Uncertainty is one of the worst things when the time for pressing the button on the quantum watch and getting another interview started draws nearer. I have already been to the craziest scenarios, to extremely dangerous situations and have even had my own personality altered. Like Pilate, I wash my hands regarding my fate and theirs.
I pressed the button while taking a long breath. I closed my eyes a moment before that, as if a momentary blindness would protect me from any dangers. Mere illusion.
When I opened my eyes again, I was surrounded by a mist. I thought I might have been sent back to Whitechapel. I suspected I hadn’t when I saw trees and bushes. The floor, covered with earth and gravel, mud and scattered puddles. Nocturnal birds tore the night apart with their winches. It was cold. The sky was cut by still distant lightning. Treetops rustled, shaken by continuous winds. A heavy rain was being announced.
I walked down the slippery floor. Looking carefully, trying to beat the mist that covered the ground like a thick rug. I stopped when I heard what sounded like a long and moaning creak. A deep and harrowing rub. I located the direction it came from and hesitated to follow it down. I was after Jean-Claude Dunyach and not after trouble.
I overcame the natural obstacles that stood in my way with some difficulty coming upon a small clearing. In the middle of it, someone was kneeling before a rock. In his hands, a long knife was being sharpened continuously. The person, whom I immediately identified as being Jean-Claude himself, had a hard look, eyes fixed on the blade that he was scraping on the stone.
He turned his face to me and I stepped back, scared. He didn’t interrupt his work. He curved his lips in an almost unnoticeable smile and turned his attention back to the object he was holding. He smiled a little bit more and lifted the knife, moving it like a sword, slowly, cutting through the cold mist. He stood up and tried to get closer. He would have managed to if I, fearfully, hadn’t stepped back further.
“It’s Tibor, isn’t it? There’s nothing to be afraid of. My concern is over there,” he said, coming forth and opening the branches of a thick bush.
There was a mansion twenty or thirty meters ahead approximately. The dark silhouette was highlighted by the increasingly constant lightning. I could swear I had seen a chatoyant, devilish light, shining in both upper windows. I trembled, in cold and fear.
“What’s in that house?,” I asked in a whispering voice.
“The lie. The lie is in there,” he answered.
“What’s the knife for? Why all this? It’s just an interview. I ask the questions, you answer them. We leave and everything is fine. Let us stay here.”
“Impossible. If we stay, it will come to us. It’s waiting for us… look! The house seems to be breathing.”
Jean-Claude brought the blade close to his face. He blew over it, as if trying to move barbs away from the recently sharpened edge. He had a rapt look. I felt an intense shiver. I was afraid the quantum watch had changed his personality. Maybe it had encouraged some kind of suicidal feeling; a dementia instinct throwing him into a supernatural battle, driven not by a self-defense impulse, but by an insane desire of confrontation instead.
Then, he let the branches go, breathing deeply. He lowered the armed hand, looked at me with a strange glow in his eyes and smiled.
“Vive La Science Fiction!,” he shouted as he walked around the bush and moved towards the house with resolute steps. I had no choice but to follow him. I faced my own fears because of the Frenchman. In spite of him being aware of the risks involved in the interviews, I felt responsible for him and any other interviewee. I wouldn’t let him get into that jam by himself.
We reached the porch after going up three steps, the old and cracked wood cracking under our feet. Dim and unidentified noises got to us, coming from the house. They gave me the creeps. Jean-Claude reached for the knocker, an old piece of metal almost completely covered in rust. Right before he touched it, the door opened in a frightful creak, revealing a dark interior.
“Oh, God…,” I whined.
“Courage man! Life is made of continuous fighting,” pondered Jean-Claude.
Then, he pushed the door, opening it all the way. We were in a kind of a threshold. While still on the porch we could consider ourselves safe, in spite of being at the boundary between sanity and madness. Before I relucted once again and was completely overwhelmed by terror, which would certainly make me run away from there, Jean-Claude took me by the arm. He held the knife in a threatening way, as if he was about to stab the void ahead of us, and, bringing me along, hurled in. The door closed behind us with a rumble that made the windows tremble behind the thick curtains.
We entered the room, staggering, stumbling, blinded by the deep darkness. We stumbled on the furniture and sprawled on the floor, with muffled moans. We leant on what seemed to be a wall, close to each other, with our breathings hastened.
