Leïla Slimani has been in huge demand on the global literary circuit since winning the Prix Goncourt in 2016 with her second novel Chanson douce, which was published in English last year as Lullaby (and in the US as The Perfect Nanny), translated by Sam Taylor. A worldwide bestseller, it opens with the double murder of two young siblings by their home carer, then recounts the story of how that shattering event came to unfold. Faber (and Penguin in the US) have now published her debut novel, Dans le jardin de l’ogre, as Adèle, also translated by Sam Taylor, which is about a successful but bored journalist who tests the power of her sexuality via random encounters with strange men.

“We always judge people as monsters – and I love monsters.”

I caught up with Leïla at the Faber offices two days after being charmed and inspired by her lively conversation onstage with Sam Baker at the Southbank Centre. In our film, Slimani is equally animated, insightful and entertaining as she talks about exploring the dark side of human nature, the mystery of strangers, parallels with The Unbearable Lightness of Being and Madame Bovary, monsters in literature, and using her new-found fame to speak up for the rights of women.

In our wider conversation below, she also discusses her non-fiction book about the sex lives of women in her native Morocco, working with a translator, seeking freedom, becoming Parisian, and the upcoming film of Chanson douce, due for release this autumn.

This interview was filmed for Bookanita by RATCHET
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MR: Let’s start with Adèle herself. She’s young and attractive, married with a kid, living in a big apartment in Paris and works as a journalist in international affairs, and she risks it all with a sex addiction that puts her in physical and psychological danger. What is she looking for?

LS: A lot of people are asking me what Adèle is looking for, and why she is acting like she is acting, why she’s destroying her life although she ‘has it all’. But actually, you know, as a writer I don’t know why she’s acting like she’s acting, and I don’t know what she’s looking for – [just] as I don’t know what I am looking for. I think that we don’t know each other, and I think that we stay a mystery to one another. And as a writer, I accept that, I have no problem with that. And as a reader also that’s what I like when I read a novel, that part of mystery that exists in each human being. The idea that you can completely understand or completely control someone is very dangerous to me, and it’s close to fascism. I like the idea that we don’t understand why people act like they act.

There’s a quote at the front of the book from The Unbearable Lightness of Being, about giving in to intoxication, weakness and temptation. And that book crops up again as Adèle recalls reading and re-reading a seduction scene in it as a young girl in which a woman gives in to desire as if her body is acting against her will. What influence did Kundera’s book have on this novel?

Kundera has a very huge influence on me as a human being and as a writer. The first time I read The Unbearable Lightness of Being I was 15 and it was in the north of Morocco in a house we had near the beach, and I think my mother hid the book because she didn’t want me to read it, but I found the book and I read it, and I think that was the first time I was sexually aroused by a book. I can remember the erotic scene, the images were so strong, and the way he describes the relationship between the two main characters Tomáš, who is a womaniser, a man who has a sort of sex addiction, and Tereza his lover, it was fascinating for me. And I love the tenderness he has for his characters, the fact that he says a human being is weak, and there is a sort of lightness in being. Even though life is very hard and we know we are going to die we are only obsessed by sex and love and very light things, and that’s what’s wonderful with the human condition; it’s hard but at the same time it’s very light.

Is a woman allowed to want more than what she has, and what is supposed to make her happy? Adèle wants more, but she doesn’t know what she wants.”

Another book that very clearly resonates is Madame Bovary, very much updated for our times. Richard is a doctor, they move out to Normandy. Is that something you set out to mirror from the start?

There are a lot of references to Madame Bovary in the book, of course. But I think Madame Bovary is very universal and very atemporal, everyone can understand it because there is this question about women who are married, who have a child, have a beautiful house, and everyone is going to say, OK, she has it all, now she is supposed to be happy, but the truth is Madame Bovary, Like Anna Karenina, like Thérèse Desqueyroux, like many, many great heroines of literature, they want more, and that question is very important: is a woman allowed to want more than what she has, and what is supposed to make her happy? And for Adèle the question of course is very relevant too. She wants more, but she doesn’t know what she wants.

Adèle, and Louise too in Lullaby. What do those characters have in common, and how do they differ?

