Gunzig Thomas

This article is the full version of the interview carried out for the "Guest" section of the Omalius #28 magazine (March 2023)

In several of your novels (“La Vie sauvage”, “Feel good”, etc.), you evoke the boredom and school difficulties of your characters. Your own school career was not without its problems, since your dyslexia led you into teaching.

The correct answer would probably be to say that it led to a desire to prove that I was not a failure, but it's probably more complex than that. I think the most troubling thing about this schooling was not the diagnosis of dyslexia by the PMS (which was wrong, by the way, because I do have very bad spelling, but I have met dyslexics since then and I can see that it's not quite the same thing), but the lack of resistance from my parents. This may have induced in me the feeling that in life you are always on your own and that it is better not to rely too much on others. And my life has often proved this to me...

Did this play a role in your taste for reading, and then in your choice of a career as a writer?

Yes, as in special education I was surrounded by special children, it was sometimes complicated to get in touch with them. I found myself alone in the playground from the first year of primary school, and I risked appearing either as a victim or as a child who was really not well, which would have confirmed the psychologists' diagnosis. So I came up with the idea of pretending to be a nerd to the adults, one who doesn't like to get involved in the rough games of his friends, who prefers to sit on a bench and read books... It was a good excuse at first, and with time I really got the hang of it.

You are now a teacher yourself, teaching literature at La Cambre and storytelling at Saint-Luc. How do you see this teaching task, given your critical view of the school institution? Are there certain flaws that you try not to perpetuate?

First of all I try to make it an enjoyable class, I can't stand the idea of my students being bored. It's not compulsory for students to attend, but for me it's important that there are people there, because it's a symptom of the quality of my teaching. I know that a teacher shouldn't think like that, but I can't help it, I tell myself that we only learn well through emotion, joy, fun. We remember more from emotions than from knowledge, or at least we remember better when knowledge is linked to emotion. I tell a lot of anecdotes about writers (probably too many, it's not academic at all, but I like it). I'm also increasingly allergic to the idea of pure knowledge feedback: in my exam, students can have all the notes they want, their phone, GPT chat, etc. I always ask them to invent something new. I always ask them to come up with a relevant question themselves and answer it. I encourage them to be creative, rather than to store up a mass of knowledge in a given time (they would then forget it very quickly).

Do you think the art of writing and the art of storytelling can be taught?

In any case, one can learn to remove all the obstacles to writing, show the way to imagination, and reassure people that everyone has it. There are also narrative construction techniques that it is good to know, even if it means getting rid of them afterwards... Personally, I was not at all destined, a priori, to write a screenplay, and I wrote my novels without any form of method. I fed myself intuitively from the many films I had seen and the stories I had read. But when I became a professional screenwriter by working with Jaco Van Dormael, I became interested in theoretical works, and I then discovered a whole universe of authors who for decades have been developing quite effective ideas on how to construct a screenplay. Writing a film script and constructing the plot of a novel are two very different tasks, but some aspects can be transposed.

From book to broadcast, from screen to stage, your writing activities are very varied: are you pursuing one and the same quest through these multiple forms?

What I'm looking for above all, in my books and scripts as well as in my radio columns, is the triggering of an emotion. That's what I'm trying to do more and more in my radio posts, for example. I've been asked to do humorous posts, but more than the joke, I try to make these posts moments of emotion, more or less light-hearted. The writers who last (I'm not saying I'll be one of them, but I hope so) are not necessarily the greatest thinkers, who build their novels on the basis of an opinion or a statement about society, but rather those who have managed to create believable characters, with a strong sense of reality, which I think is only possible through emotion. That's probably why people still read The Count of Monte Cristo, whereas Jean-Paul Sartre's novels are read less and less once the fashion has passed, because you feel that his characters only serve to demonstrate a thesis... That's also why I prefer to write novels rather than radio reports: Whereas a column has to fit into four minutes in a news slot, a novel can mature over a long period of time, which allows you to plough deep into your imagination, to draw on its emotional material and try to share it through stories...

There are plenty of them, and at the same time I don't read a lot, strangely enough. There are literary works that touch me without me really being able to explain it: Garcia Marquez's Love in the Time of Cholera, I found it so crazy and sublime; Yōko Ogawa's short stories; The Count of Monte Cristo; the novels of Philippe K Dick, Bukowski, John Fante and the writers of the Beat Generation, or even works of science fiction that aren't necessarily well written, but contain great ideas... I also like correspondences (Flaubert's, for example, allow you to plunge into his world in a very concrete way). At the moment I'm reading Paul Léautaud's diary: what he says about his writing practice, his hesitations, it's so sincere!

