By Leslie Lindsay
Gorgeous, dark, moving, and resonate work summoning the author’s late mother, her mercurial moods, her madness, and more.
~WRITERS INTERVIEWING WRITERS|ALWAYS WITH A BOOK~
Leslie Lindsay and Violaine Huisman in Conversation
Violaine Huisman was born in Paris where she lived for her first twenty years. She runs the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s literary series and has also organized multidisciplinary arts festivals across the city. Originally published by Gallimard under the title Fugitive parce que reine, her debut novel The Book of Mother was awarded multiple literary prizes including the Prix Françoise Saga and the Prix Marie Claire.
ABOUT THE BOOK OF MOTHER:
This brave, bold, unflinching, and disturbing book is so beautiful it’s maddening, and that’s exactly what THE BOOK OF MOTHER by Violaine Huisman is about: dazzling yet damaged.
Originally published in France in 2018, THE BOOK OF MOTHER is technically fiction, but reads like memoir, so autofiction, autobiographical fiction…and it seems that’s exactly how the author describes it, saying in Vogue interview with the translator, Leslie Camhi, (the original published in French and recently translated in English and re-released by Scribner October 19 2021), that the term auto-fiction was originally coined in the 1970s by French writer, Serge Dubrovsky. The form has existed for always, and so why not?
The first third of the book describes Violaine as a ten year-old in 1989 as the Berlin wall is coming down. It mirrors the catastrophe, the victory of crumbling stones and debris as how in those ruins, Violaine sees her mother, whom she mentions right away is ‘manic-depressive,’ (bipolar), never once hinting at the fact that she isn’t mentally ill. We delve into the life of Violaine, her sister, Elsa (two years older) and their mother’s chaotic, tumultuous existence. The parents have divorced, the mother is raising the daughters on her own, but struggling in all manners. When the mother/Catherine suffers a breakdown and is hospitalized, everything changes.
Part two is all about the arc of Catherine/mother’s life. She was the result an unplanned and unwanted pregnancy, grew up in poverty–in terms of finances and emotion–became a dancer, fell in love…married, but it didn’t work out, married again…divorced, but all along, we live in the perfumed air of Paris, nightclubs, boutiques, sex clubs, a possible lesbian relationship, drugs, alcohol, and more.
Finally, the sisters must parse out the complex legacy their mother has left them as they become mothers themselves.
When I love a book, really really love a book, it’s difficult to articulate why. Because it’s so resonate, because it’s hugely brave and vibrant, because I think: I could have written this myself. Here, I see a striking parallel between my own childhood, my own mother, her life and how I processed it. The prose has the unmistakable sense of urgency, a mystery, too, even though we as readers know what’s going on (the mother is mentally ill), and we have a pretty good inkling of where it’s headed…Huisman sees her mother almost as a marvel, she’s enmeshed with her madness, but never does she flat-out idolize her.
THE BOOK OF MOTHER is intimate, lucid, unflinching, raw, stunning story that digs deep into human behavior, exposing flaws, graces, darkness…ashes, ruins, and transcends the conventional novel, it goes beyond a memoir. It’s spectacular.
“A portrait of a life lived like a swiftly burning candle…gorgeous… Love hurts; Huisman elegantly examines how and why.”
—Kirkus Reviews, STARRED review
Please join me in welcoming the lovely and talented Violaine Huisman to the author interview series:
Violaine, welcome. Oh gosh! I love this book so much. It’s shatteringly brave and bold, and I related on so many levels. In fact, it’s almost like we were living parallel worlds—yours in Paris and mine in St. Louis, Missouri. In 1989, my beautiful, talented interior decorator mother devolved into psychosis. She, too, had a traumatic childhood, had bouts with postpartum depression, a crumbling marriage, a life punctuated with drugs, alcohol, sex. There were animals/pets that mysteriously went ‘missing.’ I too, have a sister, though she is 8 years younger. Our mother died by suicide in 2015. So, welcome. I feel we’re sisters in this murky-child-of-mental illness. Can you tell us what sort of haunted you into this story? Why now?
Thank you Leslie. It’s powerful to hear that my work resonated with your own experience. And how uncanny to imagine that in St Louis, Missouri, as the Berlin Wall was falling, you, too, were witnessing your mother’s collapse!
To say that the ambition of autobiographical writing is to make the personal universal is both a cliché and a profound truth. That’s certainly what I hoped for in undertaking this project: to make this story larger than my own, to have it find an echo in others.
