Alizé is back to talk about her new novel, Ataraxia, and the journey that has produced four novels, a book of artwork, a few album covers, a solo art exhibition, and a clothing line inspired by her work, all before 30.
Judging by your books, you’re a serious people watcher, particularly re: women and men.
I guess so. People are interesting. I am a woman and I’m interested in a woman’s experience. In Neverdays I wrote a masculine narrator, you don’t have to be a man to do that. The whole “write about you know” thing is a bit limited. Art, by definition deals with the universal.
With the new novel I’ve tried to explore SciFi as a way to get out of here and now. A poetic way to talk about issues and talk about the world. It’s like a mirror for our inner theatre and society and the self.
Ataraxia looks at the way we negotiate with our own consciousness, that tight-rope we walk everyday between compromise and internal consistency: I’m a vegetarian but I’m okay with my leather shoes. I’m an environmentalist who leaves the tap on. I found it was easier to talk about these issues through the lens of SciFi
But you’re not ideological. You don’t seem to have an axe to grind.
It’s about seeing the big picture and the mechanisms at work in our lives. My interest in those mechanisms came from issues with my own femininity as a teenager. I was upset over the way women are perceived and groomed to be. From that understanding I became kinder and was able to step out of the system myself. Before I figured that out I really had issues with other women and with being one.
I don’t know how to put this, but not every writer belongs in a Parisian fashion line… The great feminist Norman Mailer wrote something about how most writers grow up on the sidelines (in American football) and don’t get asked to the big dance and writing is their solace. He argued that it can be hard out there for writers who are easy on the eyes and socially well adjusted, like they don’t fit in with the misfits.
I probably found the same solace in drawing and writing and everything. I don’t feel popular and pretty.
Also my idea of attractiveness has always been a little removed and voyeuristic. Society seems to have a voyeuristic attraction to artists who drink a lot and take drugs, which I don’t. I would rate myself as interesting or attractive by that standard.
What do you think of Paris? Your hometown does happen to be the spiritual home of the arts, but I feel like people who aren’t from there have a very different perspective. We Hemingway-ize the hell out of it.
I like Paris but it’s very expensive now. I don’t live the glamorous Parisian life other artists might lead and others might imagine. London has undergone the same change but somehow stays more vibrant. I think it’s up to the young people to keep the scene alive. I haven’t been but I hear Berlin has the hype that Paris once had.
To me Paris a very isolating place. The isolation has improved a little since I adopted a cat.
You were a painter first, right?
Yes. I was always drawing as a kid, writing came later. I only came to enjoy reading literature in high school when I started to understand how a text works. It’s always been about the inner workings of the text for me. I’m more interested in the layers of structure than the outer polish of plot and context.
I prefer the poetry of language to pure story. I think that’s related to drawing and painting. Words are another material, like a brush, like paint.
Did you have any formal training as an artist?
There’s an established path for artists in France, I didn’t follow that track. I ran away at 19.
When I was in high school my parents got divorced. I did a 2 year prep course (after high school) in philosophy and lit. When I finished my dad really wanted me to go to uni so we didn’t get along. It got to where he was going to kick me out if I didn’t go. At one point he told me that if I thought I could become a so-called artist and still have a roof over my head I had another think coming. I was so outraged by the injustice of his words I left in a fury. It wasn’t so much his reservations about an artist’s life–that was fair enough–but the way he assumed I was lying and manipulating. I held myself to a very high moral standard in those days and being called a liar was unthinkable.
Anyway, I called his bluff: I slammed the door, packed my little suitcase with my Nikon FM camera, and went to London to be an artist. I was 19.
London seemed like a natural choice because it was close and I had studied English in school. London’s pretty attractive it feels like anything can happen there.
I took photos of famous British bands. When I got back, publishers were interested in doing a coffee table book but one publisher told me the book was a bad idea. They said people would only see the fame and I’d be invisible. But let’s see your writing.
When I decided to turn down the money for the coffee table book and write a novel my father was again furious “who do you think you are! ‘A writer!?’ Get over yourself. You should take the money you’re lucky to be offered for those photos… etc”.
Again I slammed the door behind me. The opposition spurred me on. And of course when the novel came out he was very proud.
