A Conversation with Joël Dicker

Your website says that you wrote The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair because you wanted to try your hand at an “American novel.” Did you simply mean “set in America” or something else?

I simply wanted to place a work of fiction in a New England setting, a place I know well.  Very quickly I realized that I was so familiar with the US that I could allow myself to create an American town with American characters.  Actually, this book helped me discover a part of myself: that I could surpass my origins and my writing language, and recreate a part of the United States in French.

What do you love most about this book, and what do you hope that your American readers will love about it?

What I like best about the book is the New England atmosphere, which reminds me of my childhood summers.  While writing it, I was consulting my own happy memories on a daily basis. For 25 years now, I’ve spent one or two months a year in North America.  Because of this, I really feel that I know America from the inside.  I hope that my American readers will also feel at home, and will grant me the privilege of being accepted as an author who writes about America without being American myself.

The structure of the book—the switches between perspectives and time periods, the reverse numbering of the chapters, etc.—adds to the mystery narrative. Why did you choose to structure the book this way?

It’s a countdown. I like the fact that the reader will know how many chapters are left before the end.  When I watch a film, I like to know how long it will last in order to know where I am.  Am I in the middle of the film, or near the end?  When a book has chronological chapters, you never know how many chapters are left until the end.  In my book, I wanted my reader to be able to know.

I wanted to entertain my readers, and give them a moment of pleasure in their busy lives.  It’s a big book!  So if readers are stressed about how many pages or chapters are left, that takes away from the pleasure of reading.  If you know where you are in the intrigue, you can concentrate on each chapter instead of wondering when it will end.

This is only your second novel, and already it’s a major bestseller in Europe. Could you talk about what inspired you to write this book?

I wanted to write a story about a teacher-student relationship, about the transmission of values from one person to another.  Marcus and Harry were the first characters I created for this novel.  Then I decided to create a universe around them, and that’s when I imagined the town of Somerset.

Many writers fall victim to what’s called the sophomore slump. You did just the opposite and wrote a second book that was even more successful than your first. Did you—like your characters—experience a long period of writer’s block before you began Harry Quebert? Did you have any inkling that you had written a million-plus-copy bestseller?

No, luckily I’ve never had writers’ block.  Sometimes I have doubts, as there are always lots of questions that arise while a book evolves, but I’ve never had a block.  Doubt is good: it makes us re-examine ourselves and allows our work to progress.  So no, I never thought this book would be a bestseller, because of my doubts.  In fact, I was wondering who amongst my friends would accept to read such a long manuscript all the way to the end!

It’s impossible to read Harry Quebert without thinking of Lolita. How much—if at all—were you conscious of Nabokov’s novel while writing your own?

The LOLITA image came to me late.  I was well into writing the book when I decided that Harry’s character would have a relationship with a young girl.  In my head I immediately made the link to LOLITA, from which came my reference N-O-L-A, like L-O-L-I-T-A.  However, having read LOLITA when I was 15, I had an image which was much more naïve than the image that hit me straight in the face when I re-read the book a few months ago.  I realized that we evolve with books, and that reading LOLITA at age 15 or at age 29 is a different experience.

What about Marcus and Harry inspired you to create the very specific environment of Somerset around them?

I created Somerset before creating Marcus and Harry.  I wanted to convey the atmosphere of small-town New England to my European readers, so I created the “character” of Somerset before creating the people.

Like you, the novel’s narrator is a young, attractive, and incredibly successful author. Do the parallels between Marcus Goldman and Joël Dicker go any deeper?

No, not at all.  There is a little bit of me in each character.  That’s normal, since I’m the one who created them.  But besides our common love of running, there is no more Marcus in me than there is Harry, Jenny, Tamara, Robert or Gahalowood.

The central mystery of the novel—what happened to Nola Kellergan?—is extremely compelling. Why do you feel that mystery stories are so popular? As a European author with a mystery set in America, what differences—if any—have you noticed between European and American mysteries?

The truth is, I never read crime novels, so it’s impossible for me to compare how they’re written in different countries.  As for the mystery of what happened to Nola, what happened to her is obviously terrible, but it’s also a “banal” crime.  How many children disappear in the world every day?  I didn’t want to tell a story just about a crime, but rather a story about banality in its most sordid aspects.  I think that mystery novels are so popular because an investigation is guided by the principle of curiosity, and curiosity is what pushes us forward.  We are all curious–that’s part of human nature.

