In the Merde with Stephen Clarke: An Interview with the Author

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In the Merde with Stephen Clarke: An Interview with the Author
Bestselling British “Merde” books Author dishes on his new book, French formalities, and his favorite place in France I first became aware of Stephen Clarke seven years ago. I saw my roommate in Chicago reading A Year in the Merde at the kitchen table, as he ate a bowl of Lucky Charms. I knew that for this particular roommate to be reading – whilst also enjoying a sugary breakfast – the book had to be good.  Stephen Clarke self-published A Year in the Merde in 2004, and it was an instant international bestseller. (In France, the title is God Save la France.) The book chronicles the trials and tribulations of Paul West, a Brit living in Paris. The title comes from stepping in something often seen on Paris’s cobblestoned streets; no, not cigarette butts. At the time my roommate was reading Merde, I was preparing to move to Paris for a job. Before the move, I made feeble attempts to ready myself for French culture by doing things which, now – from the great height of seven years – seem amusing, clueless, and yet also totally and completely endearing, in a how-could-you-not-enjoy-spending-time-with-such-a-hopelessly-naive-Pollyanna-type way. I watched La Vie en Rose, I read Le Petit Prince, and I listened to France Info every morning. I figured I was well-armored to survive Paris, now that I’d brushed up on biographical information about Edith Piaf, the plot of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s prince, and how to say: “It’s raining very hard in the north today.” I now know that I’d have been better served by talking to an actual French person, or simply someone who had lived in France. The closest I came to doing either of those things was buying and reading a copy of A Year in the Merde to round out my “study of all things French.” It turned out to be the best bit of preparation I did. I loved the book. So, I sent Clarke an email telling him so, and requested to meet for coffee after I was settled in Paris. Six years ago this spring, Clarke and I met for coffee in the Marais at Café Charlot. He graciously gave up time in his afternoon to talk to an aspiring writer/journalist about what life is like in Paris, and what it takes to be a professional writer. I’ll admit, I don’t quite recall all of what we discussed, but I remember leaving our coffee meeting feeling more excited to be in France than I was before I entered the coffee shop, and my face hurt from laughing (along with a slight lingering headache from staying out a bit too late in the Latin Quarter the previous night). Much like Paul West, the character in Clarke’s novels, Clarke is amusing and observational. The English are known for their sense of humor (along with politesse, fixation on weather, and the sun previously never setting on their empire), and Clarke’s sense of humor is, in this writer’s view, the reason his books are so successful. Reading a Stephen Clarke book is like hanging out with your really funny friend, the one who can captivate a whole table at the pub with a wild tale or engaging story, sprinkling it with bits of humor throughout, and making it so engrossing that you feel like you lived it too. Then, when it’s your turn to tell a story at the pub on a different night, you just tell that one, and hope you tell it as well. (“So, my friend told me this thing at the pub last week, and you’ll never believe what happened to him while he was on holiday…”) Six years after our first meeting in 2011, I spoke to him again: me in New York, and him in Paris. We spoke about – among other things – his new novel, Merde in Europe, why French writers are different, and the little-known website from which he gets all the ideas for his books. (Spoiler alert: such a website does not exist.)  How would you describe your most recent book? A jewel in the crown of literature by one of the world’s most modest geniuses (or should that be genii? I’m useless at Latin). No, my novel Merde in Europe is a comedy set in Brussels just before the Brexit referendum. The hero, a Brit called Paul West, goes there to work for a French politician who says she wants to help keep Britain in the EU. He’s not sure that is her true motive, but he goes there anyway, and finds out what really happens in the corridors of European power. To research the novel, I went to Brussels and shadowed friends and acquaintances who work in various departments of the megalithic EU bureaucracy. I promised to change their names, nationalities and (often) genders in the novel in return for them dishing all their secrets. It was fascinating, tragi-comic, shocking but also uplifting. Most people working for the EU want nothing less than the best working and living conditions, the cleanest air and water, and the purest food, for all its citizens. And to be paid a fortune for providing it, of course. Anyway, Paul has a lot of fun while sneaking about in Brussels, as I did. So to answer your question, I’d say Merde in Europe is a comic exposé. Or maybe EUxposé? How do you get your ideas for your novels? From a website, ideasfornovels.com (or in this case .eu).   What is your favorite book you’ve written, and why? It would have to be my first novel, A Year in the Merde. Not only did it get me started as a professional writer, its success was such a huge shock that I still feel grateful to everyone who started to buy it after I self-published it. They believed in a novel that…
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Lead photo credit : Merde in Europe

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Anne McCarthy is a contributing writer to BBC News, Teen Vogue, The Telegraph, Dance Magazine, and more. She has a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Westminster and is the Editor in Chief of Fat Tire Tours’ travel blog. She lives in New York City.

Comments

  • Anne McCarthy
    2017-03-31 08:10:32
    Anne McCarthy
    He is very funny! I'm glad you enjoyed his latest book!

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  • C Below
    2017-03-30 17:23:49
    C Below
    I read A Year in the Merde on a flight from Chicago to SFO shortly after its release in the US. I was laughing out loud (something I never do) for nearly the entire flight that three people asked me what I was reading as we disembarked. You are welcome, Stephen Clarke.

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