French comics auteur Penelope Bagieu published her first book, “Josephine,” in 2008. Five years later, after two “Josephine” sequels and “Cadavre exquis,” she was named Chevalier (Knight) of Arts and Letters at AngoulÃªme 2013. And she hasn’t stopped there, more recently collaborating with some of France’s leading comic creators, including Joann Sfar on “Stars of the Stars” and Boulet on “La Page blanche.” And now, “Cadavre exquis” is poised to bring Bagieu’s name to another level of fame and exposure, as First Second books has brought it to English-speaking shores until the title “Exquisite Corpse.”
“Exquisite Corpse” tells the story of Zoe, a young woman who toils as a leered-over booth babe at trade shows when she’s not at home with her even more disrespectful boyfriend. One day, a chance encounter with reclusive author Thomas Rocher radically changes both her own life and the writer’s. Their smitten romance quickly develops some unusual quirks — Thomas’s refusal to leave his apartment for one, and the frequent presence of his ex-wife and editor Agathe. And as it turns out, Thomas has a very big secret…
CBR News discussed “Exquisite Corpse” with Bagieu, the impact her Knighthood has or hasn’t had on daily life, and the emotional ups and downs of a creative individual.
CBR News: I was really struck by how flawed the characters in this book are. Zoe is insecure and, while not unintelligent, she’s certainly not intellectual. When we meet her, she’s in a cartoonishly bad spot, with a loutish boyfriend and a degrading job. Given her lack of ambition and her insecurity, she doesn’t seem to have many opportunities when she happens to run into Thomas, does she? While she grows to like him, I’m not sure if she’s initially happy to meet him or simply relieved to have another option in her life?
Penelope Bagieu: I think she’s, above all, intrigued. Just like he is. They’re watching each other from a distance, like two curious birds. He’s nothing like anyone she knows: he’s quiet, he seems to live in a timeless way (he has time to cook at lunch), he’s surrounded by tons of books and he uses elegant and mysterious words. Even his job is a fantasy — he tells stories. Most of all, he’s kind to her. And he’s genuinely curious about her life. She’s not looking for a plan, or opportunities. She hardly has any expectations. She just happened to land into a sweet cocoon where she can forget about everything for a while.
And Thomas is stuffed full of narcissism, almost completely unaware of anybody or anything beyond how it impacts him personally. Yet you also show his charm and magnetism. Was it difficult to show his self-absorption while still allowing space to see how he might appeal to someone?
Oh, it was very easy actually, because Thomas was inspired by the authors I know, who are kind of moving in their childish selfishness and self-absorption (I know it sounds weird, but they are). I guess I tried to depict him as they truly are, in a neutral way, which, in my eyes, is unconsciously charming. What strikes me more about these people is their vulnerability and their desperate need for approval and acknowledgement. The world may fall apart as long as the critics love them, and it means so much more than the consideration or esteem of the “real” people who sincerely love them. It’s a never-ending quest. Perhaps it is because I know what it’s like to put your loved ones through the horrid phase of “Leave me alone, I’m creating something!” which makes me over-indulgent to Thomas.â€¨â€¨Agathe is the one character who seems somewhat balanced. Of course, she’s been down this road with Thomas, so her experience provides an interesting counterpoint to Zoe’s naivete. But she’s more than a counterpoint — she’s really the go-between for Zoe and Thomas, isn’t she?
Agathe is the only one who’s not using anyone (either intellectually or emotionally). She decided long ago to protect herself from all the destructive madness of authors, which makes her so stoical and rational. But even she can’t just sit and watch Zoe being drawn to the light like she once was. She’s split between her bitterness and her fascination towards Thomas. I wanted her to be the kind of women who always scare me a bit, in their perfectly-controlled attitude and their opacity. She was a mystery, even to me.
Obviously each creative person deals differently with issues of ego and expectation, but there’s something universal about Thomas — his surety of his work contrasted with his fragility when he gets a negative review. It seems all too common, doesn’t it?
I know very famous authors, who sell millions of their books, and whose wives still read their reviews first, before deciding whether they’re allowed to read them too or not. Because it still has the power to make them stay in bed for days, staring at the ceiling in despair, momentarily destroying their love for writing. When I found out about this, being on the very beginning of the road and, therefore, not even subject to bad critics. (Bad critics are the privilege of the very big stars: nobody will waste the time, energy, and space in a magazine to trash your book if you’re not famous. Silence is then the best option). And that kind of comforted me.
It was not a matter of age, or experience, or gaining confidence one book after another. When it comes to being judged, we are all five-year-olds. Even if my books became bestsellers, I would still need to read these with some distance, and remember that this was not the reason why I love to tell stories. I entered all that jungle, armed with some hints: give more credit to what readers tell you to your face, remember that a lot of people would love to have their books reviewed at all, and above all, be surrounded by people who don’t give a damn about your books, your career, reviews, prizes and all that jazz (99% of my friends and family, for instance, who politely ask me once in a while, “So… How’s the book thing going?”)
Given the finale, does Thomas ever reveal his ruse to the public?
Of course not! That would be so much worse than dying!
“Exquisite Corpse” was first published in France in 2010, and it is your first book published in the U.S. How did you get in contact with First Second? And do you attach any significance to this particular book being your first in the U.S. market, or was it simply the book that the publisher wanted?
It’s not something that goes through authors (at least in France), but through agents, editors, publishers, etc. One day you just receive a letter from your publisher saying, “Oh, by the way, your book has been purchased for [this country], congratulations.” Sometimes it’s a language you don’t understand, and you receive this mysterious object that is half something you recognize as your own child, half hieroglyphs — and it’s wonderful.
â€¨Sometimes (and in my case, in English only, to my great fault), you do appreciate the translation, the little differences, (and it’s wonderful too). I had met Mark Siegel in AngoulÃªme, and I knew for sure that my book was in good hands. And even though it’s not me who picked “Cadavre Exquis,” I couldn’t be happier, because it is my little favorite of all my books.
Shortly after “Exquisite Corpse” was published in France, you were awarded the Chavalier of Arts and Letters. How has that recognition impacted your career?
Well, it hasn’t affected my career at all. It is a very flattering honorific title, especially when granted to someone coming from such an often-ignored field in France, comics. It was a very formal ceremony, very intimidating, with the French minister of culture and lots of important people, and I was given a huge silver pin with a cross and a speech that made me blush. But no sword, no privilege, and nobody ever called me “Lady” ever since. But of course it was very flattering, and I was very proud.â€¨â€¨What are you working on now? Do you have any progress toward getting more of your books, such as the “Josephine” books, published in the States?â€¨
I just finished (and when I say “just,” mark my words, I shipped the last pages to my editor a few days ago) a black and white graphic novel, drawn in pencil only. It takes place in the Village in the ’60s and tells the story of an amazing woman with an even more amazing destiny, that I’d wanted to talk about for so long. I have written and drawn it between Paris and New York for two years, and it will be published in France next September. And yes, I really hope it can be read one day without having to learn French first (which could always be useful anyway, but might take some time.). Je croise les doigts, as we say!
“Exquisite Corpse” is currently available from First Second Books.
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