Your first meeting with Tahar Ben Jelloun must have left an impression on you. What happened?
I met Tahar at his flat in Paris. We were supposed to go to the book section of Galeries Lafayette department store afterwards because I had a public event there for my novelPort-Mélo. Tahar and I went over the main events for our year together in a very relaxed atmosphere. I was sitting in front of him, between an imposing desk which testified to a busy workload and his bookshelf, which was just as impressive.
The book he was reading at the time was sitting on the table:Pedro Paramoby Juan Rulfo, an author we both like. I talked about my influences; he mentioned Joyce’sUlysses, Sabato’sThe Tunnel… Then he said, ‘You have to have read in order to write!’ I have read, of course, but at that moment I thought of all I had yet to discover about literature. Then he gave me a signed copy of his novelPartir(Leaving).
A sign, indeed. Did you imagine yourself “leaving” with him for a year?
In secondary school, I spent some time with the characters ofLa Prière de l’absent,the first book of his that I read. But I never imagined “leaving” one day to write with him for a year. It’s silly, but when we took the bus to go to Galeries Lafayette together, I thought it was simple and beautiful, as if it were something we had always done together.
Did he give you feedback on your work?
A lot! Most importantly, about what a literary work should offer in relation to the works that have come before it, with some surprises for the reader. He pushed me to find the appropriate words, the right form, to move away from common language by embracing the exact contours of what I wanted to express, describe…
What are your goals for this mentoring year?
To learn! Writing means telling a story, or rather trying to tell one, or asking yourself questions about what could happen in a human adventure, with the world, other people, words. But it’s also about constructing a world. Tahar’s experience can help me a lot as he has already constructed many worlds and characters.
How do you communicate with your mentor?
Basically, our work is organized around a logical system of exchange. Exchanging texts (excerpts from the book I’m writing), feedback (from Tahar on precisely those excerpts), ideas. Our views on writing. We communicate by phone and e-mail, but also when we meet.
You have both experienced exile. What role does that play in your exchanges?
We haven’t brought that experience up yet, which shows that maybe it’s not so important. We’ve talked about exile in text, with Orpheus, Ulysses…
How has this experience affected your writing?
It has most definitely affected the way I organize things, which is already saying a lot. As for my work rhythm, I’m forcing myself to write more consistently and methodically. And as for the rest, it’s a little early to say… We can meet up later to assess the results if you want!