Adèle and Louise have a lot in common. The first thing is that they are silent, they don’t speak –if you read the books very precisely you will see that they really do not use a lot of words. They are absolutely unable to speak out, and to ask for help, to say I’m not OK, I’m lonely, I’m depressed, I don’t know what I’m doing, I’m lost, I think I’m going to do something very wrong. And I think that’s something that is very important in the two characters, and as they don’t speak out, they are very lonely too, very lonely and they don’t find a place in this world. They look at the world as if they were out[side], as if the world was behind a glass and they are looking at people living, but they always have the feeling that they don’t belong. The big difference between the two of them is probably that Adèle knows how to survive, because she has her husband, she has her son, and sometimes she tries to resist her addiction, and she says, OK, now I’m going to love my husband, I’m going to love my son and I’m going to be a respectable woman and to have a very nice and normal life. So she’s torn between two different things.

I don’t know if Adèle can find true freedom, and I don’t know if anyone can find true freedom, I don’t really think it’s possible. Or it’s possible if you accept to sacrifice a lot, if you accept to be lonely, if you accept to be misunderstood then it’s possible to be completely free. But I love loneliness, I’ve never suffered [from] loneliness, and that’s probably what is making me free today. But when you have children, when you have a husband, when you have people who are counting on you it’s difficult to be free, and we have to accept it. But Adèle is unable to accept that.

The earliest sense we get of Adèle’s cravings gave rise to the novel’s French title Dans le jardin de l’ogre:

“She wants to be devoured, sucked, swallowed whole. She wants fingers pinching her breasts, teeth digging into her belly. She wants to be a doll in an ogre’s garden…”

Do you regret that the English title loses that sense of a kind of menacing fairy tale?

I don’t really regret the fact that we changed the title, because I completely trust my publisher. But yes, the truth is that Dans le jardin de l’ogre gives this fairy-tale impression. Actually I was inspired by my son. I was telling a fairy tale every night to my son, and the part he loved the most was the part with the ogre, and at the end of the story he was always saying, “Oh please stay with me, because now I’m afraid of the ogre.” And I was like, “You asked for this story, so why now are you telling me you can’t sleep?” And it made me conscious that as children, but also as adults, very often we want things that we are afraid of. We want danger, and we want the ogre to come into our garden because that’s what excites us. But at the same time we know that maybe it’s going to destroy everything, so I wanted to ask this question, why do we want so much to deal with dangerous things?

It would have been very difficult to be lyrical or too poetic with a theme like sex addiction. I needed to be very clinical, so that I don’t judge Adèle. There is no judgement, no moral in the book, just description of what she’s doing.”

Your prose is very taut and precise. I’m wondering in what ways your journalistic background may have helped – and perhaps hindered – your fiction writing?

Being a journalist helped me a lot to write fiction, because when you are a reporter and when you go into a city or somewhere and you have to write an article, you have two days and you have to write something, you need to observe everything, you need to be very attentive to the very tiny details: to look at how people walk in the street, how they take a cab, how they grab a cup of coffee in the little cafe in the street. So I think that it helped me to develop my observation sense. But concerning my style, and the fact that my style is very clinical, with very short sentences, I think that it’s because of the subject of Adèle, the topic. It would have been very difficult to be lyrical or too poetic with a theme like sex addiction. I needed to be very clinical, so that I don’t judge Adèle. There is no judgement, no moral in the book, just description of what she’s doing.

You gave up your job as a journalist in order to write this book. How long was that process, and how much writing did you discard along the way?

You know, I decided to become a writer when I was 20, but I was not brave enough… or I couldn’t work enough to write a whole novel, so I was writing short stories and then stopping and re-doing it again. I decided to work as a journalist for a newspaper, and then one day I thought, “Oh, now I’m 30, and maybe I will be 40, saying to my friends, ‘You know, one day I’m going to write a novel…’ And then I will be 50 and I will never write this novel, so I need to try, at least to try, and if I don’t succeed, OK, so I’ll know that I will never be a writer.” So I went to see my boss and I said, “OK I’m quitting, and I want to write a novel.” At that time my son was only like six months or something, and my boss said, “Oh good for you, so you’re going to stay home with your son, that’s very good.” And I said, “No, I told you, I’m going to write a book…” And still he said, “Ah your son is so lucky, he’s going to have his mummy at home.” I was so scandalised, so outraged about what he said that I wrote this book as revenge, to show him I was not going home to take care of my son, but to write.

So how would you describe a typical writing day?

