When I began reading Nagasaki by French author Éric Faye, I was taken by its sparseness. I don’t write that as a negative, but in the same manner in which I might compliment Ernest Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea. At a slim 109 pages, it has everything a novel four times its size.
The story takes place on a residential avenue in Nagasaki where the main character Shimura Kobo lives. It’s from his point-of-view, and his character arc, that we learn about those around him. Kobo is a bachelor in his fifties. His life is methodical and planned. It seems each moment is filled with exactly the structure that he has probably carried with him for the past fifty-plus years. He lives alone. Or does he?
Once Shimura notices that a small amount of food is mysteriously disappearing between the time he leaves for work and the time he returns home, he begins to question his own sanity. Someone eating his food does not fit into his structured life…in fact, anyone else in the world seems not to fit into Shimura’s structured life. And he tells himself he likes it that way. Not able to accept his own mental deterioration (of which, it seems, all of us start feeling when we hit around 50), he sets up a webcam – like a nanny-cam – to monitor the kitchen while he is gone. And my, my, what should he find? And once finding it, what should he do about it?
Nagasaki was a hit in France where it won the Grand Prix from the Académie Française. One of the fascinating elements of this story’s path to me is that it is based upon an actual Japanese news story, which was written into an award-winning novel by a French author in French, translated in Great Britain, and given to me to review in English by New Yorker Meryl Zegarek. Isn’t this world a small place? And that’s the same feeling that the main character Shimura Kobo has after setting up the webcam in his kitchen. Isn’t this world a small place?
It’s not often that I get to interview a French author – especially one as decorated as Éric Faye. I wondered what it was like to be a French writer in today’s market from his point-of-view. I found him open and delightful. Here is our give-and-take about his book, about different writing markets and translations, and about the process of writing itself. My thanks to Gallic Books’ translator Emily Boyce – whom I speak with, as well, in the sidebar – for her assistance in this interview.
Clay – “The basis for your runaway hit Nagasaki was first reported in several newspapers in Japan in 2008. Being in France, how did you hear about it?”
Éric – “I’m a journalist for a press agency (Reuters) and as such I read dozens and dozens of reports from all over the world every day. One afternoon, a story on the newswire caught my eye. A short report sent by the Tokyo bureau, it described a curious incident that had taken place in Fukuoka, in southern Japan. I printed it off and kept it: there was no doubt in my mind I was going to write something based on the story. The only details included in the news item were that a woman had been caught by police inside a man’s home, where unbeknownst to the owner, she had been living for a year.”
Clay – “When you were writing Nagasaki, did you ever imagine it would be as well received as it has been?”
Éric – “Not at all. While I’m writing, I never think about what course my words will take afterwards. I just write… And besides, my original intention was to make Nagasaki a short story of only 20 or so pages. It was only when I sat down to plan it that I realized it would be more substantial, a ‘long short story’ – at that stage, I was planning to include it in a collection of several such stories on Asia. Later, when my publishers read the manuscript, they asked if they could publish Nagasaki on its own, without the other stories.”
Clay – “That was fortuitous. Do you read English and, if so, what is your impression of Emily Boyce’s translation? (For the record, I think she did a tremendous job.)”
Éric – “Yes, I do, and I also thought the text worked very well in English and that the translation succeeded in capturing both the feel and the meaning of the original. This is a rare thing: I’ve come across mistranslations and liberties taken with the original in the German and Italian.”
Clay – “That’s a kudo to Emily. Were you involved at all in the translation process?”
Éric – “No, not with the English translation. I’m always glad to work with translators when they get in touch, but in this case it wasn’t necessary.”
Clay – “You published your first fiction in 1992. You had successes along the way. And twenty years later, you won the Grand Prix from the Academie Francaise. Were there ever times over the course of those two decades that you wondered, ‘Why am I doing this?’”
Éric – “My books have never been huge successes, except perhaps for Je suis le gardien du phare [a collection of short stories published in 1997, which won the Prix des Deux Magots] and of course Nagasaki. I never really seriously considered giving up writing, nor did I ask myself why I was doing it. For a writer, writing is as natural as breathing… That’s not to say I didn’t go through a few low patches, although luckily none of these lasted very long.”
Clay – “I’d say we’ve all been there at times. You’ve written extensively, but Nagasaki is your first book available in North America. What were your thoughts when you learned Gallic Books (an incredible UK publisher) planned to make Nagasaki available in the U.S.?”
