Today, I am delighted to interview Marie Houzelle, author of the fabulous novel Tita. Marie’s work has appeared in the Best Paris Stories anthology, Narrative, Pharos, and Van Gogh’s Ear. Marie and I met many years ago through Alice Notley’s workshop at the British Institute. Over the years, we have shared chapters. When I read her book, I was blown away. Witty, wry, and clever, Tita’s young voice capitivated me from the first page. Tita poignantly portrays small-town life as well as the end of the Catholic church’s grip on France, revealing cracks in society that a decade later become the riots of 1968. A rare novel written in English that gives a real taste of French culture. I cannot recommend it enough!
You were born in the south and now live just outside Paris. What brought you to Paris? What keeps you here?
I grew up in a small southern town. Staying there never felt like an option. I liked Lézignan and defended it when attacked, but I was going to study in a city, live in a city.
Before I was thirteen my father had died; soon my mother moved to Toulouse to work, and we followed her after a while. The summer I was seventeen, I met my first husband at an international work camp in Bavaria. He was a Parisian.
Paris, at first, felt incongruous, flawed; and intriguing. Or was it marriage? Pregnancy? After a few months, we moved to Berlin and, for me, the charms of an unknown language. When we came back to Paris after two years, I started relaxing into the city – it helped that my work often kept me away from it.
I settled in Ivry with my second husband, a painter. I had three children by then, and our family needed more room than we could afford in Paris. It was quite an adventure – with more than we could afford to borrow, we each bought a loft without windowpanes, floors, electricity, plumbing, or inner partitions and started from there. He had skills and grit; I had nothing, but I was game, and I learned (a little). We both loved Ivry – not exactly at first sight, but as soon as Lucien began running into old friends and we made many new ones. Ivry is exuberant and tranquil, intensely artistic, and very international. I enjoy staying in Brooklyn, Harlem, the West Village, Berkeley or Amsterdam, but I’m always thrilled when I come back to Ivry – and Paris.
I was captivated by Tita’s voice. Can you tell us about writing Tita?
I already had quite a few short pieces about children, written haphazardly at various times, when Shakespeare and Company announced their first Paris Literary Prize. I liked the idea of a novella and, starting from these pieces, I tried to write one. I sent out a few chapters to the competition, but didn’t get on the short list. Meanwhile, my novella was growing into a novel. Some of my friends read three different drafts between early 2011 and May 2012. The text seemed to grow from the inside, slowly and rather naturally. That’s when Laurel Zuckerman, who’d read many chapters (we were meeting every week in a café, with Nicola Keegan) told me she wanted to publish it. I was glad that she liked it, but not sure it was ready. So I went on fiddling with the structure and with sentences for about a year before we signed a contract. After which I started copy editing with the invaluable Linda Healey.
Tita’s voice was clear to me from the beginning, and her individual adventures were fun to write. The problem was the general shape. I had more and more chapters, and I kept moving them around. I was never quite sure what order worked best. Actually, after the editing was all done, Laurel asked me if I could move what was chapter 3 to the beginning, and I agreed without giving it much thought. My reaction would have been quite different if she had asked me to move a comma.
Tita is fascinated, even obsessed, by Catholic rituals. How did this obsession come about? How does it relate to the themes of your novel?
For Tita, Catholic rituals are captivating. With incense, flowers, stories, music and pageantry in a resonant Gothic church, they are feasts for all the senses. They link her very limited experience with a long history and a wide world. Latin, particularly, creates an esoteric effect: Tita wants to pierce its mysteries.
Around the middle of the novel Tita notices that, although she still enjoys her mother’s cuddles, she no longer needs them. She soon feels the same detachment from Our Holy Mother Church, as if the two devotions had complemented each other: when one is gone, the other wilts. This happens after an accident illustrates the pitfalls of her attachment to her mother.
Can you talk about singing in a chamber group? Does it color your writing?
Right now, I’m working on five musical projects: lieder (Schubert and Weill) with pianist Georgia Smith for the end of April; a short religious piece by Montalbano (early Baroque) with harpist Nicolas Hette, that will be performed in May with Carissimi’s Jephte, where I sing in the choir; a Frescobaldi song with viola and harpsichord for mid-June; and a MicroOpéra by Jean-Michel Bossini, for the end of June, with an improvisation group led by Irène Lecoq at the Ivry conservatory.
These pieces are in German, Latin, and Italian. I translate (freely) all my solo songs. Composing these translations crystallizes the direction of a piece; I enjoy speaking them out to the audience before I sing.
Music and writing? Music feels easier, especially when the score is already written; scarier – the voice, the body might flounder at any time; reassuring when you know how to practice; and wonderfully sociable. Chamber music means listening and responding to other instruments, bodies, intentions; at its best, it’s a unique sensual-mental experience.
Writing: times of quiet intimacy with words, phrases, sentences, paragraphs, which I also treat as music.
What books are on your nightstand?
La Prisonnière (Proust, always); Joanna Walsh, Fractals; Kristin Espinasse, First French Essais; Lydia Davis, Can’t and Won’t (in my Kindle); Pansy Maurer-Alvarez, In a Form of Suspension.
What is the best advice you have ever received?
From another singer: if you make a mistake, don’t worry about it and botch the rest of the piece. Just go ahead, stay in the moment and in the music.
When did you begin writing fiction? Why do you write in English?
Like Tita, as a child I used to write musical plays for my friends. In my teens, nothing but political songs and leaflets. My first narrative fiction was destined for my younger daughter, Mathilde, who liked comic strips (and the bedtime stories I improvised) but refused to read actual books. She was pretty critical of my efforts. So was I.
I kept scribbling, especially in public transport, about what was going on around me. Usually not in French, because people tend to glance at your notebook.
Ten years ago, I was in Alice Notley’s magnificent weekly workshop, trying to write non-fiction stories; I was so obsessed with truth I ended up with nothing but questions, for which I couldn’t find the right shape. Unwillingly, as a last resort, I defected to fiction. What a relief!
I’m not sure why I write in English. Or why I mostly sing in German and Latin. Last week, I felt like writing in Dutch, I had such a good time trying to pronounce it. French? I’m not fond of the word écrivain, not to mention écrivaine. While I feel quite comfortable with writer.
I teach creative writing to French university students. What advice do you have for them concerning writing in English?
Feel free. In a new language, you can be a new person. Don’t try to write either correctly or “like a native speaker”. English is a welcoming language. Many countries, no Academy. Enjoy it.
Two novels I’ve been working on for quite a while and am still (or again) excited about. One of them has music at its center.