Olivier Bodart: Biography in Geography

The French artist and writer has been living in North America since 2012, and recently published his second book, Après moi le désert, in France. A thoughtful road trip through the Sonoran Desert of California, blending autofiction and hallucinations.
Writer and artist Olivier Bodart at work on his latest project, Imperial, inspired by the California desert. © Kirsten Fenton

On March 10, 2021, when the Covid-19 pandemic was still making travel almost impossible, Olivier Bodart and his partner drove over the border between the United States and Canada. In a strange coincidence, that was also the day his first novel Zones à risques was published in France. “I told the border agents that I was releasing a book that very day, and they let me in with a 12-month visa while waiting for my permanent residency card.” After a few months in Los Angeles, the couple had found themselves shocked by the inequalities and violence of life in lockdown. They decided to leave the United States and settle on Canada’s Prince Edward Island, north of Nova Scotia.

“My partner is Canadian and she no longer had health insurance,” says the artist and writer, speaking from Montreal where he now lives. “We wanted the opposite of the American dream, to stop running the rat race just to survive. We needed somewhere safe where we could move in without having to look for work straight away. This peaceful island was like a blank canvas. We bought a house online, rented a truck, and drove for 13 days from Los Angeles.”

It was on Prince Edward Island, “in total climatic contradiction,” that Olivier Bodart wrote Après moi le désert, his second novel, rooted in the white-hot landscapes of the Sonoran Desert in California. In this fiction made feverish by an unnamed virus, a French fine arts teacher finds himself trapped in the building he recently bought to open a photography school. After being harassed by officers collecting data for the 2020 census, he stages his own disappearance to destroy any proof that he was living with his partner, who is going through a difficult divorce.

Flouting lockdown regulations, he sets out in his car and drives through increasingly bizarre places. His wanderings take him to destinations such as Slab City, a former military base filled with squatters and nomads reminiscent of Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland, and Felicity, an unfinished town created by a Frenchman during the 1980s, which is now closed for several months of the year. “The story is not entirely mine, but it is set in landscapes and places that I know very well,” says the author. “I need to map out an imaginary world to believe in fiction.”

© Léa Chassagne
© Léa Chassagne

In ten years, North America has turned him into an author. “The United States is where I started writing and making art,” he says. “Before that, I felt stuck. I had a strong desire, but no real project.” In 2012, he was hired by the Lycée Français in Chicago and moved to America with his wife and their daughter, leaving behind a house in the Parisian suburbs and the fear that “nothing was happening.”

After seven years living abroad, the couple divorced. Upon meeting his new partner, Olivier Bodart tried, like his narrator, to build a new life on the edge of the Sonoran Desert, on a plot of land destined to be returned to a Native American tribe. “When I move somewhere, I always want to spend the rest of my live there. I seek out permanence and movement simultaneously. On this Native land, I liked the idea that things were slipping through our fingers, that they never belonged to us.”

Each book leads to the creation of a work of art. After Zones à risques, the writer donned the role of his main character, a natural disaster expert, and made miniature scenes in wooden boxes before capturing them using macro photography. “I went to a forest near Santa Cruz in California, for example. I brought back fragments of mudslides and pine needles to create my pieces using natural elements. The results were creations made with constraints and coupled with parts of reality.” Using Après moi le désert as inspiration, he then developed Imperial, a 3D reproduction of a map of the eponymous Californian county – a canvas for photographic wandering performed from within an enclosed space.

Before moving to the United States, Olivier Bodart crossed the country from east to west and from north to south, starting when he was a teenager, driven by a particular curiosity for writers’ homes. “I wanted to see how they worked,” he says. “The first one I visited was H.P. Lovecraft’s house [in Providence, Rhode Island]. Each author I love is tied to a geography, and I produced a map of writers’ homes.” A keen reader of Richard Ford, Raymond Carver, and John Gardner, he is also influenced by Georges Perec, his attempts to exhaustively depict places, and his meticulous description of space.

Now in Canada, Olivier Bodart is currently considering his next book based on themes of insularity. “I thought about it on Prince Edward Island, but I would like to set it in Florida. I need to be in the United States for it to develop.” While the project’s future is still uncertain, the writer is sure that he will not live in France again. “The Parisian mood darkens my soul,” he says. “North America maintains a certain level of excitement, complete with incomprehension and strangeness. I felt like I was asleep in France, but here I have been awake for ten years.” A powerful fuel for the author’s creative process.

Après moi le désert
by Olivier Bodart, Editions Inculte, 2023.

Article published in the April 2023 issue of France-AmériqueSubscribe to the magazine.