Stephen Clarke, a British journalist and novelist, has lived in Paris for more than a decade and worked in a variety of trades including BBC comedy and creative lexicography. He has published many novels, one being the hugely successful A Year in the Merde, chronicling the adventures of Paul West, a gaffe prone Brit in Paris. The autobiographical tone of the work confused some folks who thought Stephen had indeed dealt with things like a naked landlady, but not enough to dampen the success which produced four more books in the Merde series alone. He currently lives in Paris where he is writing and actively seeking a rock band to play bass in.
Matt Mowatt: You wrote three novels before self-publishing A Year in the Merde. Do these novels carry the same tone and humor as your other books?
Stephen Clarke: They carry basically the same humor because it’s my humor. One of them was a prototype of A Year in the Merde, and that one was called Who Killed Beano? He [the character] was like Paul West except he was living in my hometown, and he was a bit more grungy, more into drugs and alcohol. The other book I called at the time Beam Me Up – it just came out actually, under the title, A Brief History of the Future. It’s a third person narrator, more of a toned-down, ironic, comedy sci-fi. It’s not like spacemen or anything; it’s in the here and now. It’s about a bloke from my hometown in Bournemouth who goes to New York and finds someone’s invented a very simple teleportation machine, but only for objects; he brings it back to Bournemouth and causes complete criminal anarchy like teleporting drugs directly into people’s nostrils.
Matt Mowatt: Is this your first attempt at sci-fi?
SC: Well, I suppose it’s my only attempt. I mean it wasn’t really even sci-fi. It’s just what would happen if someone really did create this thing. And, working as a journalist, I realized that half of the science stories I was working on were about some scientist somewhere who tried to invent teleportation or some other technology related to Star Trek, and I was thinking, “Why are they trying to make all of this Star Trek stuff come true?” So, in the novel [A Brief History of the Future] someone has made this Star Trek machine real and the chaos it would cause if teleportation were really possible (which it almost certainly isn’t because, apparently, in quantum mechanics you can’t make these things happen).
Matt Mowatt: There wouldn’t be parking lots anymore.
SC: No, but I think breaking down your car into its molecules and reassembling it wouldn’t be very good for the engine.
Matt Mowatt: A Year in the Merde has certainly put you on the map as a popular writer, but do you feel that your two other self-published books have been eclipsed by it’s success?
SC: Yeah, I only chose to try to publicize A Year in the Merde because I was living in Paris and it was about France. So I eclipsed them deliberately and I was just lucky that it worked. I got a publishing deal and I just went for that.
Matt Mowatt: Merde Happens is your third completed “Merde.” Did you travel to the States for research?
SC: Oh yeah, in Merde Happens the hero, Paul West, drives across America in a Mini [Cooper] with his French girlfriend. So you get the English perspective of America, the French perspective (which is very different, sort of schizophrenic love/hate relationship). So, yeah, I went back about six or seven times…I would drive the leg of the journey, mostly in a Mini. So I did one trip from New York right down the east coast along New Jersey…I was writing travelogues so I would go there, come back to write a travelogue for a newspaper, write a bit of the novel, and then go back to America. So I went across Florida and New Orleans, along the Gulf of Mexico, up to Las Vegas and over to the [West] Coast.
Matt Mowatt: You mention the French having a schizophrenic view of Americans, I definitely agree (being married to a French woman). What can you tell me of the views that the British have of Americans?
SC: Well, I say in one of my books, 1000 Years of Annoying the French, that we Brits, unlike the French, don’t mind that we lost America. The French, you know, deep down think that they should still own America, but they sold it – a huge chunk of it (for not very much money). We Brits, you know, we don’t mind…
Matt Mowatt: You’re not sore losers…
SC: Well, we don’t think we necessarily lost because we think that you’re sort of our cousins – we both speak the language, but you can’t spell it correctly. We don’t mind losing because we really have no desire whatsoever of governing Texas.
