Virginie Despentes and her translator Frank Wynne are shortlisted for the 2018 Man Booker International Prize for Vernon Subutex 1.
Words Without Borders (WWB): Tell us about how you became a writer. Was it a vocation, an accident? How has your relationship to writing changed over time?
Virginie Despentes (VD): I became a writer while reading Hank Bukowski when I was seventeen. I started to write short stories the summer I read his entire work. It was not the fact that he was using oral language that allowed me to write—I was far too young to know that I would not progress much in my knowledge of French. But his attitude meant everything to me—the way he despised himself and made such a crude self-portrait, which allowed him to despise the whole world even more, with a brutal sense of no bullshit. I wanted to write stories about bars, drunk women, street fights, and being sick in the morning—I wanted to write about my experience. Later on I read Selby, Thompson, Ellroy, and Kathy Acker, and I wrote my first novel. I was also strongly influenced by the logic of punk rock lyrics—French and English—which allow you to search for the more efficient slogan to describe what you witness and how you experience your reality, no matter how provocative it might sound.
I did have the character for feeling at ease with writing—I am a huge reader, I am insanely shy when sober, and I don’t easily express myself in conversation. So the written material is my field. But I don’t know about vocation. I was not raised in an environment where such a thing would even exist. I grew up middle-class, and we were very aware of what a privilege it was to not lack of anything, as my parents belonged to the first generation who experienced such material comfort, and we were also very aware of the privilege of living in a time of peace. But I never thought of writing as a vocation—and I still don’t think it is an adequate description. A web of opportunities might exist that can allow you to write novels and be published and be read. I felt I became a writer once it became my way of paying the bills—I don’t think I would have allowed myself to keep on writing if that had not have been the case because once you publish a book, you realize you have an impact and that you might express things that were supposed to be kept hidden. You need a great deal of self-assurance to keep on writing novels. I often struggle to hold onto that.
WWB: Have your goals and objectives changed throughout the years? How do you see your writing within the larger context of your country’s/language’s literary tradition?
VD: My goals and objectives did not change much. I was aware beginning with my first book that I was an atypical voice in the French literary landscape—as a middle-class girl, as a feminist, as a former punk, as a former sex worker . . . I am incapable of building a character for a novel without asking myself how he or she pays the bills. That sets me apart. I still feel I am an atypical voice. I had the luck to sign with a mainstream publisher, Grasset, in the beginning of the ’90s, and they supported all my work without interfering.
WWB: What’s your favorite book from a literary tradition other than your own and how has it influenced your writing?
VD: Gone with the Wind, no doubt. I could say Nick Hornby or Roberto Bolaño or David Foster Wallace, as it would sound a little less kitsch. But if I am sincere—Gone with the Wind. It is the only novel I’ve reread every ten years since I was a teenager. I read it for the first time when I was twelve and I waited to finish the three tomes to go and ask my father if he knew this piece of work was written from a Southern point of view. I was amazed to see he did not become angry—he explained to me that most novels were written by the enemy, the elite, the privileged ones. He explained to me, furthermore that the end of slavery was also a way of exploiting black people in factories in the North. I remember this discussion as my first encounter with political complexity. And it was the first time I realized how reading was an extraordinary telepathic exercise that allowed you to enter into the thoughts of someone who is totally different, who does not even live in the same country, nor in the same age. And still this person can share something essential with you.
Then I reread the novel three more times, and now what strikes me is the capacity of a unique character—fucking Scarlett O’Hara—to tell you everything about how a reality can disappear, and let a whole new reality disappear, and how life makes you a whole new person. How you always become a stranger in your own country, and how this is what life does to you. I am still amazed, and deeply seduced and more impressed every time I reread it.