Writer Camille Bordas first caught my attention when I read her impressive short story “Most Die Young” in the January 2, 2017 issue of The New Yorker. But in talking to her about her new novel, How To Behave In A Crowd (hardcover, digital), I learned that, ironically, short stories aren’t her forte.
Photo Credit: Clayton Hauck
What is How To Behave In A Crowd about?
It’s about a family, a big family of book smart and life-dumb children. The narrator of the book, Isidore, is the youngest of six. He’s not as smart as his brothers and sisters, and so he assumes he has to learn a bit about actual life, to balance things out a little. He seeks out adventures of his own, tries to run away, to make friends outside of his family, but he’s always drawn back to his siblings, whether he wants to be or not. They fascinate him because they seem to know everything and to have life figured out. As the story progresses, though, it ends up looking like the structure of the family, which seemed so sturdy to Isidore, might actually be a sort of emotional Ponzi scheme where everyone thinks the others are doing great and therefore continue doing their thing and so on and so forth, until they realize that everyone is just pretending they know what they’re doing and the whole thing collapses.
I don’t know that the Ponzi scheme metaphor works here, but you get the idea.
No, I got it. So are there any writers or novels that you feel were a big influence on How To Behave In A Crowd, but are not as big of an influence on your previous books or your writing style in general? And I mean in both terms of what you wrote and how you wrote it.
I think it is hard for people not to think about Salinger’s Glass family [who appear in stories collected in Nine Stories and Franny And Zooey] the second you mention “a family of gifted children.” But even though I love J.D. Salinger, I didn’t myself see the parallel before I was more than halfway through writing the book. I’m a little thick I guess.
I think the main influence on this book, though, has not been another book but simply my moving to America in 2012. It might sound weird, because How To Behave In A Crowd is not about immigrating or anything like that, but I think that being suddenly so far away from the life I’d built in France made it possible for me to write about things that hit very close to home. My family is not the family in the book, none of my three siblings are academics, but because we moved so much when we were young, we ended up being very tight, and the older I get, the more I realize how uncommon that is. As children, none of us really had friends anchoring us to any place in particular, and we weren’t even each other’s best friends, either — we were different ages and had different interests — and yet we formed this weird group of loners growing up together and having each other’s backs. I thought that would be interesting to write about.
The second thing that had always interested me, and that I ended up being able to write about because I had left it behind me as well, was the world of academia. I’ve always been fascinated by academics because they never stop. It’s Sisyphus squared. I remember being in grad school, and one day, a pretty famous anthropologist who used to teach at my school died, and my professor, who’d been colleagues with him, told our class that day: “His passing inspires in me two remarks…” and he proceeded to retrace for an hour the whole of the deceased professor’s intellectual life, to link it to current controversies in our field, all without sharing anything personal and while looking obviously shaken by his friend’s death. And I thought “Wow, these people, academics, just won’t stop thinking.” My professor looked very moved, he’d lost a friend, but maybe the way for him to cope with it was to keep his anthropological reasoning up. Relentlessly. So I kind of superimposed these two things, family and academia, to write about how lonely one can be, I guess.
What about non-literary influences? Do you see any movies or TV shows being a big influence on How To Behave In A Crowd?
Not really. I’m a real movie buff, but I watch movies for pleasure, not to study them and see what I could take from them and transpose into my work. Also, I don’t expect the same from movies and books. In TV and movies, I tend to want complicated plots, great shots, etc. I love The Sopranos, recently I loved that French movie Polisse and the Argentinian Wild Tales, and I love Star Wars maybe more than anything else in the world, but they’re all very, very far from my book.
Last influence question, I swear. Given that How To Behave In A Crowd is a darkly comic novel, do you see any comedians or comedic writers as having an influence on the humor in the book?
Not really. The people who shaped my humor, I think, are my family. I never watched comedians growing up, it’s not really in our culture in France. But I think it’s because of my parents’, siblings’, uncles’ humor that I laugh out loud at Veep, Bill Burr, Louis C.K., Catastrophe…I think I go to these comedians and comedies because I grew up hearing the same kinds of jokes.
But I also wouldn’t present my book as a comedy. I don’t want to mislead anyone. There’s humor in Isidore’s observations, in his interactions with his family, but that’s sometimes hiding some deep sadness. What’s the quote? “Humor is the politeness of despair”? I’ve only ever heard it in French but I’m sure it translates. Chris Marker said that, I think.
