French novelist Constance Debré reflects on her fearless autofiction
Constance Debré doesn’t believe in art as therapy, but she does believe it can lend a hand in dark times. The French lawyer turned novelist was inspired to write Love Me Tender by her experience of leaving her husband, coming out as a lesbian, and losing custody of her child. “The reality was hard and painful, and I didn’t know what to do – because there was nothing I could do,” she says. “But using it in a book helped. Suddenly it was just words. And I was somewhere else.”
Right now, she’s at her publisher’s place in Paris – cat-sitting, she tells me – and we’re chatting over Zoom. She’s on a red velvety-looking banquette and there’s an old stone wall behind her. To her right, a window lets in the early-morning light, illuminating her face – which, unlike in the steely photographs I’ve seen online, is playful and even smiley. Two silver chains hang around her neck. Small hoops pierce her lobes. The sleeves of her black shirt have been rolled up to reveal the tattoos on her arms, and when she turns to the side I glimpse a couple of inked words on her neck: plutôt crêver (rather die).
Lucidly translated by Holly James, Love Me Tender is Debré’s first novel to appear in English, and the second in a bestselling trilogy that draws on her life. The first and third instalments, Play Boy and Name, are due to follow, along with a fourth standalone novel, Offences, loosely inspired by her former career as a criminal defence barrister. When I ask what attracted her to the law, she says it was partly its ability to provide order. A good student, she started out at your typical big-business firms, before deciding they were “nonsense/immoral”. “I wanted to have more of a fighting attitude,” she says, leaning towards her laptop. “It’s a beautiful thing to fight for someone.” Little did she know that she would soon be on trial, too.
When we meet the protagonist of Love Me Tender, she has been separated from her husband, Laurent, for three years. She tells him over dinner that she’s started seeing girls and wants a divorce. He later tells her over the phone that their eight-year-old son,Paul, doesn’t want to see her anymore. And then Laurent announces that he’s applying for sole custody with termination of her parental rights; he’s accusing her of incest and paedophilia. Eventually the court finds in her favour, but only after years of supervised visits with her son. “Halfway through, they realised they’d made a mistake, but they couldn’t do anything to fix it.”
“Family justice, and justice in general, is full of injustice,” Debré tells me. “Everyone knows that.” She never wanted to do family law, she says, because “it was so violent. At least in criminal law, the people are already dead.”
I’m curious to know whether Debré considered writing a memoir, and she says she has “absolutely no interest” in that form. She also says that, regardless, a lot of people, particularly in France, describe her work as such – which might have something to do with her family name: Debré as in the French political dynasty. Her grandfather was Charles de Gaulle’s prime minister. Many men in her family were lawmakers. Her father was a journalist, her mother a model. But they didn’t have money or their own apartment. Opium was a thing, and later heroin. Her mother died suddenly. Her father was an addict. “So, this was the strange environment I grew up in,” she says, matter-of-factly. “And that’s OK. My parents were great. I’m lucky I didn’t have a boring bourgeois life.”
While the first novel in the series, Play Boy, recounts the dissolution of the narrator’s marriage, the third, Name, explores her family history. Does Debré find it hard to lay bare the twists and turns of her life? At this question she pauses, twirls a pair of glasses in her hand. “I don’t think so. In a way, it’s easy because you don’t have to imagine things; they’re just there, and you put your hand in your pocket and think, ‘OK, I’m going to use that.’ And then, when you do use it, it becomes something else.”
It takes on a narrative, a style – which, in Love Me Tender, a bold and beautiful book, is precise and pared back. Debré’s is a process of reducing and reducing. “It’s very easy for me to write long and sophisticated sentences, but to me, you have to face things directly, and a few words are enough.” Which is why she likes the first person – because it’s direct. Also, because in France, even as a child, beginning a sentence with ‘moi je’ is forbidden. “I mean, at least it was in my day,” adds the 51-year-old, laughing. “So, using ‘I’ is a great temptation. Well, why not? I’m going to use it without shame.”
A similar sense of raw defiance courses through Love Me Tender, whose protagonist, upon trading a lawyer’s salary for the life of a penniless writer, gives away her belongings and the apartment she once shared with her son – just as Debré did. She spends her days waiting for the hearing, reading, writing, swimming, having sex with a long line of women. She has a survivor’s instinct to keep going and vows, in the face of the insanity bubbling up around her, not to climb back into her old skin. Debré describes what happened in her life at that time as a conversion.
A conversion, and a catalyst for creativity. She doesn’t know whether she’ll always use life experiences in her fiction, but in this instance, it was the best decision she could have made. “When you write, and especially when you use everything around you as material, you’re at the centre of the world,” she says. “With Love Me Tender, it was like having a superpower – at a time when I had no power at all.”
Love Me Tender by Constance Debré, translated by Holly James, is published by Tuskar Rock, out now
This article is taken from Port issue 33. To continue reading, buy the issue or subscribe here