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May 15
Live Ideas 2021: Qudus Onikeku, QDance Co. Online Panel, Screening & Conversation

Interview with Jean-Philippe Blondel

Jean-Philippe Blondel was born in 1964 in Troyes, France where he lives as an author and English teacher. He has published more than two dozen book for adults and younger readers, and two of his latest novels, The 6:41 to Paris and Exposed, published in France by Buchet-Chastel, have been recently translated into English by New Vessel Press (translation by Alison Anderson).

The 6:41 to Paris, acclaimed in both the United States and Europe, tells the story of two former lovers who find themselves side-by-side again on a commuter train after nearly 30 years. Exposed recounts the story of an English teacher reunited with a former student, now a celebrated painter, as they enter into an artistic and emotional pact that leads both to reexamine their lives.

The interview was conducted by Scott Onak.

Both novels take place either in Troyes or en route between that city and Paris. Can you talk about writing novels that aren’t Paris-based? And why that may be important not only because it’s terrain you know well, but because it gives readers—particularly those in the US—a more varied picture of France?

I have mixed feelings about Paris – where I lived for three years when I was a student and where my own daughters live now. I am deeply attached to my provincial roots and one of my hidden aims is to make people from all over the world (including Parisians) aware that France and French people exist outside Paris and that it is not because we live in places that people might call “godforsaken places” that we are knee-deep in the mud. More seriously, I do think that yes, the people who live in these provincial towns (as I do – Troyes has a population of approximately 60,000 people) feel, think, react and interact just like people in any other cities or countries around the globe. We are all part of the human race, after all – and yes, sometimes I’m annoyed when I hear Americans (or Japanese, or Indians, or Australians, it works with all non-European countries) exclaim “Ah … I know France! Paris! La Tour Eiffel! So beautiful!” (Though I am aware that this statement is also a generalization and a stereotype.)

While writing The 6:41 to Paris, and without revealing what happens, can you talk about whether you found yourself wondering, much like the reader does near the end of that train trip: what are these two characters going to do? Did you have a sense of the ending from the beginning, or did you discover it along the way?

OMG yes, triple yes. You know what? I even paced back and forth in the attic (where I used to write) for an entire night wondering what was going to happen. I could feel the end coming, there were two or three pages left, and I did not know how it was all going to end. I really was in the position of the reader, and I constantly weighed the pros and cons, unable to decide what to do. So I totally discovered the end… at the end. Actually, it is always the same thing when I write. I ride on the writing train, I am vaguely aware that I chose a distant destination, but I discover the route (and the end, of course) along the way. I am a passenger of my own novels (which does not speak much in favor of my writing, I’m afraid…).

As a one-time English teacher myself, I think of teaching as a time machine: the students stay roughly the same age over the years, while the teachers age. How has your career teaching English informed your sense of aging and passing time, as dramatized by Louis Claret and his former student, Alexandre Laudin, in Exposed?

Yes, that’s the crux of it all. That’s the most beautiful and heart-wrenching paradox of teaching: you get older but the students remain eternally young, to the point that sometimes, when you teach your ex-students’ children (which happens a lot to me these last years, as I have been teaching in the same high school for more than thirty years), you mix your students’ and their parents’ first names. It isn’t sad, though. There’s something profoundly moving about watching the time pass by, and at the same time being a part of the story. I love the idea of being a landmark (like, say, a menhir or a dolmen, a Stonehenge kind of human being) in the scenery of other people. You know, my favorite writer of all time is Proust. I’ve read the whole In Search of Lost Time three times up to now, and I know that the fourth is somewhere in the nearby future. Time is not my enemy. It is on my side, as they say.

In both novels, the grand, romantic plans of early adulthood somehow—and the process is mysterious—turn into the reality of children, regular jobs, divorce, and staying in the towns of our birth. Do you feel that the trajectory is almost inevitable: that such youthful plans are meant to be hatched, flirted with, and then left behind? Is it the work of the middle periods of our lives to accept that course?

Yes, I do think it is inevitable and I also think it is a good thing. Growing up and leaving behind the dreams of our youth is not necessarily depressing because who fueled those dreams? When you really ponder over it, you often realize that they were not your own dreams, but your parents’ or your friends’, or you were influenced by the society you lived in. I am a strong defender of that everyday life and routine that we are taught to despise, on condition that you grow up with the people you love and with a job you enjoy. I met my best friends in high school and we still have strong ties – we see each other on a very regular basis (i.e. twice or three times a week). I love the idea of growing old with somebody, be it your wife, your children or your friends. Of course, it doesn’t mean that you can’t form other bonds or that it should prevent you from traveling and opening up – on the contrary, actually: I do think that you are more open to the unknown when you know you belong somewhere.

In The 6:41 to Paris, celebrity Mathieu Coché keeps in touch with the protagonist, his childhood friend, to avoid the criticism that he has forgotten his roots. Cécile Duffaut also has trouble breaking from her weekend visits to her parents in Troyes. Can you talk about the ways that we stay bound to our “homes”, even if we leave them behind?

