David Foenkinos: “Sometimes I fear that the best of my career is behind me”

Before he was one of France’s best-selling writers, David Foenkinos was a music-loving teenager who played guitar and studied jazz in Paris. Over time he formed several bands and was a private teacher. A strange force that he defines as “destiny” or “my path” gradually took him away from the six strings and dragged him towards paper and ink. At the beginning of the century, after the publication of his first novel and in his first interview, a reporter asked him why he decided to leave music and dedicate himself to literature. “Because I couldn’t find a bassist for my group,” he responded.

More than 20 years later, Foenkinos laughs behind his square glasses and his characteristic curly hair, mustache and goatee, now with some gray hair, in the lounge of a hotel at the Guadalajara International Book Fair (FIL). He is a great narrator and knows that in the story he has just told all the ingredients that make up his literary character are summarized: humor, the love of music, the obsession with writing, an idea of ​​destiny and chance that runs through his bibliography. . “One of my dreams was to become a professional musician, but what’s strange is that I was trying to form a band, encountering a lot of problems along the way, and then I started writing, I sent my work to various publishers and it was very easy. So I didn’t really choose it, it was my destiny.”

The Parisian author has reached the age of 49 in good shape. Your novel The delicacy (Six Barral, 2011) was the best-seller in France for a year and a half. He has written and directed three films. With hyperactive curiosity, he says that he never repeats formula. It’s like those groups that release an album that blows up the charts and for their next work decide to return to their roots, to an intimate touch. And back to success through the big door one book later. In his repertoire is the biography of a hitherto forgotten painter murdered by the Nazis in Auschwitz, but also another of John Lennon, love stories, and comedy. The FIL has come to present his last blow, Number two (Alfaguara2022), a tragicomic narrative about defeat and chance.

In 1999, hundreds of children auditioned in London to get the role of the editorial bomb of the moment, Harry Potter. In the final process only two remain. For more than a month, those responsible for the casting do not decide on one or the other, until, in the end, the coin falls on Daniel Radcliffe’s side. And Foenkinos reconstructs from fiction the life of that other kid, the boy who touched eternity but was one step away from being the omnipresent magician with the round glasses.

Foenkinos presented his book 'Número dos' at the Guadalajara International Book Fair 2023.
Foenkinos presented his book ‘Número dos’ at the Guadalajara International Book Fair 2023.Roberto Antillon

It all started as great stories usually begin: on the couch at home. One day, Foenkinos watched Harry Potter with his children. After finishing the film, he looked up the saga on Wikipedia. He ended up in an interview with the casting director. “When I finished reading it I immediately started thinking about the boy I had lost. I went a little crazy because she said that they were hesitating for many weeks to decide between one or the other and I thought that to a 10-year-old boy who almost got to play the role of Harry Potter, in the end someone told him: ‘You’re not going to be you’. I immediately thought it was a good topic. “We all fail, we are all number twos at times, but how do you survive when you have to see the life you could have had in front of you every day?”

Near the end of the novel, there is a meeting between Daniel Radcliffe and Martin Hill, the boy who didn’t get the role. The life that was and the one that could have been face to face. Foenkinos likes to imagine a Radcliffe who, sometimes, exhausted by fame, fantasizes about being anonymous again:

—I like to think that at one point Daniel Radcliffe told Martin Hill: sometimes I would prefer if you had gotten the role.

—Isn’t that a bit cliché?

—I understand that it may seem like a cliché, but I think that neither you nor I can imagine what kind of life it is, it is impossible. I saw it a little because I made my first movie [La delicadeza, 2012] with Audrey Tautou, who at that time was very famous for Ameliajust done The Da Vinci Code, was the image of Chanel No. 5 around the world. People called her Amélie on the street, they didn’t know her real name. And then, she decided to stop. She needed to escape. She turned down every movie that offered her.

—Has something similar ever happened to you?

-No. I’m famous, but I don’t like my face to be seen much, I only go to television when I have a new book. Next month I will be on all French television, but then you won’t see me for a while. Being a writer is not like being an actor or singer. I love the shadows, the freedom, it would be terrible to be physically recognized.

Books that sound like Schubert and The Cure

Literature, then, won over music in Foenkinos’s life, but his books sound with a particular soundtrack. The free, adrenaline-filled writing of the beatniks, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, those ragtag ones who roamed the American West, was often compared to bebop jazz. What genre best describes French writing?

“I have written almost 20 books and they were all very different from each other. I have very humorous books, others tragic. The latter is more tragicomic. For some the style would be close to jazz, improvisation, but I think it depends, each one has a different musical environment. With charlotte [Alfaguara, 2015] “I listened to Schubert a lot.” Number two It begins the day the protagonist’s parents met, in a rainy London in the mid-eighties, between Cure concerts and walks through cemeteries. Robert Smith’s sad chords set the pages. “It’s completely a Cure book,” says the author.

Another of his obsessions, beyond music, are stories of losers, failures and defeats. “I think I am drawn to those moments in life that are difficult and how we manage to start again.” He is drawn to both the great figures of pop culture like Lennon and Potter, as well as the stories of anonymous people, in the shadows of everyday life.

Awarded endlessly, praised by critics and popular culture, it would be very easy to dedicate yourself to reaping your success and stop working. What motivates you to continue writing? “It’s not the money, because I’m very rich,” he laughs. “It’s not success either, because I’m very successful,” he laughs again. “I can’t live without writing, but why?” he asks himself. And he answers: “My problem is different. At this point in my life, I can be a little proud of what I’ve done. Although sometimes I fear that the best of my career is behind me. Maybe I keep writing out of fear of never being a better writer, of never making a better book. I can’t answer the question, really. I don’t know my motivation to continue writing. “I think I can’t live without a project in my mind.”

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