“Soon our eyes will get used to the darkness and we will be able to see better,” he whispered. “Until then, we’d better stay here, quietly.”
“What worries me is who or what is around, with eyes already used to the darkness,” I mentioned fearfully.
The air inside the house was colder than outside. A biting breeze was blowing from all directions. Cracks and creaks were everywhere. I fumbled my pocket and found a matchbox. I rejoiced intimately for the discovery. I struck a match and the flame was quickly extinguished. I struck another one and got the same result. I got annoyed at Jean-Claude. If he kept blowing the matches, we would never leave that spot. We would never get rid of the darkness.
“Stop blowing! Can’t you see I wanna get us out of this?,” I complained.
“I’m not blowing anything. Give me that box,” he struck a match, protecting it with one of his hands. Light seemed to explode, bringing to us much more than a room filled with dust and old furniture covered with long sheets. A huge figure, squatting, hidden by a black cloak that covered most of him except for his satanic eyes, was ahead of us. He was so close we could have felt his breath, was he alive and breathing.
We yelled together. The match doused. Jean-Claude brandished the knife and leapt forward in order to hit the wraith. I retracted in fear. I heard furniture tumbling, fabrics tearing, muffled screaming and metal hitting the dark floor.
“Putain de merde!,” grunted Jean-Claude after a moment.
“Did you get him?,” I asked.
“I heard his wavering steps. More bumping. A chair tumbling on the floor. After that, a dim light illuminated the hall.
“No, but I found a switch.”
I got up with my legs trembling. Jean-Claude was across the room, close to the door. Between us, a turmoil: chairs, sheets and lamps were all over. There was a dust cloud in suspension, caused by the recent fight. On the walls there were old paintings. Tapestry, lamps, shelves displaying decorative china. A circular stairway led to the upper floor. A side corridor would take us to the back of the house.
“Your short story Déchiffrer la Trame was published in Brazil in 2000 in the Megalon fanzine. It isn’t a professional publication, but still, it caused a strong positive repercussion in the Brazilian fandom at the time. Do you have your work published in other countries? Are there any perspectives of having a book published in Brazil?”
Jean-Claude looked at me, still blinking fast, trying to get used to the sudden light. He frowned, signaling he hadn’t understood anything. I cleared my throat and repeated the question, louder, so that he could hear me. He wiped his forehead with the back of his hand, looked for the knife that was lying between two armchairs, took a deep breath and answered seeming quite surprised.
“Wow, I didn’t know that – the strong repercussion, I mean! It is very difficult to evaluate how a story is received in a different country – sometimes you get amazing responses and sometimes it fails miserably and ends in the pit of forgotten stories. And more often than not, you can’t even translate the critics and reviews about your books! Which is terribly frustrating: you know that someone out there has read your story and you can’t even know what happened.
I should really come and see Brazil with my own eyes – it’s been a fantasy for years. I’ve never set a foot in South America, which is quite disturbing. I’m over 50 and I’ve missed an entire continent.
I’ve been published in various countries. Mostly short stories and collections, which are cheaper to translate but some of my novels are available in Italian and Hungarian. There is no perspective that I know of to be published in Brazil but if you know a local publisher that might be interested, I’d be glad to be in contact with him or her. I own the rights of all my novels and of several short stories, so I can arrange a deal myself – and I’m cheap, believe me!”
Jean-Claude motioned to the stairway, meaning to go upstairs. I remembered the lights I had seen in the upper windows and moaned quietly. That house was hiding mysteries and I had no plans to unravel them.
“What are you chasing, exactly?,” I asked trying to buy some time, before he got to the first step.
“Ghosts. The same ones that ravage your country, mine and all the countries where science fiction is regarded with prejudice.”
I narrowed my eyes, confused by his answer. A few moments later, my expression cleared. I considered the enterprise to be a waste of time, though.
“And do you think you can fix that by yourself?”
“Perhaps not. But at least I’m trying to do something. Others only argue. Useless gibberish. Besides, I’m not alone. You’re with me.”
I let myself be taken over by an unprecedented courage. I let the cowardice aside and decided to face the unknown with Jean-Claude. He was right. We had to do something. Staying there, just talking about the problem, wouldn’t solve it.