Matt Mowatt: -Laughs- Yeah, well, I don’t think half of America desires to govern Texas either.
SC: Yeah, we really don’t mind losing, but we’re kind of the old part of the family you left behind to explore the world. Brits love to embrace wholeheartedly all of American culture, which sort of annoys me slightly because we do it linguistically as well. So one of my favorite words, “bloke,” is dying out.
Matt Mowatt: They don’t say “bloke” anymore in Great Britain?
SC: Hardly, no. They say “guy,” like, “hey guys.” And “bloke” isn’t the same as “guy.”
Matt Mowatt: In your new book, Paris Revealed, you’re invited by the French government to be one of the judges in the Grand Prix de la Baguette de Paris – pretty much the equivalent of singing the National Anthem at the World Series.
SC: Yeah, like being part in the jury at the Cannes Film Festival. It’s a huge honor.
Matt Mowatt: Were you shocked as an English person [being invited to a very French event]?
SC: I was shocked, but I was more shocked by what went on during the competition. I was surprised to be invited because, as you say…it’s more like being knighted or going to the White House. The competition was so French. For example, there was supposed to have been a set number of jurors, and then a baker turned up. They told him that he wasn’t in the jury, but he said, “I thought I was going to be in the jury…If I’d known that I wasn’t going to be in the jury, then I would have entered the competition.” So they said, “Well, okay, you can be on the jury.”
Matt Mowatt: -Laughs- I should have walked in and said this.
SC: And then there were hundreds of baguettes piled up on the table with a kind of ring of paper on them with a number. There were no gloves, no plastic bags…
Matt Mowatt: And you visiting America, you’ve noticed that everything is wrapped in plastic.
SC: Well, it’s the same in the U.K. Everything’s really hygienic…So all of these baguettes were all piled up; one or two of them fell on the floor. When they were brought to the judging tables, they were stuffed into the armpit of one of the assistants and dropped on the table…I was sitting in the middle of the table, so by the time I tasted the baguette it could have been prod about, sniffed, and nibbled by a few other people.
Matt Mowatt: Was the baguette good nonetheless?
SC: They were good. The only thing is, of course, once you’ve tasted a hundred and fifty of them, you could hardly tell the difference.
Matt Mowatt: So were you craving some chevre chaud after a while?
SC: I was sort of dehydrated…I was sitting between two bakers and they were looking over at me saying, “How could you give that one four marks? It’s too crusty.” I said, “Well, yeah, but I like the crust.” So they were trying to influence my marks…So it’s a huge honor for the winner because not only do they get massive amounts of publicity, they also get to deliver baguettes every day for a year to the Presidential Palace. And I was sitting next to last year’s winner, and I asked him, “So have you been taking baguettes to the Presidential Palace every day?” He said yeah, and I asked him if he has seen Carla Bruni, and he said no. So I said, “So she never comes down there in her dressing gown to get the baguette?” He said no.
Matt Mowatt: -Laughs-
SC: But anyway, they [the Presidential Palace] wanted their baguettes at eight o’clock in the morning. So I [the baker] told them, “There’s no way to get there at eight in the morning. I’m much to busy in the shop. I’ll be there at ten.” So he delivered his baguettes at ten…fuck the President, you know.
Matt Mowatt: -Laughs- That’s very French…After seven books about pointing out the idiosyncrasies between the French and English culture, are you running out of ideas or is finding quirks in French culture sort of a renewable resource?
