Camille Bordas is the author of two novels in French, Les treize desserts and Partie commune, published by Gallimard. How To Behave in a Crowd is her first novel written in English. She is a graduate of the Sorbonne University in Paris and holds a master’s in anthropology from the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences, also in Paris. At twenty-nine years old, Bordas recently published her first story in The New Yorker.
“The Thrill of Writing,” an Interview with Camille Bordas
This interview was conducted via email by Interview Editor Lian Ammerman. Of the process she said, “Camille Bordas’ novel How to Behave in a Crowd is at times dark, at times humorous, and always a pleasure to read. Camille writes in such a personal, playful way. I’m grateful to have had this exchange with her.” In this interview Camille Bordas talks about coming of age, characters creating themselves, and parents being spies/secret heroes.
Superstition Review: Izzy is the youngest of six kids. He’s also like an outsider in his own family, as well as at school. Still, by the end of the novel, we discover that he served as confidante in many of his relationships. Can you talk about the decision to make a young person the narrator and protagonist of this story? What were some of the challenges you faced when writing from this perspective?
Camille Bordas: At first, I thought I was writing from a child's perspective because I was writing this book in English, which is a third language for me, and I didn't have the confidence to use it to write in the voice of, say, an Emeritus Philology Professor or something. I thought teenage English would be "easier," but of course, that's not how it works. Perhaps I knew this before I started writing the book, and just needed an excuse to write from that 11-year old perspective. The coming of age story has always been interesting to me. I know a lot of peopele say there have been enough of them, but to me that's like saying there have been enough love stories or crime stories. Coming of age is something we've all had to do, and it's natural to want to see how other people (even fictional characters) manage it. "Coming of age" sounds like such a walk in the park, but it's actually a pretty horrifying time. The challenge was to write an interesting story, to make Isidore and his family compelling. Writing in his perspective was no harder than writing in his mother's. I'm actually still pretty in touch with what it felt like to be a teenager (have I mentioned I thought it was horrible?), I have powerful sense memories of that time. Also, like Isidore, I'm the youngest in a big family (only 4 children though, in my case). So I'm sure that helped. I didn't know it before I started writing the book, but it turns out I had a lot of thoughts about his position in the family. I'd never thought about it too directly. I was neither satisfied nor dissatisfied with being the youngest: it was just my place. But then writing about Isidore, I realized the youngest child is not always the spoiled baby that tends to come to mind when we speak of the youngest in the family. Often, the "baby" is mostly left to his own devices more than his older siblings were, and more freedom comes from that—but also less attention. My mother herself explained to me that you're more attentive to your first child, and that attention gets divided every time a new child is born, which is why there are less pictures of my sister and me than the others, why she doesn't remember when we first walked or talked. I think being the youngest gave me a lot of autonomy, but at the same time, the extra freedom I had, compared to my older siblings, could also feel like a scary void. It was hard not to feel invisible from time to time, in the shadow of the others, and there's this thought I think that the youngest children always have: One day, they'll stop seeing me as the baby, they'll see me as one of them." Isidore's character, in the beginning of the story, has that thought, but then when he understands at the end of the book that his siblings, whom he thought to be indifferent to him, actually observed and relied on him, he realizes he might actually not want any of that. He isn't flattered, he isn't happy. It only makes him sad and uncomfortable.
SR: I absolutely love and agree with your stance on coming-of-age stories and how important they are. What are some of your favorite coming-of-age stories? How did they impact your life and your writing?
CB: Well actually, it was more coming of age movies that impacted me as I was coming of age myself. Now I love books like I Served the King of England, or Franny and Zooey, I enjoy them more as an adult than I would’ve as a teen, but as a child, I saw countless coming of age movies, from Dirty Dancing to The Professional, and I think I took something from each of these movies. The Professional was my absolute favorite movie for a while, not because I wanted to learn how to kill people, but I liked Mathilda (Natalie Portman’s character), her resolve, and the movie had the ending that made the most sense to me. Coming of age as the beginning of something else, in which you’re entirely alone, and it’s both terrifying and beautiful.
It’s hard to tell how these stories impacted my writing, but I remember growing up and thinking very nostalgically about all the coming of age stories I wouldn’t get to have for myself. How sad it was that you only got one shot at it. I think I had this powerful awareness while growing up of everything that I wasn’t that, in a way, made me want to write stories. Often people ask me if what I write is autobiographical, and the answer is yes and no. Some things are of course, but mostly, what I write are autobiographies of characters that I could’ve been and didn’t become. There is some talk about this in my novel, about how you become something more and more precisely as you grow and little by little abandon all other options. And most of it does connect to decisions you made in your late teens/early 20’s.
SR: Everyone in Isidore’s family calls their father “the father,” which seems a little impersonal. He functions less as a father and more as an enigma. Can you discuss your thoughts when creating him as a character in the book? Also, “The father” isn’t in this story a lot. He’s barely around when he’s alive, and then his death comes suddenly and subtly. Why was it important to the story that the father play such a subtle role? How did you decide that his death would come suddenly and without warning?