I guess sometimes you need to feel that someone has faith in you and I’ve often been lifted by that kind of support. But nay-sayer also have their use in terms of motivation. With hindsight I’m glad I had something to push back against.
It all could have gone very differently. It’s not luck, but when you’re that young you don’t think in terms of a future and a career. I had no idea where any of it was going. What was lucky was my living situation. Because I had a camera a lot of people opened their doors. I could squat anywhere and that changed things. Having a day job makes it harder.
One thing I learned doing it that way is that mistakes aren’t really mistakes.
I chose a very different path but many people need the support and structure of art school. There’s more of that internal negotiation with ourselves. I made it work in a way that worked for me.
Were the album covers an offshoot of that London project?
Those came a bit later, after the first novels. I did the Babyshamble’s cover for “Shotter’s Nation” and then Peter’s (Doherty) solo album.
It’s no secret that there’s a lot of hard drugs in that scene in London. What was that like as a teetotaling observer? In my experience it tends to be the innocent bystanders who catch most of the shrapnel in an addict’s life.
I learned a lot. Trust is funny, you never have any guarantees trusting anyone, but when it comes to any addict you have the guarantee that the trust will be broken. So people just give up and walk away.
Personally, I’ve never been a big party girl. Even around bands, to me it was more of a clan and a community than a rock and roll bacchanalia.
Publishers like autobiographical fiction. But that’s not me, I don’t have the lifestyle you see in my books. Being around that stuff requires balance. As a person you’re looking for a sense of health and happiness but at the same time you need to let in a little chaos. That’s another one of those bargains, that’s the idea underlying the new novel. Every choice we make matters.
Do you ever worry about being defined by that time in your life? Your British rock cred does seem to be the first they bring up in reviews and interviews.
It can be a bit frustrating, but you expect people to mention it. You can’t live on bitterness and frustration. The variety of life experiences is so much bigger than any one event or accomplishment. That’s what I’m interested in.
What does research look like for you?
Never thought about seeking out settings and subjects. I like not having a settled life and having the freedom to do something spontaneous. I wonder should I travel? I adopted a cat recently, that’s been a big change. It’s soothing to come home to her, but If I find myself thinking about the possibility of taking a trip six months from now, maybe a trip that I wouldn’t have even considered if I didn’t have this attachment. I can’t so I won’t.
I don’t put myself through things in order to write. I think you have to live your life and if you have something to write then you should write it.
Your first two novels are short, right in that word-count range that’s supposed to make publisher’s nervous. Do you think about that sort of thing?
I’ve always written the books I was interested in figuring out. It’s like a puzzle. Each has its own rules and I’m excited to figure those out. This one was different, more like a camera’s eye moving around. Everything happens in front of you. It’s not meant to be funny, it’s not first person, so you don’t get the same closeness as you do with the other books.
As for an audience, I didn’t think about what the larger public wants, I’ve been lucky to work with publishers who feel the same.
Your style has been compared to a “couteau Suisse” (Swiss Army knife.)
That comes from collage. Depth comes from that correspondence of different parts. A text works the same way–visually.
You always hit a moment where you have to replenish yourself, it’s always good to turn to something else, like drawing or painting and come back.
What’s something you see a lot in fiction that you don’t like?
I don’t like it when an author is not aware of their own prism, especially when it comes to men writing about women.
Do you find you learn a lot from work you don’t like?
Definitely. Rather than getting angry about it, I exercise my right to reply.
Who should we read?
I keep reading but my goes blank when anyone asks about favorites. It’s the same with movies. I can’t think in terms of favorites. I guess you could compare it to food right? You eat, you get hungry, but you don’t have a menu in your head.
Any thoughts on the future of publishing?
It’s been really eye opening to change publishers. I had to learn what’s going on and the politics involved. But I don’t know what’s going to happen. If anything it’s (e-publishing) only going to raise the standards for print.
The publishing industry likes safe bets from massive success. I don’t think that will change.
I’ve heard other French writers and readers praise Irish/Anglo/American fiction for the way our writers play with language and structure. They say that’s just not done the same way in French. My French isn’t good enough to put that theory to the test.
It’s true. That’s why I love reading in English.
The one exception I can think of is Jean Genet
I loved Genet straight away for his use of language.
