Sunday, 19 December 2010

No And Me and Not Vampires

Somebody was lamenting the other day about how YA fiction for girls (in particular) was so utterly dominated these days by snogging Vampires. I suggested a title I'd read for review and it turned out they'd never heard of it.
No and Me, by Delphine De Vigan, actually enjoyed quite a bit of media coverage when it came out. But books are not films: if you blink you miss it. I know one really quite voracious reader who said recently that he'd not even heard of Jonathan Franzen, despite all the hoopla over Freedom. (I'm going to blog about that book very soon).
I actually got the chance to speak to De Vigan about her book, which I thought was charming and well done: a nicely balanced story that kept me wondering, and left me with a sense of genuine satisfaction. Definitely worth taking a break from the Vampires for.

It was while she was commuting in and out of Paris to a job in the suburbs that Delphine De Vigan realised the subject of her next book, No and Me, was staring at her in the face.

“I was like a lot of people, sometimes I saw them, sometimes I didn’t,” she recalls. “That’s what struck me: how we get used to it, that it becomes normal. We have to fight against that.”

What 44-year-old De Vigan had seen was the French capital’s growing army of new homeless.

“I was impressed by the fact so many young people were now homeless - and so many young women,” she says.

“I did some research on the Internet and that confirmed my feeling: there are more and more young people in France who are homeless and more and more young women. In the 16-18 age group up to 70% are now women.”

De Vigan, who herself befriended two, older, homeless women while researching the novel, adds: “Ten years ago perhaps, people who lived in the street might have chosen that way of life, it was a choice associated with a mental disorder. Now, a lot of people living in the street don’t have a choice: there is no other solution for them.

“In France we know that forty percent of people who live in the street work, they have jobs – most of them are women. They live at a friend’s place or in their car, sometimes in a social institution. But they don’t have a home anymore. I knew this was something I wanted to write about.”

De Vigan had risen to prominence in France with an autobiographical account of her own struggle with anorexia. Something of a departure for her, this new novel would be a socially aware story, and it would present the homelessness issue through the eyes of a 13-year-old girl, Lou Bertignan.

“She is a bit like me,” Delphine admits during out conversation on the phone from her Paris home. “The book did take on a life of its own. I always intended No, the homeless girl, to be the main character. But by the end I think Lou is the main one.”

For a school project, Lou – a precocious, highly intelligent student – decides to interview a homeless person. She picks No, an 18 year old who has been on the street for only a couple of years. As the two girls become unlikely friends, No’s back story is revealed: her abusive parents, her drinking, and her fantasies.

But Lou has problems of her own: her mother is suffering depression following the death of her baby sister; her father is struggling to cope. When Lou suggests No live with them, her parents surprisingly agree and the presence of a stranger in their midst becomes a catalyst for a healing process. However, No’s issues are more problematic than at first they seem.

“I think Lou is not very far from the little girl I used to be,” says De Vigan. “I didn’t intend that. I didn’t even realise I was doing it at first. My own mother used to be depressed, she was bipolar. At one period of my life she ‘came back’ – as I describe it in the book – but not for the same reasons of course.

“When I was 13, my mother became ill and went to the hospital for the first time. My sister and I had to quit our life. We used to live in Paris but we then had to move to the countryside with my father: one day in Paris, the following day in the countryside. We left with jeans and a T-shirt and my father said: now you live here. We didn’t see my mother any more for several months. I think that is why I could remember very well this age, how I felt, how shy I was. Always the feeling I was not in the right place.”

No and Me, a relatively brief 240 pages, won the Booksellers’ Prize in France and proved popular with both adults and a teen audience. Bloomsbury, who is publishing it here, is pitching it to both the young adult and adult markets. But De Vigan says: “For me it is not especially a book for teenagers, even though the main characters are teenage. I thought a teenage narrator would be a good way to question adult people about their dreams: as a teenager you want to dream you want the world to change. As adults, we must ask ourselves if we have done that.”

No and Me is published by Bloomsbury, £9.99. This interview appeared in Big Issue Scotland Magazine

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