Writers & Company

Imagination takes flight in Hervé Le Tellier's adventurous hit novel, The Anomaly

The French writer and linguist spoke with Eleanor Wachtel about writing a taut thriller he describes as a "thought experiment."
A black and white photo of a man in a black shirt with a slight smile.
Hervé Le Tellier is a French novelist, playwright, linguist and journalist. (Cathy Bistour)

What would it be like to meet yourself?

That's the question that inspired Hervé Le Tellier's remarkable story The Anomaly — a thought-provoking mix of speculative fiction, noir thriller, satirical comedy and romance.

An Air France flight experiences terrible turbulence on its way from Paris to New York. Three months later, the exact same plane arrives, carrying identical passengers and crew. Questions and complications arise as the characters are confronted by their doubles!

Born in Paris in 1957, Le Tellier has had a career as a novelist, playwright, poet, journalist, mathematician, food critic, linguist, teacher and broadcaster. The phenomenal success of The Anomaly — which he describes as a kind of "thought experiment"— has been a surprise even to him.

Winner of France's Prix Goncourt, the novel sold a record-breaking million copies at home and is being translated into 40 languages. 

Le Tellier spoke to Eleanor Wachtel from his home in the Drôme region of France.

The central question

"I always had a curiosity about, 'Who am I?' as everybody does.

"Being confronted with another you — someone who has all your secrets and who knows everything you know, the things you hide, all your darkness — it's very interesting.

"The question of meeting myself was really through that.

Being confronted with another you — someone who has all your secrets and who knows everything you know, the things you hide, all your darkness — it's very interesting.

"So this was the beginning of the book, which was the idea of many people confronted by themselves. I also knew that nobody would react exactly the same way."

French writer Herve Le Tellier poses after being awarded the 2020 Prix Goncourt, France's most prestigious literary prize, for the French-language version of his novel The Anomaly. (Thomas Samsom/AFP via Getty Images)

Diverging paths

"The path everybody has taken has branches and crosses. Sometimes you think, 'What would have happened if I had taken this crossing and not the other one?'

"I always wonder what my life would have been like if I had been doing something else. This is why I began to write and to be a writer: it's a way to explore lives that I didn't have.

"When I wrote about being a pilot, I was so interested in the idea of flying a plane, which is something I've never done. If I write about an architect, it's because it was something I wanted to be when I was young.

"It's the opportunity to choose other paths you haven't taken.

"Your characters are doubles of yourself that can endorse a personality you don't really have — and work in professions you haven't chosen.

I always wonder what my life would have been like if I had been doing something else. This is why I began to write and to be a writer: it's a way to explore lives that I didn't have.

"Any choices you make lead you in some directions; afterwards it's very hard to go backwards."

The life of a writer

"I was an only child. Being an only child drives you towards books. I was born in a time when television was not so important and I wasn't going to the movies so much.

"Books were everywhere in my grandfather's house. I began to read very early. Being bored at home was very encouraging for reading. So I began reading because it was a way to escape. It made me a writer in some way. It made me a reader. 

"So what made me a writer? It's hard to say.

Being bored at home was very encouraging for reading. So I began reading because it was a way to escape.

"It's probably the fact that when you write a book, you build another world — one that is totally yours. When you were a child, you didn't have the opportunity to have a world of your own.

"You're still a child when you write."

Hervé Le Tellier's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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