From Invisibility to Visibility: Sanaë Lemoine Interviewed by Lynn Steger Strong

The writer on writing about secrets, food as love language, and releasing a debut novel during a pandemic.

Bomb The Margot Affair

The first thing I noticed about Sanaë Lemoine was her syntax. We were in a graduate workshop together, and, I remember popping up out of each sentence only to want to go back inside and start again, to see the ways she shifted verbs and subjects, the way her adjectives were continually both precise and surprising, the extraordinary ways she always found to describe food. She also had a particular skill in making feelings more material: hot skin, clammy fingers, the way love or stress or desire settles in different parts of our bodies depending on who and where we are. There was too, both in the writing and the person, a daunting elegance. If she and her work were not also so deeply warm and careful, I might never have had the courage to become her friend. 

Sanaë Lemoine also once slept over at my house so that she could get up early with my newborn, having very little experience with newborns, on one of the weeks my husband was travelling for work, and I had to teach uptown. She also has been known, among our friends, to go to three or four grocery stores to make the perfect meal for one of us, picking each ingredient because she knows it’s something the person for whom she’s cooking will find pleasure in. Which, I bring up perhaps most of all because of how evident that thought and care is present in her work. The Margot Affair (Hogarth) is a smart and elegant and gorgeous novel. Its sentences will continually excite and surprise you; it’s depiction of that specific time in life when one is both seeing and being seen for the first time, will remind you of the dangers and the thrills of growing up. 

—Lynn Steger Strong

  

Lynn Steger Strong I want to start by talking about performance. Margot’s mother is an actress. Her father is a public figure, but, as a public figure, she plays no role in his life. The first sentence of the novel is, “On the stage my mother was her truest self.” What were you were hoping to show about the relationship between presentation and reality?

Sanaë Lemoine The opening sentence captures an important tension in Margot and her mother’s relationship. Margot, a seventeen-year-old girl about to begin her last year of high school, resents her mother, Anouk, for her performative nature. She feels that Anouk is always performing, either onstage for an audience or at home by blasting her emotions, and she wants her to be more reserved. The way Margot was raised—shouldering a heavy secret—has much to do with her frustration. Her father leads a double life, and she and her mother are his second, hidden family. Margot isn’t allowed to speak about her father’s identity beyond a tiny circle of close friends.

The tension between the way the characters present themselves and perform, the reality of their situation, and what they truly feel, is linked to a dissonance between Margot’s private and public selves. What will she do to reconcile these two selves? One thread that emerged later in writing the novel was the way Margot has been shaped by a life of being a secret. She might not realize it, but like her mother, she has also been performing a specific role. She lies about who her father is. As the novel progresses and Margot takes on more agency, we see her struggle with the possibility that she might repeat certain patterns of dissimulation. One of the questions I wanted the reader to ask is whether Margot would indeed continue to repeat her parents’ patterns and in which ways she would diverge from them. I’m interested in seeing what happens to us, children, when those familial patterns are made visible, and how that awareness compels us to either embrace the pattern or chart a different path.

LSS I wonder about the idea of visibility versus invisibility: Margot and her mother are her father’s unseen family, while he remains a public figure with another family, other children, whom he presents to the world. Early in the novel, Margot seems to pride herself in dressing and acting in a way early in the novel that makes it easy for her to disappear while Anouk has built a life around the way that people are compelled to look at her. How do you see the book living between these spaces? What, specifically for women, does being seen or not seen do to one’s experience in the world?

SL I was drawn to exploring that movement from invisibility to visibility, from a private space to the public. There’s always a movement of this kind when you reveal a secret, even if it’s the smallest possible secret. I picture it as something spilling from oneself, an act of making the interior external. It can be quite violent, and it is for Margot, who fiercely guards her privacy and imagines most people don’t “see” her identity. What’s most interesting, perhaps, is that Margot’s movement from not being seen to being seen coincides with her coming-of-age—she’s on the cusp of womanhood, beginning to realize that she, too, can attract the gaze of others. This first happens with a journalist and then with his ghostwriter wife.

There’s something thrilling and empowering to Margot about feeling seen by others. It’s seductive and sometimes blinds her to peoples’ motivations. On a deeper level, Margot yearns to be seen by her mother. She describes the experience of watching Anouk onstage and wishing that she would give a sign of recognition that she sees her in the audience. This, for Margot, would be proof of her mother’s love. 

Photo of Sanaë Lemoine by Gieves Anderson.

Photo of Sanaë Lemoine by Gieves Anderson.

LSS I wonder about this idea with regard to writing and Brigitte specifically: Margot and Brigitte form an intimacy presumptively in order that Brigitte might ghostwrite a sort of memoir for Margot. How does this component of the novel fit into the idea of being seen or not: how is this process a form of seduction between Margot and Brigitte? How is the character of the ghostwriter a particular space that lives somewhere between being seen and not? 

SL When Brigitte first meets Margot, she immediately senses that Margot craves to be “seen.” This desire presents an opening. She encourages Margot to write about her father, which is exciting to Margot who hasn’t had many opportunities to describe him, especially not to a stranger. Interestingly, Brigitte also feels seen by Margot who admires her, sees her as a mentor, an alternative to her mother, someone who understands her complicated family. She flatters Brigitte’s ego as a writer. In a sense, it’s a seduction that results from a mutual feeling of being seen and understood, even if that feeling is at times misleading or false. I was drawn to the power dynamics specific to this relationship. Margot has youth, a comfortable home, highly educated parents, and financial security. Brigitte has life experience, intelligence, ruthlessness, but she wasn’t raised in the same privilege as Margot. (We discover this bit by bit as we learn more about her upbringing.)

