What does the expression “the spirit of Geneva” mean to you?
For me, Geneva is a mosaic of nationalities, cultures and languages. For this reason, Geneva is quite different from other cities in Switzerland. It has a different feel. A feel that is also tinged with Calvinism, but in a good way. I’m not talking about its austere side but its tradition of hospitality and discretion. As we all know, in the 16th century the Huguenots from France and the rest of Europe sought refuge here. Today, people come here from all over the world, and you can meet people from very different backgrounds every day; it’s a real asset. I know of few cities in the world where you can hear so many different languages spoken and where there are so many nationalities in such a small area.
Is there a cultural institution that represents this?
The Bodmer Foundation in Cologny. I think it’s an extraordinary place, because the entire history of humanity and writing is conserved there. It’s a living museum. I’d call it the United Nations of writing. A real must-see!
Do you like Geneva?
Yes, especially in summer. Most of all I love its tranquillity and human scale. I can easily do without the enormous size of certain large cities.
Do you feel like a pure product of Geneva, with its cultural mix and cosmopolitanism?
I was born in this city, I grew up here and I studied here. In that sense, I am a pure product of Geneva, and also a pure product of the Genevan education system. But I am also a product of my origins; my grandparents and great-grandparents came from distant parts. They left Russia for France at the beginning of the 20th century, then in 1942 they sought refuge in Switzerland. If you change the places and dates, you’ll find many Genevan families have a similar history.
Is there a Genevan author who speaks to us about Geneva?
There is Albert Cohen, of course, who describes a Geneva that no longer exists, such as the little chalets of Plateau de Champel. But you can also find in his works the Geneva that still exists today: Cologny, the United Nations, etc. If you could only keep one of his works, which one would it be? For me, Belle du Seigneur, without a doubt.
Do you consider yourself a Swiss writer?
Switzerland is a fusion of very strong identities. In Switzerland, you would describe yourself as “from Geneva” as opposed to from another canton. Each canton defines itself according to its own specific features. But once you leave Switzerland, “Swiss” becomes our identity. Am I a Swiss author? I don’t know whether you can ask the question in these terms. Before the borders fell and Europe opened up, Swiss literature was distinguished by a celebration of its land, but this is no longer really the case and it’s more difficult to consider ourselves under a particular banner. My generation is also one of the first to be able to move around and really travel freely. As a result, the idea of regionalism is not as strong. It’s less the case for literature because of the language, but with music, for example, it’s obvious. There is also a market-driven logic, which must be taken into account. The French market is huge: authors writing in French need the market and it’s important for them to get published. Moreover, the French are becoming increasingly interested in what people are doing and writing in Switzerland.
You have said that you want to “write for the greatest possible number”. Is that the key to your success?
Writing is not an exact science. If it were, we would all know about it and everyone would be doing well – authors, publishers, booksellers and bookshops.
I think there are two ways of addressing people: you can either be exclusive and lose your readers, or you can be inclusive and keep them interested. In my case, I don’t write for a particular section of the public. I just want to touch people without creating division. I’m not interested in writing for a particular category. That’s why I decided to go for clarity and rely on simple vocabulary. But that’s not enough to explain my success.
Success is not something that you create “beforehand”, rather it’s something that comes “afterwards”. Many factors play a part: word-of-mouth first of all, and then public support. As with anything, you also need to be there at the right time, and be supported by the right people and a good publisher. It’s difficult to put your finger on it. Personally I struggle to understand it, but success obliges me to remain faithful to my art and to keep enjoying what I do.
You have sold over 3 million books and been translated into around 40 languages. How do you explain such international appeal?
No-one is more surprised than me. In the publishing world, success attracts success. It is also a very small world. Everyone knows everyone else, and there are real networks. Success is therefore partly down to the efforts of the publisher, who shares his or her convictions with other publishers. People might also think that for a book to be successful internationally, it has to be translated into English and published in the US; however, translated literature only represents a tiny portion of this huge market. So it’s not only the US market that you need to tap into. For example, I have been translated into Indonesian and Thai, and when you think about it those markets cover a population similar to that of the US.
You have become a genuine small business. How does that work? Does your publisher deal with the operational side and you with the writing and promotion?
Yes. There are some things I don’t deal with, such as managing rights, translations or publication, but it is true that I do a lot of the promotion. I travel a lot. Some countries represent key markets. So it is essential to go and look for the readers wherever they are. You have to find a good balance, but I find all countries interesting. I have just got back from Bulgaria, where I was invited by the Swiss ambassador to present my latest book. I received a very warm welcome.
But I don’t do promotional work purely to fight my corner; one of my main concerns is also to protect the interests of literature. If one of my books gives pleasure to people and inspires them to read others, then I feel I’ve achieved a large part of my objective.