By Stephanie Schaefer
If you’re seeking entertainment in the form of a passionate love triangle, skip next season of “The Bachelorette” in favor of author Nelly Alard’s Couple Mechanics.
Library Journal called Alard’s U.S. debut “an intimate, claustrophobic, and compulsive read,” and Kirkus Reviews said it packed “a surprising, emotional wallop.”
Last month, Daniel Ford and I attended a talk with Alard at the charming Porter Square Books in Cambridge, Ma., where she spoke about differing views on love and marriage, Simone de Beauvoir’s influence, and how she crafted her novel’s provocative opening scene.
Find out more about how she develops characters and what inspired Couple Mechanics by reading my interview with the author below.
Stephanie Schaefer: When did you decide you wanted to become a writer?
Nelly Alard: I actually never decided that, it sort of happened. I wanted to be an actress. I started by helping a friend director to write a screenplay based on a story he had in mind. It seems I was not bad at it and the movie got produced and then other people hired me to write for them and I did it, mostly for the money. I was having a hard time making ends meet as an actress and people offered me good money to write screenplays. My first novel Le Crieur de Nuit, was my first attempt to write something “personal” and it was picked up right away by Gallimard, which is the most prestigious publisher in France. And then I realized that not only was I more successful at it, but I actually enjoyed writing much more than acting, at the end of the day. And that’s how I became a writer. I have been incredibly lucky!
SS: Who were some of your early influences?
NA: As a child I would know by heart entire scenes of Racine and Corneille, and I loved reading the great classics pretty early on. So I would say Balzac and Tolstoï. Later, I developed a passion for Proust. I discovered American writers much later.
SS: What’s your writing process like? Does your fiction writing process differ from your screenwriting process?
NA: The main difference is that a novel is really the creation of one single person—the author—from the very beginning (the original idea) to the end, and that singularity is what you’re looking for. To find your unique “voice” is probably what matters most in writing a novel. A screenplay is only a basis for a collective work. Even if you write it entirely alone (which never happened to me), it never stands by itself and will be altered by the director, the producer, or the actors on the set. Also, when you write a screenplay you have to keep in mind the cost of every single scene you write! The word that comes to my mind when I think of novel writing as opposed to screenwriting is freedom!
SS: What inspired Couple Mechanics?
NA: It’s a mixture of different love affairs I’ve either experienced, or seen around me. I wanted to revisit The Woman Destroyed by Simone de Beauvoir, which was written in 1968 and tells pretty much the same story than Couple Mechanics does, and see how this story would unfold some 50 years later, after the feminist revolution has changed the relationships between men and women so much.
SS: How much of yourself ended up in your characters? How do you develop your characters in general?
NA: Oh, there’s a bit of me in every character. In Juliette, of course, but also in Victoire, and even in Olivier. The chapters written from his point of view were actually the ones I enjoyed writing the most (those chapters were cut out of the English version). It’s fun to become a man for a few pages! All my characters are monsters, and a combination of two or three people I know. They have the feet of somebody, the face of somebody else. And then you grab things here and there, people you know, things you heard. And the character begins to have a life of its own. Most of the time you don’t even know where it comes from!
The process is really very close to improvisation when you’re an actor. You start by imagining yourself being that person, in such a situation, what would you think, how would you react, and then things start to escape you and you find yourself saying or doing things you wouldn’t have thought about. Only, as an actress you’re not often given the chance to play the part of a man, while as a writer, you get to play all the characters in your head!
SS: This is your first novel translated into English. Did that affect your writing or editing process?
NA: Well, I didn’t know when I was writing it in French that it would get translated so obviously the original version was not affected by it. Now my U.S. publisher Judith Gurewich thought the novel was a bit too long, and she asked me to cut out three chapters, which were, in the French version, the ones told from the point of view of the husband. I trusted her and I accepted. And then I worked closely with Adriana Hunter on the translation to make sure the irony, the kind of sardonic, matter-of-fact, no-bullshit tone of Juliette’s voice came across. Irony is the hardest thing to translate.
SS: What themes were you looking to explore in Couple Mechanics?
NA: I have been trying to explore all forms of violence between men and women, some of them carefully hidden under the words “love” or “passion.” It goes from physical violence to emotional blackmail, but it also raises the issue of imposed paternities, which is to me a gigantic abuse of power on the part of the women. Another theme of the novel is the opposition between two ideas of feminism: the one defended by Simone de Beauvoir nearly 50 years ago and another, newer one, denounced by Elisabeth Badinter in an essay that deeply influenced me called, “Dead End Feminism.” And finally, of course, there is the old conflict between family and passion, the question of knowing if a long-lasting love can exist.
SS: Do you think the novel would have been different if it were set in the U.S. instead of France? Do you believe the countries have different views on love?
NA: I really don‘t think so. I know American people have this fantasy about France and the French that everybody there is having affairs and that it’s okay and that nobody cares, but this is absolutely not true! Being betrayed by someone you love is a devastating experience for everybody, French women included—otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to write 300 pages about it!
SS: Your novel has garnered rave reviews from the likes of The Economist, Kirkus Reviews, and Library Journal. What’s that experience been like and what’s next for you?
NA: It’s just wonderful. I love the United States and I have spent a lot of time there over the years, I have friends there and that makes me incredibly happy that they’re finally able to read my books!
What’s next? I am working on my next novel, obviously. And I also have several screenwriting projects, among which is the adaptation of Couple Mechanics as a French television series. And, why not, a feature film in English if I can get a U.S. producer interested!
SS: What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
NA: Read a lot. Read, read, read. And then try to write something you would enjoy reading.
To learn more about Nelly Alard, visit her Other Press author page.