You are Swiss but your book is set in New England and the American dialogue is entirely convincing. Have you visited New Hampshire and are there any particular places there that you like? What do you like about them?

I am from Geneva, Switzerland.  It’s a beautiful place but with natural barriers on three sides: the lake, and two mountain ranges.  So when I was a kid, driving through those long stretches of trees really impressed me.

I love the Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine area.  I’ve been going there every summer for 25 years, and I know the area like home.  I spent a lot of time in the town of Stonington, Maine, in particular. I also like the town of Bar Harbor, Maine, and in my book, I modeled the town of Somerset on the layout of Bar Harbor.

My cousins, who live in Washington, DC, have a house in Stonington, Maine, so going there just came naturally ever since my childhood.  How many times I’ve crossed New England, specifically Massachusetts and New Hampshire, to get to Stonington!  Because of that, I put those places in my book in order to share them with my readers in Europe, to show them some of the regions and settings that live within me.

Fiction about academics—both professors and students—is very popular now. Why do you think that these stories are so popular, and why did you choose to have your novel’s two main characters be a professor and his student?

Probably because students have the world in front of them: they are choosing their own road, their path, their destiny.  Students still have their destiny in their own hands.  This is not the case with professors, who in general have already settled into their chosen career.  I think that this situation–having your destiny in your own hands or having chosen and accepted your destiny–is something that we all experiment with at some point in our lives, because we eventually fall on one side or the other.  It’s a universal experience, one to which everyone can relate.

You make very real the experience of daily life in a small, close-knit community. Did you base any of the characters or episodes on people in your own life?

No, this is a very important rule for me.  Never mix reality with fiction.  And the pleasure of writing a book is to invent scenes and characters.  Reproducing something which I’ve already lived doesn’t interest me at all.

In the book you write about the process of publishing a book (writers’ block, agents, editors, public response, etc.), which adds a fascinating, potentially self-referential element to the narrative. Why did you choose to write about writing, and what do you feel it contributes to the story?

I wanted to speak about writing because I wanted to use the first person “I” to give strength to the narration, but I was afraid of falling into writing a fictionalized autobiography. By choosing an author who is older than I, and with a completely different life from mine, I tried to give credibility to this “I,” while distancing myself as much as possible in order to be a veritable storyteller and not simply tell a story from my little daily life.

You began your writing career early and founded a nature magazine when you were only ten. But then you went to law school before returning to writing. Why the detour?

Because I also wanted to study, and to get a diploma.  There are no creative writing courses in Switzerland or France, and the Humanities Department at the university didn’t interest me.  I’ve always liked law.  For me, it wasn’t a detour.  I like variety.

Harry Quebert, the title character, is a great writer. His student, Marcus Goldman, wants to become one. What great writers do you admire, and why? How have they influenced your own writing?

Romain Gary is my favorite author.  His work and his story touch me more than anyone else’s. He had an incredible life story which is common knowledge in Europe: he won the Goncourt prize twice, but once under a pseudonym which wasn’t discovered until after his death.  He was married to the American actress Jean Seberg and he wrote a lot about race relations in the U.S. in the 1960s.

Marguerite Duras, because I like her style.  You get the impression that there’s not one word too many, that her sentences are perfect constructions, as if each word were a brick and if you took one out the whole work would fall apart.

John Steinbeck, because Of Mice and Men is the first book that literally bowled me over. Of Mice and Men is a true lesson of what the narrative force of a story should be.  With few words, and with lots of allusions and hidden meanings, Steinbeck leads us across landscapes, a story, tension, and the distress of his characters.  Steinbeck knows to go beyond words, and I think that’s exactly where storytelling resides: in the unspoken.

Philip Roth, because he is probably the greatest contemporary writer.  Reading his work, you retrace the story of America of the last 50 years.

Dostoyevsky, because he’s the first author I read who made me understand the importance of narration in a novel.  To open one of his novels is to enter a world completely.

The novel has an incredibly cinematic feel. How would you feel about it being turned into a movie?

Excited obviously, because the movie world is very exciting.  But worried at the same time: books are better than movies.  The imagination is free, time is unlimited, and characters take the face you lend them.  Cinema is not free: the film’s length is limited, you have to cut so it fits into two hours, and the characters faces are set as the actors’ faces who play them.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on a new novel.  I prefer not to talk about it, because that’s my fun, and my freedom, to be the only one to know for the moment.  I think it’s a pity to talk about the book you’re in the middle of writing: you deprive yourself of a rare and precious moment of freedom.