“We Brazilians know a lot of the science fiction practiced in English-speaking countries and little of what is written in continental Europe. Could you please give us a brief overview of the nowadays French editorial market for sci-fi books?, ” I asked as we went up the stairs.
“Well, the situation is quite contrasted, as usual. During the last decade, the French sci-fi market has been slowly eaten, or attacked, by Fantasy and Bit-Lit, just like anywhere else. It doesn’t mean that we stopped writing and publishing SF, mind you, but it was more and more difficult to be visible among huge piles of books with dragons and sorcerers and goddesses in plated mails bikinis. Well, I don’t really object to the bikini part, I must confess. So the SF books colonized the Young Adult market – many of our best new authors, like Johan Heliot, Xavier Mauméjean, Christophe Lambert, Jeanne-A Debats, Jérôme Noirez, Lionel Davoust, are doing great in that respect – and some books found their way in the mainstream collections.”
We stopped halfway thru the stairway. The lights in the hall turned off and we heard restrained laughs, which sounded as if they were passing through the bricks of the old mansion.
“You can actually sell pure SF books in France if you don’t mention anywhere that it is SF. And that is the ghost I’m chasing, if you know what I mean. However, I feel that the time they are a-changin’, as Bob D. said a long time ago. SF is back with a vengeance, with new tropes and a handful of new authors that are out for a kill. During one of the most important festivals devoted to our literature, the so-called Imaginales in the wonderful city of Epinal (see http://www.imaginales.fr/), I listened to a discussion between some of our main editors of Fantasy and SF – there are SF collections in most of the big French publishing houses like Bragelonne, Gallimard/Denoël, Laffont, Flammarion, Fleuve Noir/Pocket, etc… – and they were agreeing that Fantasy and Bit-lit was on their way down while SF was getting slightly better. Let’s add to that the fact that we have an excellent quarterly SF magazine called Bifrost (see http://www.belial.fr/pages/bifrost) published by a small but very professional editor called “le Belial”, another quarterly SF magazine called Galaxies (see http://monsite.orange.fr/galaxies-sf/), various fanzines and several forums devoted to SF, not to mention many small press initiatives (see for example ActuSF http://www.editions-actusf.com/ or Griffe d’Encre, http://www.griffedencre.fr/). We even have an editor of “difficult but truly rewarding” SF books that is actually selling them quite well and trusting the prizes. Its name is “La Volte” (see http://www.lavolte.net/ ), with must-read authors like Stéphane Beauverger, Jacques Barbéri or Alain Damasio.
Finally “Retour sur l’horizon”, a very big anthology of French SF, under the direction of Serge Lehman, was released last October by Denoël. It attracted a lot of media attention and we are surfing the wave at the moment.
I’m starting to feel optimistic about SF in France, really. I wouldn’t have said that three years ago. And I read local authors that are really, really, unbelievably good.”
I tried to strike another match, successfully this time. The little trembling flame revealed a switch a couple of inches away from Jean-Claude’s anxious hands. He turned it on and a decadent candelabrum cast a dim light over the wide and carpeted corridor. We ignored the darkness behind and focused on the chambers on both sides of the corridor. At the other end, a dirty window allowed us to see the sky, constantly scratched by lightning.
“Even being one of the biggest prizewinners of the French Science Fiction you apparently don’t make your living from literature, but from your job as an aeronautics engineer. I have one question based on that: Is it possible for someone to make a living out of literature in France?”
Jean-Claude got closer to one of the doors and approached his ear, trying to listen to something, while gestured, asking for silence. Soon after, he got away from it, signaling there was nothing there.
“I don’t make a living from literature, indeed, for two main reasons: I don’t have so many ideas, so I don’t write much – 15 books in 25 years – and I really enjoy my job as an engineer – even if I was making a killing in the literary market, I would spend some time doing scientific research because I love that. If you add to that the fact that I am married, with two daughters – 25 and 23 years old – that require vast amount of money to support their craving for new clothes, computers and toys, expensive holidays and so on, you’ll understand that I’m not really encouraged at home to become a poor full-time writer!”
He leaned on another door and focused on the noises inside the chamber. He looked at me with a wicked smile and pointed to the knob, grabbing the knife.