I don’t take a shower, I’m in pyjamas until 4 in the afternoon just before I have to bring my son from school and I’m like, “Aargh, I have to bring him from school!” And so I put on my jeans, something on my head because I didn’t take my shower in the morning. And I smoke, I smoke, I smoke, and try to write something, but that’s a mess, and that’s not something organised… I could tell you that I wake up very early and drink a cup of tea and then I write, but that’s not true. It’s a battle, and it’s a messy and a violent battle to write.

Has it got any easier since you were first published?

No, that’s the problem. You think that it’s going to get easier but it’s not, it’s like the myth of Sisyphus, you have to climb the mountain with the rock, and then the rock falls back down and you have to climb it again. But you never learn how to climb this mountain. So each time it’s very difficult, and sometimes you even have the feeling that it’s more difficult, because you get old and you get tired, and lazy.

Sam Taylor has translated both of your novels. How closely did you work with him in matching the tone and style of the original French?

Sam is a wonderful translator. He asked me some questions by email, we had some discussions, but I must say that he immediately understood what I wanted to do with my books, he understood the atmosphere I wanted to convey, how I wanted to describe Paris and my characters, so the truth is we didn’t need to discuss so much, or to work on each sentence or each word because I trust him completely and I know that he’s going to be very faithful to what I wanted to do.

Will he also be translating your non-fiction book Sexe et mensonges (Sex and Lies)?

Yes, he will.

Can you tell me a little bit about that book, and how you were compelled to collect these stories about the sex lives of Moroccan women?

I went on a tour with Adèle in Morocco and one day I was in Rabat and at the end of the lecture I went to a cafe and a woman sat next to me and she began to tell me about her life, and more precisely about her sexual life. And she said, “You know, I can understand Adèle, even if I’m not a sex addict and I’m not suffering like her. But I understand her because like Adèle I lie all the time. I lie about my sexuality because I live in a country where I have no choice but lying.” And it was very interesting what she told me about her pleasures, intimacy, her relationships with men, and when I came back home and wrote everything in a notebook I thought, “I need to interview more and more women, and try to understand what it is to have a sexual life in Morocco. So I interviewed homosexuals, prostitutes, women who had to experience abortion, women who were married, women who were not, poor women, rich women, and it was very interesting to listen to those very brave women who fight and try to be free.

It’s very easy when you’re in my position to say freedom is so important, it’s more important than anything, but for many, and the majority of women, especially in Morocco, the price to pay to be free is too big.”

And what do their stories tell us about universal issues of personal freedom, inequality – and just being a woman?

What I learned from those women is that it’s very difficult to be free, and sometimes what made me very sad is that sometimes I was speaking with those women and telling them, “Oh I admire you so much, you’re so brave because you chose to be free,” and they told me, “You know, if I had to re-do it, I would never choose that. Because I regret, I don’t want to be free, I’d prefer to be happy and respected. Yes I’m free, but I’m alone and I’m a pariah, I’m out of the clan and no one wants to speak with me. So the price I had to pay is too important, too big, it was not worth it.” And I was very sad to become conscious of that, that it’s very easy when you’re in my position to say freedom is so important, it’s more important than anything, but for many, and the majority of women, especially in Morocco, the price to pay to be free is too big.

LullabyChanson Douce – won the Prix Goncourt. What did that mean to you personally – and to your career?

It was like a dream come true, but at the same time I was so surprised. It was so weird to win this prize at 35, with a book that was not supposed to win such a prize because it’s a book about women, and about babies and nannies. It’s not like Big Literature, it’s not about war, it’s not about history like men’s literature. I was so surprised that I still think that it’s a dream, that it’s not really true, that it’s an illusion. I never, never believed completely that I won the Goncourt Prize, and I think that is good, I shouldn’t believe that I really, really won it.

But it put you on the cover of Elle, and you became some kind of literary superstar.

Yes, I think it was not only the fact that I won the prize, it was the fact that I was a young woman, I was from Morocco, from a Muslim country, that I was fighting for the rights of women, for the freedom of speech in my country, so I became sort of an icon without wanting it. But the good thing with that is that now some Moroccan, Algerian or Tunisian girls will think that maybe one day they will be on the cover of Elle, and that maybe it’s possible, as one student told me, to conquer the world even if you come from Maghreb.

When you first moved to Paris at 17, you found the locals unfriendly and selfish compared to where you grew up in Rabat. How did you cope with that then, and are you now a fully adjusted Parisian?