I'm not very interested in this contemporary trend of autofiction, self-narratives, etc. There are things that are very much in the nature of the author. There are some things that are very well written, but in my opinion, this overlooks the greatest difficulty of the literary activity, which is to elaborate a story ex nihilo and to manage to write it. What I despair about is when self-fiction is equated with fiction in the pages of newspapers or on literary programmes. But writing about this or that experience in one's life is not the same job as creating fiction. Of course, we always work from emotional material that we know, but I think the challenge for an author is to manage to recreate emotions that we haven't necessarily experienced in our lives: that's what empathy is about.

In Feel Good, you take an ironic look at the promises made by so-called "feel good books", those novels that talk about happiness without questioning the state of the world... What type of literature do you think should be more highly valued and defended?

Feel good books are almost dangerous from a political point of view, because they claim that happiness is within each of us, that all we have to do is look for it. Yet there are a thousand reasons to be unhappy: it is the world that needs to change, not oneself! These feel good books are also books that are full of clichés and stereotypes, which would be condemnable in the eyes of a good editor. It's a shame because it unlearns reading, it gives generations of readers who no longer make the effort to enter a singular language. What is interesting, in my opinion, is precisely when there is a conjunction between an imagination and a voice, that is to say a style.

Does humour, on the other hand, seem to you to be a fertile tool for dealing with the harshness of the world?

Yes, it's a fabulous tool, because you can get a lot of things across through humour, and it's one of the best gifts you can give a reader to make them laugh. The problem with humour is that it is distrusted by the critics and the big literary prizes, because we have been taught that a great book is something serious and serious. If you do something funny, it can't be serious. It's incompatible in the minds of these critics. Yet there are many great authors who combine humour and seriousness: Kafka depicts worlds that are tragic and funny at the same time, Beckett too... Garcia Marquez's novels, for example, are magnificent and full of funny elements at the same time. These are authors who have managed to succeed without eliminating all forms of humour.

You often use inverted commas and what is known as "free indirect style" to distance yourself from some of your characters' language habits, which are influenced by the times. Is this a way of distancing certain clichés, of denouncing a language that has been misused by consumerist society?

Yes, perhaps. One of the languages I like to do this with is the language of marketing and business, this contemporary novlanguage which is frightening, which is also very present in journalistic discourse, and which means nothing. These are formulas that make me tick... I pass them on because these ready-made phrases betray a way of thinking or of not thinking at all.

n this same novel, you satirize the contemporary literary milieu, describing the need for writers to multiply fairs, festivals and book fairs, writing workshops, school meetings, in order to make a living from their activity and exist on the literary scene. Do these rules of the game sometimes seem ungrateful, even laughable?

Yes, it's awful. You have to comply with them because it pleases your publisher and the local bookseller who has organised the event, but unless you meet up with one or other of your writer friends, you are often a bit on your own at this type of event. This is part of the commercial aspect of the profession, which is very difficult to forget. When you are a writer, you are your own little salesman. It's interesting to observe the link between an author's literary production and the need to earn money or not: when you have big fortunes like André Gide, you can devote your life to writing; when you have less, like Kafka, it's more difficult. Some authors change what they write to fit in with this or that fashion and sell more... But almost no author is indifferent to his or her sales figures, print runs, advance payments, etc. Book fairs are part of this necessity.

We often hear today, especially in the context of ecological disaster, that we need writers to invent new narratives and reshape our imaginations. What would you say is the political responsibility of the writer?

I don't think that writers have any particular responsibility. The writer is obliged to write the best possible novels, in the best possible way, that is to say, in the way that best suits him or her. The political responsibility lies with the public authorities: we must observe how they support writers and defend literature in practice. A recent study by the Society of Authors shows that 66% of authors earn less than €500 per month from their royalties. But the law is about to be changed, and this could plunge authors into abject poverty. I am currently lobbying various political parties, because authors are not aware of these bills and are therefore not very active on the issue. The public authorities have a responsibility to consider the particularities of the writer's activity, which requires appropriate taxation.

Omalius 28 - Mars 2023
This article is the full version of the interview carried out for the "Guest" section of the Omalius #28 magazine (March 2023).

Read Omalius #28 online (in French)