Joël Dicker: Interview

Joël Dicker: Interview

In the summer of 1975, Harry Quebert meets Nola Kellergan and falls in love. He is a 33-year-old writer desperate for literary success, and she is a 15-year-old girl, swept off her feet. After spending the summer together, on 30th August she suddenly disappears. Last seen—by a witness who is subsequently murdered—­covered in blood and being chased through the woods, the mystery of Nola’s disappearance plagues Harry, and all of those involved, for years.

A literary murder mystery that is expertly paced over 600-plus tautly written pages, Joël Dicker’s The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair (MacLehose Press, May) was the book with the biggest buzz at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2012. It is now a global publishing sensation: a bestseller across Europe with sales of more than two million copies in less than a year, it has been sold into 42 territories and turned its 28-year-old author into a literary superstar almost overnight.

The novel switches between 1975, when Quebert first moves to Somerset (in the US) to try to write a literary masterpiece, and 2008, when he has established himself as one of the country’s greatest living novelists. At its heart is the master and pupil relationship between Harry and Marcus Goldman, a young, good-looking writer who is Quebert’s most gifted protégé and the newest member of New York’s literati.

The discovery of Nola’s body, buried in Harry’s backyard alongside the original manuscript of his career-changing novel “The Origin of Evil”, turns Harry from hero to villain—and prime suspect. Desperate to clear his mentor’s name, Marcus must find out the truth about Harry and Nola’s illicit affair, and what happened to her on that fateful August day. But the things Marcus discovers about Harry will change the pair’s friendship forever.

“Marcus and Harry could be the same person,” says Dicker. “They are two sides of the same person: one is weak and one is strong. You might think at the beginning that Harry is the strong one and the weak one is Marcus, but at the end you realise that it is the other way round. Marcus is the one who is able to face the obstacles of life and for me, that is what the novel is about.”

A powerful novel about passion, jealousy, family, redemption, friendship and love, The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair is a Great American Novel—written by a European. Dicker has been compared to authors such as Jonathan Franzen, Philip Roth and Vladimir Nabokov. He says Nola’s name is in fact a deliberate nod to Lolita. He explains that although he didn’t set out to write a 21st-century version of Nabokov’s underage siren, once he had created Nola—beautful, blonde, bright and just 15—the similarities were clear.

Who is Harry Quebert?

Dicker spent his childhood summers visiting family at their summer house in the town of Stonington, Maine, and Somerset is based on the real-life New England town of Bar Harbor. Both Harry and Marcus are drawn away from New York to Somerset become it is a place that affords them a chance to reinvent themselves; its small-town inhabitants are eager to receive two literary giants.

In the novel it is not just Marcus who is searching for the truth behind Nola’s dissaperance: there are a whole host of other characters involved in the mystery. From Sergeant Perry Gahalowood, a New Hampshire state policeman who unwittingly becomes Marcus’ crime-solving sidekick; to the desperate-to-escape Jenny Quinn, who had a teenage crush on Harry; and David Kellergan, Nola’s traumatised father, who may know more than he is letting on about his daughter’s disappearance.

Although there is a whole small town’s worth of characters in his novel, Dicker says he is reluctant to think of them as secondary: “more just like friends: some of whom you see all the time, some you see only occasionally but are still really close with and some, like your roommate or colleague, that you see all the time but really can’t stand.

“The question I asked myself all along is: ‘Could the book work without them?’, and if the answer was yes then they had to go. The only character I kept in—even though if you took her out the book would be the same—is Marcus’ mother. She is the jester, the clown in the circus. When you need to change the scene at the circus and get the lion ready to come out, you put the spotlight on the clowns, and that is what she is there for.”

Parliament, pizza and prizes

Dicker left his uncle’s law firm and took a part-time job as an attaché at Geneva’s parliament (“getting coffee”) in order to concentrate on writing. He says it is inevitable that people compare him to Marcus, “but I don’t feel any closer to him than I do to Jenny or to [Jenny’s father] Bobbo. There is a little piece of me in all of them. The book has been successful, but when I wrote it I was just a guy ordering pizza.”

Much is made by critics of Dicker’s age, and he himself thought this would be the last book he would have the time to write for a while. “I had written five books—four of which were unpublished—while I was studying, and I’d reached a point where other things were about to take over. So I wanted to write a long story, a thick novel, so even if it wasn’t published I could say I did it. It was probably quite stupid, but I just wanted to achieve something.”

Which he has: The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair has won literature prizes including the Grand Prix du Roman de l’Académie Française and the Le Prix Goncourt des Lycéens. It was shortlisted for the Prix Goncourt, France’s biggest literary prize, and Penguin US reportedly aquired it for its largest ever advance.

“Some people have said to me, ‘it’s a great story, it’s a great book, but it is not “literature”, because it is a crime story and a page-turner’,” says Dicker. “For me it is not a crime story or a thriller because Nola could have been killed by a car, rather than murdered, and the story would have remained the same.

“For me a crime novel is built on the crime and if you take that crime out of the story you take the skeleton out of the body. With this, although there might have been a little less suspense, the characters and story would be the same. It is a novel about people; for me the important question is always not ‘who did what?’, but ‘why?’”

Metdata

Publication 01.05.14
Formats HB/EB/AB
ISBN 9780857053091/ 9781848663251/8089
Rights sold into 42 territories
Editor Christopher MacLehose
Agent Editions de Fallois, Paris

CV

1985: Born is Geneva, Switzerland
2010: Masters degree in Law, University of Geneva
2012: La Verite sur l'affaire Harry Querbert nominated for thé Grand Prix du Roman de l'Academie Franciase and the Prix Goncourt des Lyceens.