CB: Maybe now I have to come clean and explain that my answer to the first question was actually a lie. I mean, not a lie, but I was giving explanations on my choice to have a child narrator way after the fact. I wasn't thinking all the things I just said about coming of age or position in the family as I wrote the novel. I never feel (I should say, I almost never feel) like I'm making decisions as I write. I just write, and the decisions are made for me, in a way, in a process that sounds mysterious until you attempt it, maybe: seeing your characters come to life before you. I know it sounds new-agey, but Donald Barthelme, who was a hundred times smarter than me, wrote the most beautiful essay on this, "Not Knowing," so if you don't believe me, just read him. He, too, never knew what his characters were up to, what they talked like, who they were, before he made them talk a bit, saw how they acted and reacted to one another. That is the thrill of writing for me, this not knowing where any of it is going to go. It is only after the fact, when I'm stuck, or have a draft of a chapter to revise, that I see the seeds I planted for myself, what my story means (if it means anything at all), what's there and what's not. So all that goes into explaining the father character. I didn't know what would happen to him. At first, he was just an absent father. I didn't know he was going to die before I wrote the words "he was dead." His death surprised me, but it's what set up a lot of important moments in the book, so I guess it had to happen. Also, death does tend to happen suddenly and without warning, so that's also a good reason for making it happen that way in the book: verisimilitude.
SR: Not knowing where the characters and story are going to take you is a fascinating way of writing! Are there ever moments where you feel the story pulling you in a direction that you don’t necessarily want to go? How do you handle those situations?
It definitely happens, and I usually let it play out. Often, it’s not so much that I don’t want to go somewhere (I’m pretty much game for any story line), it’s more that I get the sense that some vein I’m exploring might not lead anywhere satisfactory, and that’s hard to deal with. Often I feel like I need to go to the absolute dead end of the bad direction I took to make sure there isn’t anything there, a detail that might spark some new idea, but that can take days and sometimes weeks of work, and when I finally let go of a bad direction, it’s hard not to get a feeling that I wasted my time exploring something that wasn’t worth it. But if I didn’t, I would go through writing a book thinking that maybe there was something better to do, so I think it’s important, in the end, to travel toward those dead-ends, to try everything you can. Nothing is useless when you write. Even if you delete 98% of what you write everyday, if you end up with 2 good percent, it was worth it.
SR: Looking back at your story and seeing the “seeds” you planted for yourself must be exciting. Could you describe your revision process? How do you make sure that each seed fits well with the others?
CB: Revision is my favorite part of writing, by far. Polishing sentences, creating echos between one scene and another. The way I do it is I revise as I go along. I make a sentence clean before I start the next. I revise a paragraph, when I reach the end of one, before I start another. And so on. That makes it so when I finally have a draft, it ends up being pretty clean and close to what the book will be in the end, and I only have to re-read it a million times now to focus on minor changes for sound, all-over rhythm, etc. Certain details need to be fixed to fit the ending, maybe, things like that. People often ask me questions like : how many drafts of it did you write before you reached the final one ? Or fellow writers will ask me what draft I’m on, and I never really understand what that means. I only ever have one draft. It might take me as long to finish that one draft as it takes another writer to write 25, but that’s how I do it : I start a book and finish it within the same Word document, the one I’ll end up sending to my agent. If you write slowly, like me, and edit as you go, that final draft is not as painful to read as it might’ve been.
SR: Each of the siblings is precocious academically but they lack the emotional intelligence that Izzy has. Izzy is uncharacteristically sensitive and insightful for a boy his age, which helps him get along with his mother. What was it like creating each character and delving into their thoughts and actions?
CB: As I said, characters kind of create themselves in a way. I monitor their actions, their dialogue. What would Izzie say? What could his mother respond to that? And little by little, I discover who they are. Paragraph after paragraph, they lead me through their story. That is the fun of writing. Everything else is torture.
SR: Izzy has a strange obsession with the idea that his father was a spy. Daphné also mentions that he himself could be a spy, as long as he learns more languages. Can you talk more about what inspired you to introduce spies into this story?
CB: When I wrote this, I assumed every child had the fantasy that their parents were spies or secret heroes. That things are not as they appear, that life can't possibly be as boring as it seems. It's a shield. You don't want to believe your parents suffer all day. Certainly they must lie to you about going to work, about how hard everything is so that you'll want to remain a child and under their authority for as long as possible. Anyway, it turns out not all kids believe that about their parents, but I certainly did. I think the moment you let go of that fantasy to accept that your parents are "only" regular humans, that might be when you stop being a child. And it's unclear at the end of the novel if Isidore has let go of the fantasy or not.
SR: This is the first novel you’ve written in English. What was the reason you decided to do this? What differences did you find between writing in English and writing in French? Is there one that you prefer over the other?
CB: I've always loved the English language. I learned it watching hundreds and hundreds of movies when I was a teenager, and there's absolutely no better way to learn a language than watching movies of all kinds in it. You get exposed to Mrs Doubtfire's English as well as Don Corleone's and everything in between, and you create your own English from the mix. Now, I moved to America for love, not work, but it became clear very fast that I was going to want to try working in the language, not just living in it. I think there in no major difference for me between writing in English and writing in French. That doesn't mean that my English is as good as my French, just that I know English well enough that I work with it directly and absolutely never have to make a detour through French to find a way to say something in English. You have to work with a language's own rules and rhythms. You can't think a thing in French, translate it in English word for word and expect it to mean exactly the same thing, carry the same weight. When I write in one language, I have to forget all about the other.
SR: What does your writing space look like?
CB: Crowded at the moment. The computer almost looks like it's there by accident, which I guess is good. I don't think I could get anything done on a flat white surface the computer dominated. That would be very intimidating. Solemn. I'm not a very solemn writer.