An introduction to Antoine Laurain, author of the novel The President’s Hat (Gallic, 2013; originally Le Chapeau de Mitterrand). A fifth-generation Parisian, Laurain is a journalist, screenwriter, director, antiques collector, and novelist. His previous books include Ailleurs si j’y suis, Fume et tue, and Carrefour des Nostalgies. Talking with Laurain after he arrived in the US to begin his book tour, there was an air of excitement to the uncommonly sunny San Francisco day. A certain light shown through his personality befitting of the afternoon and the thoughtful playfulness behind The President’s Hat. There was already a hint of the surreal in the atmosphere before Laurain shared a story about the cover for the French edition of the book. After, there was nothing to do but marvel at how fiction and reality mingle in unexpected ways:
“When the book was finished and my publisher was looking for a cover, of course a cover with a black hat, I had a lunch with a friend of mine who is a photographer and a journalist who was working in the 80s as well. I told him the title of my book, and he said, “You know, I’ve got it, Mitterrand’s hat.” I was taken aback.
In the 80s, he had to do some pictures of Mitterrand at a meeting in Provence. Mitterrand was talking in front of an audience, and the photographer goes into the back to smoke a cigarette. He saw the president’s limousine, and the door was open. The black hat was just on the very edge of the seat. He had the same impulse as the character in my book, and he took the hat. He has kept the hat twenty-five years, as a souvenir.
So, we had a special photo shoot with the president’s hat. I looked inside and there were the initials F.M., just like in the book. It was completely crazy. The hat materialized. It became real. I put the hat on my head for a few seconds. The book became a bestseller, and today I am in America for the book tour, so there is really some magic in the president’s hat.”
Quick Facts on Antoine Laurain
- Laurain online: antoinelaurain.blogspot.com
- Home: Paris, France
- Comfort food: oysters
- Top reads: Marcel Proust, Gustave Flaubert, John Irving, and many more.
- Current reads: I’m not reading anything right now, but I will be able to read again. I have just finished my next novel, which will be published in France in March 2014. When you are in the middle of writing, it’s difficult to read other novels.
What are you working on at the moment?
Right now, I’m working on The President’s Hat tour. I have also just finished a screenplay for the French television movie version of the novel. It was very interesting to be involved in the screenplay. Some things changed from the book, of course. It was difficult to work on my own novel, but I think the public will like the movie.
I’m going to try to write a play for the theater. I think it will be a good exercise for me. I’ve been reading some French theater books now to see how it works.
Where did the idea come from for The President’s Hat?
I think the original idea is that I had lost my hat a few years ago in a café. The day after I went back to the café to get my hat—and no, no more hat. It was gone. What was interesting to me is that it means at the moment I was looking for my hat, probably someone else was wearing my hat somewhere else in the city. I don’t know who, if it’s a man or a woman, it’s a mystery.
Why did you set the story in the 1980s?
I wanted to be back in the 80s, during my childhood. I have many memories from then. It was a moment without internet, without Facebook, without mobile phones—it seems very close to us, but it’s very far away.
What do you hope readers will take away from your book?
I hope they will enjoy this book. It’s a very optimistic novel. It’s like a fairy tale, and I think we need fairy tales not only for children, but for grown-ups too. I say fairy tale, but it is not just for entertainment. It has different levels you can appreciate. There’s also a philosophical part, about the self-confidence you can possess, destiny, and the chance you have to make things happen in your life.
Why do you think fairy tales are important for adults, for everybody?
“Novels have to be better than real life.”
Novels have to be better than real life. The characters in stories have to do things that are difficult for us to do in real life, you know, things that a character in a book can really face.
How would you describe your ideal reader?
Someone who wants to have fun with the story, who is looking for a feel-good book.
Where and when do you prefer to write?
At home, in the afternoon. Not the night, it’s too difficult at night.
Do you listen to music while you work?
No, never. It’s impossible to listen to music and write. Silence is the best music.
Where would you most want to live and write?
I live in the stories of my characters.
Do you have a philosophy for how and why you write?
That’s a question for a psychoanalyst. I think I’m a writer because life is not enough.
“I think I’m a writer because
life is not enough.”
How do you balance content with form? How does the structure of the book influence the story?
In The President’s Hat, the structure was very difficult for me. It seems very fluid, easy for the reader, but it was challenging. It was difficult to find a good end for the book. It’s important to have structure in a novel.
What do you find most challenging about writing?
To find a good ending. To make the characters feel alive. They have to be like real men and women.
When you’re stuck on a story, where do you look for new ideas?
Sometimes in my own life, or from my journalism work. Sometimes in the newspaper, or just looking around me. You can have a drink in a café and find many things just by looking around.
How has your background as a journalist influenced your fiction?
It has helped with some things. For example, in my next novel, the profession of the main character is a profession I had written a paper about previously. But mainly, it is very different from writing fiction for me.
How have your goals as a writer changed over time?
I’m not sure they have changed much. I just try to write stories for an audience. You have to have readers; if you have no readers, it’s not fun to be a writer. It’s very lonely.
What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
To be very modest. Begin with short stories. Don’t try to write a big, huge novel of 400 pages right away. It’s difficult. Just try to tell a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end.
“Just try to tell a story
with a beginning, a middle,
and an end.”
What’s the best advice you’ve been given as a writer?
I’d like to have advice, but nobody has really given me any. I’m a writer who arrived in the publishing world by the post office. I was completely alone at the beginning, and I started with a small publishing company.
Is there a quote about writing that motivates or inspires you?
Well, at the end of his life Billy Wilder wrote ten commandments for screenwriting, but you can read them as a writer of literature, too. He was a master of storytelling.
When you’re not writing, what do you like to do?
Drink a glass of good wine. More seriously, find a good story for a next novel.
About Antoine Laurain
Antoine Laurain was born in Paris and is a screenwriter, antiques collector, and the author of four novels. His latest, The President’s Hat, a charming fable set in the Mitterrand years, was awarded the Prix Landerneau Découvertes and the Prix Relay in 2012 and is published in English by Gallic. Read Laurain’s answers to Gallic’s Proust Questionnaire to learn a little bit more about him.
[Toffoli, Marissa B. “Interview With Writer Antoine Laurain.” Words With Writers (October 3, 2013), https://wordswithwriters.com/2013/10/03/antoine-laurain.]