“More seriously, it is difficult in France to make a living out of literature because it is a small market and we’re really numerous. One can make a living doing translations, writing for magazines, touring in schools – when you’re a Young Adult writer – but it requires a lot of work. Of course, some authors are writing best sellers with many international translations, Bernard Werber or Henri Loevenbruck, in our genre and some are making a living out of it like Pierre Bordage and Ayerdhal, but most of our authors have a day job that put bread on the table.”
He didn’t even try to open the door. The force he used when throwing his shoulder against the wood was enough to tear it open. The light from the corridor was enough for us to see the black cloaked ghost sitting on an armchair, a book in his hands being ferociously read. We stood still for a moment, while trying to identify the reading. Jean-Claude was taken by an amazing rage and threw himself against the figure, daringly branding the knife.
“It’s science fiction!, ” he shouted at the top of his lungs as he struck blows at random.
I saw the ghost evanesce suddenly, disappearing from the armchair and reappearing by a wide bed with a canopy. His eyes were blinking furiously and his clawed hands moved menacingly towards Jean-Claude. I abandoned my passivity and, in an instant, jumped towards him, holding him strongly. We both fell on the floor.
Wasn’t the ghost an ectoplasmic being, the fight would have lasted longer. Although the surprise kept him stuck to my embrace, he soon recovered control of his actions and disappeared, leaving me on the floor, wrapped in fog. A hysterical Jean-Claude held up a piece of the cloak he was able to cut in one of his blows.
“He is faltering! He reads science fiction without realizing it, the bastard. That’s the worst ghost of prejudice ever.”
“Many don’t think of it as…”
“Fools. Of course they are. They won’t admit. Admitting is not interesting to them.”
I threw myself down on the armchair the ghost was sitting on. The book was on the floor, next to it. I took it and browsed through its pages.
“Does the existence of a French-speaking province as Quebec facilitates the entry of French SF authors into the American market or does Quebec, in fact, exist outside of this market?”
Jean-Claude sat on the edge of the bed. He proudly watched the piece of fabric in his hands and used it to wipe the sweat off his forehead.
“There is no entry of French SF authors into the American market. Full stop. I’m the most translated and published SF author in the USA and it is only because I’m wealthy enough to pay for my translations. The US market is structurally closed. Editors don’t read foreign languages – a few can read Spanish, I’m told – and they require you to translate your own book in English before submission. And they don’t pay you enough to cover the price of the translation. We’ve been facing this situation for decades and I don’t see any improvement. I had two of my main novels partially translated in English, 150 pages and a summary, and I got answers from US editors saying: OK, it looks promising; now we would like to read the rest of it before sending you a contract. Except that the translation of the rest was too expensive for me to launch without a contract. Blocked situation. Quebec exists outside of this market. The only advantage of Quebec is that you find excellent translators there. My own translator, Sheryl Curtis, is really among the best!”
“Are we chasing the bastard in the other rooms?, “ I asked, starting to have fun with the hunt.
“Of course we are. We mustn’t, at any time, stop fighting such a scoundrel.
Then, we had to keep searching. We left that room and went to the next one. Jean-Claude seemed unwilling to listen through doors. He opened the next one with a vigorous kick, revealing a library with almost empty shelves.
The room after that was full of roaches, spiders and centipedes. They twisted over the floor like a compact and moving carpet. We retreated in disgust, but Jean-Claude moved forward once again.
“If there’s a trick these bastards do use it’s this one. They try to fool us with revolting scenes. But they forget this is something we master. We are craftsmen of sceneries like that.”
“Are you going in there?”
“If he wants us away, that’s because this is his lair.”
“I looked at the nauseating mass of insects and hesitated.”
“What if they are pestilent? What if they are poisonous?”
“Pestilence and poison are in prejudice. Come on, man. Courage!”
I gulped, feeling my hand shake. I admit that roaches worry me. I don’t care about centipedes. But spiders freak me out. Before he got in, I asked him the last question.
“According to your experience as an editor, in Bragelonne, and author, do you agree that European SF as a whole seems to be more conservative in the use of traditional SF tropes, for instance: a story needs to use recognizable SF elements to be considered as SF, than the American and English writers, who now and then try to subvert the fundamentals?”
Jean-Claude, who seemed determined to enter the room, stopped at the question. I saw his eyes spark.
“No, sorry, I don’t agree at all! There is an important literary movement in France, and probably in the rest of Europe, to explore transgenre, transgressive fiction as we call it – see the essay “Bibliothèque de l’Entre-Mondes” by Francis Berthelot, one of our finest literary authors, that is the equivalent of slipstream in the Anglo-Saxon market.
Editors can be conservative, and they usually are, but for us authors the idea of subverting the codes and toying with the artificial frontiers of genres is extremely attractive. In the collection “Retour sur l’horizon” that I already mentioned, one third of the texts were considered as “really edgy” by the reviewers. After all, many French writers are inspired by surrealism or “nouveau roman” that are part of our literary landscape. So I don’t really think that we French are more conservative than the American writers. Of course, the US market is very large and you can have both a strong core of militaristic space-operas and franchise novels, such as Star wars and the like, as well as books that are really edgy. But in France, every year or so, there is a couple of books in print that try to push the limits a bit further. After all, that’s what SF is about, I think.”
He then turned to the room with a determined look, knife held firmly. He entered, stepping on the compact mass of insects, making them crack and spill an intense and bad smelling goo. I regurgitated my last meal and, trying to ignore the nausea, entered after him.
The ghost squashed, trapped, in a corner of the room. Next to him, a pile of books which worked as foundation to his distorted beliefs. Jean-Claude speared one of them with the knife and tossed it into my hands. Slaughterhouse-5 by Kurt Vonnegut.
“Science Fiction!”shouted Jean-Claude, in a frenzy.
He speared another one, throwing it towards me. I almost missed it. It was The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon.
“Science Fiction!”Jean-Claude shouted once again, barely able to control himself.
The third one, speared and yanked from under the ghost’s arms, who was at that time moaning inconsolably, hurt by pain and hatred, was A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess.
“Science Fiction!” Jean-Claude exploded in an exultant cry of joy. “It’s all Science Fiction! Damn you! You read Science Fiction and don’t even realize it! You won’t admit it either to yourself or to others!
The ghost was getting smaller and smaller. I had really thought he would loom and attack us in a violent way. That he would want to smash us, shredding our bodies. But not at all! He was shrinking fearfully, uttering anguished moans of terror. The books next to him were turning their pages, as if blown by a tornado. Soon, the pages became loose and flew all over the room, inflaming right after that. We stood there, watching it in fascination, but soon we realized not only the pages and books were acting strange, but the whole house was! The floor and walls were breaking apart, cracking, letting pieces of plaster out. Everything was trembling as if shaken by an earthquake.
We looked at each other, aware of the danger we were facing. We tumbled out of the room. The carpeted corridor was rippling beneath our feet. We looked towards the stairway but the steps were getting loose and were hitting insanely as if they were being manipulated by a maniac pianist. Those were moments of panic until we realized that our only way out would be throwing ourselves out of the window at the other end of the corridor.
We didn’t think twice. The ceiling and the walls rippled as if a huge origami was under way. We ran and jumped, exploding the window in a million fragments. We landed on a muddy and smelly puddle of water. We rolled over the mud and then, feeling scared, crawled until we were far enough not to be engulfed by the enormous transformation the house was in.
We saw when it began to shrink, folding itself in cracks and small fire explosions. Getting smaller and smaller until it was swallowed by the earth and disappeared.
We were breathless, with our heartbeats quickened. Our eyes were fixed on the place where the haunted mansion had been a few moments ago. We got up cautiously and moved to the center of the recently formed clearing. Jean-Claude was still with the knife in his hands.
“We didn’t drink at all. There was no bar,” said Jean-Claude.
“It happens sometimes,” I replied.
“We weren’t in the mood for that anyway.”
“Did we beat the ghost of prejudice?” I asked with a weak voice, changing the subject.
“It’s a constant fight. This was just a battle.”
“With knives? Come on. We’re Science Fiction authors. Shouldn’t you have come with something more appropriate? Maybe a subatomic disintegrator?
Jean-Claude looked at me and then at the quantum watch.
“Made in Brazil, is it? If so, it explains the knife. Was it made in France, wonderful France, I would be holding a magnificent, a stupendous, a wonderful…”
I didn’t let him finish. Before that boastful speech got to intolerable levels and avoiding the thunderstorm that was starting, I pushed the button on the watch and got us out of there.
This interview had the collaboration of Luis Filipe Silva, Delfin and Marcello Branco.