Valérie Perrin is the author of Fresh Water for Flowers, her English-language debut, which was selected by booksellers for the Summer/Fall 2020 Indies Introduce program and a July 2020 Indie Next List pick.
“Fresh Water for Flowers is a moving and lyrical portrait of one woman’s quest for happiness and love,” said Lindsey Bartlett of the former Ellen Plumb’s City Bookstore in Emporia, Kansas, who served on the Indies Introduce panel. “A splendid work that will keep readers absorbed to the last page. A charming must-read.”
Perrin is a photographer and screenwriter who lives in Paris. The book’s translator, Hildegarde Serle, lives in London. Recently, Bartlett got a chance to discuss the debut with Perrin and Serle.
Lindsey Bartlett: Valérie, what was your inspiration for writing this book?
Valérie Perrin: Several things inspired me. To begin with, one can have two visions of cemeteries: a sinister place or a garden of souls. Darkness or some form of poetry.
It was the garden of souls that interested me: the words of love on the steles, the photos, the flowers, the mystery. I needed a vector to transmit all these emotions, and the idea of a woman, a guard, who lives in front of the gates of the cemetery seemed to me extraordinarily romantic. I needed a starting point: this woman, the narrator, has been alone for 19 years, since her husband left overnight without leaving an address. Why?
LB: This book takes place mostly in a cemetery. Do you have a connection to cemeteries like your main character, Violette, does?
VP: I have always walked in cemeteries. In the provinces, cemeteries tell many stories to imagine. In Paris, they are large parks bordered by hundred-year-old trees where many walk, sit on benches, exchange words with others, discover or seek the burial of famous men or women. I have probably been carrying this story for a very long time, but I didn’t know it. Writing Violette for two years was an extraordinary experience. Every morning when I opened my computer, I had the feeling of finding her in her box and living with her, close to her and feeling what she felt. Exploring her past together.
LB: What kind of reader do you hope will see themselves in Fresh Water for Flowers?
VP: In France, my readers were first of all women. Then they said to their husbands, you must read this novel! And since then, I have received a lot of messages from them. I think my readers are between 16 and 110 years old. Fresh Water for Flowers mixes genres: love stories, police investigation, resilience, humor, drama, reconnection with nature, simplicity, and poetry. It’s also a novel about appearances, how you can be wrong about people you don’t know, and even more about people you think you know. Finally, through the testimonials, I realize that Fresh Water for Flowers helps a large number of readers to “repair” themselves. In particular, for the people who were touched by mourning, this novel reconciles them with their disappeared, the cemeteries, and life. Of course, I didn't know that when I wrote it. The innocent with full hands write, and afterwards the words belong to those who read them.
LB: What are you currently working on?
VP: I have just finished writing my third novel, which will be called Three, the story of three childhood friends, a girl and two boys, who were born in 1976. We discover their fate, how they came to meet in the schoolyard, grew up side by side, loved each other, were torn apart, lost contact, were found. In the present we are in 2017 and little by little, we perceive their truths. It’s a novel about our choices, our disappointments, our lies, the beautiful surprises that life has in store for us, and, above all, about the friendship and unwavering love that binds us to childhood. The common thread is the discovery of a car that has been at the bottom of a lake since 1994 in the small provincial town where the three of them grew up.
LB: And Hildegarde, what is your process for translating a book? In what ways was translating this book different from or the same as your usual process?
Hildegarde Serle: Once armed with coffee, I switch off any music so I can hear the rhythm of the words I’m first reading, and then writing, clearly. I dive in without having read the book first — like sight-reading music — so I’m always on the edge of my seat! I use my dictionaries constantly, for the most accurate, nuanced translation possible. At the end of a chapter, I do a printout, then carefully read and edit what I’ve written, fine-tuning where necessary. If there’s a word I’m not happy with, I use my thesaurus. I then do my corrections on screen, and move on to the next chapter.
I used exactly this process for translating the wonderful Changer l’eau des fleurs. Because Valérie writes so lyrically, so engagingly, it was a joy to translate. There was an additional process, due to the quotations heading each chapter. I soon realized that although some were anonymous gravestone inscriptions, others were from French songs or poems, so I checked each one first online, out of interest and to get the tone right. And there was also the irreverent schoolboy version of the Lord’s Prayer — certainly not something I’d tackled before!
Fresh Water for Flowers by Valérie Perrin, Hildegarde Serle (trans.) (Europa Editions, 9781609455958, Hardcover Fiction, $34) On Sale Date: 7/7/2020.
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