October 2013

Rebecca Silber


An Interview with Antoine Laurain

French author Antoine Laurain's novel The President's Hat is a whimsical book, a fairly quick read that follows the story of Francois Mitterand's jaunty hat -- left behind in a French brasserie -- and subsequently worn by four people who come across it in various ways. Daniel Mercier, Fanny Marquant, Pierre Aslan, and Bernard Lavallière are all characters struggling with various professional and personal obstacles. During the time that the hat is in their possession, each is motivated to make significant changes in his or her life. The hat seems to give the characters the inner strength they need to make these changes.

This delightful novel takes place in Paris in the 1980s. The story itself is beautiful, free of smartphones, the Internet, and other modern distractions. This is a simple tale that is entertaining, but it is also a tale that speaks more profoundly of the human attachment to objects as desired sources of power.

Early in the novel, Daniel Mercier finds and places François Mitterand's hat on his own head and thinks, "Wearing a hat gives you a feeling of authority over someone who isn't." This quotation resonated with me. What is the story behind it?

The sentence is attributed to a French author, Tristan Bernard. You may not be familiar with him in the United States, but he was an early twentieth-century Parisian humoristic author. His expressions are still well known in France. We call these definitive and ironic expressions, mots d'esprit. I thought this particular one was the perfect way for me to begin the novel, because a very special hat is the essence of the story.

That line led me to recall a few instances when an article of clothing gave me some extra confidence. Have you found this to be true in your own experiences?

Yes, I have shared that experience. I think that this fashion-driven confidence occurs more often for a woman than for a man, because women tend to have many more clothes and accessories in their closets! But it can also hold true for men. I feel very different if I'm wearing my black jacket and black trousers with my red scarf than I feel when wearing a simple pair of blue jeans with a white T-shirt. I remember many years ago, I tried on a jacket and a pair of trousers, both gray, at the Versace Man shop in Paris. I was really dressed like a golden boy. It was terrific. That was an ensemble meant more for Michael Douglas's Gordon Gekko character in the movie Wall Street than for a French writer. So, yes -- you can feel different depending on the clothes you are wearing.

What is it about these characters that takes this sense of authority beyond a simple hat-wearing confidence to more of an impetus for them to make significant changes in their lives? 

That's the philosophic part of the novel -- is it the hat or not? Is the ability to make life changes that is always within "you"? This question is not resolved in The President's Hat. The final character to find and wear the hat in the book, Bernard Lavallière, is a man from the upper and very conservative class. After wearing the hat, he begins to have Socialist thoughts and starts quite a revolution in his life. With these drastic changes comes the notion that maybe there is something magic inside François Mitterrand's hat. The reader will never know exactly what happened with Bernard, it's a part of the charm of the book. This fairy tale aspect makes the reader think about himself or herself. I mean, you the reader... What would you like to change in your life? How would your life be different had you chosen a different path at any point in your life?

You know, the compliment that I hear many times from readers, French and English, is "I wish I had a president's hat!" That's great! To me, hearing that from readers means that they have loved the story and understand it perfectly.

You just mentioned Bernard Lavallière, the last character in the book. I liked all of your characters, but I found Bernard and Pierre Aslan to be the most endearing. I think that it is their quirks and creativity that I was drawn to. Can you talk about how much, if any, research you needed to do for your characters' professions and hobbies? There is much detail in The President's Hat surrounding Pierre's field as "the nose" for perfume manufacturers, and equally as much detail into Bernard's 1980s art collecting -- was this all existing knowledge for you?

I'm also very fond of Pierre Aslan, the perfumer, and his character is very important to me. Because he has suffered from depression since the age of eight, he is a dark character. He is completely lost when we meet him in the Parc Monceau and is merely a shadow of what he had been in the past after a nervous breakdown than when he was so successful in his profession. Pierre is a very interesting man. I had always wanted to include a perfumer, a "nose" in one of my novels. I thought it would have been the main character... The perfumer profession has always interested me, but it was somewhat difficult to get a good grasp on what being a "nose" entails. I met people in the field and really investigated all aspects of the profession.

