Inviting an author to lunch is one of the publishing world’s great rituals. Authors receive an invitation four or five times a year. Since there are many authors in one publishing house, that means a lot of lunches. Editors feed their authors like fat misanthropic cats they’re hoping to butter up and make purr. The goal of a literary lunch is to maintain friendly relations with the author. But also – and above all – to find out if he or she is working and has made progress with the manuscript for which an advance has been paid by bank transfer. Between those who write too much and those who write too little, between the ‘ink cows’ who’d like nothing better than to be published twice a year and those who might write one line on a good weekend, the contracts and advances are carefully distributed – along with the lunches. Some authors send pages to their editors regularly and want feedback before they continue, others disappear for months on end without a word, leaving their editors worried. Pascal paid close attention to this and had created a special Excel spreadsheet to keep tabs on authors: every three months, he wanted an update on where they were and what they were doing. The budget of the fiction department, which had a turnover of several million euros and employed a substantial number of staff, relied entirely on the inspiration and imagination of its authors – that is to say, on totally unpredictable elements. Pascal had once summed it up with a simple question: ‘What if those fools run out of ideas – then what?’ No one had dared respond.

Several years earlier, one of the house’s big authors had gone quiet. He had gone to India with the first half of a considerable advance. A private detective agency had had to be called in to track him down and discover that he had written not a single page of the book, which, by the way, was not supposed to have anything to do with India. The author’s bad patch had provided the inspiration for a short novel, Rubbed Out – the story of a private detective looking for a writer who had run off with his advance. Written in three months on his return to France and boosted by glowing reviews, the novel shot to the top of the bestseller lists. The film adaptation starring Vincent Lindon had even earned the actor a César. If you looked at things clinically, the author had therefore been justified in duping his publisher and going to the other side of the world with his advance – if he hadn’t done so, he would never have written the book which remained his biggest success to date. From initial idea to finished book, novels have lives of their own which elude even their authors.

There’s no such thing as an undiscovered genius… Let them keep working their guts out and send their masterpieces to me in the readers’ room. I’m the gatekeeper, François, not you.”

Casually asking the author between starter and main how they’re getting on with the next book is par for the course. Using crafty tactics to try to ascertain over dessert whether they really know how the story ends is another variation on the theme. It’s not uncommon for an author to be asked to pull their socks up – a technique at which Violaine excelled and which she fully intended to deploy on François Mailfer, one of her authors who had had several bestsellers but had produced too little for her liking in recent years. The dining room of Rostand, looking out onto the Jardin du Luxembourg, was buzzing with the usual brasserie hubbub: a mixture of clinking cutlery, conversation and tinkling glasses.

‘You’ve written nothing for three years,’ Violaine began brusquely. ‘You’ve been resting on your laurels, a TV series and ten translations in the offing. Is it too much to ask for you to write another novel, François?’

‘I’m busy with my writing workshops.’

‘You spend all your time in workshops. You’re always talking about your students. Stop helping other people, François. If that’s really what you want to do, go and work for an NGO.’

François Mailfer put down his kir and looked Violaine straight in the eye.

‘I’m serious,’ she went on. ‘Stop worrying about everyone else. Writers are selfish people who only think about themselves, their books, their work. That’s why they’re impossible megalomaniacs who are a nightmare to work with, but at least they move forward – that’s their strength, they make their own way in the world. Are you starved of affection? Start seeing a new woman, get a cat or a dog. Or a bird.’

‘Did you really just say that?’ the author replied coldly.

‘Yes, I really did.’

‘Steak with morels and crosnes in basil butter,’ the waiter announced.

‘Is it wrong to help people who want to write?’ asked François as he poured wine into Violaine’s glass.

‘Yes, it is.’

‘Violaine…’ he sighed, rolling his eyes.

‘It is wrong,’ Violaine repeated as she attacked her beef. ‘You’re making them think they can become writers. You’re allowing them to delude themselves. If they have talent, they don’t need you to tell them what to do. There’s no such thing as an undiscovered genius. All you’re creating is unhappy people who will never get over not making it, because you led them to believe they could do it. You’re creating bitterness, François. You’re causing harm. Leave them all alone and write your books. Let them keep working their guts out and send their masterpieces to me in the readers’ room. I’m the gatekeeper, François, not you.’

‘That’s crap!’ he exclaimed, slamming his cutlery down on his plate so loudly that the two women at the next table jumped and turned towards him. ‘Authors have come out of creative writing classes.’

‘Very few…’ Violaine shot back, biting into a morel. ‘And not from yours, in any case.’

‘You’re a very hard woman, Violaine. You always have been.’

‘Yes, but deep down, because you’re an intelligent man, you know I’m right.’

François Mailfer made no reply and concentrated on the beef.

From The Readers’ Room, translated by Jane Aitken, Emily Boyce and Polly Mackintosh (Gallic Books, £14.99)

Read our interview with Antoine Laurain


Antoine Laurain is a novelist, screenwriter, journalist, director and collector of antique keys. He is the author of Ailleurs si j’y suis (2007, translated as The Portrait, 2017), The President’s Hat (2013), The Red Notebook (2015), French Rhapsody (2016), Smoking Kills (2018) and Vintage 1954 (2019). The Readers’ Room is published by Gallic Books in hardback and eBook.
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Author portrait © Pascal Ito/Flammarion

Jane Aitken is a publisher and translator from the French.

Emily Boyce is an editor and in-house translator at Gallic Books.

Polly Mackintosh is an editorial assistant and in-house translator at Gallic Books.