life, and did your writing process differ for this book than for your previous novels?
Generally speaking, French Exit was breezy and well-behaved, and I had a draft in under a year. The characters were lively and cooperative from the start, which isn’t usually the case. I’m not sure why this one was so much simpler than the last. I’d moved house and finally set up a proper office; also I was happy domestically at the time.
The novel is described as a tragicomedy of manners, and is a twist on the traditional comedy of manners. Do you enjoy playing with, and even subverting, genre in your work?
It’s something I’ve been accused of enjoying. But you know, these rumors start circling around, and after a while you don’t even know who you are anymore.
It’s a very darkly comic tale; how did you balance the tragic and comic elements?
I don’t know, really. I just try to hit the note I want to hear as a reader, then cross my fingers and push the thing downriver like the baby Moses.
There’s a very enjoyable tension between the contemporary setting and the social mores of the characters - is the Price family a family out of its time?
The Price family feel very much of another era, I’d say, yes. That’s partly the point, I think; theirs is a lifestyle that doesn’t really make sense anymore, if it ever did.
Something else that echoes through your work is an interest in the paranormal or supernatural. Has this been a conscious choice?
Well, I’m aware I’m doing it! I’m aware I’ve done it too often, actually. A weakness for the world to see.
The Sisters Brothers comes to the big screen very soon. What is it like having your work translated to film, and might we see French Exit getting the same treatment too?
Having your book made into a film is exciting and terrifying and confusing and fun. Regarding French Exit, I’m working on a film version now with the gentleman director, Azazel Jacobs.
At one point, Frances Price and her new-found friend Mme Reynard discuss the morale-boosting nature of fresh plans. Do you have any fresh plans for your next book you can share with us, or is it too soon to take them out of the oven?
They haven’t been put in the oven yet. The oven is cold and the refrigerator is filled with mold. I do have a story in mind but it’s going to be months before I get back to work, if I get back to work. (Apocalypse.)
So what happened to the book you said you were going to write [see The Sisters Brothers interview below] about ‘a corrupt investment banker who, upon discovering he's going to be arrested, runs away to France to live under a pseudonym’?
I spent a year on it and was actually living in Paris to research the thing when it dawned on me I was bored to tears and that I’d never finish the book. This was disheartening, but it was such a relief to give it up, and then I fell into Undermajordomo Minor, so there wasn’t much time to wallow. I like quitting and quitters, as a rule.
The majority of fables have a very tidy ending but while you resolve most matters, your ending also feels like a beginning. Was this a conscious departure from convention?
I hadn’t thought of it being a departure from anything, really. All my endings seem to occur at the spot in the story where I personally don’t want to know any more. It’s more an indication of the death of my own curiosity than an aim to buck convention.
How difficult (or not) is it to tell a story that is not tied to a specific time or place?
I didn’t find it difficult. Specifics were omitted, town names invented; the rest of the time I worked in a sort of middle register, avoiding bald facts. But the tone and intent are as often as not contemporary, or anyway relatable to the contemporary reader. It wasn’t so restrictive as you might think.
Lucien, from an unpromising beginning turns out to have some real strengths, not least a quiet and dogged determination to set things right. Did you know how he was going to turn out?
No, at the start he was pretty opaque, which is the norm for me. I knew I wanted him to be physically slight, and to be an artful liar, but the rest was unknown, and I shaded in as I went along.
Libertines, rogues, petty crooks, adulterers, would-be murderers, even madmen: most of your characters are hugely flawed and yet readers root for them, as they have others you’ve written about in the past. How do you pull that off?
Difficult question to answer without sounding like an ass. But, I suppose that even my most debased characters are approachable due to either their own comic outlook, or else the fact of their plights being comic. I find it impossible to dislike anyone who can make me laugh.
The ballroom ‘goings on’ were both hilarious and also shocking. Did you feel that as a fable the book required this darker note?
The goings-on were originally meant to be more madcap, like a dirty Benny Hill; and there certainly is a degree of frivolity at play (Lucy witnessing the spectacle with his pants around his ankles and a salami up his sleeve). But in the course of actualising the incident something more consequential took root. Some people will see it as sensational, but the scene is sincere and necessary. Causing offence to readers is of no interest to me.
We promise not to hold you to it this time, but do you have another book on the go and can you tell us anything about it?