Éric – “It’s a very rare thing for a French writer to be translated into English. So it felt like a big achievement for me, a very nice surprise; and I always look forward to a forthcoming translation as excitedly as a child looking forward to Christmas presents. There’s something magical about seeing your book come to life in another language, and the English language is, of course, one of the big ones.”
Clay – “Are you still working as a journalist?”
Éric – “Yes, out of necessity. It’s very difficult to make a living from book royalties in France unless you have a constant stream of successes, which is far from the case with me.”
Clay – “In terms of long-form, which do you like writing better? Travel memoirs or novels?”
Éric – “I like to alternate travel writing and fiction. They are two very different forms of writing.”
Clay – “How so?”
Éric – “In travel memoirs, the structure isn’t important, so I concentrate on style. The fact that the impressions recorded in these books draw from my own experience and are very strong makes it a lot easier; strong feelings go a long way in writing. I also write short stories, which are to the novel what the sprint is to the marathon. As for novels, they take a great deal of thought: I make plans, research a particular method of construction. It’s a little like being an architect. But ultimately, what I’m most interested in is getting to the end of the day and having written a few good sentences. I sometimes find the construction part tiresome.”
Clay – “Halfway kidding, were you able to justify a trip to Nagasaki for ‘researching’ this book?”
Éric – “I wound up in Nagasaki in 2008, a month before reading the Japanese news item and deciding to write the book.”
Clay – “Did that factor into your interest in the story?”
Éric – “I was deeply struck by the city and the role it has played in the history of relations between Japan and the rest of the world since the Sixteenth Century. I remember admiring the bay, and the mountains that form the backdrop to the city. I haven’t been back since.
Clay – “Will you go back?”
Éric – “I spent four months in Japan in 2012, and I wanted to return to make a kind of pilgrimage to Nagasaki. But I didn’t do it. Perhaps I was afraid of being disappointed, I’m not sure.”
Clay – “To another topic, being a writer recently translated, how do you think the French perceive the American book market?”
Éric – “French readers consume a lot of books by American authors, too many, perhaps, because they often forget that there are major authors writing in other languages… There’s a longstanding interest in American writing among French readers.”
Clay – “So what is your perception of the French book market?”
It’s under threat because of modern habits; French people are reading less, even though lots of great books are being published every year. But I think we still read a fair bit in France, so I’m not too pessimistic. The future’s still bright for literature.”
Clay – “Waiting here in America for your next book, what book of yours do you hope I will have in my hands next?”
Éric – “It’s rare for a French author to be translated and published in the USA. So I don’t know if any of my other books will ever be available in American bookstores.
Clay – “I’m sure they will, especially if Gallic has anything to do with it.”
Éric – “I certainly hope so! Maybe you’ll have the chance to read the novel I’m writing at the moment. It takes place between Japan and North Korea and deals with the mysterious disappearance of Japanese citizens along the coast of the Sea of Japan between 1978-79. It transpired that they had been abducted by North Korean secret agents and spent 25 years in North Korea, where they had been forced to teach their language to future Korean spies…”
Clay – “Éric, I’ll keep a comfy chair and late night waiting for it. Thanks for the chat.”
It’s fascinating to speak with those whose cultures are slightly or greatly different from our own. That’s one of the reasons I so like foreign books. But we go to the bookstore and we buy the book…in English. It made me pause and think, what goes into bringing a book to us from another culture? And that led me to symbolically turn in my chair and address the question to Emily Boyce, Éric’s translator at Gallic Books.
See you next month!
Until then, read like someone is burning the books!
Clay Stafford is an author / filmmaker (www.ClayStafford.com), founder of Killer Nashville (www.killernashville.com) and publisher of Killer Nashville Magazine (www.killernashvillemagazine.com). In addition to selling over 1.5 million copies of his own books, Stafford’s latest projects are the documentary “One of the Miracles” (www.oneofthemiracles.com) and writing the music CD “XO” with Kathryn Dance / Lincoln Rhymes author Jeffery Deaver (www.jefferdeaverxomusic.com). He is currently writing a film script based on Peter Straub’s “Pork Pie Hat” for American Blackguard Entertainment (www.americanblackguard.com).
Born in Limoges, France, Éric Faye is a journalist and the prize-winning author of more than twenty books, including novels and travel memoirs. He was awarded the Académie Française Grand Prix du Roman in 2010 for Nagasaki.
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