Wednesday, May 15, 2024

Q&A with Colombe Schneck


Photo by Jean-François PAGA



Colombe Schneck is the author of the new book Swimming in Paris: A Life in Three Stories. It was translated from French to English by Lauren Elkin and Natasha Lehrer. Schneck is the author of a dozen books. Also a documentary film director and journalist, she lives in Paris.


Q: What inspired you to write Swimming in Paris, and how was the book’s title chosen?


A: It was not a project, it came step by step, out of necessity. I had to write this.


For the first novella, Seventeen, about an abortion I had as teenager, it was an interview with Annie Ernaux in a French daily, recalling that “a solitude without limits surrounds women who get abortions.”


She experienced this solitude in 1964. She was 23 years old. At the time, abortion was a crime punishable by law. She describes looking through libraries for books in which the heroine wants to get an abortion and could not find any. Abortion is not a subject for literature.


I listened to her. What she said about silence and embarrassment when we have an abortion, about how “women can take nothing for granted” yet they “do not mobilize enough.” I felt she was pointing at me, saying, Colombe, you had an abortion, you use the law and you never said anything about it.


So I wrote Seventeen, first draft, in three days, I had to write against the silence on my abortion, any abortion. My only project was to respond to Annie Ernaux.


When Seventeen was out, I was not surprised that one on two women I met, told me “I had an abortion and I didn’t tell anyone.” What surprised and comforted me is that I received many letters from men writing me the exact same line. “I had an abortion and I didn’t tell anyone.” 


I forgot that when you are pregnant, a man is sometimes on your side, not making the decision, but along with you, he could have been a father, he is not a father in making any more, still thinking about this, many years later. I found some consolation in those letters and I fell in love. 


Gabriel, the character of Swimming a love story, was tall and calm, the opposite of me. I was so happy, I told my publisher, “Why don’t I write a text about a happy love story, with a lovely ending?  They are so few.”


I asked Gabriel if I could write our “happy love story”, he said, you can do whatever you like with me. Then, he dumped me. I still had to write the “happy love story,” I had a contract with a publisher.


Every day, it was like torture, I had to go back to the “happy time” which will never go back. Every day, I forced myself, for an hour, I couldn’t do more. I was counting the days, if I write 300 words every day, in 40 days, I will have a small book and I could pass to something else.


Every day, I would go swimming, sometimes seeing Gabriel at the pool, he was kind, another torture. I change swimming pools, I finished the book. Like any writing, it leads me to somewhere new, a place I did not expect, where I was also tall and calm.


Gabriel loved the book, I made him “big.” Not me, every reading, proofs, bookshops, questions, made me cry.


After Heloise, my childhood friend died, her own mother entrusted me, “I have to see you because no one dares to speak to me about her.” I had to fight against the silence again. The publication of Friendship was a consolation, people who knew her or not, would speak about her, what a wonderful woman Heloise was. 


When the idea to reunite the three stories became evident, it’s one story about my body, the body of a Parisienne woman, a lover, a friend, a mother, a daughter, being a swimmer is a resume of everything!


Q: Swimming in Paris has been described as autofiction--how would you define that?


A: The material of my book is autobiographical, but it’s not a memoir, I’m a fiction writer. I use my life, the history of my family to discover what happened. In order to do that, as you have to face silence, sometimes lies; I’m writing hoping to find some truth.


Q: The Booklist review of the book says, “She unhesitatingly invites the reader into her blunt, beautiful, sometimes terrible thoughts, taking us through her triumphs and losses, and in the end reveals an unparalleled strength and empathy for herself as a woman, a friend, a lover, and a writer.” What do you think of that description?


A: Writing these three texts transformed me. I thought I was a woman, something sweet and charming, who bent in acceptances. I learn I have strong shoulders, I’m a fast swimmer, in the lane I’m faster than many. I’m happy that the Booklist review reveals this strength in my writing.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: A fiction, inspired by my experience as a “jeune fille au pair” in an American family in Connecticut in the summer of ‘83.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: There is always a secret in a book, even to the author. The revelation can come years after writing it. This is the case for Swimming in Paris.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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