Episode 1 : Jennifer Murzeau, Writer and Journalist
|| The summary
Jennifer Murzeau is a writer with previous experience as a freelance journalist. Her work includes a narrative non-fiction as well as four novels. We talked about her latest book, Le cœur et le chaos (“The Heart and the Chaos”) published last March by Julliard. A mosaic novel that follows three characters in search of purpose and facing their sense of loneliness together, so as to find themselves. Throughout our discussion, we addressed issues such as ecology, responsibility, creative writing, and even an ode to idleness.
Walid Rachedi: How did you come to writing? What is your first memory of writing? What did “Jennifer Begins” look like?
Jennifer Murzeau: I didn’t start off at an early age like other writers, I wasn’t a graphomaniac, I took to writing rather late actually, when I was 25. However, I did write a poem in 1994, quite soberly entitled “La vie” [“Life”]. My late grandfather printed it very sweetly and I found it last month. The first line goes like, “Life, it comes, it goes”. So that is my first memory of writing; not the most glamorous, but it’s the truth.
W.R.: As a freelance journalist, you’ll agree that fiction, novels, non-fiction narratives, and press articles are very different exercises. What is the nature of your relationship with these three disciplines?
Each benefits from the others. I no longer work as a journalist, though, to be honest, except for occasional interviews with other authors. I’ve done a lot of research about our world today and it proves to be fertile ground for my work as a writer. I draw inspiration from the misdirections and intricacies of our time, especially those of our economic system, which tends to dictate even the most intimate parts of our lives, and creates alienation, frustration, pain, exploitation. I don’t think I could write about anything else until something changes. Which means that I still have a fair amount of writing years ahead of me… My job as a journalist helped me broaden my knowledge about fundamental issues, which is important for me as I have a very realistic approach to writing.
W.R.: Since you mention a realistic approach, how was writing La vie dans les bois different from writing Le coeur et le chaos? Did you tackle them differently because they did not belong to the same category of literature?
La vie dans les bois was the first work of non-fiction that I wrote, after three novels. I wanted to reflect on the disconnect between humans and nature, to follow the thread back to the origin of such a disconnect, which is nowadays reaching quite a peak and slowly killing us. Ecology, our relationship with nature, the collapse of a harmonious lifestyle between humans and their environment, are themes that I often explore in my books. But La vie dans les bois fulfilled my need to address the issue head-on, through an academic essay with numbers, studies, references to scholars — something that would be less fitting in a novel. I took a more personal approach because my publisher asked for it; I left to live in the woods for a week, to see what it would be like, to have nothing but the resources available on site.
It was also easier for me to write about that time in the woods because it was something I had experienced myself. To me, it is much more difficult to write fiction because you have to create a universe with each page. So it really was a different process.
Clarisse Gorokhoff: Would you say that part of the difficulty comes from your ambition, as a writer, to capture the neuroses of your peers and depict them both intimately and objectively, so that everyone can relate, as you did in Le coeur et le chaos?
My work is indeed guided by a strong ambition to portray our age as I see it and as it is, to a certain extent, because as you said, there is a kind of objectivity that comes with writing, even though it does pass through the author’s lense. For me, this ambition is crucial, and it can sometimes be quite difficult, because literature touches the heart. This is why I reckon that today, artists, especially writers, have a great responsibility to raise awareness and show that alternatives are possible, that it is urgent to take action and change our consumption and economic models. I believe literature can have a more powerful impact than political discourses or academic works in social studies, because it reaches the depths of the soul.
C.G.: Even though they share connections, your characters are very different from one another. To write such characters, what part was inspired by you as a person and a writer, and what part came from the journalist’s observations of our age? How do you proceed to combine the emotional, intimate dimension and the objective dimension about neuroses that do exist and reveal things about our time?
I think the three of them have some of my own characteristics, although I did not personally experience the things they go through in the book. They are somehow a projection of my own worries, neuroses, hopes and desires; but I don’t think my background as a journalist was a significant contribution in this particular novel. However, I do a lot of research and I always will, because I find it crucial to be able to decipher things; I don’t want to experience life as the passive witness of my own existence. I feel like the more you understand the forces that drive us, what is imposed upon us, or the inner workings of the world, the less you have to endure it submissively. More than a journalistic approach, it is therefore an attempt to get a better understanding of the world.
