“It’s almost a cruel question”: An Interview with Camille Bordas by Jennifer Solheim

Clayton Hauck for Crown Publishing

I didn’t know who Camille Bordas was until last summer, when her novel How To Behave in a Crowd was published. I learned she was a Chicago resident, and friends swore to me that I had to meet her. Her novel was brilliant, my bookseller sister said, while another writer friend explained that Camille was not only French, she also grew up in Paris and had two novels published in French before she began writing in English. I write fiction, but I’m also a French scholar, and lived in Paris for several years. Attending one of the events for How To Behave in a Crowd and saying hello to the author afterward was inevitable.

We got to talking. It turned out I once lived in spitting distance of her childhood home in Paris’ 10th arrondissement. We also shared as deep a love for the gourmand Parisian food and drink emporium Julhès as we do for the 1990s Chicago indie rock scene bar of choice, Rainbo Club. We met up at the latter for beers several times last fall before Camille returned to Paris for the winter holiday. By the time she returned things got busy for both of us.

A few months on, we got back in touch, when she shared the news that she had been hired as a creative writing professor at University of Florida in Gainesville. While I’m delighted for her, I’m also bummed to see her go—as I’m guessing most of Chicago will be from the local acclaim she’s received (more on that later).

As Bordas heads to Florida, How To Behave in a Crowd arrives in paperback on August 21. The protagonist-narrator, Isidore, is the misfit, 12-year-old youngest brother in a family of five kids. His older siblings are academic superstars, but Izzie (as he would like to be known, although his family persists in calling him Dorie) is more preoccupied with how to be a good person, a normal person. He hopes to become a German teacher, primarily because his polyglot father—an oddball, absent-minded, and also often absent genius—loves German the most of all the languages he speaks. Big stuff and little stuff happens. Ice cream. Death. A stained couch. An awkward deflowering. But the story especially kills through the quiet, slanted ways the young hero strives to understand those around him despite feeling invisible—until he’s realizes he’s not.

I interviewed Camille by e-mail shortly before we met up for her farewell visit to Unabridged Books.

Let’s begin with how you learned English, and then how you came to live in Chicago.

I think I started learning English around age 12, because that's when I started watching A LOT of movies in English (two or three or four a day). English with French subtitles, of course. I hadn't heard anyone speak English before Harrison Ford and Robert DeNiro. The plan was not to learn English at the time, just to escape reality through fiction—I was both a sad child and homeschooled at the time (my health wasn't great), so movie-watching was necessary. I spent a whole year at home or in the movie theater downstairs from my building in Paris watching American movies, for the most part, and then when I went back to school, I kept the habit of seeing at least one movie a day. I wanted to be a filmmaker at the time. When I was 16, I met my first real flesh-and-blood Americans, speaking non-scripted lines, and I realized I could not only understand most of what they said, but that I could also say most of what I wanted to say in return.  It was magic. A true occurrence of learning something without feeling for a second that you're learning something. In retrospect, I wish I'd done the same with other languages, watched a lot of German and Russian movies. But maybe it wouldn't have been as fun.

Oh, and I moved to Chicago in 2012, because that's where my then-boyfriend now-husband lived!

How to Behave in a Crowd is set in a small town in France, but it also strikes me as a decidedly French novel in mood and tone. You’ve mentioned that one reason you chose a young narrator for this novel was because the language would be simpler. But did you notice other differences between writing fiction in English and in French? American versus French conventions of the novel?

It's interesting to hear you say that, because I just translated the book into French and it's coming out there next month, and I'm actually terrified that French critics and readers are going to think it's too American and give me shit about it.

I was never a literature or a writing student, so I always feel a bit of an inferiority complex when smarter people than me talk about the shape of the novel and its conventions—I basically don't know anything about them. I write by E. L. Doctorow and Elmore Leonard rules: write as you go (that is: don't map the whole thing out in advance, let the characters and situations grow and surprise you), and once you're done, get rid of the boring parts. That's about it. I never really think about the shape of my novels beforehand, and if I'm totally honest, not so much after the fact either. So I'm afraid I cannot answer the last part of your question!

