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Delphine de Vigan: the French literary sensation behind the new Gone Girl

Delphine de Vigan's novel 'Based on a True Story' is being turned into a film 
Delphine de Vigan's novel 'Based on a True Story' is being turned into a film  Credit: Victoria Paterno

For six months now, my dog-eared review copy of Based on a True Story has been doing the rounds. Mums have been sidling up to me at the school gates (‘Is it true you’ve got an early translation of…?’), friends are offering me bribes to be the next in line, and I’m no longer on speaking terms with my neighbour, who failed to return the book after the allotted three-day period. Delphine de Vigan’s new thriller may not be published here until next month, but already it has people in a word-of-mouth frenzy I’ve not seen since Gone Girl.

Two years after its publication in her native France, the 51-year-old author is as bewildered by the book’s success as she was when her editor rang to tell her that Based on a True Story had hit the half a million copy mark – and that Roman Polanski had optioned the film rights.

De Vigan outside Drouant restaurant in Paris in November 2015, having won the Prix Renaudot for Based on a True Story

‘Because every single day of the nine months it took me to write it I had the same thought: “This really is a pile of shit,”’ says de Vigan, a slender, straight figure set against the rain-spattered French windows of her Paris apartment. ‘And, of course, as a writer that happens sometimes, but not every day. Not the absolute certainty that what you are writing isn’t just bad, but excruciating,’ she says, lowering her voice to a whisper.

Actually, excruciating is pretty apt. De Vigan’s deft description of a close female friendship turned toxic is a compulsive but agonising read. The story of a famous French author, Delphine (bearing startling similarities to de Vigan, as well as her name), who is suffering from writer’s block and befriends a beautiful younger woman, L, at a party, the novel tips its hat at Stephen King’s Misery. Because as appealing as Delphine’s ‘number one fan’ appears at the outset – with her warmth, her energy, and her attempts to get her friend writing again – alarm bells soon begin to ring.

A photograph of de Vigan’s mother, Lucile Poirier, who committed suicide in 2008 Credit: Frederic Pierret

‘I’m sure that most women have lived through one of those very exclusive female friendships that are so strong – until they go off the rails,’ explains de Vigan. ‘What interests me is when there’s an abuse of power, and that moment where it all goes flying.’

It’s easy to see why Polanski decided to turn the psychological thriller into a film – expected to be selected for this year’s Cannes Film Festival – with his wife, Emmanuelle Seigner, in the title role, and Eva Green as L. When you’re not shouting at the page, trying to warn Delphine that her new best friend is trying to steal her life, you’re squinting through smokescreens trying to decipher what’s real and what’s not.

And the play on truth and fiction in the title runs as a major theme throughout the novel. ‘Because I do think people have lost their ability to suspend disbelief with fiction these days,’ says de Vigan. ‘It’s as though they don’t trust their own capacity to have an emotional reaction to something made up any more.

'They’re confident they can be touched by a drama on TV, but with books they need more than just a story. And I think we’re all voyeurs, but this fascination for human-interest news stories has been ratcheted up by reality TV and social media, where people turn their own lives into dramas, making them either more beautiful or more bleak than they really are.’

Still from the film adaptation of De Vigan's 'A Coup Sur' Credit: Universal Pictures

De Vigan came to this realisation after the publication of her previous book, in 2011, Nothing Holds Back the Night, which tells the story of her (genuinely) beautiful and bleak family. ‘Everyone kept coming up to me with the same question: “Is it all true?”, to which I always wanted to reply, “Would it have had less of an impact if it was fiction? Would you have laughed less, cried less, been touched by those characters less?” And probably the answer to many of those questions would have been: “Yes.”’

An attempt to trace the life of her wayward and wonderful mother (or the woman she calls Lucile Poirier), Nothing Holds Back the Night starts with the moment she finds Poirier lying dead in her apartment, where the 61-year-old had taken her own life four days earlier.

Her first book describes the anorexia de Vigan suffered from, aged 18, in searing detail

‘For me, it was about paying homage to Lucile,’ de Vigan makes clear at the start of the book, written shortly after her mother’s death, when the author was in her early 40s. ‘To give her a paper coffin – the most beautiful kind, in my view.’

From there, de Vigan takes us back to Poirier’s beginnings as a child model in post-Second World War France and explores her mother’s descent from the ‘vaguely troubled’ young woman she was dismissed as being to the dangerously ill mother the writer remembers – a mother whose condition was only given a name, bipolar disorder, too late, when she was in her early 50s.

The book sold more than a million copies in France, was shortlisted for eight major literary awards (and won two), and brought de Vigan celebrity in a country where writers can still be celebrities.

De Vigan's novel 'Nothing Holds Back the Night' has sold more than a million copies in France Credit: Victoria Paterno

One of two girls born to wealthy parents (she won’t tell me what her father did – or indeed anything about him) and raised in the Parisian suburb Boulogne-Billancourt, de Vigan didn’t envisage writing as a day job until she found success with her 2007 novel, No and Me (which made the Goncourt shortlist – and the Richard and Judy Book Club over here).

But Nothing Holds Back the Night took things to a different level. Like the writer heroine of Based on a True Story, de Vigan was recognised in the street and the target of obsessive fan mail – and it didn’t sit well with her. ‘Something about this very bohemian family I wrote about – my brilliant, charismatic father and my poor mother, who had these fits nobody could explain and was several times committed – prompted such a reaction, such emotion in people.

'And although as a writer it’s everything you dream of, some readers were voyeuristic, more than voyeuristic…’ Vampiric? ‘Yes,’ she nods quickly, ‘in a way  I hadn’t predicted.’

Were she British, one might accuse de Vigan of being naïve. Changing names and places in Nothing Holds Back the Night – an account that is otherwise autobiographical – might have allowed the author to recount unimaginably painful memories, but it must also have made uncovering the ‘truth’ more appealing to her ardent fans.

