Agnès Desarthe is a prize-winning and bestselling author of fiction for children and adults and her work is translated into all the major European languages. Chez Moi is her third work translated into English.
At forty-three, Myriam has been a wife, mother, and lover—but never a restaurateur. When she opens Chez Moi in a quiet neighborhood in Paris, she has no idea how to run a business, but armed only with her love of cooking, she is determined to try. Barely able to pay the rent, Myriam secretly sleeps in the dining room and bathes in the kitchen sink, while struggling to come to terms with the painful memories of her past. But soon enough her delectable cuisine brings her many neighbors to Chez Moi, and Myriam finds that she may get a second chance at life and love. Chez Moi redolent with the sights, smells, and tastes of Paris.
TG: What was the inspiration for CHEZ MOI?
AD: One day, I realized that I spent more time in my kitchen than at my writing table. I was putting all my creative energy in more and more elaborate dishes. I took it as a sign, and decided to use my culinary skills in my new novel
I love cooking, of course, and marketing is an essential part of cooking. There’s a kind of reverie attached to the very activity of choosing your fruits and vegetables. The state it puts me in is close to the one that I experience when looking for the right word, the right balance for a sentence.
TG: How did you conduct research?
AD: I did not wish to conduct any research because I wanted to be as naive and helpless as my character. I needed to see the problems crop up alongside with her, without knowing the solution better than she did. Yet I must add that I once cooked for as many as sixty people a day, lunch and dinner.
TG: What was the most significant thing that you learned from writing this book?
AD: I discovered that not being able to love one’s baby was more taboo than having sex with a teenager… but that was when the book was published, and I must say that it came as a huge surprise to me.
Apart from this “reception issue”, I don’t think I ever learned a thing from writing. The less I know, the better it is. The idea is to doubt, to lose, not to acquire anything. With each new book, I start from scratch.
TG: How did being a Sephardic Jew in a country with a long history of overt and covert anti-semitism and a massive Arab minority inform your writing?
AD: Actually I’m half Sephardic and half Ashkenazi. I grew up in a country where the guilt feeling linked to the Shoah (Holocaust) helped its people from being too overtly anti-semitic. It all changed when I turned twenty something: this guilt feeling was replaced by a new one, linked to de-colonization and the atrocities perpetrated in Algeria by the French army. Suddenly you felt free to say out loud things like “dirty Jew”, you just had to pretend that you had no problem with the Arabs. It’s all a question of suppressed feelings.
My grandmother spoke Arabic, as did my father. I always felt we were Arabs of some sort.
The fact of belonging to a minority must have informed my writing, but I cannot say in what way (or it might take a week).
TG: Did your English skills hinder or assist the translation process?
AD: You’d have to ask my translator! Actually I fully trust her and I think she’s done a wonderful job. I made just a few alterations and I hope they rather helped than hindered.
TG: How has living in Paris affected your work?
AD: I don’t really know if living somewhere affects one’s writing. As a writer I don’t live in Paris, I live in books.
But for this novel in particular, I might have been influenced, when imagining Myriam’s restaurant, by the new places that have opened up recently in my area (3rd and 11th arrondissement).
TG: How has Paris affected your life?
AD: I spend a lot of my time in the country, where I go for long, long walks. It helps me concentrate on my work. As I don’t like to walk in Paris (to much noise, rotten air, no soft earth under one’s foot), I stay home a lot and cook, because I like to keep my body (or just my hands) busy while I work on my plots.
I never think of myself as a Parisian. I’ve never felt as close to home as in Moscow. More generally, I never felt I belonged anywhere.