Frederik Peeters Builds an Unforgettable "Sandcastle"

It lasts, the brutality of "Sandcastle," the existential horror. Everything featured in the SelfMadeHero-published graphic novel is filtered through beauty and inevitability, death and life and sex. You won't find another book like this any time soon, one that feels like you should be seeing it in 35 MM at the Cannes Film Festival. Swiss artist Frederik Peeters and French writer-filmmaker Pierre Oscar Levy have developed a story that's equally satisfying and frightening.

Set against a remote beach, a handful of people find themselves trapped in a microcosmic time warp that zaps them of their life. In turn, each character deals with the inevitable in their own way. And that's really how "Sandcastle" begins. Frederik Peeters spoke with CBR News about the book, working with Levy and everyone's impending doom.

CBR News: "Sandcastle" is such a heavy, mature book that deals with life, love, sex, and death. What was the intention of having the story take place on a remote beach?

Frederik Peeters: It all starts with memories Pierre Oscar had of holidays in his childhood. He used to travel a lot to a beach exactly like this one, in the north of Spain. Later, he went back with his own children, and one day, he had this idea. Originally, he wanted to use the place for a movie, but he finally wrote a script especially for me. This closed beach is obviously a reduction of, let's say, a contemporary western society, with some of its strong basic figures, a perfect microcosm. I know that Pierre Oscar also intended to talk about the climatic changes, or how nature deals with humanity and vice versa. Natural elements have an important role in the story. You could see a reflection on the way time passes differently on human or cosmic scales.

The title is extremely clever and fitting. Like sandcastles, our lives are dust, to be molded and made beautiful, only to be inevitably stripped away by the weather or by the sea. Do you think readers will be receptive to this type of existential view?

I hope so! They were indeed, in a few countries. My job is not to imagine what the reader wants, or what the reader will be receptive to. This is called "marketing." It's good to sell soap or sodas, not works of art. I always trust the readers. I need to make books I would be interested to read myself, or at least I try to make books that leave a space for people's imagination and intelligence. Using this kind of title, or avoiding to give a logical and definitive explanation at the end, might be a way to propose a lasting experience.

Is this your view of life? Or is this simply a study on mortality?

It's not a view of life. I guess life is much more complex, ambiguous and full of contradictions. "Sandcastle" is more like a tale, if you want -- a cruel fairy tale. Or a nice, old-fashioned episode of "The Twilight Zone." A parable, if you will, meant to provoke emotions and reflections. I hope it is also simply entertaining. But if you want to know if I believe that we are all going to die and that we should enjoy every small moment in life, yes, I do.

The characters' reactions are apt for the situation they're placed in. In the short period of time they're given, the children are smacked with puberty and decide to have sex; the doctor tries to analyze the situation, only to have his mind go to ruin; others just accept their fate and give little resistance. Why not have at least one character escape the impending doom? 

Because in real life, nobody will escape his impending doom. I guess that, as a European, due to the bloody history of my civilization, I have a high conscience of the tragic and grotesque dimension of human life. This, for instance, is a question nobody ever asked about the book in Europe. Generally, Americans are probably more full of hope. Pierre Oscar is French-Jewish. He told me the story of members of his family that were taken away by train from France to Nazi camps. Those people knew they were going to face death, and they were arguing because the mother had forgotten the toothbrushes. I love this story. He was saying this to illustrate what's happening right now with humanity destroying Earth. But this way of seeing life and this kind of past has clearly modeled his character. And I also have to say that if someone in the book had escaped or survived, we would have been obliged to give an explanation to the mystery. Again, it's not a thriller; it's a fable.

I noticed the adults were angry with the situation, and the children -- well, they acted like children. But death comes for all, and I think the reactions were realistic. I only found two deaths unsettling -- the dog, and the inevitable death of the child at the end.

They're just logic consequences. Dogs live a shorter life than us, so if time would accelerate, they would die quickly. But it is important from a narrative point of view, because the dog is the first to die, and at a moment in the story when the people are still not sure of what's happening. So it does intensify the suspense. As an anecdote, it's also funny (to me at least), because the dog is called Elvis, and at one point, somebody says that Elvis' corpse is smelling.

About the child at the end, we mainly wanted to give a strong impression of loneliness and despair as a final touch, because in fact, the first two-thirds of the book are quite burlesque, with even some slapstick comedy. Originally, Pierre Oscar had written an ending, a resolution, a final twist, but we finally decided it was useless, and would have destroyed the frightening dimension of the book. So we had to find the only frontal and implacable way to replace the first ending.

I find some of literature's best work to be bleak. "Sandcastle" is such a work. Did you find yourself chipping away at the story as it developed, or were you always of the mind to keep it simple?

"Fable" is again the master word. But what's interesting here, is "Sandcastle" could only work so well as a graphic novel. In literature, you would have to use loads of descriptions to make the reader see and feel the fast and harrowing aging process, and it would kill the clarity and the suspense. In cinema, you would need loads of makeup, CGI and different tricks, and that would kill the sensual and naturalistic dimension of the story. The evidence and the strength of the drawings force the reader to complete the images with his own fears, it acts like a mirror, but it's also very effective to make the story go fast, and prevents the reader to be distracted. It had to be simple and fast, you have to be sucked into this story, like in a good page-turner, but with no space to take your breath. It is part of the experience.

Do you think reception of the book will be different in the States versus France?

I hope it won't. We will see if there will be some problems with nudity, children and sexuality. The States have a problem with love and sex, and France has a problem with money. If I had to choose, I'd prefer to have a problem with money! But I'm quite sure that the kind of public that can be interested by this kind of book is very open-minded. Today, there are more differences between social classes or social environments than between countries. I feel closer to a Japanese or an Indian artist than to a French or an American banker.

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