But as far as the writing process goes, there were indeed differences between writing in English as opposed to writing in my mother tongue, but they were not as gigantic as I might've expected before I started. The process is roughly the same, but I believe having less vocabulary in English forces me to keep a tighter rein on my sentences, which I think is a good thing, in the end. I mean, it's infuriating, sometimes, to feel like I'm not able to say everything I might want to say, that I don't have access to as many registers in English as I do in French (I have a way more limited command of slang and dialects, for instance, and what their use might mean for a character. I could, very sadly, never write like James Ellroy or Richard Price), but it's also somewhat liberating in the end to know that the best I can do is to not be fancy and just go with what I've got. Writing in English forced me to go straight to the core of my scenes, to not circle around uselessly.

I'm not going to try misleading your readers into thinking that How to Behave is an action-packed novel, but I do believe it is tighter than my previous books in French, that it meanders less, is more effective. That might be the result of me growing as a writer, though, and not of the language-switch, but I guess we'll never know.

While your novel is a coming-of-age story, events concerning three secondary characters give it an underlying structure. These are Isidore’s father, his school friend Denise, and the town celebrity 111-year-old Daphné Marlotte.  When and how did these characters emerge as you wrote? What made you realize their significance?

Secondary characters often emerge because I need to open something up. It's all very intuitive, though. As I said, I don't spend a lot of time thinking in narrative terms. I never thought “I'll introduce a depressive character here so that Isidore will have an opportunity to try to understand mental illness,” I just started writing this piece of dialogue between him and Denise, and I realized as I wrote Denise's lines that she was fascinated by death and I built upon that. She became central to Isidore's story in a way I hadn't predicted. Her story ended up clicking with Izzie's, and that's kind of why I like writing sometimes: to see relationships I hadn't seen coming emerge in front of me. At first, I thought Denise would be this annoying classmate Izzie could not get rid of, and little by little, I realized she really cared about him, that they had to become friends. It's pretty fun when you get to surprise yourself as a writer. You get this all-powerful “I invented the wheel!” feeling. It lasts about 45 seconds, and you might get five of those moments per book, but it makes it worth it.

You wrote this novel as you were acclimating to life in the US, and more particularly, Chicago—which has readily claimed you as one of its own: you won the first Chicago Review of Books annual award for the novel, and you were named amongst the New City Lit 50 in 2018. What are your thoughts on Chicago as a literary city? What’s working, and what does Chicago still need? (This might be a question of Paris vs. Chicago, rather than the typical New York vs. Chicago, but however you want to take it….)

I could probably write 20 pages on the subject of Paris' literary community vs. Chicago's. I don't really know how they could be more different. At first, I only noticed the small things (no free endless wine at readings?), but then it became clear that there were some core differences, which mainly have to do, I think, with the fact that writing has been taught here in universities for almost a century now, whereas there was always this idea in France that writing could not be taught. It created a fundamental difference, I think, in that writers in America are taught not only to write, but also to be around other writers, to rely on other writers for feedback, for support, for friendship, etc., whereas the idea of the auteur in France (the chain-smoking artist who writes alone in his attic room with a feeling that it's him against the rest of the world) is still very much alive. A symptom of that fundamental difference I think are the endless acknowledgments on the last page of any American novel. You sort of end up getting the sense that it was a collective effort, whereas at the end of a French novel, you'll find exactly nothing (or maybe a set of dates in between which the novel was written, if the novelist is particularly pretentious). I think that both options are a little extreme. I think I'll always be a bit conflicted between the two. I don't think a community of writers is necessary for a good book to be written, and I don't think isolation from the rest of the world is a pre-requisite either. I think it's great to meet other writers regularly, but that it would be immensely boring to only hang out amongst each other.

If I really have to make a choice though, I guess I'd say the word “community“ scares me more than isolation. It ends up making writing feel like any other job, with colleagues and favors to ask and be returned, and also a little bit like a game where everyone's a winner for just participating, where the fact that you're a writer is way more important than what you actually write, and I find that a little scary at times. I don't think writers are particularly interesting because they're writers: it's what they write that is interesting, and I feel sometimes that a community will reward a writer for just being a writer, not because he or she wrote a great book. I have a bit of a problem with that. I don't think it's a Chicago problem at all, though. I think America at large might be losing its ability to engage in good literary debates so as not to create dissent in a friendly community. I worry that the possibility for constructive controversy might have dissolved into the idea that all writers should stick together and be friends, etc. We end up talking about writers more than about their work nowadays. I find the feuds are more personal than intellectual.

