Franck Thilliez's new novel, SYNDROME E, is his first book available in an American translation. The movie rights have been sold to Paintbrush Films.
Franck, thanks so much for discussing your book with me.
This novel introduced many themes: neuroscience, police work, schizophrenia, parent-child relationships, a computer-oriented world, violent video games, film technology, and subliminal suggestion, to name a few. Do you start a novel knowing all the themes you would like to discuss, or does your research and writing lead you to more and more complicated plots?
Yes, I know, in a general way, the main topics I’ll talk about. Concerning Syndrome E, I wanted to talk about all themes concerning pictures and the impact they have on our brain. So, it concerned movies, video games, subliminal pictures, brain studies… But you’re right: the more I researched, the more I discovered plots that I could talk about, like neuromarketing or the way a movie is made. So, I naturally included them in my story.
Lucie Hennebelle is a single mother of twins; she is also a career cop. This sounds like an almost impossible combination. Do you think that cops, male and female, spend a lot of time feeling guilty about their family obligations?
I know a few cops and I often talk with them about their job. They are people really involved in their work, they like what they’re doing and are proud of it. When you work in the violent crime department, here in France, you can’t say: “I go to work at 8 am and come back home at 5 pm,” because it does not depend on you, but on murderers! If you work on a big case, it will take all your time, day and night, because, you know, the 2 or 3 first days after a crime is committed are the most important: you can’t lose a minute. So, you’ll not be at home, near your family, and your work will consume you. But, most of time, they do not feel guilty, because this job is a part of their life, as much important as their children. It’s not easy to be the wife of a cop (or the husband of a female cop), because, adding to that, this could be a dangerous job…
Someone in the novel suffers from hysterical blindness. I’d heard the term before, but had never really seen it applied to a situation. How common is this condition? How did you research it?
It’s an amazing condition. I heard about it when I talked with a psychiatrist. He said to me: “One day, I treated a woman who did not hear her husband when he talked to her. She heard her children, but she couldn’t hear him! This is what we call hysterical deafness. She’s not really deaf, but her brain makes her believe she is… ” It was amazing. By doing research, I discovered that there were all sorts of such hysterical problems: people thinking they’ve lost a leg or arm, people thinking they’re blind… All those conditions have a psychological explanation and can be solved.
Franck Sharko is a great name for a detective. Did he become Sharko because he is predatory to the bad guys? Or did you have other reasons for giving him this name? (And is there a reason that you share a Christian name?)
Here, in France, most readers ask me : “Why did you call your detective Sharko ?” It’s great that you are American, because you immediately see that in Sharko, there is the English word “Shark." Shark, because Franck Sharko never abandons, he’s really a hunter of killers and will work and work until he catches them! And for the first name, Franck, the same as mine: I just wanted “Franck Sharko” to sound hard, like German. Because he’s a hard guy!
One of the many facts that stood out for me was a film expert’s claim that François Mitterand attempted, in 1988, to subliminally influence voters by splicing his image into the credits of the evening news. How did he achieve this? Did he pay off a producer?
In France, the “Chanel 2” is a public channel, so it belongs to the French State. A president can choose the head of the channel, and he can decide to squelch publicity, … I don’t know how it really happened with François Mitterand, but because he was president since 1980 he had the power to put a subliminal image of himself on the evening news a few weeks before the election of 1988 to re-elect him! You must also know that during this period, there were no laws that forbade someone to use subliminal images in films or advertising…
Wow! How worried should we be, in 2012, that we are being manipulated through the medium of film or things that we see on computer and television screens?
As I say in the book, we must protect our children, who are always watching violent pictures, in video games, on Internet or television. Most of them (under 7 years old) can’t distinguish reality from fiction. With the new technologies (phones, i-pads, Internet), times are changing; now our sons and daughters are growing up with violent pictures around them.
In extreme cases, we can perhaps see the consequence of this in the news: look what happened in Norway with Behring Breivik, look at the different massacres in schools over the last years, or the awful killing in the cinema during the broadcast of Batman, a few days ago. Some killers even try to post their acts on the Internet.
