I was told that I learned how to read watching my father turn the pages of L’Orne Combattante, one of the local newspapers published in my native Normandy.
I remember of the rough texture of his workpants against my small fingers when I gripped his leg to sit on his lap.
“Papa, what does it say? Tell me the story. Please, what is it?”
I remember that my father smelled of Gauloises cigarettes, masculine sweat, and cologne, while my mother smelled of coffee, French chalk, and eau de toilette.
My father drove trucks from Normandy to Paris every single day.
My mother was a seamstress working from home.
When my mother sewed, she listened to the radio.
When my father wasn’t driving, he read.
So it is possibly true that I learned how to read with my father.
I was also told that my paternal grandfather, blind by the time I was five, had been an avid reader. It is also possibly true since he encouraged my hunger for stories.
“Buy a book,” he would say, slipping crisp French bills or shiny coins in my hand for my birthday and Christmas.
I was six when I bought my first Club des Cinq books. I had no idea that The Famous Five series had been first written in English.
My favorite character was Claude; George in the original version. It was no coincidence that this girl had a unisex name.
In a world dominated by men, where girls who loved to climb trees and ride their bikes recklessly were called tomboys, Enid Blyton had created a girl who broke barriers and killed clichés. Claude/George was capable, smart, and witty: she was my dream friend and role model.
I grew up years away from Katniss and Tris, the strong female characters that inhabit contemporary YA literature. However, for the kid I was, The Famous Five, among other similar series, responded to the same urge for freedom and independence that I craved.
I remember stormy Thursday afternoons when there was no school. Wind slapped the shutters against the windows and rain pelted the roof while I read, my back propped against pillows, with the radio playing French and British songs and the humming of my mother’s sewing machine for background.
The occasional “Zut” that my mother uttered when she pricked her finger with a needle reached me through some kind of dreamy fog. Entangled in the story, she had to pull me away from “this darned book” while my sister focused her attention on strips of fabric that my mother didn’t use.
While she created clothes for her dolls and mini curtains for their houses made out of shoe boxes, my mind was in another world, caught up in solving a mystery that involved good and bad guys.
My sister didn’t like the fact that I refused to play with her when I was in the middle of a book. When I agreed, I invented games, which almost always involved two girls alone in the wilderness. We had to fight for food, for a roof, for protection. We had to fend for ourselves, away from the safety of the guest bedroom where our mother sewed. We were free from the rules of the adult world.
My sister didn’t like these game scenarios very much. Moreover she resented the time I spent with my books because she didn’t like to read.
And this is how I became a writer.
For the avid reader I was, my sister’s indifference toward stories and books was a mystery that I had to tackle.
When we are children we are afraid of the dark, of the school bully, of the creepy neighbor, and of being the only one who thinks crazy thoughts, but we are also fearless in the sense that failure hasn’t become yet a wounding word.
I figured that if my sister didn’t like to read she hadn’t found the right story. In my nine-year-old mind it was as simple as that.
This is how I wrote my first story.
I wrote in two thin spiraled notebooks because I loved series. My sister had to get a book with two volumes.
I cut out pictures from La Redoute and Les 3 Suisses – the French versions of the JC Penney catalogue and glued them on the cover. My sister had to get illustrated books.
I mimicked the design of my beloved Enid Blyton’s books, including the ISBN and the readers’ age. My sister had to get legit books.
My protagonists were two girls and two boys. The savviest was Frédérique, which is the female version of Frédéric; close enough to a unisex first name.
The plot was simple. A former rich old lady can’t remember where she hid her money in her dilapidated castle. Thanks to four smart kids the treasure is recovered after days of adventures.
Yes, the ingredients of my first story were similar to the ones Enid Blyton used for her successful plot recipe. The title mimicked hers too.
Le Secret de la Vieille Demoiselle (The Old Lady’s Secret), my first story, was followed by many more and also by poems as my discovery of writers and exploration of literary genres grew.
I was ravenous and never satiated, so like many people who love books I entered the publishing industry.
This is where I learned how books were made for real. This is also where I quit writing.
At least until I left Paris for California where, submersed by so many intense new experiences, I had no choice but write again.
In French first.
Then, years later, in English.
Over one recent summer, my sister and I got to spend more time together than we had for years. Our days in the company of each other in our parents’ home triggered long conversations punctuated by comfortable pauses that a common childhood allows.
Over countless espressos and late evening talks we shared lots of stories. Exactly twelve months separate my sister and me. Nothing now that we are adults. A whole world when we were children. Over these short but charged summer weeks, we were once more our parents’ children. And I was again the eldest.
This is why my sister was the one who spoke of the books I had written for her when she was eight.
“I still have them,” she said.
The following day she handed me Volume II. “I’d like you to have it,” she said.
As a kid my sister had preferred Volume I. She had given a valuable lesson to her apprentice writer sister: the first chapter and even first lines of a story are very important if a writer wants to capture the limited attention of a reader.
“It could be fun for you to read your first French story,” my sister went on.
I had never re-read Le Secret de la Vieille Demoiselle.
When I flipped open the first page, my fingers cramped.
I wrote this story by hand, and in a Proust moment, this notebook triggered a rush of sensory and emotional memories.
I remembered of tiredness when my hand clasped around my pen, of challenge, too, when I struggled with the plot. I was nine years old after all.
But the moments of pure joy when I found a word I liked, an idea to build more conflict, or simply when I forgot that I was a little girl and was instead a writer, were as vibrant as they were back then.
I read the story with affection and respect for the girl I was once. My childish words carried ideas, emotions, and tastes that are still mine.
When I closed the notebook, I remembered with equal affection of The Famous Five.
The first books that triggered my desire to write my first story were originally written in English, foreshadowing my future life in a country where I would someday learn how to write in English.