|Name: ANTONIN VARENNE|
Antonin Varenne was awarded the Prix Michel Lebrun and the Grand Prix du Jury Sang d’encre for Bed of Nails, his first novel to be translated into English. His second, Loser’s Corner was awarded the Prix des Lecteurs Quais du polar – 20 minutes and the Prix du Meilleur Polar Francophone. Retribution Road, translated into English by Sam Taylor and published by MacLehose Press is now available.
Thank you, Antonin, for taking the time to chat with us.
The scope of Retribution Road is vast, ranging from the East India Company’s campaign in Burma to the fledgling American West almost a decade later. What sort of research was involved in ensuring you got all the detail correct?
Research materials come from all sorts of sources, books, movies, documentaries, the internet and a few blogs. I read hardly any novels about this time period and the places in the book, only studies, biographies, even a bit of Darwin’s theory that I had studied at the university years back. I read the books that the main character, Arthur Bowman, discovers along his journey; Irving Washington, Thoreau… but they were not novels either. Reading a contemporary historian like Howard Zinn was inspirational too. The scene of the arrival of Bowman in New York, in the middle of a demonstration of female workers, is a tribute to Zinn’s historical work and political engagement. Sometimes, I read to get material for a scene, sometimes reading gave me the idea of a scene. It goes both ways.
And how does this compare to the research involved in writing a contemporary French-set thriller such as Bed of Nails?
The freedom of imagining a story is comparable for two books as different as these two, but in a contemporary universe, a lot of things don’t have to be checked: I know the speed of the cars, the name of the train stations, I know the towns… In Retribution Road, I had to check everything: how fast does a rider on his horse travel, when does he have to change the horses, was there a town or waterway on his itinerary, could you drink a draft beer in London in 1858? Take a train to Liverpool and be back the next day? How long did it take to sail from Madras to Rangoon? How many soldiers were there on a war ship of the East India Company? Were there worker unions in the US in 1859? And so on. To be accurate, you sometimes spend two or three hours to fine-tune a little detail, which is something you don’t have to think about when writing contemporary fiction. But it is part of the pleasure as well, to immerse yourself into the research. As I mentioned before, it is fuel for the imagination.
One of the most striking things about the novel is that we never learn the whole truth about what happened to Arthur Bowman and his team during their six months of captivity in the jungle. We catch little more than glimpses of the horror they experienced as the story progresses, and through the map of scars on Bowman’s body. Can you talk us through the logic behind this decision?
It came from a decision I made after I published my very first book in 2006 (not translated). I didn’t think too much about the impact it could have, and it had almost none since it sold only a few hundred copies! But it was very violent, a serial killer story. Then I realized that violence had become an industry in the thriller genre, that if I was to really become a writer, I had to take a position on that matter. So I decided not to not write about violence, but to not do it lightly. No blood for the thrills, but to talk about something with more importance, like war and its traumas (Bed Of Nails), torture (Loser’s Corner). When I chose a veteran as the main character of Retribution Road, both executioner and victim, I still decided be careful with the treatment of violence; in this book there is another serial killer, but the causes that induce his behaviour are more important than the creation of yet another killer, just for the sake of it. So the descriptions of the murders are rather elliptic, and the same goes for the torture in Burma. Another thing that I had discovered writing Loser’s Corner, about the institutionalization of torture during the Algerian war, is that sometimes not seeing is as scary and potent as telling everything.
What are you working on now? Should we expect more sweeping historical epics (and maybe even a return of Arthur Bowman), or are we likely to see a return to the Gallic noir through which we first encountered you?
Well, I just published a book named “Equateur” in France, not really a sequel to Retribution Road, but a story starting where Arthur Bowman’s ends, in the USA, in 1872. But this time the travel doesn’t follow the sunset in the west, but goes down south, in Central America, then French Guyana where I spent a year with my family. And I am now writing a story whose principal character is related to Arthur Bowman (I don’t want to spoil his story), in 1900, at the Universal Exhibition in Paris. I think this third book would be the end of this cycle. After that, I think about something completely different.
What authors or works have influenced you as a writer?
It’s hard to just mention a few names, and to know which ones really have been influential on my writing: but in France I would say Jean-Patrick Manchette, and one of the first American writers I discovered, James Ellroy, but my admiration for him is fading (he never went past his obsessions, and his creativity kind of dried out, or it’s me who’s not into that kind of reading anymore, I don’t know); same kind of lost love for Cormac McCarthy (I thought he was the king of using the least amount of words necessary, then I realized that in fact he was sometimes very, very talkative; I could never finish reading Blood Meridian; he is a fabulous writer, but I just got bored, or I had something else to do…).
And as a follow-on, do you have a favourite book, something that you return to on a regular basis?
That would be We Come Back As Shadows (don’t know if it is the title chosen in English) by the great Mexican author Paco Ignacio Taibo II. He is an historian by trade, and an eternal creator of amazing adventures in different time periods of his home country. He is a political activist, a heavy smoker, a man who cultivates friendship and love.
What does a typical (writing) day in the life of Antonin Varenne look like?
A writing day must start early in the morning, without a hangover and without too much sun, because then I go ride my motorcycles. If it is a good day for writing, I will skip lunch, human communication with my family, and come out of my office like a zombie, wondering what is that strange unreal world surrounding me.
And what advice would you have for people hoping to pursue fiction-writing as a career?
Wow. To pursue fiction writing, you need to like and want to write before thinking about making a career out of it. It seems sometimes that success in literature comes from a recipe, ingredients well mixed and good marketing; but it is because somebody somewhere started something and usually did it sincerely, genuinely; then it became a trend and the others followed and copied. So to make a career, you start by writing what you want. And if it is different, it might take a while to find its readers, but if it is good, it will take off. If you worry about what people will think and want of your books, your personality is dead. It’s like starting to wonder: what people will think about Antonin Varenne after reading this interview? Is he spontaneous or a pretentious prick who says Ellroy and McCarthy aren’t that good? If I asked myself the question, I would write and rewrite my answers indefinitely till I turn crazy trying to please every reader. And the only way to do that is to write platitudes. The truth? I’m in the middle of an insomnia, it is dawn and I’m awake since 3 in the morning and my brain runs on its own weird sugar. Probably a good time to start a new book!
What are you reading now, and is it for business or pleasure?
Purely business! A biography and engineering piece: Rudolf Diesel, The Man And The Engine!
If Arthur Bowman’s story should ever make the jump from page to screen, do you have any dream casts/directors/whatever?
Argh. I’m sure Bowman’s role can seduce lots of actors (strong, broken, heroic, romantic too, on his way to redemption), and I have no doubt lots of them have the talent, but it will take an actor with wide and strong shoulders to do it, because he is carrying a whole world on them, the colonial 19th century, plus all his personal idiosyncrasies!
And finally, on a lighter note…
If you could meet any writer (dead or alive) over the beverage of your choice for a chat, who would it be, and what would you talk about (and which beverage might be best suited)?
Well, I would have a few drinks of any sort with Jack London. Probably, the first few rounds would be friendly, but later in the evening we’d have to discuss why a clever, talented and adventurous human being like him was such a racist pig. Him being a much stronger boxer, it would end up badly for me, but it could as well be the beginning of a real friendship, no?
Thank you once again, Antonin, for taking time out to share your thoughts.