Sunday, 22 June 2014

Joel Dicker: An affair to remember

Joel Dicker never expected that The Truth About The Harry Quebert Affair would gain the sort of traction that it has – translated into 37 languages and read by millions. – Penguin

Joel Dicker never expected that The Truth About The Harry Quebert Affair would gain the sort of traction that it has – translated into 37 languages and read by millions. – Penguin

From a little-known publisher to international bestsellers’ lists, Joel Dicker’s journey is the stuff of most authors’ dreams.

WHEN Swiss writer Joel Dicker spun his French-language novel around a bestselling author, it is a safe bet that he wasn’t talking about himself – a lawyer with one little-known previous novel to his name, signed up to a small, independent publishing house in Paris, he was one of countless young struggling authors.

And then, La Vérité sur l’Affaire Harry Quebert happened. A smart, suspenseful thriller that manages to straddle the line between genre and literary fiction, the book caused a sensation upon being published in Europe in 2012, selling more than a million copies.

Hailed as one of the biggest French books of the decade, it also won the Académie Française novel prize, the Prix Goncourt des Lycéens, and was shortlisted for the Prix Goncourt.

Naturally, the rest of the publishing world started taking notice, and the 2012 Frankfurt Book Fair proved to be pivotal for Dicker: after a furious bidding war, the United States rights to his book was purchased by Penguin Books in what is said to be the biggest original acquisition in the publishing house’s history; meanwhile, MacLehose Press, the house that introduced the English-speaking world to Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy, has the British rights.

The English version, The Truth About The Harry Quebert Affair, was published last month, and already its movie rights have been snapped up by Ron Howard (director of, among others, A Beautiful Mind and The Da Vinci Code).

For the 29-year-old Geneva-based author, currently on a whirlwind book tour in America, it is all still a little surreal. After all, his first novel, Les Derniers Jours de Nos Pères, came and went with barely a whisper, selling a few hundred copies.

“Of course I never expected this huge response!” Dicker shares in an e-mail interview. “How could I have ever imagined, when signing my book with a tiny Parisian publishing house, that my book would be translated into 37 languages and read by millions? I am very thankful for what is happening to me.”

The Truth About The Harry Quebert Affair tells the story of Marcus Goldman, a successful young American novelist who, when facing writer’s block, goes to visit his former professor, Harry Quebert, in his small-town home (“I really don’t have much in common with Marcus!” insists Dicker. “Except maybe the love of running.”).

When Quebert is accused of the murder of a 15-year-old girl who disappeared over 30 years ago, Goldman is determined to help clear his mentor’s name. Goldman’s investigation, however, soon merges with his attempts to pen his latest book, as he tries to uncover what really happened.

The book has been called France’s answer to the Swedish Larsson’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, which enjoyed a similar leap to success, and compared to Dan Brown’s books for its page-turning appeal (incidentally, The Harry Quebert Affair knocked Brown’s Inferno off the top of bestselling lists in Europe in 2013).

Yet, despite being categorised as crime fiction, The Harry Quebert Affair is more frequently seen as akin to works by literary greats like Philip Roth and Jonathan Franzen – a mark of Dicker’s ability to write with both depth and accessibility.

“I’m very honoured by these comparisons,” he says. “Roth is probably the greatest contemporary writer; reading his work, you retrace the story of America over the last 50 years. As for Franzen, I’ve never read him but he’s obviously a master storyteller.”

The key to the novel’s success could perhaps lie in the fact that Dicker never set out to write a crime fiction novel in the first place.

“I think crime fiction is a genre with limitless possibilities; the proof is that when I started writing this book, I didn’t plan to write crime fiction. I’m still not completely sure that I did write crime fiction!” he says. “I read very few crime novels, so I don’t really know the rules of writing them. So that’s proof that these rules can be bent, or even replaced with other rules.”

Instead, Dicker credits his natural inclination towards a variety of genres and writing styles – he lists French novelists Romain Gary and Marguerite Duras as well as Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Roth as some of his favourite authors – for the book’s addictively breakneck pace that nevertheless conceals ruminations on morality, guilt and love.

“The mixing of literary aesthetics comes from my natural tastes as a reader. I mix genres when I read, so I like to mix them when I write. I believe that diversity within a text is interesting,” he explains.

Structured as a book within a book (within perhaps another book!), The Harry Quebert Affair is a carefully-constructed piece of work, weaving in both the past and present into the process of writing a book.

“The ‘story within a story’ formula came very easily. I started by having one idea, and then I had a second, different idea. I didn’t want to make a choice between the two, so I decided to go with the ‘book in a book’ concept,” says Dicker, adding that he wanted to write a book that people could enjoy like “watching a good film or television series”.

“I think people like to read a story and be transported to another time and place. What I like is telling stories; I like being a storyteller.”

While fans may be disappointed to hear that Dicker doesn’t plan on penning a sequel to The Harry Quebert Affair – “With this story, everything has been said,” he explains – he is working on a new novel, also in French.

“Maybe one day I’ll try my hand at writing in English, but for now, I’m really attracted to the nuanced writing that the French language allows,” he says.

Don’t count on him saying much about the new work yet, though.

“I prefer not to talk about it, because that’s my fun, to be the only one to know for the moment. I think it’s a pity to talk about the book you’re in the middle of writing; you deprive yourself of a rare and precious moment of freedom.”

Related story:

Review: The Truth About The Harry Quebert Affair

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