Privacy, however, is still valued highly in France, which lulled her into a false sense of security, and made it all the more surprising when some of those fans went to considerable lengths to dig up an old documentary made about de Vigan’s family. The film was put online, ‘and then suddenly everyone was able to access my real family – and not the characters I’d written about. You even see me as a child in the film. So it felt as though by writing the book I’d opened this box and allowed everyone to peer in.’

'No and Me' by Delphine de Vigan

One wonders whether de Vigan will ever be able to close that box. In Nothing Holds Back the Night she describes an episode in which her mother, ‘Lucile’, is having a psychotic breakdown and standing at their apartment window naked – her body covered with white paint – threatening to kill her youngest daughter as 13-year-old Delphine watches, terrified.

Was there any element of catharsis in the recounting of these traumatic memories? ‘No,’ she flings back. ‘I’ve never considered writing as any kind of therapy. But it was a stage I think I had to go through in my literary trajectory.’

Even if it left her depressed – as some who know de Vigan have intuited from the blocked and solitary heroine so ripe for abuse in Based on a True Story? ‘I don’t think writing the book made me depressed,’ she frowns. ‘Perturbed, yes, but not depressed. That said, the consequences of the book were not simple. All that success I got was marvellous but tinged with pain.’

Delphine de Vigan photographed in Paris Credit: Victoria Paterno

She looks out over the grey rooftops of the Latin Quarter. ‘There was some residual guilt there for the family members who had found the book hard to take, although some of my mother’s family were very happy that her story had been brought to light. But it was not a simple success, you know?’

I’m not sure any of de Vigan’s successes, past or future, have been or will be simple. She’s too keen on blurring the lines between truth and fiction for that. And whereas fiction may be a good deflection tactic for a woman who is, to meet, a little shy and not nearly vulgar enough to join the ‘look at me’ misery memoir writers of today, writing the truth is what originally got her published.

De Vigan projects an air of serenity and order, but her writing is dark – Stephen King dark

Her first book, Days Without Hunger – which came out under the pseudonym Lou Delvig in 2001 – describes the anorexia de Vigan suffered from at the age of 18, and her recovery process, in searing detail. By the time she wrote the book, she was already talking ‘quite openly’ about the condition, she says.

So why the pseudonym?‘I wasn’t ashamed. But I was working by day at a marketing company at the time and…’ She shrugs. ‘Look: I see it as a very serious accident that occurred to me in transition to adulthood – and it’s a part of me now.’  

You don’t have to be a shrink to see why de Vigan might have yearned for control at a point in her life when her mother’s condition was worsening. ‘And anorexia is to do with control, although paradoxically it means a complete loss of control. When you stop feeding yourself you reach a kind of anaesthetised state, so actually it works like a drug. Only this drug costs nothing and is easy available – and like the drug addict you’ll keep insisting that you are in control when in fact it’s this obscure auto-destructive force within you exerting its power.’

Based on a True Story by Delphine de Vigan

It took de Vigan a year to go from the ‘round young girl’ she was ‘to the skeleton I became’. Eventually she was hospitalised in a state close to death. ‘I spent six months in that hospital bed being fed by a tube. And because of the damage I’d done to myself, it took a while to come back from that – but I never relapsed. I was lucky in that my anorexia was very severe but relatively brief. And it allowed me to grow up and understand things. But at what a price.’

She will forever be grateful that she was able to have children, she says – a daughter, now 21, and son, 18, who, like everything else in her life, have paper alter egos as ‘Louise’ and ‘Paul’ – ‘because the doctors had said it wouldn’t be possible’.

And being a mother, de Vigan says, has helped her grow stronger as a person. ‘Not just because you have to, either.’ The relationship with her children’s father (who she’d rather not name) lasted for 15 years and she has, since 2011, been with presenter François Busnel, who hosts a popular cultural TV show in France.

de Vigan projects an air of serenity and order, but her writing is dark Credit: Victoria Paterno

‘He has been so supportive – as has the father of my children. So I’m lucky to have a life that allows me to stay stable.’ 

With her wild blonde hair pulled back into a ponytail, her buttoned-up cardigan and her stillness, de Vigan projects an air of serenity and order, but her writing is dark – Stephen King dark – and I wonder whether she ever feels that the stability she’s able to maintain is under threat from within.

‘Genetically, I do think there’s a fragility there,’ she says quietly. ‘I think “it” is in me. And with bipolar disorder, they now know that there is a hereditary factor. But they also know that circumstances can have a lot to do with it.’

When you stop feeding yourself you reach a kind of anaesthetised state. It works like a drug

There’s a passion when de Vigan talks about the mental illness that robbed her of her mother decades before she committed suicide, that’s absent from any other subject we discuss. Even the writing – which she seems to see as more of a compulsion than a deliverance – doesn’t sharpen her features in the same way.

‘Writing is a daily combat,’ she grimaces. ‘A marathon-style endurance test that’s about iron self-discipline more than anything else. You can’t get breathless, and you can’t stop halfway.’ Does it keep the darkness at bay, though, I ask when she tells me about the new novel ‘on loyalty’ she started writing in January? ‘I wouldn’t say that. But being able to make a living out of it does make me incredibly happy.’

Even if, by the pompous and perverse diktats of the French literati, the fact that she does make a living out of it means her work must be ‘popular fiction’ rather than art? ‘Oh, if your books are popular here,’ she laughs, ‘it means you’ve made concessions for the great unwashed public. I can’t really complain because the critics have been kind to me, but in France success is mal vu. Is it like that in England?’ 

She’s about to find out.

Based on a True Story (Bloomsbury, £12.99) is published on 6 April