LSS A fascinating focus of the novel is these various triangles: Margot and her mother and her father; Margot and her mother and her father’s public wife; Margot and Brigitte and David. Craft-wise, how did you think about the execution of these triangles and how were they useful in illuminating all the various characteristics of any of these individuals or their overlapping relationships?

SL I’m not much of a planner or outliner when I write, but when it came to these central characters and triangles, I found myself sketching out character arcs. It was important that I understood the motives of each character within those triangles. For example: What does Margot desire of Brigitte, the ghostwriter? What does Brigitte want from Margot, this high schooler who suddenly enters her life? What does Margot see in David, Brigitte’s husband? And why is David drawn to Margot? In earlier drafts of the novel, I wasn’t always able to clearly answer these questions. My agent pushed me very hard, and I’m so glad she did because these questions were instrumental to understanding the dynamics between the characters and how they shifted throughout the novel. My answers changed as the characters grew with me. The hardest part was figuring out what Brigitte desired, but once I knew, it was as though I’d cracked a mystery and all the other pieces could fall into place.

Another challenge was coming to terms with how Margot perceives her father—this within the mother-daughter-father triangle overlapping with his official family. I imagine Margot will always question her father’s love. It took me a while to see this: the notion that she’s caught between a deep-rooted belief that he loves her and perhaps even prefers her (she’s his only daughter) and the unshakable fear that he doesn’t love her enough, is in fact is ashamed of her. 

LSS Brigitte was especially interesting to me throughout the book and I wonder about how her relationship to food and the book’s relationship to food plays out in the text. She is an astonishing, mouth wateringly good cook (and the descriptions of the food are extraordinary); the idea of nourishment, or lack thereof, both through food and love seems to course through the entirety of the book. What are you showing the reader about consumption and nourishment and sustenance and the particular ways it is used both as comfort and violence among women? 

SL You know, in an earlier draft I wrote a scene where Brigitte feeds Margot rotten food. I’m fascinated by the ways that food can be used to nurture and harm. Eating food that someone else has prepared for you is such an intimate act. You are ingesting foreign items into your body and trusting that these will be safe, won’t poison you. I know this sounds a bit dramatic and extreme, but if you pause to think about it, it really is an extraordinary act of faith. Perhaps this is why I’m so moved when a friend prepares a meal for me. It doesn’t have to be an extravagant dish, just the preparation feels like a gesture of love. (I suppose it stems from my parents—their language of love is food. Still today, my mother sends me home with a Japanese bento, and whenever I eat her food it goes directly to my heart. We never say, “I love you,” instead we cook for each other.)

Brigitte uses her skills as a cook to draw Margot into her home. When she first invites her over, she makes her a pear clafoutis, so Margot is greeted by the warming smells of butter and caramelized fruit. As their friendship grows, Margot spends more time watching Brigitte in the kitchen—she loves her confidence and expertise, she wants to absorb those qualities. Of course, Brigitte senses Margot’s yearning for a maternal presence, and steps into that role by feeding her.

One of my favorite anecdotes in the novel is a story Anouk tells Margot and her friend, Juliette, about a conference for women in the arts. When they break for lunch, they all rush to the table and take as much food as they can fit on their plates, not caring if there isn’t enough to go around. I love this image of women descending on a sandwich buffet and piling up more than they can eat. They’re starved and afraid of not having enough, and they don’t want to share. Anouk tells this story as a cautionary tale of female competition and ambition. She finds it amusing and would have done the same, had she not been caught up in a conversation.

Juliette, who is an aspiring filmmaker, is inspired by Anouk’s anecdote and makes a short violent film. I love horror for that inevitable sense of doom and how it can push themes or ideas to their gruesome, carnal extreme. I wanted to introduce a surreal horror element through Juliette’s film, which is about women who bite other women to death. Her film is a more dangerous version of female competition, of women literally devouring each other. It can also be seen as a mirror of Margot and Brigitte’s friendship. It allowed me to play with the question: If this novel were a horror story, what might happen? Would someone get eaten alive? We get a taste of this, as the reader, through Juliette’s film.

LSS YES! I also love this anecdote so much and Juliette’s film somehow heightens the entirety of the novel without engaging too much with the explicit action of the text. It’s a weird time to put out a novel. It’s a weird time for almost anything. I wonder, even thinking about Juliette’s film as a model, a small, but thrilling object, that underpins and informs the rest of the novel: how do you think of art in terms of its larger societal context? What do you hope your work is able to do or give out in the world?

SL It’s been hard to focus on launching a novel into the world. For debut novelists, there’s quite a bit of pressure to publicize the book and oneself. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard the phrase: “You only have one debut!”  I know it should be a moment of celebration and excitement after eight years of writing, but I’m finding it very difficult to make space for that. Earlier in the pandemic, I hoped my novel might provide some comfort to readers by transporting them to another world, perhaps even a brief escape from a time of isolation. Now I don’t know. 

Like most writers, I spent much of my childhood reading. I was never without a book. My mother would complain to the family doctor, saying I read too much, and she was worried about me. Shouldn’t I be out and about, playing with other kids? Books provided solace, guidance, and friendship. The other day, I came across these words by Murakami: “I fully believe it is the novelist’s job to keep trying to clarify the uniqueness of each individual soul by writing stories—stories of life and death, stories of love, stories that make people cry and quake with fear and shake with laughter. This is why we go on, day after day, concocting fictions with utter seriousness.”

I hope I can give my reader a small slice of this—a story of life, death, and love with unique characters. Novels can have long lives (many lives!) and I’m hopeful that at some point, whether today, in a few weeks, or five years, this novel can move, inspire, and surprise its reader.

The Margot Affair is available for purchase here.

Lynn Steger Strong’s second novel, Want, will be out in July 2020. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Paris Review, New York Magazine, and elsewhere. She teaches writing.

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