It’s amazing how he can make such an unpleasant subject so emotionally captivating. (Prison sex, for those of you who don’t know.)
That’s the power of poetics. Nabokov’s Lolita does that too.
We read that book in a class on narrative in college. One young lady told the class it made her wonder, “Was I a ‘nymphet’ at that age?”
It’s so sad, but as women, we’re taught to care about the man’s opinion of us, even if he is a monster like Humbert Humbert.
Do you ever write in English?
I do, and I absolutely love it. Writing in English is like the moment when you check your bags at the airport and you’re free to move around.
What’s your process when it comes to painting?
I don’t analyze what I’m doing. Some things work, some things don’t. Not very conceptual I guess. I’m more interested in art where you can see the artist’s body in action. Like drawing where you see the hand of interaction between artist and medium.
Conceptual art is like a detective story, once you know “who done-it” there’s nothing there for you anymore. I prefer that fossil trace of the artist. I want to make art that stands up in time, even for a single person, something you can come back to again and again.
The art that I enjoy most makes me want to make things.
Is the “right to reply” related to loneliness in any way? You don’t that connection from a frustrating piece of art so you must connect in your own way.
It’s more of a pure pleasure I think. When I see art that I love it makes me want to make art because the pleasure I get from it is such a high. And the stuff that I disagree with, I just exercise a kind of “right of reply” (most of the time a female right of reply to a patriarchal perspective which I find oppressive and enraging, but it happens with many other subject matters too)
I’ve never been all that active on social media not written a blog or a journal, but I’m happy to post whatever doodle or iPhone pic I might have taken that day that “connection” is very nice on a daily basis although I think the work demands a certain amount of solitude. Of forgetting oneself.
Have you got any advice for the person you were ten years ago?
My First book was in 2007, so ten years ago I was working on that. It’s interesting you should ask that because sometimes I wish I could just edit my life, but at the same time if you’re happy with the place you’re in now you don’t want to change it and that includes the times that lead you to that place.
I don’t know that I would give myself advice but I wish I could go back and give myself a hug.
What keeps you going?
At the end of (writing) each novel there’s the fear you won’t write another. You don’t have it in you to write another right away and the fear is maybe you won’t. But if you have that writing bug you will be filled again and you’ll have to get it all out on the page.
Painting is much more location dependent. I may move someday for the painting.
People say you have to suffer, but there’s real highs to the writing.
So you must be in that place right now… What’s next?
I find that after dedicating myself fully to a project I’m not ready to jump straight into something else, there’s a transition period; a palate cleanser moment when I need to get some rest, to replenish, until the need/will to create comes back. A season-like cycle if you will.
I don’t have a routine, sometimes you have to allow yourself to do nothing. At all. Stay empty. And sometimes you have to push yourself a bit to get started again, but so far I’ve found that the happiness I get from creating stuff (writing/drawing) is embedded deep within me, that’s the way I am/see the world/process it/digest it. Of course there are moments of doubt when you wonder whether you’ve still got it in you ; but I guess you learn to go with the flow and not worry during the quieter times which are just as important as the more manic ones, some things happen under the surface.
And I think the recent disappointment in my old publishing company; the anguish of feeling betrayed and misunderstood has given me both the opportunity to fight for my work (I couldn’t have rested until it got published, so much work had to come full circle) but afterward I felt a sort of peace… like I had nothing to prove to myself or anyone anymore, in terms of ambition etc. It was humbling I guess, I realised I was ok with working in a shop and not publishing anything else again.
I guess if I start working and caring about another book the need to release it to the world will come back. But I guess what I’m trying to say is that I was on a path, in a publishing company that wasn’t just thinking in terms of books (each book being it’s own separate project) but in terms of my “carrier” and their own “reputation” (they feared the latter would be threatened by the publication of this book), and this sort of consideration really doesn’t sit well with me.
You always want your books to be well received, and when you’re young you have something to prove yourself so it matters even more. But I’m 30, I know even if I never make a living with my art, that’s ok. I just hope I’ll have other things to release into the world because I know it will be a source of great joy for me; working is such a high.
Sorry about the rambling…
you’re catching me at the lowest ebb
In a nutshell I guess what’s next is perseverance
Images courtesy of Alizé Meurisse
This interview has been edited for content and length.