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Amélie Nothomb,

profoundly original

A singular being fired by intrepid inspiration, Amélie Nothomb has been sharing with us for almost 30 years her thrilling and immediately recognizable novels that entirely resemble her – and yet chime with our innermost selves.

According to certain dictionary definitions, originality is associated with singularity and eccentricity. So are you original?

Before being successful, I tended to be seen as on the fringes of society. Everything within me that did not fall within standard norms sparked rejection that plunged me into a state of deep unease. And suddenly came the happy accident of fame that earned me more favorable perceptions. I then came to be regarded as original and eccentric, which greatly pleased me. 

Can one become original?

No, originality is not about posturing. When someone wants to “act original”, you can sense that and it’s very irritating. True originality must be authentic. As far as other people’s view of it is concerned, things are more complicated. Originality is not always well accepted. I began to be positively perceived as soon as I was published, because this very distinctiveness that was previously considered regrettable suddenly became desirable.

Was your singularity painful during your childhood and adolescence, which tend to be very conformist periods of life?

Especially during adolescence. The great strength I had during childhood entirely vanished during my teenage years and that time of my life seemed to last forever, making me a tormented soul. I recall words of absolute rejection, enduring loneliness and a deep-felt sense of being plague-stricken. And then at the age of 17, I began writing in absolute secrecy, because I was ashamed of what I was doing. By the time I was 23 and I decided to own up and send a manuscript to a publisher, I’d already written ten. Hygiene and the Assassin was the 11th – and the first I showed to anyone other than my sister. 

Your originality now elicits a great deal of love from your readers…

Yes, and that touches me profoundly. I think a lot of people who feel strange, incapable of complying with conventions and in a state of suffering, can see themselves in me. Originality is probably a lot more common that one might think!

Beauty is also singular and can stir violence in that it appears to be unfair. It is a recurrent theme in your work…

The beauties I have encountered aroused terrifying and violent behavior, as if they would need to justify themselves and be punished.

Ugliness also generates strong feelings, for opposite reasons?

It is also a deviation from existing norms – not necessarily deliberate and extremely tough to live with – that stirs entirely unreasonable feelings, albeit perhaps not quite as hard as those sparked by beauty in that they are mingled with condescendence. I get the impression that extreme beauty arouses more merciless, unforgivable violence. You can’t imagine how many letters I receive from men and women, young and old, who write to me, tell me about themselves and ask for advice, sometimes about very mundane choices they have to make! They need me to reassure them. I understand them and respond to all of them. I have this quirky habit of maintaining an abundant correspondence with my readers.

One gets the impression that you can be asked the most original kinds of questions and that you will answer them as if it were the most natural thing in the world.

Yes, indeed, and I can assure you that my readers’ questions are sometimes extremely surprising!

So how do you feel about yourself at the moment?

Highly exhilarated and in great danger. I would not exchange my life with that of anyone else. I am convinced of having one of the most enviable and fortunate fates in the world, and yet the price of that is constant anxiety and dreadful sleep patterns, interspersed with agitated thoughts. There are so many people just waiting for me to trip up! Fortunately, I’m a warrior and that stimulates me! 

Do you sometimes manage to achieve serenity?

I seek it earnestly. It is an absolute ideal for me. And when I experience it, even for five minutes, those moments are magic. But it doesn’t come spontaneously, I do what I can to achieve it by waking up every morning at 4 am to write, to pursue to the utmost my passions, my urges, my inner violence, my energy and my endeavors. And it’s only when I’ve wrung out this excess of whatever it is that flows from me that I sometimes, but not always, manage to sense this tranquility...

What’s the secret behind such forceful inspiration ?

Never stopping. You mustn’t wait for inspiration, you have to provoke it and never let 24 hours go by without devoting at least four hours to it. I’ve tried all kinds of timetables and a number of substances. As it turns out, I’m lucky in that my substance is perfectly legal: strong tea on an empty stomach, in large quantities and with no milk or sugar, procures a state of dry and controllable inebriety, as well as the energy I need to write.

What physical medium do you use to write?

