Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Fred Vargas: The Detectives Beyond Borders interview, Part I

Fred Vargas has won three CWA International Dagger Awards for best translated crime novel, and The Ghost Riders of Ordebec could win her and translator Sian Reynolds a fourth this year.

Vargas was born in Paris, trained as an archaeologist and historian, and is known best to crime-fiction readers for her novels about the Paris police commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg and his colleagues, novels that partake as much of the fairy tale as they do of the police procedural. 

In the first part of a two-part interview with Detectives Beyond Borders, Vargas talks about Algeria, about the overlap between her careers as author and scientist, about the real story behind her entirely positive trip to my native land, and about the careers of the title characters in The Three Evangelists. She prefaces her answers with remarks that shed light on her working methods (and, perhaps, on my overly analytical questions), and she quotes another notable figure famous under a name other than the one he was born with:
"Dear Peter Rozovsky, 
"First of all, I am afraid to disappoint you. As Woody Allen said: `I have no answers to your questions, but I have questions to your answers!' 
"I just want to say that I don’t control everything I do when I am writing novels. A large part of the story comes — or, better, imposes itself — during the writing, and takes me along unforeseen ways that I am obliged to follow. Ways where I can meet characters that I had not envisaged previously, for example the old woman, Léone, whom Adamsberg meets in the path in the forest at the beginning of The Ghost Riders of Ordebec. And there it goes. In a way, I don’t have great freedom, because the book and the words want to decide (except for the sound). 
"So, it is difficult for me to `explain' everything, and you will be probably disappointed by my answers!"
Happily, she is wrong. Enjoy the interview. (And read Part II.)

Detectives Beyond Borders: The dead father in The Ghost Riders of Ordebec was a torturer in Algeria, a sadist but at the same time a wounded victim of that war. What do Algeria – and the word torture – mean for France and the French in 2013? For you as an author of crime novels?

Fred Vargas: Not as an author of crime novels. What the French army did in Algeria, the torture, remains a great shame for a large part of us. It can’t be and musn’t be forgotten, even if I was a child during this war.

DBB: You call the young fire starter in The Ghost Riders of Ordebec so frequently by the diminutive «Mo» that it’s a surprise when someone calls him by his real name: Mohammed. Why did you do this?

FV: Well, when I present a new character, I don’t say if he or she is white or black or Asiatic. I don’t mention his or her religion, either. So everybody thinks, instinctively, «OK, he or she is white and «classical» (Christian or without any faith). But this is not certain!!! Do we know if Danglard, Retancourt, others, come from Christian or Jewish families, for example? No. And I don’t mind. If I explained, in the beginning, that Mo had Arabic origins, I would single him out. Why should I do that? Mo is Mo, first of all.

In fact, a presentation of his origins would be a form of pre-racism, a sort of discrimination, and I hate that, especially now, with our toxic climate here against French people of Arab origin, the new so-called enemies. OK, he is Mo, as Adamsberg is Adamsberg. Later, the reader will understand why his origin will help transform him into an ideal culprit. But that his name is Mohammed does not imply that he practices the Muslim religion or believes in God. We don’t know that.

DBB: The title characters in The Three Evangelists are historians, one of prehistory, one of the Middle Ages, one of World War I. Why those three historical periods.

FV: I am an archaeologist myself. I specialized in the Middle Ages, but I also studied the prehistoric period. And my eldest brother is an historian, too, one of the foremost specialists in the First World War. It was an obvious pleasure for me to play with these professions I know very well.

DBB: I was born in Montreal, and I appreciated the tension, the jokes, and the linguistic misunderstanding between the French and the Quebecois in Wash This Blood Clean From My Hand. Why did you send Adamsberg and his team to Quebec in that book ? If you have visited Quebec yourself, did you experience tension of this kind?

FV: Again, a disappointment for you, with a very simple answer: I am not a great traveler, but I have been to Quebec twice. So, as I wanted to go out of Paris, out of France, I placed the action there, where I had been fascinated by the kindness of people, the great beauty of landscapes. I know the small, ancient path across the forest along the Outaouais River. And I was also very interested in the differences between languages from Quebec and France.

Tensions? Not at all, never. Often, with friends, we laughed together about our different expressions. After the publications, there were some people from Quebec who criticized these jokes about language, thinking that I was mocking them. I was sad about this misunderstanding and wrote an article in Le Devoir to explain that it was respect and curiosity.

DBB: The plague plays an important role in Have Mercy on Us All. You have done research on the plague. What is the relationship between your two careers, as a historian and as an author? What does each take from the other?

FV: I assumed over the years that there was no link between my two jobs. Writing detective stories was a way to forget in a small way the hard scientific work during holidays. But little by little, I understood that, probably, my passion for resolving things, problems, for finding the truth, was at the very heart of the two jobs.

In any case, I try not to exaggerate when I use some historical or zoological knowledge in a book. It must remain a detective story, not become a historical one with lessons and everything boring. I had worked seven years to resolve the plague’s epidemiology, and I was tempted to use this great disease as a symbol of a great fear in a novel, so I did. But as I said, it is not me who choose my ideas, unfortunately, it is the ideas which choose me. And the ideas said : «Well, put the plague in this book.» And I answered : «OK.» I write my scientific papers and books in a very different manner, of course. But even there, I try not to lose the reader’s interest.
(Read Part II of the Detectives Beyond Borders interview with Fred Vargas.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2013

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Blogger Richard L. Pangburn said...

Nice interview, thanks. Made me check out the author's work further at Amazon.

June 12, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks. You might do well to start with her current book, The Ghost Riders of Ordebec. I'd say it's her best.

June 13, 2013  

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