Interview with author Marie Houzelle

Marie Houzelle grew up in the south of France, but now lives just outside Paris in Ivry. Her stories and poems have appeared in Narrative Magazine, Best Paris Stories and many other publications and  compilations. “Hortense on Tuesday Night” was chosen by Narrative Magazine as one of the five top stories of 2011. Her novel Tita, about a 7 year old in the south of France in the 1950s is published this month. Marie tells us a little bit about herself and her Paris favorites our interview.

Tita is seven, and she wonders what’s wrong with her. She has perfect parents. She revels in the Latin rituals of small-town Catholic life in the south of France in the late fifties. She puts on plays with her friends, spies on adults, challenges her teacher, manages to read forbidden books. She should be happy. But she dreams of a life without meals, and keeps worrying about her mother’s whereabouts, spoiling her own life for no reason at all. Is she a freak?

Tita will be published by Summertime Publications

The best book I read this year. Witty, wry, and clever, Tita’s young voice captivated me from the first page. Tita poignantly portrays small-town life as well as the end of the Catholic church’s grip on France, revealing cracks in society that a decade later become the riots of 1968. A rare novel written in English that gives a real taste of French culture. I cannot recommend it enough! – Janet Skeslien Charles, author of Moonlight in Odessa

“Marie Houzelle is a master of the first-person narrative. In Tita she has created a strange, utterly original child whose deadpan certainties are a beguiling invitation to readers of all ages.” – Katharine Weber, author of Triangle and True Confections

marie-houzelle-headshotWhen, where and how did you first come across FUSAC? A long time ago; maybe at the American Library.

When and why did you come to Paris? A long time ago, after marrying a Parisian.

What was your first job in France? The grape harvest, when I was twelve.

How did you get started writing? I don’t remember not writing. As a child, journals, poems, in various languages. As a teen-ager, leaflets and songs. Later, I experimented with forms. All the while keeping away from fiction.

What is the most satisfying thing about writing fiction? Freedom.

What is the oddest request a reader or publisher has made? An editor asked if , in a very European novel, the “love interest” at least could be American rather than German. She felt that it would make the book more attractive to American readers.

Marie-TitaWhat was the impetus for writing your new novel “Tita”? The material I worked on was inspired by childhood memories; the impetus was the wish for a small, self-contained shape: short chapters, limited time frame, restricted world, little girl…

What is your chief characteristic? Who knows?

What proves you are French? I am (more or less) acquainted with most European languages, which might or might not make me European. French? I abhor camembert, roquefort, brie, and pont-l’évêque, so…

Your favorite occupation other than writing? Chamber music.

What are you currently reading? Molière’s L’École des femmes

The most significant author you have read? Or the most addictive, and the funniest: Marcel Proust.

What was the first book you remember reading? The comtesse de Ségur’s Les Petites Filles Modèles.

Your motto: Do I need one? Let’s see. Yes, from Bach cantata 144 (I was singing it in June): Murre nicht, “Don’t complain”.

The French expression that makes you smile. Avoir l’esprit de l’escalier* (I don’t have it).

Favorite smell? Fig leaves.

Favorite comfort food? Aubergines au poisson (eggplant and fish), at LaoViet, 24 bd Masséna.

Favorite quote? “I like not to speak a language well, not to master anything; I like to be in an uneasy place where I don’t belong.” Bernardo Carvalho, interviewed by Xavier de la Porte on France Culture radio, Des idées sous les platanes, July 11 (my translation).

Favorite place to ride your bike in Paris? Avenue Mendès France.

IMMEUBLE DES BONS ENFANTS – PARIS. Photo courtsey of SETEC, constructeur de l’immeuble

What is your favorite building in Paris? Les Bons Enfants, Ministère de la Culture et de la Communication, by Francis Soler.

In which Parisian monument would you like to be locked in for the night? with whom? Locked in? Nowhere! Never!

What is your favorite bridge in Paris? Passerelle Simone de Beauvoir, by Dietmar Feichtinger.

A historic place that stops you in your tracks. The Cour Carrée in the Louvre.

If you were to send a postcard from Paris what image would you choose? A building site with lots of cranes in the thirteenth arrondissement.

What music puts you in a good mood? “Music for a While – Improvisations on Purcell” by L’Arpeggiata (director: Christina Pluhar).

A talented person who should be better known? Ensemble Lunaris (three women singers).

An animal that fascinates you? Spiders.

What are you most proud of? My children. I erased this three times. Their splendor has nothing to do with me. Still, I’m proud, I can’t help it. And happy. And tired of erasing.

Do you have a pet? What kind? There’s a good-natured family cat who somehow ended up staying with me, probably because he likes the garden. His name is Rousseau.

What was your happiest moment when you were a child? I was always happy swimming under water, with just a mask.

Where is the place that you want to go the most? I always like to stay in New York, in San Francisco, in Amsterdam and many other places. I don’t much want to go anywhere.

Which actor/actress would you like to play you in a movie? Me? Nobody needs to play me. But I’d like Olga Milshtein (Un Enfant de toi, La Jalousie) to play Tita, the young protagonist of my novel. Soon, because she must be growing fast.

What do you bring back from vacation? A new way of seeing my usual life.

You don’t leave without… my laptop.

An introduction that changed your life. Well, I can’t think of an actual introduction. But I was washing my hands in what Americans seem to call a rest room next to a male stranger before a meeting at an art school. He must have said a few words and… I kind of liked him. I married him a few years later.

A discovery you would like to make. A way to turn off your sense of smell when needed, the way you can close your eyes and stop seeing.

What clothing detail irks you? I’d like to know why many women wear high heels while few men do. Men often say they’d rather be taller, so what are they waiting for?

Who is your hero? Gérard Genette, whose prose never fails to make me laugh.

Who incarnates the United States? My friend Olga Zilberbourg, from Saint Petersburg.

Who incarnates France?  My friend Linda Healey, from Ithaca, NY.

If you were a film, what film would you be? Céline Sciamma’s Tomboy.

If you were an article of clothing…? A short sleeveless white cotton dress.

If you were a famous woman…? Marie de Rabutin-Chantal, marquise de Sévigné.

If you were a cosmetic…? Sunscreen.

If you were a shoe…? Tropézienne sandals.

If you were a mode of transportation…? A local train.

If you were a building…? Logements sociaux de la rue des Hautes Formes, by Christian de Portzamparc.

If you were a drink…? Lemon water.

*Avoir l’esprit de l’escalier is to come up with the perfect retort only once the occasion has passed – to be left speechless. The origin of the phrase is from Diderot in his Paradoxe sur le comédien. During a high society dinner a remark was made to Diderot which left him speechless. He explained, “l’homme sensible, comme moi, tout entier à ce qu’on lui objecte, perd la tête et ne se retrouve qu’au bas de l’escalier” (“a sensitive man, such as myself, overwhelmed by the argument levelled against him, becomes confused and can only think clearly again [when he reaches] the bottom of the stairs”). “The bottom of the stairs” refers to the organization of the mansion house to which Diderot had been invited. In such houses, the reception rooms were on the étage noble, one floor above the ground floor.To have reached the bottom of the stairs means to have definitively left the gathering and it is only then that one recovers one’s wits.