There are beautiful aspects to a community of course. I met a lot of absolutely wonderful writers and booksellers in Chicago, and I love getting drunk with them on occasion. I'm just saying that nothing is ever all good or all bad. The good is great, but when the bad comes up, when I sometimes feel like the community becomes more about supporting one another than about a shared love of literature, that's when I revert to the French part of me: chain-smoking alone in a room.

Isidore himself is a kind of unwilling loner. He has these interesting relationships with objects throughout the novel, and even Paris becomes a kind of living touchstone for him. He cuts school for several day trips to the city, unbeknownst to his mother. I loved the matter-of-factness with which you present Paris: something you find in many, many French novels, but not so much in American ones. And as I read, I found myself wondering where would you send people—and let’s say here specifically, Chicagoans—on a visit to Paris?

It's almost a cruel question, because you're asking me this right after France won the World Cup, and I just watched hours of footage from the streets of Paris right after the victory...

Yeah, sorry about that. The question did come before they were even in the finals for the World Cup, but I’m glad you brought that up here. To see my social media feed these past days, Paris became one big party.

I wish I could've been there! Being out celebrating on the streets of Paris until the sun rises—it doesn't get much better than that. I feel a bit dorky admitting how serious soccer is to me, but whatever. Most people don’t believe me when I say it anyway, so I might as well. As far as recommendations go.... Paris is a great town to just walk around and follow whatever appeals to you. I think it's a place that is best experienced without too long a to-do list. To plan a visit to Paris too well is the best way to miss out on the fun and the unexpected beauty it has to offer. I lived there for 15 years and know it extremely well, and yet I always discover new views, new cinemas, new tiny little streets, new museums, new bookstores, every time I go back. 

What I usually do when I go home, on my first day back in Paris, is walk around before sunset and have a beer on a cafe terrace and watch people go about their evening. And then I like to go to very postcard-Paris places like rue Mouffetard, Montmartre (the Cafe Saint Jean is a good terrace to do stellar people-watching work, by the way), rue Montorgueil...get back to those places that are mostly pedestrian and old, lined with small, useful shops (the cobbler, the key maker, the fromagerie)...it makes me very happy.

What are you currently reading? What are you looking forward to reading soon?

I just finished a very strange and beautiful book called Public Loneliness, by Gerald Brennan. I think he lives in Chicago. It's a fictional first-person account of Yuri Gagarin's circumlunar flight–that flight itself an imaginary one, since Yuri Gagarin only went to space that one time, I believe. It was quite a hypnotic read.

I was also lucky to come across a galley of Miriam Toews’ forthcoming book, Women Talking, and I urge everyone to read it the minute it comes out. It's about a group of women in a Mennonite community meeting up secretly to discuss what to do about a series of nightly attacks they've been suffering for years. They'd been led to believe they were attacked in their sleep by the Devil, but just found out they'd actually been raped by a handful of men from the community. So they gather and talk about their options (leaving the community, or staying and confronting the men). Because they are illiterate, they ask a young man they trust to write the minutes of their debates. It is a gorgeous book. And funny, too.

I'm looking forward to reading Helen DeWitt's story collection, and David Graeber's book Bullshit Jobs.

You had a new story in The New Yorker earlier this spring, and a great travelogue about small-town and out-of-the-way Illinois in Chicago magazine a few months back. What’s your current work-in-progress? Have you started work on another novel yet? 

I have started a new novel, I think. I do have trouble now though, since I never start up anything with a plan, knowing whether what I'm working on will be a novel or a story. I didn't used to even consider the story as a possible form, since, as you well know, short stories are not popular in France. By which I mean that no one publishes them, and therefore, no one reads them. I'd probably read a total of five short stories before I moved to the U.S., even though I'd published two novels. But now that I've discovered the joy of writing stories (it is to me more joyful than writing novels), I'm starting to have this worry that I'll never manage to write a novel again. I'll keep you posted.

I can’t wait for a story collection from you—seriously. And finally: any parting words for Chicago?

Rainbo and Myopic and Cemitas Puebla better be here when I come back, and forever and ever after that.


Jennifer Solheim is a writer, critic, translator. and teacher. Her fiction and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in the Bellevue Literary Review, Confrontation, the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Pinch, and Poets & Writers. She is a Contributing Editor at Fiction Writers Review. More at www.jennifersolheim.com or Twitter @JenniferSolheim

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