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Muriel Barbery: ‘Writing illuminates my life’

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Muriel Barbery's novel The Elegance of the Hedgehog – first published in France in 2006 and translated into English in 2008 – was a worldwide bestseller. Barbery, who lives in the French countryside, is also the author of Gourmet Rhapsody and The Life of Elves, the latter of which was published in English by Europa Editions earlier this month.

Why did you write your new book?

For the same reason I wrote the others: because writing illuminates my life. It lets me – at least some mornings – break through the boundaries of the self, traverse time periods, stride over immense spaces, and forget who I am, so that I can eventually encounter the mysterious truth of who I am. The sense of the ego dissolving, the sense that one is a part of something bigger and better, is unparalleled. Love produces the same kind of high, but while writing, you're alone, facing yourself with no intermediary and no walls. Last but not least, believe it or not, to write a work of fiction involving elves and mysterious worlds of mist doubles the benefit and brings you even further away from yourself – but simultaneously, very close to the core matter. Poetry and meditation, as I've integrated them into the fiction-writing process, in addition to unbridled imagination, have surprisingly taught me more about myself than my previous books.

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What's the best advice you've ever received?

"Write, dear, write: Nobody has ever found a better way to be a writer." How true. How tough.

What question do you wish people would ask about your work (that they don't ask)?

What do you feel when you write? Most questions are about the content of books or the process of writing them, the way one has imagined them. But I don't think anybody has ever asked me this central question: What does a writer feel, concretely, while writing? Which sensations, emotions, infatuations, fears, revelations, epiphanies? Metamorphosis and rebirth? Fluctuations of the self? If there is one question I'd like to ask my colleagues, it would be that one.

What scares you as a writer?

Disappointing myself and being unable to achieve my goals. In one of his letters, Flaubert exclaims, "If only I could be the writer I have in mind!" Well, my own ambitions are much lower, but I am always afraid that I lack the courage to put my whole heart into things. I am afraid of not finding the strength to ignore difficulties and doubts. I fear failing to embrace my writer's destiny, whatever it may be, by choosing the easy path or not listening enough to my inner voice or just giving up out of cowardice.

If aliens landed on Earth, which book would you give them to teach them about humanity?

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Without a moment's hesitation: War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. The whole of human life is in this amazingly intelligent, profound, beautiful, demanding, intoxicating, poetic, philosophical masterpiece of a page-turner.

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