The urgency of the narrative came to me as I discovered its arc, or how I wanted to tell it. After spending years struggling to find the way to put it in book form, I realized that I needed to look at my mother’s story from various angles. First, as she appeared to me as her child, and later as an independent entity, aside from her role as a mother. But this perspective didn’t occur to me until I became a mother myself. Only then did the dichotomy between mother and woman surface as a highwire act, one that is often, if not always bound to failure. As the beautiful English feminist thinker Jacqueline Rose wrote:
“Mothers always fail… Such failure should not be viewed as catastrophic but normal.”
We just can’t do it all, no matter how much pressure is placed on us to do so. As I tried to imagine the challenge presented to my mother given her mental illness, my heart ached horribly.
For me, telling my mother’s story, it was hard, to put it mildly. When I first started writing, she was still living. I wasn’t sure how the story would end. Plus, I felt guilt or…something. It didn’t seem right. Now I worry that writing about her after the fact is doing a disservice to her legacy. How might you respond?
I understand your uneasiness, and I felt some of it too.
As I was writing, I kept urging myself to be more generous, more understanding, kinder.
I hoped very much that the book would do justice to my mother’s legacy; to that end, I also made a point of including the book she wrote in my narrative.
When my novel came out in France a few years ago, a handful of readers told me that they bought my mother’s book after reading mine! It’s still in print, it turns out. Nothing could have pleased me more, or felt more like an achievement. It’s a marvelous gift to imagine my work allowing hers to reach new audiences.
I think it’s so important to talk about the idea of fiction versus memoir, and really, all of the different troupes of genre. THE BOOK OF MOTHER is referred to a ‘novel’ on the cover, but reads like memoir. The first third is told from your POV, your mother’s in the middle, and the end is again your POV interspersed with your sister’s experience. Is it because of these conventions that you chose to call it auto-fiction, rather than memoir? I’m not sure if it really matters in the end, because the result is personal and powerful. Can you speak to that, please?
The first, simplest answer to that question is that I wanted to take liberties with my mother’s life story. I had no interest in researching what happened before I was born, or when I wasn’t in the room. I believe the story to be true to my mother’s spirit, and overall realistic in terms of her experience, but I made it up. I based myself in part on my parents’ (often contradictory) accounts of their marriage, and then I read around that era. I had never visited Marseille before describing it in the novel; I now live there, and I’m proud to see that I got some of it right without any first-hand experience of that city.
I think of fiction, after Ben Lerner, as the mind’s imaginative power to produce order.
Life is messy, chaotic, events present themselves non-hierarchically, illogically. Fiction allows to weave a coherent narrative, including sequencing, causal relations, main protagonists, whereas memories always come with too many characters, too much irrelevant detail.
And then the more complicated response is that I had this fantasy, this wild ambition, to turn my mother into a literary character. I wanted her to be able to exist on a bookshelf beside Anna Karenina or the Duchesse de Guermantes.
Of course, there’s memory that comes into play. Here’s what I’ve learned in writing—whether fiction or memoir (or autofiction): your version of the truth becomes the truth. It’s how you remember an event and so who is to say if it’s accurate, or not? We often remember the emotional arc of an event, some of the dialogue, but there’s no way we can remember every detail without it becoming too…factual. And does fact even matter?
I don’t think that facts matter in fiction, unless one deals with historical events. But there is such a thing as fact checking fiction. The New Yorker does it: for accuracy, precision. I find it marvelous, inspiring, and kind of crazy.
Can you talk a little about your writing process? In the acknowledgements section, you write that much of this story was written as it was told to Ben Lerner. How did you go about talking about your experiences with your mother to getting the words on the page?
In the acknowledgements, I thank Ben Lerner for our ongoing conversation. He is an incredibly generous listener, and we’ve often spoken about my mother, yet my gratitude in this context has more to do with his reflections on literature in general, and my writing in particular. Ben doesn’t read French, but I could describe to him – often at a museum, or on a walk – something I was trying to do in my writing. He would revise a sentence on the fly, suggest ideas for transition, narrative arcs, metaphors. His novels and poetry have had a profound influence on my work. I also translated his essay The Hatred of Poetry as I was writing The Book of Mother (in French my novel was called Fugitive parce que reine). On the first page, I lifted part of a sentence from his book. I asked him for permission; he granted it.
What’s obsessing you now? It doesn’t have to be literary.
