Nicolas Mathieu: From the Grand Est to the Deep South

Winner of the 2018 Prix Goncourt and the Albertine Prize for And Their Children After Them, the Lorraine-born writer has been influenced by American literature and film since he was a boy. Ahead of the U.S. publication of Connemara, his third novel, he reveals the inspiration behind his books and talks about his recent residency in the footsteps of William Faulkner, organized by the French embassy’s cultural services.
© Thomas Nolf

It all began with a missed encounter. In April 2020, the English-language publication of And Their Children After Them was caught in the Covid-19 pandemic and the subsequent lockdowns, preventing Nicolas Mathieu from meeting his American readers. This setback was particularly unfortunate given the many similarities between the social realities he describes in his books, which are rooted in eastern France, and the American regions hit by deindustrialization. “People often talk to me about Zola’s realism, but I am far more familiar with American literature,” says the writer, who was born in Epinal in the Grand Est region in 1978. “There is not much separating the Rust Belt and Hayange [the Moselle town on which he based And Their Children After Them]. The novel is mainly inspired by a Bruce Springsteen song and the first part of the movie The Deer Hunter (1978), set in a Pennsylvania steel town. There are also aspects of James Agee and Walker Evans’ book, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941). In my writing, many of the models are imported from the U.S,” says the author. However, he does point to one major difference: “Social protection. Deindustrialization in France is a long process that began in the late 1960s and is now coming to an end, with thousands of jobs destroyed. However, there was accompanying political and financial support. Life is far more brutal in the United States because there is no safety net.”

Nicolas Mathieu often says that he writes to “strike back” and “amplify voices.” He has a way of including the working and middle classes in rich narratives, which is reminiscent of a certain kind of American literature: “This is very poignant in Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939), for example. The Joad family has nothing, and yet you get the impression that they are epic characters taken straight from the Bible.” At the age of seven or eight, he wrote his first stories, dreaming up fantasies based on trailers for movies that he never watched because his parents wouldn’t take him to the theater. American films also gave him his childhood role models – particularly male ones. “I knew Sylvester Stallone long before John Ford,” he says. Shows such as The Sopranos (1999-2007) helped develop his imagination and his way of constructing a story by inserting his characters into a family, an era, and a society.

© Léa Chassagne/France-Amérique

After writing poems in his teens and attempting novels that he now describes as “navel-gazing,” he started considering “the reader’s position” and observing the narrative effectiveness of the noir genre. Around this time, he was earning a living by writing minutes for companies liquidating businesses. “I became aware of what I was capable of by recording mass layoffs affecting people who reminded me of my father and my uncles. That was the world I could write about, tell stories about, and report on, but I distanced myself from it through books and extensive studies. Although that didn’t stop me from working odd jobs for a while, which feeds a feeling of revenge.” His debut novel, Of Fangs and Talons, was published in a 2014 crime collection. With his publisher’s advance, he flew alone to New York to confront his teenage dreams. “I had fantasized a city that was a bit greenish, rusty, like in Serpico (1973) or the films of William Friedkin,” he says. “But, I thought that Manhattan looked more like Disneyland!”

An Immersion in the Land of “Things Were Better Back Then”

Thanks to Villa Albertine, Nicolas Mathieu spent last fall traveling through the Deep South in the footsteps of William Faulkner, who was born in New Albany, Mississippi. In the same state, in the small university town of Oxford (where Faulkner spent the last 32 years of his life, and where novelist Larry Brown also lived), he met a community of authors and intellectuals who also portrayed worlds in decline. “Southern novelists write about people haunted by racism, by a sense of ‘things were better back then,’ by political rage and a desire to turn the tables,” he says. “I ask myself the same questions.” The trip continued through North Carolina, Kentucky, and Tennessee, with Elvis Presley’s home at Graceland, and New Orleans. “I went to Louisiana to read Faulkner in his natural environment, and came back with Toni Morrison. My biggest discovery was the history of slavery, which really affected me. Once you’ve seen it, America looks like a huge palace built on a graveyard.”

In March, Connemara, which tells the story of Hélène and Christophe’s secret love affair in their forties, will be published in the United States. Set around the 2017 French presidential election, which saw Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen run against each other, the novel describes the meeting of two seemingly irreconcilable sides of France: an impoverished periphery tempted by the far-right vote, and a corporate world in which the ideology of performance is embodied by Christophe, a consultant. “I come from one and I now live in the other,” says the writer. “I couldn’t choose sides. This novel may well have been a way for me to process the powerful conflicts raging within me, to tame them a little.” Through Hélène’s character, who left her original social milieu thanks to school, Nicolas Mathieu delves into the theme of the class traitor, which touches him personally. “Her journey is exactly the same as mine. When she goes to the library, she discovers that the world is a bigger place. She tears herself away from her initial environment and then comes back to it later.”

© Léa Chassagne/France-Amérique

Although his “symbolic situation” has improved considerably thanks to the Prix Goncourt, Nicolas Mathieu is still marked by deep “wounds of the ego.” Unlike some writers of his generation, he is quick to connect his vision of literature with politics. “Describing characters, the relationships between them, recounting the world, making the effort to demystify and unveil in a way that literature can – that’s political.” Whether he is speaking out on pension reform or, more recently, on sensitivity readers, his views resonate. And if it’s controversial, so be it. In the U.S., where he worried that he would be seen as reactionary if he criticized the editing of manuscripts to avoid offending minorities, he has found a following among certain writers. “They feel that fiction is in crisis,” he says. “It seems to me that the best can only come from dialectical relationships in the intellectual sphere, not from some kind of cleansing process.”

Last summer, the French Minister of the Interior banned Manu Causse’s children’s novel Bien trop petit for being “pornographic.” In response, Nicolas Mathieu launched the hashtag #WhenIWas15 on social media, which triggered an avalanche of stories about sexual awakening. With the publication this month of Le ciel ouvert, a collection of micro-fictions developed on Instagram, which served as a kind of laboratory for Connemara, the writer is now working on his next novel. By writing a thousand words a day – the only method that works.

Connemara by Nicolas Mathieu, translated from French by Sam Taylor, Other Press, March 12, 2024.

Article published in the February 2024 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.