Yes, when I arrived in Paris I found people selfish and not very friendly, and now I’m myself selfish and not very friendly to strangers. One day I was on the bus and someone went to sit next to me and I was like, “Ah, laissez-moi tranquille!” and I was like, OK, now I’m a real Parisian, I’m very rude to people! Now I love Paris very much, and I suppose it’s still very difficult to come to Paris when you are very young and try to figure it out, how it works, and try to find your place. But when you find it, it’s the most beautiful city in the world because you meet so many different people coming from different backgrounds, different cultures. It’s a wonderful city, a very aggressive, very snob(bish) city, but wonderful.

“A man would think it’s completely normal: he won a prize, and now he has to travel all over the world and everyone should be happy for his success. And I think I should do the same… women shouldn’t think it’s wrong or bad.”

You said when Lullaby came out that “every woman should fight for the right to be selfish sometimes… for the right of having privacy, having a place for ourselves where we are not wives, not mothers, not workers but just ourselves.” Are you winning that fight?

It’s been several years I’m fighting to be a free woman and to be selfish, and at the beginning it was just speech, I was just saying that but not doing it in my real life. But since I won the Prix Goncourt I travel a lot and I leave my children at home, I have to leave them with my husband or with the nanny, and so I act selfishly. At the beginning I felt very guilty, but now I try not to express this guilt, because I think that a man would not feel as guilty as I do, a man would think it’s completely normal: he won a prize, and now he has to travel all over the world and everyone should be happy for his success. And I think I should do the same. There is no reason why I should feel guilty about that. So yes, I am selfish, and yes, sometimes my son is in the living room and I close the door and I’m in my bedroom reading or writing, and I tell him, “I don’t want to play with you because I want this time for me and just for myself,” and I think that women shouldn’t think it’s wrong or bad to do that.

You also said that literature is “where you can try to understand monsters,” which is a perfect response to readers or critics who complain that your characters are ‘unlikeable’. So who are some of your favourite monsters in literature?

Probably the characters in Dostoevsky’s novels. Stavrogin, who is a rapist and monster, Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment are wonderful monsters. And to be honest I think that we are all monsters, we all have a monster inside of us. Some of us are able to control it, and some are not. In certain points of view, in the point of view of the bourgeoisie and the moral society of the 19th century, Emma Bovary is a monster, Anna Karenina is a monster because she’s unable to respect her husband and to just be happy with what she has, so it depends on which side of the barrier you are because we always judge people as monsters – and I love monsters.

You’ve started a third novel. How far along is that, and can we expect more monsters?

Ouf, I don’t know what you can expect about my third novel, and I don’t know what I can expect. Now I’m at the beginning, no I’m going a little bit deeper than that, I’m beginning to understand my characters, to love them a lot, and to be honest I would love to do only that, to spend all day in my office writing, but it’s getting more and more difficult because, you know it’s like a vicious circle. When you write a book that has success, you don’t have the time to write another book. So now I have to steal time to write my book, but I hope that next year maybe it will be out in France, and so the year after maybe in the UK.

How far into production is the film of Chanson douce? And what can you tell us about it?

The movie is finished. I watched it two weeks ago. It’s very good and very frightening, it’s like a horror movie, and it’s weird because when I watched the movie I was like, “This story is terrible, it’s so violent!” I never had this feeling or impression writing it or reading it or speaking about it. It’s very different when you are confronted with the image and not just the text. It’s starring a very famous movie star in France called Karin Viard, and we hope it will go to Cannes this year.

Read the opening chapter of Lullaby

 

Leïla Slimani is a journalist and commentator on women’s and human rights, and became Emmanuel Macron’s Francophone affairs minister in November 2017. Her first novel Dans le jardin de l’ogre (Adèle) won Morocco’s Prix La Mamounia in 2015 and her second, Chanson douce, (Lullaby) won the Prix Goncourt in 2016. Sexe et mensongesher 2017 non-fiction book about the sexual desires of Moroccan women, is next to be translated by Sam Taylor.
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Author portrait © Catherine Hélie/Editions Gallimard

Sam Taylor is a Nottingham-born author and translator based in the USA and France. His previous translations include Laurent Binet’s HHhH, Joël Dicker’s The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair, Riad Sattouf’s The Arab of the Future and the US edition of Maylis de Kerangal’s Mend the Living, published as The Heart.
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Mark Reynolds is a freelance editor and writer, and a founding editor of Bookanista.
@bookanista

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