I have an idea for a novel about an adventurer, a man meant to visit unmapped locales. The book would be made up of this person’s journals, with occasional dispatches from a cold historical narrator, filling in the murky blanks.
And finally, who are the writers that have influenced or inspired you?
I’ve noticed people – both reviewers and layperson readers – like to assign influences to authors. The influences they’ve assigned me don’t always line up, so with this book, on the acknowledgement page, I’ve included a list of people I’ve found inspirational. I could type them all out for your readers here, or they could buy the book and find out for themselves. Or they could steal the book – it’s between them and their God.
The Sisters Brothers
What provided the inspiration for your novel and what came first, the Western setting or the notion of brotherhood?
What happened was that I'd OD'd on 'difficult' books and returned to some of the more inclusive, plot-based novels I'd read in my late teens and early twenties, and I was so relieved by these that I was inpired to try my hand at narrative fiction. The Western seemed a good backdrop for the experiment, and the setting preceded the brotherhood story line by several months.
You subtitled your earlier published work, Ablutions: Notes for a Novel; what did you mean by the subtitle?
This stemmed from my habit of taking notes at the bar where I worked. The notes were written in the second person and each one began with the directive to 'Discuss' whichever happening I would then describe in shorthand. I tried to translate these notes to first and then third person but wasn't happy with either and so returned to the original notation format.
Though a notorious if inefficient killer, Eli Sisters is ultimately a very sympathetic character, whom you obviously feel for. That's quite a trick to pull off, isn't it?
I hope I pulled it off, anyway! I'm happy to hear you think I did, because that was one of the goals—to force or trick the reader into sympathising with an unsympathetic protagonist.
It's a largely immoral universe that you portray. Was it important that the brothers get at least some degree of retribution and in proportion to their, if you like, sensibilities?
A small degree, maybe, though I don't know if it's what you'd call a rosy ending. Certainly it isn't for Charlie. But I did want there to a proper closing scene in the traditional sense, and I feel it ends realistically, if not exactly happily.
Drink plays an important role in both this book and Ablutions, though they are so different in other respects. Does alcohol or the alcoholic state hold a particular fascination for you?
It does, but I'm coming to see it as a weakness -- something I'm a little too comfortable concentrating on. It was addressed head on in Ablutions, less so with The Sisters Brothers; hopefully it'll be out of my system completely with the next book.
There's a strand of mysticism in both your books, is that something you'd like to explore more in the future?
Yes, it seems to come up a lot, though it's something I like more to-the-side, hovering. In an earlier draft of The Sisters Brothers, the mysticism was very much a focal point, to the degree that it was eclipsing the story of the brothers and their relationship, which over a period of time revealed itself as the heart of the book. So, I pared back the mystical elements quite a lot to make way for the other.
How conscious were you of other Westerns, whether novels or films, and did you deliberately set out to challenge the conventions or pay homage to them?
I haven't read many Western novels at all, but I've seen my fair share of the films, the spaghetti Westerns, and Peckinpah, Butch Cassidy, or even McCabe and Mrs Miller; I think I returned to these subconsciously while I was writing, more so than the books. In regard to whether I was challenging the Western conventions or paying homage to them, I'd have to say it was a little of both. I had a certain, let's say, distanced attitude toward the genre at the start, but by the time I completed a draft, I felt a real fondness for it, a respect that wasn't there before. The Sisters Brothers is something of a split personality, because in some parts it subverts the genre, while elsewhere it follows the rules to the letter.
How hard was it to get published first time around, and how did Granta respond to such a dramatic change of direction for your second work of fiction?
I don't really know if it was hard to get published or not. That's one of the many great things about agents! They take on that whole head/heartache for you, and report back when there's news. From what I gather, anyway, the book didn't have too tough a time finding a home. Granta's response to The Sisters Brothers was very positive. I don't want to speak for them, but I think they were glad to see the change. Not that they weren't behind Ablutions, because they handled that book beautifully. But if I'd turned in Ablutions II, I suspect the response would have been less enthusiastic.
We're dying to know what your next novel is going to be! Can you give us any hints?
I'm working on a book about a corrupt investment banker who, upon discovering he's going to be arrested, runs away to France to live under a pseudonym. A two pronged narrative, then: his acclimation to a much more modest existence in a foreign country, and also a looking-back story, recollections of an impoverished, father-less childhood in NYC tenements, his early friendship and romances with other scrappy children, and his interest in stage and sleight-of-hand magic—there's that mystical thread again.