The Utopiales convention: an interview of Lionel Davoust
photo credit: Mott
Just like Sylvie Lainé, Lionel Davoust answered a few questions for the Portal during the convention Utopiales in Nantes. Lionel Davoust is well-known in the French milieu for the quality of his translations, but also for his remarkable work as a writer. His short stories have been published in magazines and anthologies for a few years now, and this year Critic published his first novel, La Volonté du Dragon (which was immediately nominated for several French awards). His short story L’Île Close, out in 2008, received the Prix Imaginales 2009 and has been translated in English for the anthology Interfictions 2.
Thanks to him for his kindness and for taking the time to answer our questions; very often updated, his website contains all useful informations about him and his work.
1) What big-picture themes are you most interested in right now? History, climate change, frontiers—this last one being the theme of the Utopiales this year?
Well, in science fiction and fantasy—but it’s more of a retrospective answer, because it’s something I wasn’t really conscious of at the time—it seems that there’s a theme that I’m obsessed with: all the questions revolving about identity, but the identity of the self. How you define yourself, how you define yourself as a conscious being relative to your own worldview but also relative to the world at large. How you decide, choose or suffer what you are, how you can affirm that identity in the world, whether you are facing social pressures or the larger mysteries of the universe.
And often that overlaps with the question of madness, versus illumination, versus true identity, which I think is quite interesting as I’m also dabbling a little bit in mystical stuff in stories. Well, that’s far-reaching question, but I would think that’s mainly the things that I try and have fun talking about.
2) Do you feel that there are specific themes which are particularly interesting to a lot of writers in French science fiction right now, and if so, what are they?
I would tend to think that French science fiction is very much concerned with social issues today. Of course, science fiction has always been warning people about the future of society, the terrible trends that our societies can take. I think France is often preoccupied with the social aspects of things—the questions of, you know, racism, exclusion, poverty, elites confiscating public resources and such. These issues are even more dramatic today, because the world is in bad shape, of course—maybe it has always been in a way or another, but we have the feeling that now we don’t have a lot of time left.
It’s always difficult to answer that, because you talk about trends, and there are always people who are not in trends, but I would think that there’s a kind of a global feeling of revolt, of rebellion against these kind of things, against the state the world and societies are in. We have a strong French tradition of rebelling and fighting for the rights of people and such, and I would think that’s quite important in science fiction today, revolting against the injustice, expressing anger, and trying to think of different ways. But it’s also a message of hope, not mainly anger.
3) What about themes in Francophone Science fiction outside of France, and in other languages?
It’s a very difficult question to answer as well, because I tend to think that in culture, in arts, and especially in literature, personality trumps the state of the times, the state of the culture. Of course, we are all products of a culture, but I think that personality trumps that. First because when you have something to say, something interesting to write, it’s usually something very personal, and even though you are the product of a culture, I don’t think that shows first and foremost through what you are doing.
My very personal view of literature is that it’s here to tell stories and not to make points. It’s always very good to have themes and messages, to try to convey something, a deeper message or theme to the audience, but I think in the very first place you’re here to tell a story. And I think that a writer must be able to put himself in any character’s shoes, or he shouldn’t write about this character if he can’t convey what he feels and how he works. In La Volonté du Dragon, I defend and argue for points and world views that are not mine, and I try to do this consciously in order to do this well, so as to present both sides of the argument. I try to present the side I don’t believe in, or the ideas I don’t believe in, as convincingly as the ideas I believe in, because the point is not to convey my ideas, it’s to tell a story, a believable story. I hope I have succeeded – I have received interpretations from readers which were a bit different from what I had envisioned, so apparently I have muddled the waters enough so that people see things I didn’t really intend to say, but for me it’s a great joy. I’m happy when people see in my stories things that I don’t think, because that means I have done my job of building a self-contained fictional world.
Well, that’s a convoluted answer. But I think that’s always a very risky business to try and pinpoint the culture or even the true beliefs of a writer from what he writes. Because if he does his job well, you really can’t tell. It’s his job to make you believe in another world, other people, and even to put you in circumstances where you get to understand how vastly different people may react in ways you usually disagree with – it’s one of the fun aspects of this job.
4) Do you think that after the first step which would be to complete a story, the second to publish it, the third to get the acknowledgement of the milieu, there would be now a last step which would be to get published in English?
I have been lucky enough to be published in English; the story called L’Île Close has been translated (which is a wonderful and unbelievable lucky and event for me) by Edward Gauvin and published in the Interfictions 2 anthology which is compiled by Delia Sherman and Christopher Barzak. It was quite unexpected, because I met Delia at Utopiales a few years back, and I heard that they were looking for submissions for Interfictions 2, and were taking French submissions. So I tried my luck, but really not thinking it would succeed or anything. I just thought: Well, there’s this opportunity, it would be really silly not to try, so let’s try it and then it worked!
So it wasn’t really a conscious project on my part but yes, I would very much like to be published in English again—when you write, you try to reach as many people as you can, otherwise why would you try and get published in the first place?
I’m always wary of the idea of goals in art, in literature, because I think your only goal should be to write the best story possible, and that’s the only thing on which you have any kind of control (and even that could be debatable). So I think goals can be dangerous, can make you lose your focus on the real picture, which is to write, that’s what matters most.
Although, I would think that yes, it would be a great progress for literature at large—after having said that I think that the personality of the writer trumps his background, that might seem contradictory, I know, but it’s not—but the more you can read from varied and diverse horizons, the more you widen your own horizon and the way you see the world. I think that’s always interesting, cross-pollination, and especially in genres where worldviews and personal ways of seeing life are so prominent, it can only be profitable for everyone. Of course for the people being translated, but, if I can be forgiven for saying that, also for the people reading those works—because, well, when you discover different ways of seeing the world, you’re like: Oh, I didn’t think about this, that makes me think of something else, that furthers my own path. That’s good.
So I’m all, you know, for diversity and cross-pollination of ideas. Oh, what a wonderful conclusion! (laughs)
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