Prior to writing How To Behave In A Crowd, you wrote two other novels: Les Treize Desserts and Partie Commune. But unlike them, you wrote How To Behave In A Crowd in English. Why did you decide to do this, as opposed to writing it in French and having it translated?
Well, whether your book is going to be translated into English is not really the author’s decision. American publishers publish very few translations, in fact, compared to other countries at least. I wanted to write it in English because I had just moved to this new country, I spoke English all day, read English all day…it permeated. There couldn’t be a waterproof barrier between my daily life and my work for too long.
Also, my husband doesn’t speak a word of French, and he’s a novelist as well, so I kind of wanted to share my work with him. It ended up happening quite naturally.
Was there anything harder about writing How To Behave In A Crowd in English, as opposed to in French? Or anything that was easier about it?
I didn’t find the process of writing a novel in English that much different, or harder, than writing a novel in French. That’s probably because I see the process of writing a novel pretty much exactly as the writer E. L. Doctorow describes it, as being similar to driving at night in the fog: you can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way. It makes the process seem both vertiginous and not at the same time. You never know where you are or where exactly you’re headed, but the way to get there is one sentence at a time, so that’s a manageable unit. And that’s how I wrote this novel, same as I would have in French, one sentence at a time.
Speaking of those other novels of yours, has there been any talk of translating Les Treize Desserts or Partie Commune into English and releasing them in the U.S.?
Not that I know of. I’m not sure I even have the rights to these books. The way it works in France is your publisher has them. So maybe I wouldn’t even know if there were plans to translate them.
Prior to this book coming out, you had a really great story in The New Yorker called “Most Die Young.” I’m guessing it wasn’t your first short story. Nor your last. Have you thought about putting together a collection of your short stories?
Actually, it was my first story. The first one I ever finished, at least. I’d started writing a couple of others before, but “Most Die Young” is the only one I pushed to the end so far. So unfortunately, no, there’s no collection in the works.
The reason I hadn’t written short stories before is that they’re not a very popular form in France. I’d maybe read five short stories total before moving to the U.S. five years ago. It’s my husband who put me on to them. He’s a gigantic fan of short stories, and he made this list for me of all the ones I should read, and now I’m completely puzzled as to why short stories are not more popular in France. There, it is seen more as a 19th century thing, and they’re usually fantastical or sci-fi. I think most French readers have no idea how alive the contemporary short story is. I think everyone should read George Saunders and Rebecca Curtis and Barry Hannah.
Also, in France, we don’t have magazines like The New Yorker or Harper’s that publish short stories regularly. It’s just not part of the culture.
Going back to How To Behave In A Crowd, has there been any interesting in making it into a movie or TV show?
Not that I know of.
If it was to be made into a movie or TV show, are there any actors you think would be perfect for the role of Isidore or the other characters?
Not really. I don’t really know that many 12-year-old actors, though.
Speaking of movies, you mentioned earlier that you’re a big Star Wars fan. Would you ever want to write a Star Wars novel?
Well, I’ve never read a Star Wars novel, I just watched the movies over and over with my sister when we were kids, and I now await each new film eagerly.
If the novels are anything like the movies, though — and I assume they are — I don’t think I could write anything like that. I don’t think I could write in a way that would fit every aspect of a world that exists so fully already. There’s a Star Wars “house style” that cannot be messed with. That is why I think they had to change directors in the course of filming the Han Solo movie; directors Lord and Miller were, from what I understand, trying to add some personal touch, a change in tone that didn’t fly with the protectors of the Star Wars‘ realm at Disney. As a writer, I understand the desire to bring your own vision to a preexisting universe. As a Star Wars fan though, I don’t want the tone to change.
I do like, though — as any fan does, I think — to imagine some of the characters’ lives outside of what the movies show. I’ve always loved Darth Vader’s character, and now Rey. I think they’re my favorite of the whole saga.
Finally, if someone really enjoys How To Behave In A Crowd, what would you suggest they read next and why that?
There are hundreds of great books out there, so I would need a more specific diagnosis on what it is the reader is looking for. But one of the most beautiful books I’ve read in the last few years, which happens to be about a complicated family as well, is Family Life by Akhil Sharma. Also, if you liked Isidore’s voice, you will probably love Jose Emilio Pacheco’s Battles In The Desert & Other Stories; if you loved the mother’s character, you should read Joan Didion’s The Year Of Magical Thinking; if you’re interested in Leonard’s inner life, you should read Ivan Jablonka’s A History Of The Grandparents I Never Had or Erving Goffman’s The Presentation Of Self In Everyday Life; and if you’re more interested in Berenice or Aurore, you should absolutely read Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot.