Author of Vango, Toby Alone, and most recently The Book of Pearl, Timothée de Fombelle is a storyteller of charm, style, mystery and invention, whose tales are at once expansive and detailed, and in which character and adventure are given equal attention. On a recent visit to the UK on publication of The Book of Pearl, he talked to Joy Court about writing, and being translated.
‘Writers are translators’
Discussing The Book of Pearl, with translators Sarah Ardizzone and Sam Gordon at a London event, Timothée commented that ‘writing is a foreign language for ideas’, that writing is not natural: it is a system of symbols on paper that has to be used to translate what is inside the author’s imagination. The writer has to find the perfect word for that concept, idea, image or character just as his translators, ‘who are writers too’, have to find the perfect English word to capture his meaning without losing the beauty and imagery of the original French.
Sarah has a long established relationship with Timothée from his very first novel Toby Alone which went on to win her a second Marsh Award for translation, and which has now been translated into 27 languages as well as winning the prestigious Prix Sorcière in his native France. Then came the sequel Toby Alone and the Secrets of the Tree, followed by the brilliant Vango series. Pressure of work meant she was unable to translate the short story, Captain Rosalie, which Timothée contributed to the acclaimed collection The Great War: an Anthology of Stories Inspired by Objects from the First World War. This is where Sam Gordon stepped into the picture and Sarah’s informal mentoring of Sam through this process proved so enjoyable that they decided to try something completely new working on The Book of Pearl together. She describes translating as ‘playing a piano with four hands’ and wanted to see what it would be like with six hands!
Sam believes that a translator is inevitably the closest reader of any text and thoroughly enjoyed having another person working at that same level. They discovered that he was particularly good at conveying the other world in this book, but by the time that they had passed things back and forth and edited each other it came to the point where they could not tell whose words were whose. Just one of the many discussions they tussled with is the fascinating difference in the name of a key character. We know her as Cat but in French she is Taupe – a mole. In French this is wordplay about a character who is hidden, but for English readers she would be blind and in the dark. Timothée is quite jealous of their ability to discuss ideas and possibilities with each other when he has to do it all alone!
The story of Joshua Pearl has apparently been living inside him for a very long time and the book is in itself an ode to the magic of story. Timothée tells us that he met the person that generated the character of Pearl at age 14. Pearl is a collector and for 20 years Timothée has been making lists of the objects or relicts that this character collects: objects that fall out of fairytales and land in our world. The unnamed narrator of the story, a keen photographer, meets Pearl as a mysterious old man in a forest hideaway. He discovers and secretly photographs the collections and many years later these photographs help him to discover and tell the story of Iliån, or Joshua Pearl as he becomes upon exile to our world, and Oliå, similarly banished but whom, if ever glimpsed by Iliån, would disappear forever. This is the very story we are reading, which, if believed, will enable them to return to their world and to be reunited as lovers.
I put it to Timothée that he does seem to like to write seemingly completely doomed love stories with first Toby and Elisha, Vango and Ethel and now Iliån and Oliå. He said it is those very challenges which keep you engaged as both a reader and a writer. It is his job to make the characters lives more difficult, not just by the choices which will affect their whole lives but by the historical periods they are living through. (Both Vango and Pearl inhabit pre-war and wartime Paris). He maintains also that quest and mystery are always the two major dynamics to his writing because this is the way to keep the reader in the book with you: ‘13/14 year olds these days have so many other distractions’.
As a successful playwright he began to write novels when he had a story that could not be told on stage and there he discovered his ‘freedom’. So much so that he no longer wishes to write plays. He writes for children because he wants to write for any reader of any age. But ultimately he says you must write ‘the truth inside yourself’ and be honest with your reader. Timothée describes The Book of Pearl as above all the autobiography of his imagination, but he wanted it to read as an adventure. It is a ‘mille feuille of a story’ with its layers of the fairytale world, the present day and the gripping story of wartime France. To me this is the perfect description of a multi-layered, complex, engaging, thrilling read which is a truly satisfying gourmet treat for the reader!
Formerly Learning Resources Manager at Coventry Schools Library Service, Joy Court is a consultant on reading and libraries, Chair of the CILIP Carnegie & Kate Greenway Medals, and reviews editor of the School Librarian.
Books, all published by Walker:
The Book of Pearl,978 -1-4063-64620, £9.99
Toby Alone, 978-1-4063-07269, £7.99
Toby Alone and the Secret of the Tree, 978-1-4063-2543-4, £7.99
Vango Book One: Between Sky and Earth, 978-1-4063-3092-2,£7.99
Vango Book Two : A Prince Without a Kingdom, Walker,978-1-4063-6002-8, £7.99
The Great War: Stories Inspired by Objects From the First World War, 978-1-4063-5377-8, £12.99