Sylvie Granotier is a French actress, screenwriter and novelist, born in Algeria and growing up in Paris and Morocco. After completing her theatrical studies, she spent several years travelling around the world, including the United States, Brazil and Afghanistan. After a successful acting career, she turned to fiction. Fourteen novels and many short stories later, Sylvie Granotier is a major crime fiction author in France; her work has been translated into German, Italian, Russian and Greek. Le French Book brings us the first English translation of her novel The Paris Lawyer. The novel is both a legal procedural and a psychological thriller set in the heart of French countryside, La Creuse, considered by many to be a backward, closed-off rural area full of secrets.
I had the pleasure of meeting Sylvie at the Lyon Crime Festival Quais du Polar and I became an instant fan. Imagine a taller, more glamorous version of Dame Judi Dench, expressing her thoughts in a carefully modulated voice, in beautiful English with a delightful French accent.
Have you always known you were going to end up writing crime fiction?
No, it was quite a shock. I never dared to consider that I would write some day. I drifted for a few years, had no aims or ambitions. Then I found myself translating Grace Paley’s short stories – I really admired her style and she had never been translated into French before. When my translation got published, she came to Paris and met me. She told me how she had started writing rather late in life and it was almost like she gave me the permission to write. She never said it in so many words, but the day she took the plane back home, I started writing my first novel. So the two are not unrelated, I think!
And it was crime fiction that you instinctively turned to?
Yes, there was never any doubt in my mind. I’d enjoyed crime novels so much when I lived in the States. Writing a book that can really grab the reader seemed to me the highest ambition for a writer. Would I be able to do that? It’s a genre that has given me so much pleasure, so it seemed an honour to be entering that genre.
Which authors inspire you?
Hard to choose, I’m inspired by all sorts of writing, not just crime fiction. I like Dickens, Melville, Ruth Rendell, P.D. James, Elizabeth George. I like those crime authors who deal more with the psychology, the human aspects of a crime.
Tell us a little about your writing process.
Each book is a story that needs to be told. It can be a small seed from something I’ve read or seen or heard years before and it takes root and germinates inside. I don’t start with my characters. I always start with a fragment of a story, a promise, and the characters develop as the story evolves. I want to find out more about them and they often surprise me – which, to me, is proof that the story is alive. I have been known to erase a complete book, because I felt I knew too well what was going to happen. It was no longer interesting to me, it had lost its capacity to surprise me.
What differences (if any) do you notice between American and French crime fiction?
The way the legal system works is very different, of course, and a story is often influenced by the way in which you do your job. Then, the language: French is far more organized, grammatical, constricted, more of a corset, less open to experimentation. Finally, there is something about the way each country views good and evil. American writers are not afraid to deal with huge themes like serial killers and innate evil. They have great faith in the truth emerging triumphant and justice being served. In France – perhaps in Europe in general – we are more cynical about the truth ever coming out fully in a trial. We are perhaps too morally ambiguous, everything is too grey with us, not black and white. Perhaps we feel that criminals are not necessarily evil, but simply people like you and me caught up in desperate matters.
What about the way women are portrayed in American vs. French crime fiction?
In my book ‘The Paris Lawyer’ I deliberately chose a very modern type of Parisian woman, independent, strong, dealing with men on her own terms. She is sexy, stylish, uninhibited, despite her being haunted by her past. I think she is very different from the kick-ass school of American female investigators, which I do also enjoy very much! But I think there’s got to be room for both Vic Warshawski and for Catherine Monsigny in crime novels. And we the readers are all the richer for it.
For more information on The Paris Lawyer and options for buying this or other crime fiction from France, please go to Le French Book’s Amazon page. For further reviews of the book, see Margot Kinberg , Ms. Wordopolis or Karen .