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11 May 2022

Leïla Slimani’s Q&A: “I smoke too much and I can’t stand it any more”

The author discusses her childhood fascination with Madonna, the courage of Louise Michel and her love of writing alone.

By New Statesman

Leïla Slimani was born in Morocco in 1981. She is the author of novels including Adèle and Lullaby, and is Emmanuel Macron’s personal representative for promotion of the French language and culture.

What’s your earliest memory?

Making my little sister laugh so hard that she fell out of bed. She had an asthma attack and I was scolded by my mother.

Who are your heroes?

As a child of the Nineties I was fascinated by Madonna. She flaunted her sex life and sang “Papa, don’t preach”. For a young Moroccan girl like me it was incredible. Today it is Denis Mukwege, the Congolese doctor who treats women who have suffered sexual violence.

What book last changed your thinking?

I’m always reluctant to tell the dreams of my characters in my novels. But then I read My Michael by Amos Oz and I changed my mind. He takes us into the narrator’s dreams as if deep into a forest; it’s sensual, frightening, terribly disturbing.

[See also: Stella Rimington Q&A: “In another life I’d be home secretary”]

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Which political figure do you look up to?

Louise Michel, the greatest figure of the Paris Commune. A woman of intelligence, courage and generosity. I admire her feminism, her commitment to the poorest.

What would be your “Mastermind” specialist subject?

French serial killers. And, in general, all the big cases of the past 30 years. Kidnapping, murder, family score-settling: I am unbeatable.

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

Ancient Greece. I imagine myself on an island, perhaps Syracuse or Sifnos. I would attend plays under the pines of Epidaurus and worship Zeus and Athena.

What TV show could you not live without?

Top Chef. I love to cook and so does my son.

[See also: Douglas Stuart Q&A: “I would gladly take off all my clothes for Jenny Saville”]

Who would paint your portrait?

My son, in fact. He’s 11 years old. His paintings have something of Basquiat about them. They are melancholic, very moving. He would paint me without complacency; he would not try to make me beautiful or presentable. He would paint my soul and I would be curious to see that.

What’s your theme tune?

When I’m in a good mood it’s “Street Life” by the Crusaders. I listen to it in the morning. When I’m more melancholic, it’s the music of Philippe Sarde, who wrote the soundtracks for Claude Sautet’s films.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

My father used to say: “Every day is the first day of your life. What you didn’t achieve yesterday, you can achieve it tomorrow. Let’s get to work!”

What’s currently bugging you?

I smoke too much and I can’t stand it any more. Every day I resolve to stop and every day I start again, despite the patches, the hypnotisers, the gums.

When were you happiest?

Once a year I go away alone to write for a fortnight. I don’t talk to anyone, I don’t leave my office, I don’t shower, I don’t get dressed. Nothing makes me happier than these moments of solitary writing, where I live only for my characters.

In another life, what job might you have chosen?

The owner of a bar: living at night among people who drink and dance; watching them fall in love; listening to their confidences when they are a little drunk.

Are we all doomed?

Absolutely! But as Camus wrote, we must imagine Sisyphus happy. So let’s all go to Greece and drink ouzo while waiting to die.

“The Country of Others” by Leïla Slimani is published by Faber & Faber

[See also: Lynda La Plante Q&A: “My Mastermind specialist subject? Serial killers”]

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This article appears in the 11 May 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Stalling Starmer