Well, this is a very tricky question for me, you know. Nobody realizes that Cecile’s life is pure fiction for me and that it is all made up. My mother and my brother died in a car crash when I was 17, and my father in another car crash 4 years later, and then I was all alone. My friends and their parents saved me. The whole town saved me. Troyes is small, the tragedy had made the headlines – people were shocked and supported me as much as they could – even if it was sometimes awkward and embarrassing. So I can’t talk for the others, but I am clearly bound to my “home” - all the more as it disappeared in a mere twinkling of an eye.

Foreign places bring a sense of possibility to your characters, or crystalize moments when they felt the most alive: Louis Claret in Edinburgh, Philippe Leduc in London. Is it harder to have those experiences in places where we’ve grown up and know well, as both you and certain of your characters have done? What’s the connection between geography and our dreams?

This answer is closely linked to the former – when you do not have any history left, you turn to geography. Geography and travel enable us to forget ourselves for a while, to sever the links when they are too heavy, to invent a new identity, and above all, to be anonymous. Trips are like brackets that you open and close when you wish – and they are moments of freedom (and of acute loneliness sometimes). We all know that we cannot go on a trip with anybody. Some people that we may like a lot can’t hit the road with us – because traveling and being abroad means taking your time (I’m not the kind of man who visits a city in two days and then hops on a plane to another town), sharing your impressions, changing your perspective and the way you look at things… and for me, it also means learning a new language. I do savor foreign words. They are a complete re-invention of the world for me. I am truly keen on learning foreign languages – for the moment I am learning Dutch, and then Swedish is scheduled for next year. I used to travel a lot, and each time I went to a country, I tried to learn the language (even Nepalese and Quechua -though I don’t remember a single word now). Foreign languages are the link between geography and dreams. They enable us to become somebody else, for a limited period – it’s like being an actor, basically, and playing a part. It’s not that you feel more alive – but you’re alive in a different way, and it’s an incredible feeling.

Both protagonists are presented with encounters that force them to reflect on their pasts, abandoned plans, and decisions that might have led elsewhere—central questions for many in middle age. Have those questions and themes changed for you over the course of your books, written at different periods of your life?

Decisions that might have led elsewhere are the bases of fiction. All the novelists in the world are trying to imagine what would have become of them if…. We are all studying the “ifs”, we are tiptoeing on the paths we did not want to (or did not dare to) take and we are trying to see where they lead us. I guess that in my first novels, abandoned plans were more hurtful to the characters and that they now look upon their past more ironically – but they can be suddenly surprised by the intensity of a memory or of a feeling that they thought they had managed to suppress. Honestly, I am unsettled by this question – let me think about it for a few months (or years) and I’ll tell you :)

You’ve published steadily for the past twenty years while maintaining your career as a teacher. Can you talk about life as a working writer, and how it might run counter to the myth of a writer often associated with a city like Paris: someone struck by genius, living a volatile life, depriving themselves in service of art?

To be honest, I do think that this representation of the writer as a “genius” living for his or her art is bullsh--t. Sorry, let’s say “is a romantic cliché”. It sounds so 19th century-esque. What I know for sure is that I need my job – and I don’t mean in a financial way, although it is also true. Fiction is like a drug. Fiction sets your mind on fire. Fiction swallows you – and I can keep my balance thanks to my job, my family and my friends. I also run a lot, by the way, because I need physical exhaustion after my daily hour of writing. Besides, I need the human contact the job offers you – colleagues, students. They can make excellent characters :)

Given your career as an English teacher, how does a mastery of two languages influence your writing and relationship to language?

When I was 15, I discovered at the same time Modiano and Kerouac - who may seem to be on the two ends of the spectrum of fiction but who are actually closer than we could think because they are both obsessed with time (the past for Modiano, the present for Kerouac) and ever since, I have read French and English or American (or any English-speaking country) novels. My favorite novelist may be Proust, but my favorite character is Nick Carraway. I speak English at work, French at home – my life has always been a mix of the two languages and literary traditions. It does indeed influence my work. I remember one French journalist spotting a very original metaphor (“fertiliser les jonquilles” instead of “manger les pissenlits par la racine” [to be dead and buried]) but it actually was a literal translation of the English expression… I was once called “the most English of French novelists”. I don’t know if that was intended as a compliment, but I was proud anyway.

You’ve written over two dozen novels for both adults and younger readers. If you could choose one or two of your other books for translation for an Anglophone audience, which would they be and why?

Oh definitely a novella called Et rester vivant and translated into German under the title of Zweiundzwenzig. It’s my only autobiographical work, where I try to explain what I told you, that geography replaces history when you’re suddenly uprooted. It deals with the two months I spent in the US with my two best friends, just after my father’s death, when suddenly I realized I had no family left, that I was more free than anybody I knew – but more vulnerable, too. It’s a tribute to my friends, to the people who helped me survive – and to the self I was then.

Scott Onak is an American writer and educator living in Tours, France. He has conducted interviews with French authors whose books are being translated and published in the United States. You can read his previous interviews with Adrien GoetzTimothée de Fombelle, and Antoine Laurain.