So, I don’t think we are manipulated, I just want to tell people: be careful of all those screen broadcasted pictures; they could be dangerous…
Are you an old film buff yourself? Do you collect films?
When I was 15 years old, and for many years later, I used to watch all horror/thriller/suspense films that would be broadcast on TV! Sometimes, films were broadcast late in the night, and I remember going to bed and setting my alarm clock to wake me up just before the beginning of the film. It was also the period I was a member of a small video club, near my house, so I could rent of all the tapes I wanted. I used to collect video tapes, and then DVDs, but I sold most of them when I grew up, because I needed money! I always loved Hitchcock’s films, Dario Argento, Andrew Romero, David Cronenberg; and nowadays, David Fincher, Christopher Nolan or Ridley Scott are some of my favorite directors.
You must have loved Inception. :)
Your description of Egypt, through Sharko’s eyes, is not flattering—it talked me out of ever visiting Egypt. Have you travelled there?
Talking about the Egypt in tour guides with the Pyramids, Sphinx, nice places in Cairo was not interesting me. A crime novel must be more than a diversion; it must inform readers of the reality of our world. So, I wanted to show the country as it really is. Most of people there are poor; they have difficulties surviving and they live in awful conditions. There are more than 8 shantytowns at the border of the Cairo, containing thousands and thousands of people. I say in the book that the police and government are corrupt. Revolution exploded in Egypt only a few months after the publication of Syndrome E in France, and I proves that I was not completely wrong…
And no, I never travelled there, but did a lot of research on this country, watching Egyptian films, reading books, talking by email with people there.
A small story : I tried to be in contact with the police there, just to ask single things, like “how are you clothed?” or “what are the grades in your police?,” but they never answered, they said top secret!
At one point Lily and Sharko feast on Kentucky Fried Chicken. Is this American chain popular in France?
It’s starting to gain popularity, but it’s not as popular as McDonalds!
Ah, the ubiquitous McDonalds! :)
There are many airplane journeys in the novel—Sharko finds them wearying, almost existential experiences—and yet they retain a certain glamour for the reader, linking the characters to far-flung locales. What’s your attitude toward airplane travel? Do you enjoy it?
In the last two years, I travelled a lot because of the publication of my books in many countries. I really like airplane travel. I love being in an airport, seeing people going abroad, and others coming back home. An airport is a particular place where you can touch the world. I read a lot during my travels, and sometimes I write. The most difficult is, of course, the jet lag, but it’s such a good thing to discover new countries and people.
Great point! On to Lucie Henebelle. Lucie is compared, by one character, to Jodie Foster. Are you a Jodie Foster fan? Did you see Lucie Henebelle as sort of similar to Foster’s Clarice Starling? Or do you just like Foster’s combination of toughness and femininity?
I’m absolutely a fan of Jodie Foster! She’s a great actor and she would be perfect for Lucie, the main character of my book, if she were slightly younger. When I created Lucie a few years ago, I had in mind Jodie Foster as she was in The Silence of the Lambs, one of my favorite films.
Who are your literary influences? What are you reading now?
I started by reading Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, and classical Anglo-Saxon crime novels. Then I had my period of Stephen King (and still do). He’s a great writer. I spent night after night reading his books, trying to guess how he could frighten us so much. During my studies, I did not read a lot (but was watching films!). I started reading crime novels again 10 years ago. Nowadays, I read Dennis Lehane, Michael Connelly, but also books by John Steinbeck.
If I could make only one journey to France, where should I be sure to go?
Everywhere ! France is a beautiful country, with many cultures, great landscape, big towns but also very quaint villages, where the time has stood still. French food and wine are excellent; just spend time in a little restaurant of Paris or by the sea at Deauville or Cannes!
Sounds lovely! Thank you so much for a terrific read and for answering these questions.
You’re welcome. It was a pleasure.