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Interview: Michel Bussi, author, The Other Mother – ‘My desire is to sublimate the real’

Michel Bussi, who has won more than 15 literary awards and sold over 10 million copies, has published his seventh novel — The Other Mother, a thriller about a four-year-old child who’s convinced that his mother is not his real mother — in English. Bussi is also a professor of geography and a political commentator, and several of his books have been translated into 37 languages worldwide, and adapted into several films and TV series.

How did the idea of The Other Mother come to you?I wanted to work on the memory of a little child under four years of age whose memories will inevitably disappear. So, if he has a secret, you have to figure it out before he forgets it. Our primary years decide the kind of person we will be, but ironically, we have no direct memory of it. It’s a very strange paradox.

Tell us about Normandy and how it inspired you to write your first novel, Code Lupin?Normandy is a place that you can call a small summary of France – with the sea, large cities, factories, but also great medieval monuments. It is the contrast of the place that inspired me to think; between the reality of daily life of people and legends. All the adventures of Arsène Lupin (the legendary fictional “gentleman-thief” created by French writer Maurice Leblanc) take place in Normandy. That’s where I got the idea of writing a book on the geography of the places mentioned in his novels, a bit like a treasure hunt.

Do you rely on imagination or are some bits borrowed from life? Everything comes from my imagination. My characters are ordinary heroes that I can meet in real life but what happens to them is always extraordinary. My desire is always to sublimate the real.

Translated by Sam Taylor; 448pp, ₹599; Weidenfeld Nicolson

How do you balance two full-time professions? I have always wanted to write but I didn’t write my first novel until I was 40. I was lucky that my novels became a grand success quickly, which allowed me to devote myself solely to the profession of writing, and at the same time, use my skills as a geographer.

Your novels are extremely popular in France. How have they been received in other countries?I have been translated into 37 languages, and I think I’m pretty popular in the UK, Italy, Poland, Russia… even China. If, in France, detective literature is often considered a literary subgenre, abroad, being an author of a French detective novel is, on the contrary, quite prestigious!

Your books have been adapted for the big screen, in French and English. Which ones do you prefer? My novels have mostly been adapted into series. I like cinema, but it is easier to adapt my novels, whose plots are complex, in six or eight episodes, like soap operas using each of my twists.

Who are your favourite contemporary crime fiction novelists? I really like my colleague Franck Thilliez. He too is translated a lot abroad.

Which classic crime fiction authors have inspired you? I think I was inspired by Agatha Christie a lot, but I haven’t re-read her for years. I recently liked Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, and also many Harlan Coben novels, which are quite clever.

Do you like crime fiction from other countries – US, UK, Asia, Scandinavian, etc. I’m not a big fan of Scandinavian thrillers, I find them too slow and too “classic”. They often privilege the social fabric or the psychology of the investigator to the detriment of the ingenuity of the plot. I don’t read a lot of American detective novels either. To be honest, I like French detective novels for their style, their fantasy, and sometimes even their poetry.

What are you working on next?My saga for teens, NEO. I have also just written a detective novel on The Little Prince (Code 612), and a visionary thriller called New Babel that takes place in a future world where teleportation has been invented. And of course, I’m writing a new novel, which no one, not even my publisher, knows about!

Arunima Mazumdar is an independent writer. She is @sermoninstone on Twitter and @sermonsinstone on Instagram.

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