Anne-Sylvie Homassel is a translator from English into French, founding editor and publisher of the French horror/dark fiction magazine and associated imprint Le visage vert, and writer under the name Anne-Sylvie Salzman of highly-praised dark fiction stories, including “Darkscapes,” published by Tartarus Press. I asked her about her writing, and the state of dark fiction/fantastic literature in France.
TeleRead: What influenced you to write the kind of fiction you write?
Anne-Sylvie Homassel: Books, I suppose, are the main trigger. Not only fiction but also science books. I was an avid reader as a child of both Arsène Lupin and Sherlock Holmes, providers of wicked criminals (including non-human ones) and eerie situations. I would also read Jules Verne (someone told me at the time Verne had never set foot in most of the countries he described, and that opened a world of possibilities). Then a lot of science and medical books I’d find at home, dealing with the wonders and defects of living beings. All this created a strong interest for the abnormal and the bizarre. I guess photography is also a source of inspiration—I’m thinking of those photographs you see as a child or young person and which strike you simultaneously as “true” and completely impossible or exceedingly cruel.
Aother source of inspiration is to be found in those writers who teach you how to write. When you’re in your late teens and are interested into writing, which was my case, you pick companions in the literary world and try to learn from them. I’d name Gérard de Nerval, Emily Brontë, Heinrich Heine, Mikhail Bulgakov as such companions. Then, later on, such writers as Raymond Queneau, Felix Fénéon and Marcel Schwob (Fénéon’s Nouvelles en trois lignes should be mandatory reading for aspiring writers.) So you’ve got it : a dark background and some writers whose sharpness and linguistic brilliance you try to emulate when you go digging in the mine.
TeleRead: What is your status vis-a-vis the French literary mainstream? Is horror/dark fiction/the fantastic seen as more or less of a defined genre than in Anglo-Saxon literature?
Anne-Sylvie Homassel: I have no status, as far as I can gather, in the French literary landscape (I could say that I don’t live there.) I don’t belong in the literary mainstream — and I’m not sure whether I belong in any of the genres. It shows a bit in my bibliography. I have been published by Joëlle Losfeld when she was still far from the mainstream, then by José Corti in a collection which is devoted to “le merveilleux”, then by Le Visage vert which is a small press devoted to classic horror and the fantastic; a novel will be published next year by Dystopia, another small press with an focus on science-fiction and dark fiction (they will also publish a volume of Thomas Ligotti’s short stories, which I am currrently translating). And there was Tartarus, of course. They and I have one thing in common — we like the company of ancient writers.
As for the genre fantastique in France… It was thriving throughout the 19th century, had still quite an influence, although more subterranean, during the 20th century; it still exists, both in the mainstream (if you can call someone like Antoine Volodine mainstream) and in a number of subgenres (gothic, etc.). But it has a hard time fighting against France’s passion for not leaving anything in the dark. Including darkness itself.
TeleRead: Has your experience of non-French literature and cultures helped to broaden and enrich your imaginative and creative resources? How much time have you actually spent outside France?
Anne-Sylvie Homassel: Yes, it certainly has. I am a passionate xenophile, always was. It teaches you to consider your own country as a foreign land. Were I not interested in other cultures and other languages (I own a silly collection of dictionaries in languages I will never be able to master), I would not be able to describe the wonders of my own culture and make a literary use of my own language. This said, I am your armchair xenophile, if I may say so. I’ll go back to Jules Verne: dictionaries and the radio and films (and books) are the main providers of my foreign material. I’m not that well-traveled. But again there is a paradox : most of the time, I need a kick from the real thing to get started on a novel or a story. For instance, all of the Scottish stories in Darkscapes are derived from a little incident or vision I experienced in Scotland. “The Child of Evil Stars” has to do with the Natural History Museum in New York. But then these seeds can be found everywhere, I guess. (And then there are the dreams : I’m drawing quite a lot from them. For sure, the foreign country I’ve been visiting most often.)
TeleRead: What is the current cultural and economic climate like in France for an independent genre fiction magazine and small publisher? What trends if any do you see affecting this?
Anne-Sylvie Homassel: On the one hand, such quarterlies and small presses I find interesting or take part in have a very narrow readership in France. Our Le Visage vert has a circulation of 200-300, for instance. It certainly could be better. On the other hand, they are operated by individuals or groups who keep them going with very little money. These quarterlies and these books thus can exist, with the help of their contributors and readers and of some very devoted bookshops. (We’re blessed with a strong network of independent bookshops here. Still are.) It is a slow and patient work (un travail de fourmi is the French phrase) — I’m not sure it ever “pays”. It’s nothing new, I guess, for small publishers and fiction magazines or quarterlies. The only novelty I can think of is the web and some of the new technologies (digital printing, to name one) which make it easier for us.