PEN Atlas Q&A: Amélie Nothomb

The prolific Belgian writer talks to PEN Atlas about the Parisian literary scene, a recurring character called Amélie Nothomb and her latest book - Petronille, published in English translation by Europa Editions.

Many of your novels include a writer called Amélie Nothomb as one of their characters. In Petronille, Amélie Nothomb befriends a younger female writer called Petronille Fanto. To what extent is the Amélie in your novels the real you?

The only difference between the Amélie of my novels and me is that I am far more anxious. This literary device is appealing to me because I am a huge part of the human mystery.

Many of your books are inspired by autobiographical events. How do you select which memories end up in a novel as literary material?

Each time I don’t understand what happened to me, I feel it will be a good literary material.

Petronille has a very funny vignette of Amélie’s disastrous interview with Vivienne Westwood. Have you really interviewed Vivienne Westwood?

Yes! And it was exactly the way I wrote it. I did not exaggerate.

Amélie in the book, like you, is Belgian, and fascinated with French-ness. Is being an outsider important to your writing?

Being an outsider is extremely important in my writing and in my life. It is so interesting to be an outsider. I have always been one, even in my own country.

Petronille describes a complex nature of friendship between two very different women – both writers and both lovers of champagne. To what extent is that an ideal friendship?

It is an ideal friendship because these two women have important common interests and basic differences: this is an interesting recipe.

Can friendship between writers be free from rivalry?

Unfortunately, no. I have experienced it several times.

Petronille and Amélie come from very different social backgrounds and your book gently pokes fun at their prejudices. Amélie is also an established writer and Petronille her young disciple. Why are they fascinated with each other?

In French, we say: ‘Les contraires s’attirent.’ Petronille is exotic for Amélie and vice versa.

This novel pays tribute to bookshops and booksellers. How do you see their role in encouraging young writers? The character Amélie Nothomb is asked to do many signing sessions. Do you enjoy the moment of meeting your readers and signing books?

This role is so important. When a bookseller invites a young writer for a booksigning, it is a great gift for a young and/or unknown writer. What an opportunity! I love meeting my readers. They are so fascinating.

The character of Petronille can be traced to an existing writer too. Did you not worry that your book could be read as a satire on a Parisian literary scene?

Yes, Petronille was inspired by the writer Stéphanie Hochet. And this book is many things, including a satire on a Parisian literary world.

You are a very prodigious writer. You wrote more books than you published. How many books have you written now?

I am now writing my 84th novel. I published 24 of them. I don’t know where this urge to write comes from.

The cover of Petronille, like your other books, has a wonderful image of you wearing a beautiful black hat. What inspired this playful approach to your book covers – or is this just an excuse to buy a new hat before every publication?

Both explanations are correct! Many little children, including babies, love my books, even if they don’t read, only because of the covers.

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About the Author

Amélie Nothomb was born in Japan of Belgian parents in 1967. She lives in Paris. Since her debut on the French literary scene in 1992 with Hygiene and the Assassin, Amélie Nothomb has published a novel a year, every year. Her edgy fiction, unconventional thinking, and public persona have combined to transform her into a worldwide literary sensation. Amélie’s books have been translated into over fifteen different languages and been awarded numerous prizes including the French Academy’s 1999 Grand Prix for the Novel, the René-Fallet prize,  the Alain-Fournier prize, and the Grand Prix Giono in 2008. Petronille, translated by Alison Anderson, has just been published by Europa Editions.

Additional Information

Read more about Petronille and buy it through our book partner Foyles.

Photo credit: Catherine Cabrol

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