W.R.: About that, one thing I found very interesting in your writing was how you do not provide explanations for the collapse that you depict in the novel. The Paris in which your story is set is permeated by a scorching heat; we get a sense of a dawning chaos, but we don’t know where it’s coming from. Wasn’t it tempting to account for this?
It was indeed, but I wanted the book to remain tuned to the senses, a book that would be very much human and throb with bodily reactions. This is why I didn’t want to get into rational explanations, especially since I wrote everything in first person, which means that my characters would have had to be very aware of what was going on, were I to give explanations. I wanted them to be overwhelmed by all the things happening simultaneously — climate disasters, floods and fires, power outages, and oil shortages.
The latter was very important to me, because this is something that might objectively be just around the corner. The oil industry is becoming extremely vulnerable, and it irrigates everything around us, from this table or my backpack to agriculture and medications. I could have explained it; I did research about collapsology, I follow the work of Jean-Marc Jancovici, an energy and climate expert who works on the possibilities of a shortage that could be caused by hundreds of reasons.
But what I was interested in were the consequences. Because, in a world where we rely on oil for everything, where priority is given to economic growth and globalization, so much so that the resilience of our systems is close to zero, all it takes is one grain of sand to stall the whole machine and produce the absolute mess with which my characters are wrestling.
C.G.: Your characters do seem to be drained, an exhaustion that comes from life, from their time, other people, and even their desires. And yet it is obvious that you are very involved, eager to expose all those ongoing disasters. This exhaustion, isn’t it kind of the opposite of the individual and collective driving force required to make a change?
It is also a reflection of my own exhaustion. When you are aware of how the world is going and you see how sluggish governments are, in contrast with the dramatically acute emergency we are facing, it can really drive you crazy. Sometimes it is really difficult to go through this peacefully and without psychotropic drugs.
The exhaustion is real, but it is transcended: throughout the novel, the characters will help each other. The book is about the encounter, in the philosophical sense, how we step outside the Self to go towards the Other, to resonate with them and thereby with the world. It is thus a reflection about [what is at] the core of humanity, namely collective intelligence — which begins with the interpersonal relationship between two individuals. When I write, my aim is never to paralyze the reader or tell them “there’s no hope”.
I believe that a more desirable world is possible and that it is crucial to show it to people. To quote Deleuze, “one wants and makes revolution out of desire, not duty”; surely if you asked people to start a revolution ‘because we’re all gonna die,’ that won’t motivate anybody. When I think about my daughter and doubt whether I’ll be able to communicate the joy of living to her, I remind myself that I can at least teach her to appreciate all the simple things that surround us and to make a point of valuing them and not take them for granted.
C.G.: This need for contemplation, this desire to escape the world, is absolutely crucial for everybody; and yet your books display the necessity to get much more involved into the world. Is it a tendency today to feel torn between the desire to escape the world and the will to work harder to intertwine with its “flesh”, as Merleau Ponty called it, and reengage with this world?
I think one does not preclude the other, and that it’s important to have them both coexist. We need some time for contemplation — to be by yourself and think about your purpose in this life — as well as moments when we experience a sense of belonging to something bigger than us — which is difficult to do at the moment, considering how the pandemic has led to social isolation. A good life would be a balance between both tendencies.
W.R.: When did you give yourself the permission to write?
This was a major issue because I was struggling with a kind of self-depreciative questioning of my own legitimacy. I would wonder, “Who am I to do this? Who would want to listen to what I have to say?” I got over it by telling myself that it didn’t matter who I was to talk, what mattered was that I wanted to talk. I have things to say and I’m getting better at saying them. My first novel was a bit clumsy; I was obsessed with making sure the reader would understand me, using a great deal of adverbs in the process. Now, I no longer care about my legitimacy; I reckon I have the right to write and it’s a good thing that I do. For me, legitimacy is no longer a relevant factor. The point is that I enjoy the activity and the sense of achievement that I derive from it.
C.G.: This is a fine conclusion: the principles of pleasure and authenticity are already a good way to be aligned with what we find inspiring, and to share it more easily with other people.