Sunday, 11 September 2011

My Favorite Books

Literature is one of my interests, I read a lot. Just like you need to watch a whole lot of movies before turning into a filmmaker yourself, you always need to read like crazy before you're able to write yourself, before feeling the will and urge to become a writer. So this is a non-exhaustive list of books I have read and use as my main references when writing. You will notice that most of them are rather short.

THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON'T THEY? – Horace McCoy (1935)

A short novel set in the early 30s, during the Great Depression. Robert Syverton and Gloria Beatty are two movie extras in Hollywood, with no money but still hoping to break into movie business. They subscribe to a marathon dance with the hope that they get the $1,000 top prize or get noticed by producers in the audience. All they have to do is keep moving around and try not to get eliminated during derbys (sort of horse races organized around a white oval line). In order to achieve that they need to manage with 10-minute breaks used not only to sleep but also to wash, brush teeth, massage feet, etc. A literary masterpiece that is a strong tale of desperation as well as a metaphor of the American dream and its society, greedy and ruthless, here showing both faces of America, the rich one in the audience and the poor one, on the racing track. This was the author's first book and also, probably, the very first ‘noir’ American novel. You won't recover easily from this story, hailed by the French intellectuals at that time (Sartre, De Beauvoir...) as the very first existential book coming from the US. It was turned into a film by Sydney Pollack in 1969, starring Jane Fonda, Michael Sarrazin and late Susannah York, and a French stage show by Robert Hossein in 2002.

A CLOCKWORK ORANGE – Anthony Burgess (1962)

1984 - NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR – George Orwell (1948)

FALLING ANGEL – William Hjortsberg (1978)
A very surprising crime novel about a private detective hired by a mysterious individual to find a missing crooner, then ending up investigating himself and coming to an incredible truth. It was made into a famous film called Angel Heart, written and directed by Alan Parker in 1986, with Mickey Rourke, Robert De Niro and Lisa Bonet.

TEN LITTLE INDIANS or And Then There Were None – Agatha Christie (1940)
Ten very different people from very different classes and with very different backgrounds, are invited in a luxurious house based on an island, where they disappear one after another until there's nobody left. Originally published as Ten Little Niggers (lol), Agatha Christie's timeless mystery book, a real piece of anthology.

THE FIVE-CORNERED SQUARE or A Rage in Harlem – Chester Himes (1959)

PLANET OF THE APES – La Planète des Singes, Pierre Boulle (1963)
From the author of Bridge over the River Kwai comes this highly inventive work, maybe one of the most famous science-fiction ones… and it came from France! Author Pierre Boulle got the idea for such a story during a stay in Cameroon. Instead of the films which are set on our planet, this stunning work takes place on another planet the main character, an astronaut and scientist named Ulysse Mérou, lands on, discovering a civilization dominated by apes, where humans are treated as slaves and study objects kept in cages. Captured and first treated the same way, Mérou soon shows off his intelligence and knowledge and is helped by Zira, a female chimpanzee, and her husband Cornelius. I guess you know what follows next, except for the ending I won't give out not to spoil the pleasure, I'll only say that Mérou will leave the planet with his human, savage lover (Nova) and return to his Earth where an incredible surprise will welcome him. An excellent, thrilling book translated from French by Xan Fielding and turned into a series of movies started by an amazing film from Franklin J. Schaffner in 1969, starring late actors Charlton Heston and Roddy McDowall, itself recently remade by Tim Burton in 2001 and ‘prequeled’ in 2011 by Rupert Wyatt as Rise of the Planet of the Apes.

THE BEACH – Alex Garland (1996)

Since I've read this amazing book, Alex Garland has become one of my favourite writers. Another good reason for that is, he writes movies now. And good ones (28 Days Later, Sunshine, Never Let Me Go). But he started - and met with great success only at age 26 - with this impressive cult novel set in Thailand, where he spent much time as a backpacker. The book tells the story of Richard, a young British backpacker in Thailand who, along with a French backpacking couple, decides to go to a mystery island forbidden to tourists, that is showed on a map some crazy guy gave him before committing suicide. They manage to reach the island and discover a dream place dominated by a superb beach, already inhabited by a small group of urban people living there as Robinson Crusoes. But for safety, Richard had made a copy of the map he gave to some American friends he met before going, and soon the same guys can be seen coming towards the island, putting everything and everybody in jeopardy… The book was turned into a (somehow disappointing) film by Danny Boyle in 2000, starring Leonardo DiCaprio.

RED DRAGON – Thomas Harris (1981)

THE GODFATHER – Mario Puzo (1971)

One of my clearest influences for "Charlie's Trips". That timeless classic from Roald Dahl about a young boy named Charlie Bucket who wins a tour across Willy Wonka's magical chocolate factory after miraculously finding one of the very few Gold Tickets, is still a reference for every child all over the world. Adapted twice for the big screen.