I also like Bernard Lavallière very much. Creating his character was easier for me than it was to create Pierre Aslan's character. I know Bernard-type men very well -- many friends of my parents were very similar in the '80s and in the decades that followed. Including Bernard, a man with Socialist thoughts, was a real revenge and a funny writing moment for me! The modern art and Jean-Michel Basquiat knowledge included in the book came naturally. I studied art at the university, and I have worked with an antiques dealer. I know general art and contemporary art very well, so that was not difficult. Like Bernard, there was an ordinary Frenchman -- I don't remember his name -- who bought Basquiat paintings at the beginning of his career, when he was fairly unknown and affordable. The guy simply fell in love with Basquiat's art! Of course, he became very rich... that true story was an inspiration for me. I am glad that I included Basquiat in the novel.

You have an extensive art background. Have you always written, too? Or was writing something that came later for you?

This is a good question -- I have always written. When I was very young, around eight or nine years old, I used to write in a diary. But I really wanted to be a painter and was interested in attending the academie in Montparnasse. However, I stopped before the Beaux Arts school exams because I thought that it was too late for a career in painting. I feel that there are no more great painters nowadays. No more Dali, Balthus, Bacon... it's just my opinion. So I started art studies and cinema studies at the university and took a screenplay class. My first professional writings were for cinema! I tried writing literature much later, during the summer of 1998, just for fun. I wrote five shorts stories, and I thought, "This is much better than a screenplay!" I didn't try to write a full novel until many years later -- in 2005. My first novel was published in 2007. At that time, I was still the assistant of the antiques dealer in Paris and I wrote that book in his shop. I used his computer during my free time between customers.

I want to revisit the character Pierre Aslan, but this question ties in to art. In creating his character, you went so far as to include an actual logo (the mermaid) for his perfumer business. This logo appears on his official stationery on a page of The President's Hat. I loved that it was included, especially because it followed a written description a little earlier in the book. Is the logo something that you designed? What made you decide to include this visual element in your writing?

Yes, the Aslan mermaid. The original drawing is mine. The design department at the French publisher, Flammarion, designed the version that appears in the book.

This exchange of letters between the characters in The President's Hat is special because it breaks away from the "storytelling." I call it "lettertelling." Each letter is written and set to appear like an actual letter would look. I include an address for the characters, as well as their name at the end. Of course the famous Pierre Aslan has to have a luxurious letterhead with his mermaid logo on it. The logo, as you said, is mentioned a few pages before. Including the visual gives a sense of reality to the story; it really could have happened. I also think this "lettertelling" is special because usually it's forbidden to read other people's letters, but now, as a reader, you are allowed to do it!

Tell me more about the book that you published in 2007.

My novel Ailleurs si j'y suis, published in French in 2007, has not been translated into English. It is the story of an art collector who spends his free time going to auctions. One day he bids on and wins an auction for a painting from the eighteenth century -- a portrait of a man who looks a lot like this art collector. However, he seems to be the only one to who sees this similarity.

Le Chapeau de Mitterand was published in French in 2012 and then just recently translated and released in English as The President's Hat. Can you talk about the translation process a little? It looks like three translators were involved -- how did that work?

Le Chapeau de Mitterrand was becoming a bestseller in France, and Gallic Books bought the rights for it very quickly. They decided to use three translators for the translating since there are many characters and voices in the book. This is why on page 201 it says "voiced by" instead of the more typical "translated by." I like this touch of humor; it works nicely with the novel.

The translation of the book has been done very well. The main revision is the change of the title from Le Chapeau de Mitterrand to The President's Hat, which gives it more of a universal appeal. In France, Le Chapeau de Mitterrand works because the French remember the iconic image of the Socialist President -- dressed in a black coat, a red scarf, a black hat, and alongside him, a Labrador Retriever (a black one too). Outside of France, people may not necessarily conjure up this portrayal of François Mitterand.

The President's Hat is also a good title because even if you cannot picture Mitterand's personal style, you know that a president is a very powerful man, and that is the basis of the book -- the story of a very special hat that belongs to someone very important!

You just finished a whirlwind book tour of the United States -- ten events in twelve days! You covered a lot of territory with readings scheduled on the West Coast, East Coast, and also the Midwest. Had you been to the States before?

I was first in the United States a very long time ago, in 1980! I was on a trip with my parents and we visited New York, Washington, D.C., and Miami. I still have many souvenirs from that trip. Then I went back in 1988, to New York for a week. It's funny because 1988 is the year it is at the end of The President's Hat! I will say that I never would have thought that this novel would bring me to the United States on tour. It was a great opportunity and a great privilege for a French author, and it's very, very rare. I was so happy to visit, even for a short time, all of those cities and meet the people, the booksellers, and the readers -- of course.