My father passed away last winter. It’s terribly lonely to have lost both of my parents while my daughters are still so young. My father was an extravagant book collector. His personal library was housed in a three-bedroom apartment in Paris, lined with books from floor to ceiling. Roughly 80,000 volumes or eight tons of books. I’m haunted by that library at the moment…
Violaine, this has been such an honor and delight. Thank you for taking the time to chat with me. Is there anything I should have asked, but may have forgotten?
I’m curious to know if you’re working on a book yourself. Thank you for your thoughtful reading, and gracious questions.
My pleasure! I am just in awe with this beautiful translation but also the uncanny similarities between our stories. And yes, I am writing. Currently, the focus is on ancestral connections, making sense of the past and how that has shaped future generations, dysfunction, more. It’s more prose-y and kind of strange, dreamy, rather than a flat-out memoir or even a cultural or social narrative. The stories are all interlined because that’s how I see generations.
My memoir about my relationship with my mother is currently on submission. She was a brilliant and stunning interior decorator/seamstress who devolved into psychosis when I was ten, much like yours. She drove fast and recklessly, smoked like a chimney, was often very angry and there’s so much more. We were estranged on and off from the time I was ten until her death–suicide–in 2015. This story is about complex grief, breaking patterns of dysfunction, interiority, and more.
For more information, to connect with Violaine Huisman, or to purchase a copy of THE BOOK OF MOTHER, please visit:
FURTHER READING ABOUT THE BOOK OF MOTHER:
- Vogue interview with translator and author.
- NYT book review
- Leslie Camhi, translator, reads from THE BOOK OF MOTHER.
- READ an excerpt from THE BOOK OF MOTHER on LitHub.
- Support your local in-person bookstore or order through Bookshop.org
- This title may also be available through other online sellers.
A Perfect Pairing:
All November, we’re focused on books about mothers, houses/homes, and memoir. Join us for a discussion with Anne Elizabeth Moore about her new memoir, THE GENTRIFIER, A spotlight of Deborah Levy’s REAL ESTATE and Sandra Cisneros’s A HOUSE OF MY OWN. Donald Antrim’s backlist THE AFTERLIFE, a cultural, social and memoir exploration of legacy in Michelle Orange’s PURE FLAME, a long-banned and recently re-released memoir, MY FIRST THIRTY YEARS by Gertrude Beasley, the poetry and writing of Victoria Chang in DEAR MEMORY, insights on the writing life/poetry of Richard Hugo in TRIGGERING TOWNS, and Marilynne Robinson’s 1980 debut, HOUSEKEEPING.
Browse all book featured in November 2021
Looking for your next book? New authors/titles, author interviews and insights here, http://www.leslielindsay.com|Always with a Book every Wednesday, but some Mondays and Fridays, too.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Violaine Huisman was born in Paris in 1979 and has lived and worked in New York for twenty years, where she ran the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s literary series and also organized multidisciplinary arts festivals across the city. Originally published by Gallimard under the title Fugitive parce que reine, her debut novel The Book of Mother was awarded multiple literary prizes including the Prix Françoise Saga and the Prix Marie Claire.
ABOUT THE TRANSLATOR:
Leslie Camhi is a New York-based essayist and cultural journalist who writes for The New York Times, Vogue, and other publications. She is a frequent contributor to artists’ monographs and museum catalogues. The Book of Mother is her first book-length translation.
ABOUT YOUR HOST:
Leslie Lindsay is the creator and host of the award-winning author interview series, “Always with a Book.” Since 2013, Leslie, named “one of the most influential book reviewers” by Jane Friedman, ranks in the top 1% of all GoodReads reviewers and has conducted over 700 warm, inquisitive conversations with authors as wide-ranging as Robert Kolker and Shari Lapena to Helen Phillips and Mary Beth Keane, making her website a go-to for book lovers world-wide. Her writing & photography have appeared in various print journals and online, including Psychology Today, Mud Season Review, A Door = Jar, Mutha, Literary Mama, The Manifest-Station, among others. She is the award-winning author of SPEAKING OF APRAXIA: A Parents’ Guide to Childhood Apraxia of Speech, an audiobook narrated by Leslie from Penguin Random House. A former psychiatric R.N. at the Mayo Clinic, Leslie’s memoir, MODEL HOME: Motherhood, Madness, & Memory, is currently on submission with Catalyst Literary Management. Leslie resides in the Chicago area with her family.
Cover and author image courtesy of Scribner and used with permission. Author photo credit: Beowulf Sheehan.