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Catherine Cusset,  Novelist and Writer

Writing Creates Empathy

I don’t believe in feel-good literature, rather I believe in truth (which can be both unpleasant and uncomfortable). Only the will of the writer to be truthful makes literature interesting and not clichéd

Reading was my first passion. The first book I read by myself, at the age of six, was Noddy Goes to School. Noddy believed that he knew everything, then he went to school and made a fool of himself. I recognised in him my young conceited self and loved seeing myself reflected in a book as in a mirror.

My mother was delighted when I told her, at age 10, that I wanted to become a writer. She worked as a judge and was also very pragmatic. Being a writer was great, but did it earn a living? She said that I should first become a professor.

By the age of 23, I had all the academic degrees that you could dream of, but my dream would have been to write a novel. After spending six years studying continuously and learning Greek and Latin dictionaries by heart, I had no imagination left.

I was 24 when I met an American in the States and fell madly in love. Our affair was passionate and tumultuous, and it led to a break up that tore my heart apart. I returned to Paris crying my eyes out. This is when I started writing my first novel.

Writing was a relief from pain, but it was above all a joy. The joy of giving form to something formless, of giving words to my confused feelings, of taking control again through work. Writing was about trying to make sense and being as true as possible. Writing was the only real, deep connection I had to myself. Writing was a way to feel alive even when I was broken. (And, by the way, it allowed me to marry the American.)

True writing forges a bond between the writer and the reader, as if the writer – whether dead or not – were right next to us, as if we shared something intimate

My first novel, published when I was 27, proved to be a total failure, but I had discovered a pleasure that was like a drug and I could no longer go back. I became a university professor, but my only desire was to write.

My first commercial success came nine years later. It was then that I earned real money and was able to quit my job at Yale to devote myself to writing.

Although earning money is important, writing is not about that for me. It’s about being as true as possible. I wrote a novel about my mother (whom I love) called Family Hatred, in which I describe all the ambivalence of the mother-daughter relationship. I wrote a book about my relationship to money that I called Confessions of a Cheapskate, and everyone who reads it laughs, though I didn’t try to be funny – only honest at my own expense. I wrote a book about desire in which I described one-night stands and masturbation. I wrote a book about my mother-in-law, called A Brilliant Future, and writing this book allowed me to understand why she had tried to prevent me from marrying her son and, three years later, tried to get him to divorce me.

I realised that her crazy behaviour was the result of her history, of her growing up in Romania and emigrating twice in a row, to Israel and subsequently to America, of her sacrificing everything for her son’s future. I wrote a book about a friend of mine who loved and devoured life and who committed suicide at the age of 39: how could you love life and not be able to live? Writing that book allowed me to develop an understanding of mental illness. I don’t believe in feel-good literature, but rather in truth (which can be unpleasant and uncomfortable). Only the will of the writer to be truthful makes literature interesting and not clichéd. True writing forges a bond between the writer and the reader, as if the writer – whether dead or not – were right next to us, as if we shared something intimate. We may be alone, but we are connected to another human being’s thought, and this is the opposite of loneliness. True writing is my project in life. It creates empathy in both the writer and the reader.

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