SC: I’m lucky because I’ve never run out of ideas. I’ve been living here for a long time, and I am a Parisian. I see what Parisians are up to and they are changing a lot. The thing we all love about Paris is that it never changes. Fundamentally it never changes. It hasn’t really changed since Napoleon. The buildings might have changed, you know, and there are cars now, but people’s attitudes have hardly changed. They do evolve very slowly. It’s geological, but…they’ve sort of evolved kicking and screaming. For example, I’m writing another Paul West “Merde” novel. It really is sort of a post-credit crunch novel, because the credit crunch has sort of undermined a lot of things about Paris. They’re finally seeing a horrific dawn where jobs for life won’t be possible anymore. And the average French person, when they start a job at twenty-something, starts to think, “I wonder what age I’m going to retire?” That’s their basic attitude towards work. Nowadays they’re suddenly thinking, “Shit, the retirement age is going up, I might not have a pension.” This has given them existential twinges, so they’re more on-edge; they’re getting more aggressive. People are more willing to tell you that they hate their job, they hate their boss or their customers. You might not notice it if you visit Paris, but you’ll notice it if you live here.
Matt Mowatt: And this change happening is the theme for your new novel?
SC: It’s the background to the new novel.
Matt Mowatt: Do you find the sense of humor gap between French and British to be a rather large one?
SC: Yeah, very large. One reason is…you know most French people often don’t realize that we’re joking. So what you have to do in France is when you say something funny you laugh to make them realize it’s funny. That’s one huge difference, one that I used to my favor when I worked in a big company. We’d go to meetings, sort of brainstorming meetings and I’d joke and make a really stupid suggestion…either they think you’re joking and say, “Oh, it’s not bad, he deliberately said a stupid thing,” or they think, “Wow, that is complete genius. We’ve never thought of that.” So it’s a win/win situation. And also the thing is, Brits anyway, within limits, we don’t take anything seriously. For example, in the U.K. a politician, unless it’s a crisis, will make jokes, especially on social occasions. Whereas in France the politicians take themselves so seriously that there will be no joking. So, we don’t take ourselves too seriously, which means we can joke at any time. But the French can be very satirical, really cutting with their humor. There are magazines here that say outrageous stuff with no reverence at all, which I really like.
Matt Mowatt: It seems like French jokes are aimed at somebody, and maybe the American and British are sort of self-loathing jokers.
SC: I wouldn’t say loathing. Maybe self-deprecating, but, at least in Britain, we have a huge culture of stand-up comedy.
Matt Mowatt: The last…well…the last funny British person…
Matt Mowatt: …I saw was that guy from the Office.
SC: Ricky Gervais.
Matt Mowatt: Yeah.
SC: I love him. I love it when he does those awards ceremonies.
Matt Mowatt: He’s so scathing…So, my next question is what publishing advice would you give, say, an American copywriter and music reviewer living with his French wife in the 19th [quarter], for example?
SC: -Laughs- It depends what you want to do.
Matt Mowatt: Fiction. I just finished a novella.
SC: In that case I would do what I did which is to get the novel as good as it can possibly get, right down to the last full-stop. And then send it off to some literary agents. And if they don’t want it, self-publish.
Matt Mowatt: Last two questions. Don’t you find Dickens a bore, especially now that he’s dead and what are you currently reading?
SC: I have nothing against dead authors. One of my favorite authors is dead, you know. It’s not their fault they’re dead. Dickens comes from a time when the world was much slower and people had time to read his descriptions. Some of Dickens I really love, some of his atmospheres in London are still true today. If you go and stand on the banks of the River Thames now…when the tide goes out, the beach is exposed to sort of bricks and tires and body parts…it’s really Dickensian. You know, when the tide comes back in, the Thames…the river flows backwards, it flows uphill. It’s amazing. Dickens captures all of that really well. But his descriptions are way too long.
Matt Mowatt: When I read Dickens, that’s the major issue I have: a ten or twenty-page description of a chair.
SC: Yeah, but he was like Emile Zola. He was trying to document the times. Also, he was paid by the word. He had written them in articles and had them published week by week.
Matt Mowatt: So what are you reading currently?
SC: A mixture. I just read an Evelyn Waugh novel, Scoop, which is very light and funny. There are some people like Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, George Orwell…they’re such crafted, brilliant writers with a wonderfully simple style that doesn’t smack you around the face. So, you always know you’re going to get something good.
Matt Mowatt: I’d like to thank you again for coming, Stephen.
SC: Thank you.