I don’t have a computer. I write with a very basic blue ballpoint pen on squared notebooks, preferably recycled. There’s nothing like poor-quality material. Among the dangers that threaten a writer, one of the worst is pretentiousness. Thinking that you have made it heralds an imminent downfall. Discomfort is a great virtue that preserves us from danger.

Some writers prefer taking a break between two books to recharge their batteries, to seek creative “nourishment…

That’s a huge mistake and it’s far better to opt for in-flight refueling! Inspiration is a muscle. When you work it, you can expect it to yield its best results, to the point of suffering when it is deprived of the opportunity to express itself.

Are you sometimes anxious about the idea that inspiration might one day peter out?

Every morning, my first thought before writing is “I’m not going to be able to manage it”. And as soon as I start, the anxiety vanishes and I enter into a jubilant mood.

Why do you only publish some of your novels?

I’m currently writing my 88th manuscript and preparing to publish my 26th novel. What is abnormal is to publish and to suddenly think that everything one writes is worthy of being shared.

Is there a place on earth where you have felt perfectly happy?

I have never felt so good as on December 15th 1989, standing facing Mount Fuji. I’d set off to climb Mount Kumotori-yama in the Japanese Alps and had gotten lost. I knew I had to locate Mount Fuji in order to find my way. From 5 am to noon I was still unable to get my bearings. I was climbing successive slopes amid the snow, hoping to see this landmark. At exactly noon, it appeared before me, huge, incredibly beautiful, against the backdrop of a perfectly blue sky. And on top of that it also showed me the path I must take!

Your originality also involves a very personal look…

Getting dressed in the morning used to be torture. Today I dress as Amélie Nothomb, which simplifies matters. Some people regard my outfits as intolerable, but that’s not a problem for me. 

You never wear trousers?

Until the age of 20, I wore only jeans or Laotian prisoners’ trousers. I switched to dresses and skirts when I realized that they actually changed my face! I would indeed recommend skirts for everyone, men and women. They are so comfortable and liberating that it’s intolerable men should not be entitled to wear them. Moreover, the theory that it’s impossible to do sport in a skirt is entirely wrong. I’ve done mountaineering and skyjumping in a skirt.

Do you have a wild dream?

To be transformed into an arctic tern! I would love to be this superb little white bird with a black hat, which twice yearly migrates from the North Pole to the South Pole and back. I am fascinated by birds, including by the buzzards that I observe in summer in the Belgian Ardennes mountains, flying very high in the sky until they locate a prey and swoop down on it. But clearly my ambitions exceed my possibilities, since those close to me say I’m more like an owl – which is also a charming comparison. 

Which original objects do you particular cherish?

I’m so attached to my lipstick that I can never throw a tube away. I also collect broken umbrellas that each have their own story and their own name. The masterpiece of my collection is called “Hiroshima, My Love”, which features a beautiful shade of red but is totally trashed. I’m touched by the brilliant invention of this small portable roof protecting us from the sun and rain, which has been separately imagined in several countries around the world without any particular connection.

Do you tend to prefer sweet or savory food?

Definitely sweet things. And as a true self-respecting Belgian, I love chocolate – not as a dessert but as a main dish!

I’ve also heard that you love eggs…

They do indeed fascinate me, especially those of geese and ducks. This foodstuff is miraculous, as sublime as it is delicious. I love both the yolk and the white in equal measure… and then of course it is laid by birds who have got it all going for them: they fly, which is my recurrent dream; and they also reproduce by creating eggs.

What motivated you to take a stand against the corrida?

I’m aware that it’s a sensitive issue. I have great respect for Spanish culture and I understand it. This is of course a noble, stunning art and obviously the bullfighter also risks his life, but he consents to that risk, whereas the bull has not been asked for his opinion. There is no equality between the two of them and that bothers me.

Are you sporty?

Here too, things are paradoxical. I know nobody who is more physical than me. I literally acknowledge no limits and I have an abundance of energy. I can climb mountains, descend them, do parachute jumps… yet I hate sport. And when I hear my friends talking about the pleasure they derive from physical activity, it worries me. We clearly don’t have the same notion of pleasure. For me, the latter must be the real goal, but definitely not underpinned by the idea of becoming trimmer and more muscular. That’s why I simply don’t get the point of people doing vast amounts of sport…

By Michèle Wouters

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