Writers & Company

French novelist David Foenkinos on literary fame, lost artistic genius and John Lennon

In conversation with Eleanor Wachtel, David Foenkinos talks about his acclaimed work, including Charlotte, Lennon: The New York Years and his most recent novel, The Mystery of Henri Pick.
David Foenkinos is a French author and screenwriter. (F. Mantovani © Editions Gallimard)

When a romantic novel by a dead Frenchman who ran the local pizzeria is discovered in a small town in Brittany, it becomes a crazy success. That's the premise of David Foenkinos's most recent novel, The Mystery of Henri Pick. A bestseller in France, it's a mischievous comic mystery on the theme of literary fame.

One of his country's most original writers, David Foenkinos is the author of 14 novels that have been translated into 40 languages, widely ranging in subject and style. His prizewinning book Charlotte is a poetic fictional biography of Charlotte Salomon, the young German Jewish artist who was murdered at Auschwitz in 1943. His graphic novel Lennon: The New York Years creates an intimate portrait of John Lennon through imagined sessions with a psychoanalyst in the Dakota building where he lived and was assassinated 40 years ago. 

Foenkinos is also a successful screenwriter and director of films, such as Delicacy (2011), starring Audrey Tautou, which he adapted from his novel by the same title.

Foenkinos lives in Paris, where he was born. He spoke to Eleanor Wachtel from his home there.

Based on a true story

"The Mystery of Henri Pick is based on a true story — from an idea in a book by Richard Brautigan. It was a story about a library based in California and it was full of books that had been rejected by publishers. I love this story. It was so poetic that there was a place for writers who had books that were rejected — and that there was somewhere they could put their work.

"I wanted to write a book about it, but based in France. It's based in Brittany, which is by the sea and is the furthermost point from the centre of France. It is a place for writers who don't look for success but instead seek the shadows. There are many stories in the book of famous writers whose work was rejected. Of course, you can be a genius and nobody can see it. But most of the time it's not the case; when you are very talented, someone will discover you at one point. 

It was so poetic that there was a place for writers who had books that were rejected — and that there was somewhere they could put their work.

"It's also about the idea that today, everybody is writing a book. Some people say that in France, there are more writers than readers. So we have a lot of books, everywhere. It was funny for me to think about a place where we can put all these books." 

The magic of libraries

"The library is like a church for me. Books are my religion. Every time I travel, the first thing I do when I come to a new city is to go to the library. I feel very safe there. 

"I need the company of books. I always thought that it was a kind of magical place which is the best place for mysteries. 

The library is like a church for me. Books are my religion.

"That's why it was very important for me to write a book about it — about the idea that in this place, in this particular library of rejected books, we will find some extraordinary book. I'm always looking for a book that will change my life. "

Rinse and repeat

"The Mystery of Henri Pick is about our society, which is crazy about literary success. If a book is successful, there will be attempts to repeat and recreate that success many times over. 

"For example, after the success of the Harry Potter books, there were so many books that tried to be like Harry Potter. It's always like this. 

If a book is successful, there will be attempts to repeat and recreate that success many times over.

"In The Mystery of Henri Pick, the success of a strange book, which was supposed to be written by a local dead Frenchman, makes everyone crazy. The novel is a comedy about that situation and all the consequences of this crazy success."

Left, the book cover for Charlotte (a self-portrait of the artist) by David Foenkinos. Right, a visitor looks at a painting by Charlotte Salomon on exhibit at the Städel Museum in Frankfurt. (Overlook Books, Thomas Lohnes/DDP/AFP via Getty Images)

Charlotte Salomon changed my life

"Charlotte is the most important book I ever wrote. I wrote it six years ago, but it became an obsession in my life for 10 years. I discovered Charlotte Salomon in 2006, at a little exhibition in Paris. She is really forgotten, but not totally unknown. It changed my life when I discovered her work. Even if you don't read the book, you will have to go to see the work of Charlotte Salomon because she is a major artist. 

"I was also completely obsessed with her personality. She's such a powerful woman and artist. She's full of energy in the fight against Nazism and also had a tragic familial situation that she was stuck into. 

Charlotte is the most important book I ever wrote.

"For me, she was the perfect example of feeling so conflicted internally, yet you can still dig deep within and find the energy to create something full of beauty. 

"The book, after it was published in France, became a huge success. And for me, it's so important that all people discover who she was."

Left, the book cover for Lennon: The New York Years. Right, photos, flowers and candles are left at Strawberry Fields in New York's Central Park to remember John Lennon on Dec. 8, 2020, in New York. Lennon was shot to death outside his New York City apartment building by a fan on Dec. 8, 1980. (IDW Publishing, Mark Lennihan/AP Photo)

The mystique of John Lennon

"First of all, it's really different to write a book about someone that nobody knows, like Charlotte Salomon, than to create a book about John Lennon, who was one of the most famous people in the world.

"All the Beatles fans would have gone after me if I wrote something that wasn't accurate about his life. But I wrote this book as a fan because, like everyone, I was a fan of the Beatles and particularly John. But it's not a musical book or a musical biography: I really wanted to write a book about the story of a man who became one of the most famous and creative people in the world.

"It didn't change anything about his childhood, which is a childhood of suffering. John Lennon was always searching to feel better, and to exorcise all the demons of his life. I feel really close to this and I wanted to write a book about it. We always talk about the age of 27 and how many rock stars, including Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix and more, died at that age.  John was 27 when he met Yoko Ono.  

All the Beatles fans would have gone after me if I wrote something that wasn't accurate about his life.

"And, of course, I was always obsessed by the love story of John and Yoko Ono. I was so full of admiration and was inspired to write about their particular relationship."

David Foenkinos's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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