author of The Travels of Daniel Ascher
Other Press: In your novel the protagonist uses her skills as an archeology student to discover a long-held family secret. Why did you make Hélène an archeologist?
Déborah Lévy-Bertherat: I’ve been fascinated by archaeology ever since I visited Pompeii at the age of six. I find it bewildering to think that wherever we walk, layers of the past lay beneath our feet. I even considered studying archaeology instead of literature…
I learned a lot from conversations with Pompeii specialist Alix Barbet. She told me, for example, that cast bodies were not merely the tortured shapes of dying victims, which is how I saw them. They contain a skeleton, jewels and objects. This gives information not about how people died, but about how they lived.
As for Hélène, she has always wanted to be an archaeologist, without knowing why. As the novel unravels, she understands that her quest is deeper than she thought. She becomes the archaeologist of her own family’s history, especially Daniel’s. She must find out where her uncle comes from and why he looks so different from her grandparents. A family is like the earth: under its smooth surface lie hidden traces of the past. You may dig into that past, by inquiring, and that’s what Hélène does. She feels that she can’t ask Daniel directly. But she meets his neighbors, friends, and relatives, and each of them gives her a clue about Daniel’s true story.
In the end, she understands that the archaeological sites she studied—a children’s graveyard, cast bodies of Pompeii, an old mosaic—were all images of Daniel’s tragedy. But her main discovery could be that the question is not only “How did they die?” but “How did they live?”
OP: Everyone who reads Daniel’s books is deeply moved by them. They have this wonderful ability to create a community among strangers. Have there been any books in your life that have had a profound effect on you, the way Daniel’s books have on his readers? Have you had the experience of a book allowing you a sense of commonality with others?
DLB: Daniel creates a mystery around the Black Insignia series. He writes under a pseudonym, H. R. Sanders, and gives his hero an English name, Peter Ashley-Mill, suggesting that they are American or British. He never appears at book signings, so his young readers can imagine him as his hero: a young, tall, and athletic man—the exact opposite of his real self.
Did he really intend to create a community of fans? I am not sure. At first, he chooses fiction as a vital necessity, to overcome his traumatic past. Then he begins to build a whole world, with characters, adventures, plots… What began as a kind of therapy, a form of resilience, turns out to be a wonderful gift to his readers.
As for me, I can’t remember ever feeling like a member of a fan community. But in 11th grade, a French teacher, Mr. Karist, made the class feel that way when he read Proust and Colette aloud in the classroom with his beautiful bass voice. He introduced us to Rimbaud’s poetry, and the sentence “True life is elsewhere” became a kind of motto for us teenagers. By the way, it could also be Daniel Ascher’s motto…
OP: Was it difficult to write a story about a writer? Do you have the same approach to writing as Daniel does?
DLB: Actually, it was fun. While inventing The Black Insignia adventure series I felt like I was playing a game. I made up plots, places, and characters with a much freer spirit than usual, because it was supposed to be someone else’s work!
But I also wanted Daniel Ascher’s books to be a verisimilar adventure series. Several readers told me they had looked up The Black Insignia on Google… Even the French National Library wrote to Rivages, my French publisher, to claim that the titles of the series had not been cataloged!
Do I have the same approach to writing as Daniel’s? Certainly not in terms of speed. He produces one or two books a year, whereas I am much slower. I rewrite every page a hundred times! But like Daniel, through an entertaining story, I wish to convey something that means a lot to me. I don’t think I could ever write a book on a subject that wouldn’t be, in some way, vital for me.
OP: What is it about the dynamics of how a family functions that made you want to explore them through a family that lived through the Occupation?
DLB: Families are an endless inspiration for writers. What does it mean to be somebody’s parent or child? What kind of link unites brothers and sisters? All of those ties are complex, of course; they combine attachment and rejection, love and hate. For an adopted child, like Daniel, feelings may become even more problematic. He is a divided man, with two families, two childhoods. He is Daniel Ascher, a Parisian kid, son of a Jewish photographer, and Daniel Roche, son of Catholic farmers in Auvergne.
The Occupation brought an exceptional transformation to family relationships, both for Jewish families that were torn apart, and for “Righteous” families who hid Jewish children. Daniel’s father hides with him and lets his sister get caught, and the moment of this choice is so dramatic that Daniel can’t retell it himself.
But the “Righteous” family point of view is also complex. How can one save a child one has never met? How can a family treat a refugee child like their own son or brother, without knowing how long he will stay, and if his parents are still alive? I read several testimonies on that subject, and while writing, I kept in mind both sides’ points of view: the memory of Daniel, the orphaned Jewish boy; and the quest of Hélène, the descendant of his adoptive family.
OP: What do you think about the power of literature, that it can provide us with adventure, but also self-revelation, and a connection to others?
DLB: The books that most moved me in my life brought me all of those things: a thrilling story, the recognition of unvoiced thoughts or feelings, and a sense of human community. García Márquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude, for instance, Morrison’s Beloved, or Kenzaburo Oe’s A Personal Matter drove me to feel akin to characters who at first seemed far away from me in distance or time. I believe that the deeper a book is rooted in a particular culture, the more universal it becomes.
When writing The Travels of Daniel Ascher, I wanted to convey the idea that the Holocaust is not incomparable, that it is part of universal History. It has had equivalents in several wars and genocides. The Black Insignia series retells Daniel Ascher’s tragedy in many versions, in Haiti, Senegal, South Africa, Siberia, etc., and all those stories mirror his own. Daniel’s closest friend, his “brother” Sadi Alfa Maneh, descends from a victim of slave trade in Senegal.
OP: Do you have any books that changed the way you think about fiction?
DLB: Yes, many! “The Art of Fiction,” for instance. I love the way Woolf explains how fiction is born from reality. Seeing an old lady on a train, she creates a character, “Mrs. Brown,” and invents a whole story about her.
Of course, fiction relies on a pact: for a few hours, the reader accepts to believe that the writer’s representation of reality is reality itself. I’ve learned a lot from books that challenge this pact, like Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, which turns the Reader into a character. Or Perec’s W, or the Memory of Childhood, where chapters alternate between autobiography and a science-fiction dystopia: they turn out to be a mirror of each other.
But I also learned a lot about fiction in a very short scene from Tolstoy’s Childhood. In the evening, after a hunt where the boy failed at shooting a hare, he sits in front of a sheet of paper and draws. Naturally, he draws a hare. He makes it blue because that’s the only color at hand—but in doing so, he happens to invent fiction. He transforms the hare into a bush, a cloud… This is what fiction is about: turning deceptive reality into a work of art. Unlike its real model, the blue hare will never die.