Katherine Pancol On Being Bitchy, A Feminist, & A General Badass

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yellow-eyes-crocodilesPhoto: Courtesy of Penguin Books.
Alas, we've finished our first book club read, and we're feeling a pang of remorse for having raced through so quickly — and for having to leave Jo and Hortense. And also, we're feeling sharply annoyed that the next two books in the Joséphine series haven't yet been translated in English.

But, to keep us in their world for just a bit longer, we sat down with The Yellow Eyes of Crocodiles celebrated author, Katherine Pancol, for a very honest chat about our favorite — and least favorite — characters, her writing process, feminism, equality in the workplace, and the perils of sacrificing any piece of yourself. Yes, it was a long, revealing, inspiring, and incredibly surprising conversation. Read ahead for the highlights, and then take to the comments with your final thoughts on the novel — and its brilliant author.

So, our readers pretty much abhor Hortense.
"Well, she’s a youngster, 14. And, the young girls in France love Hortense; she's like their role model. The little girls in France — everybody wants to be called Hortense. It’s really funny. But, at the beginning, the people were only appalled by her. There are a lot of Hortenses out there though; you have a lot of those little girls who are just crazy, angry with their mothers, with their fathers, with their school, with their society. At the end of the book when she says, ‘When you are a child you need to have a strong mother, someone who’s going to protect you,' she's right. But, she has a feeling that Josephine is wimpy, and everyone can take advantage of her. She has no feeling of security. I think that’s what’s interesting about Hortense. But, at the beginning I had trouble with this character. My god, I could have slapped her. 'Stop talking like that to your mother,' you know?”

How do you create a character who elicits such an emotional reaction in people?
"One morning I met this woman swimming in the sea, and Josephine started from her. I asked her, ‘What do you do for your living?’ And, she said, ‘I am a teacher at a university.’ She had the highest grade, and she was specialized in the 18th century and the diaries that vendors went to the countryside to sell to the young girls. She must have been 55, and I said ‘You mean you have spent like 30 years of your life working on one little topic like that?’ She said, ‘Yes! And, I go all around the world to talk about the 18th century.' I thought, ‘My god there is such thing as people spending their whole life on one topic’, and then I met her two daughters. One was really nasty, one was like Hortense, and her character comes from that. And, she was really, so rude to her mother, who had invited me for lunch. And, the girl was saying, ‘Oh, it's so bad, your food, how can you dare having me eating that junk food’ in front of me. I couldn't believe it. So, I think that’s the tinder for the book — that’s the first little stone. Then it’s like a snowball that rolls, and then I make the characters. So, Josephine was the girl in the sea, and the two daughters — well, I took her daughters, and then I worked on the characters. And, when the characters are very well built, and you know everything about them, I throw them in the arena and say, 'Now tell me the story.' And, that is how I write."

What's it like for you, the process of writing?
“It takes a lot of physical strength. It’s like running. At the end of an afternoon, I’m really, really exhausted. I have a daughter who’s 25, and she’s starting to write, too, but for movies, and sometimes she calls me and she says, ‘Mummy, I’m exhausted.’ And, I say, 'That’s normal.' She’s been working all day long. You give a lot of your flesh when you write, it’s like you give everything, so at the end you are tired.”

That's exactly the opposite of Iris' attempt to write in the book. And, she can't succeed at it, even though she obviously once had talent. Why?
“Iris is a very good character, I know a lot of Irises — a lot. In New York and Paris and London, and they are exactly the same. Just the names of the restaurants change, and the shops, but they are the same. But, she’s lazy. And, I think if you want to make it, you really have to work, and she wants to make it without working. And, she counts on her good looks, and her good fashion, and she thinks she’s going to do it, escape all her trouble and finally do it. And, that doesn’t work. So, she’s pretending a lot. I think if you want to write, if you want to tell truths about characters, you have to be honest with yourself first, and she’s not — you have to put your soul on the table to write well, you have to be true to you, and she’s not.”
katherine-pancolPhoto: Courtesy of Sylvie Lancrenon/ Penguin Books.
Switching gears a bit, there are a lot of themes around women's issues in this book. Is that something that's really important to you?
“Oh yes, oh yes, oh yes! My next novel is about that. It’s called Muchachas. It’s a Spanish word because it’s nicer than the French word. So, it’s ‘girls’, but it’s about that double standard. In France and Europe — I don’t know about here — but we live in an a patriarchal world, that’s for sure. In France, women get a 25% lower salary doing the same job. In TV and the House of Parliament, it’s only men. I think for every 300 men, you have 20 women. What is that? I’m fighting just to be on the same ground, same salary, earn the same respect that men get. Women are good to go and get coffees….and what is that?

Another piece of that double standard is the way our society so often perceives successful women — as bossy. Do you think it's possible for a woman to be assertive without being seen as too aggressive?
“I think it’s difficult. It’s very difficult. I think you can try not to be a bitch on first impression. But, really, competition is so hard. I remember when I was a journalist; I was young. When I started I was 20 years old. I was working at a magazine, French Cosmopolitan, and I was about to leave for a two-week vacation. I had written all the articles, everything. I left them on my chief editor’s desk, went for vacation, and came back to find a girl had signed all my articles. I came back to find the paper was released, and my articles weren’t under my name, but hers! So, I went to the girl, grabbed her by the neck, put her against the wall, and said, “You are never going to do that again!” Punch. She never did it again. But, you have to stand up for yourself.”

Do you feel like it's tougher to get people to see you as a serious writer, because you're a woman?
"Yes. If you are a female writer and you are successful, it’s because you’re blonde; you’re cute. I’m kidding. It’s because I work, I write, I read, and I spend time, you know, thinking. I have a brain. But yes, as soon as you are, I don’t know. Say you are blonde — oh la, la, she must be stupid. That drives me crazy sometimes. Look, I have a brain!”

Would you ever consider changing your appearance to dispel that myth around your success?
“No, no, never, never, never. I will never do that to myself. Never. I couldn’t do that.”

Because you think it's really important to make it clear that women can be both intelligent and attractive at the same time?
“Yes, yes. And, if you are born to do something in life, do it! But, don’t ask me to change or to be nice when I don’t want to be nice. That’s very important, you know. That’s why I think if you want to be true to your character, be true to yourself first. If you want to be true to your children, be true to yourself first. It’s all the same. I’ll never change anything. One time, I was married to a guy who was the head of the YSL corporation. It was a really chic life in Paris. We had all those parties that I had to be dressed up for, and I couldn’t dress up. It’s not my style, I don’t know how to walk on high heels. So, it was always a question: How are you going to be dressed tonight? Luckily, Saint Laurent made Le Smoking [tuxedo suit], which was for me was perfect. I was working the jacket all the time because it was like a jean for me! But, I couldn’t wear those crazy dresses — which were beautiful by the way, which I love to see on the runway, and I love to go to the collections — I couldn’t wear them! I couldn't change myself for them!"