“Human beings need stories”

INTERVIEW – The winner of the Goncourt Prize and the Fnac Prize discusses the critical and public success of Watch over herhis influences and his years as a screenwriter.

LE FIGARO. – What does this Goncourt Prize mean to you?

Jean-Baptiste ANDREA. – My childhood dream was to become a writer. I never imagined myself receiving the Goncourt. It echoes the names I heard and read as a child, since my parents were avid readers. This is also a myth. It’s the oldest literary prize in the world! I am happy that this novel won an award, because it is a novel that is very dear and personal to me. I worked in the cinema and I believe that winning an Oscar does not reach that level. I don’t think that Goncourt will change a lot of things in my daily life because I already meet a lot of people in bookstores. Booksellers have supported me from the start. I am very grateful to them. On the other hand, I think that this prize will extend this tour on which I have embarked. But I’m going to be careful that it doesn’t get in the way of what I want to do, which is write.

Before the Goncourt, your novel sold more than 50,000 copies. How do you explain this success?

People recognize themselves in this romance that I offer them. They want to be told stories. Fundamentally, human beings need stories. It’s not for nothing that people have been talking about it for millennia. So, there is a fundamental human desire to transcend reality. I am anchored in this literary tradition. There are a thousand ways to tell stories. There are experimental, traditional ways… But there is no form superior to another. However, there are good stories and bad stories.

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Which book embodies romance for you?

In France, we immediately think of Dumas or Hugo. But two years ago, I reread the entire cycle of Thibault by Roger Martin du Gard. There are several novels and I would not want to limit the word to a single form which would be a succession of twists and turns. In fiction, there is a notion of duration. This means that emotion is enriched by duration. Take the example of Cheetah. It is one of the books of my life, it made me cry, yet we cannot say that much happens there… It is the story of a family and I find it very romantic. That’s the novel. A form of intensity which can be simply emotional and not event-related. I also really like John Fante. The romantic is what moves me.

I wrote almost every day of my life for twenty years

You published your first novel six years ago, thanks to Sophie de Sivry (founder of the house L’Iconoclaste, who died last May). This novel, according to legend, was refused fourteen times…

I have six years as a writer, but I have worked in cinema for twenty years. I’ve been a screenwriter and director this whole time. Cinema has been a wonderful school of demands, rigor and hard work. I wrote almost every day of my life for twenty years. This experience was very valuable to me. But no, it’s not a legend: my first novel was rejected fourteen times before I met Sophie. When we saw each other, she said to me: “Have you shown it to any other editors?” I obviously answered: “No, you’re the first one I’ve shown it to.” I was afraid that she would have doubts when she learned that I had been rejected. Although it wouldn’t have been! But I still told him the truth, maybe two or three months later…

Your “cinema” years are reflected in your books, all very colorful. In Watch over her, you are talking about art, sculpture. Did you have a plan in mind for writing this novel?

No. I don’t need to rely on reality to build. However, the Pietà is at the center of this novel, so there was definitely a form that emerged. It is the Virgin with the body of Christ at the descent from the cross. In the same way, I had an image of my characters. But I’m not describing them based on real people. I like to have an artistic blur, which means that I have a vague idea of ​​shape. And this is what allows everyone to project themselves.

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According to legend, Fantômette lends some of her features to Viola…

Fantômette was one of my first pionate reads. As a child, I devoured his adventures in the “Pink Library”. My first hero was a heroine. And maybe, years later, Viola and the strong women in my books come from there. I was hesitant at first to use the word “feminist” when talking about Viola, because I didn’t want to give the impression that women needed me to defend themselves. But Viola is an ode to the free woman. She is a woman who refuses all the constraints ociated with her time, her gender and who will fight against her own limits. She is a very modern heroine.

Besides Mimo and Viola, there are two other predominant characters in your book: art and Italy. Are they inseparable?

Yes! Italy has offered so much to Western civilization that I find it difficult to dissociate this country from art. Art is around the corner. It’s absolutely astonishing. Mimo speaks of Italy as this “land of marbles and garbage” where the most sublime marble facades can end up in trash heaps. It’s a sublime country. I went there for the first time when I was 15 and I believe that my sensitivity to all forms of art developed in front of this permanent beauty.

Watch over herby Jean-Baptiste Andrea, The Iconoclast, 581 p., €21.90. iconoclast

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