UBIK – Philip K. Dick (1969)

I AM LEGEND – Richard Matheson (1954)
Dracula in reverse: one sole man has to deal with the whole of humanity which has 'turned' into vampires after a plague. A wonderful idea for a tragic, legendary SF post-apocalyptic novel which delivers one of the best endings in literary history. Very mistreated in movies.

THE GETAWAY – Jim Thompson (1959)
A couple of married gangsters rob a bank before running away to Mexico. Adapted twice for the big screen by The Warriors' director Walter Hill (first for Sam Peckinpah in 1972 with Steve McQueen and Ali McGraw, then again in 1994 with Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger) and clearly duplicated by Quentin Tarantino in three of his screenplays, True Romance, Natural Born Killers and especially From Dusk Till Dawn. Some other movies like Thelma and Louise and Out of Sight are also very taken from The Getaway. A famous and very fun ‘noir’ novel, filled with violence and romance, that has influenced several generations of storytellers and filmmakers, from one of the greatest writers in 20th century, who notably brought us The Grifters and The Killer Inside Me, both taken to the screen as well.

CARRIE – Stephen King (1974)
A shy, complexed teenage girl, bullied at home by a religious nut of a mother, obsessed by sin and evil, and bullied at school by everybody else, finds hidden paranormal abilities and uses them to get payback. Made into an awfully stressful, scary, terrific horror movie in 1976 by director Brian DePalma, starring Sissy Spacek: this is Stephen King's first and best book.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

The art of being bilingual

You guys must be wondering why I write my blog in English when my native language is French. Why not? English is the most widely spoken and written language in this world (along with Chinese I guess, even if Chinese language is mostly spoken in China – but there are almost 2 billion of them!) so I guess that speaking English anywhere (in China included), and speaking it fluently, is a big advantage.

What could be more surprising is that I am writing long texts in English, that’s much more complicated and risky I guess, as you’re more exposed to making mistakes that can be noticed immediately and your credibility can be ruined right away. I’m too conscious of that, that’s why it took me one year to write “Charlie’s Trips”. Actually it first took me one year to write the script, then one more year to turn it into a book. There were so many mistakes I always had to spot then correct… and I’m such a perfectionist, so demanding! I also had to add more stuff to make the story richer. This is what can happen to you when you write a book in a language that is not yours, and then self-publishing it – which means you have to do all the editing and corrections and design, all by yourself. But on the whole it was rather fun writing that book but I’m not sure I’ll be able to do it again in the future, even if the novel is a commercial success. Writing a book in your native language is already so complicated… so doing it in a different language than yours (even when it’s English) is too demanding, takes too much time. Writing film scripts in English is easier for me even if it’s basically hard enough. I have half a dozen scripts written in English.

I learned English a rather unique way: watching movies. Of course I learned the main stuff at school – and I was one of the best pupils, as far as I remember – but I used cinema to improve my knowledge. In 1984, when I was only 13 years old, my father subscribed to a new French TV channel. It was Canal+. Which is an internationally respected channel and institution now. The channel was broadcasting only sports and movies at that time, it was dedicated to that only. No commercial or information breaks, no shows, nothing else but films and sports. From this point I really discovered cinema, especially in its original version, with the real voices from the English-speaking actors. Before that, I was young and naive enough to think that those English and American actors were really speaking French! I didn’t know yet about the art of dubbing. That was a big shock, my fascination was huge and I started recording films in their original English-speaking versions (with subtitles) before watching them over and over again. That’s how I could get used to the rhythm and 27 years later, even if my speaking and understanding are not perfect even today it still made me able to manage with grammar and vocabulary and to write long texts in English with rather good confidence.

Actually I find it easier to speak English instead of French, the language is even simpler to learn and speak. At least in English you don’t have to deal with the masculine-feminine genders on each noun – when you do in most other languages, such as French, Spanish, and I guess Chinese too. That makes the language attractive right away. I guess that’s why English is the most common language around the world. That’s also why I intend to get married in the future to somebody who speaks English and no French J Also, writing in English gives you another great advantage: because it’s the most widely spoken language across the world, the market is much bigger, you can reach many more people and you can sell your work in many more ways. I always feel limited when I’m in France because it’s a country that is very closed, and everything that’s made there doesn’t get past the borders. And when I produce something in English when I’m in France, it’s impossible to pass it around or to contact people without spending much money in phone calls.

So I could learn English without going to any special school. I’m not saying that schools are ineffective, only that there are other ways than schools to learn a new language, especially such an easy language like that one. But like when you’re at school you still have to listen and speak continuously. Like Brad Pitt says in Tarantino’s film Inglorious Basterds: ‘PRACTISE’.