Author Colin Bisset
Today I’m very glad to welcome the writer, traveller and broadcaster, Colin Bisset to a Q&A on my blog. He’s written a wonderful book, Loving Le Corbusier, on Yvonne Gallis, wife of the world famous architect, Le Corbusier. I was eager to ask him some questions about writing in general and the process of writing this book in particular.
1. When did you first hear about the ‘secret wife’ Yvonne and how long was it between then and you deciding to write a book about her?
I had intended writing a novel with Le Corbusier as a peripheral figure and so I re-read some of my old books on him. Yvonne was always described as a model from Monaco, which sounds rather glamorous, but photos showed her to be perfectly ordinary. Gradually I began to realise that no one really knew much about her. One article I read suggested that she might have been a prostitute, which I don’t believe. A biography of Le Corbusier by Nicholas Fox Weber pointed me in the direction of the published correspondence and from there I began to form a fuller image of her. I thought she might be a good way of looking at him but gradually I realised she was the story.
2. Could you describe a bit about your research process? Did you have letters etc? Was there a moment when Yvonne jumped out and came alive for you? When was that?
I read everything I could get my hands on, not only about Le Corbusier but also histories of France and biographies of people like Cocteau. I watched old French films from the 1930s, too. But the chief source was always the personal correspondence. Le Corbusier and Yvonne are both adoring in their letters but once you read between the lines then you start to form a slightly different picture. After so much reading I knew I had to get to France so off I trotted and spent a fantastic time following in her footsteps. It was then that Yvonne really came to life for me.
3. Did you suffer at all from Stockholm syndrome – being taken hostage by her? I remember there was a moment when I was writing about Florence Maybrick, a Victorian arsenic poisoner, when I thought she’s got me, my sympathies have been won over. I’m on her side no matter what! I had to work very hard after that to present a balanced picture.
When I visited their apartment in Boulogne-Billancourt the place was empty apart from the person who let me in, so I was able to walk around, imagining their life there. When I went on to the roof terrace and saw the Eiffel Tower in the distance, and that you couldn’t get to the edge of the roof and look down into the street, that was when I really felt the pain that Yvonne must have felt being there, removed from the liveliness of the centre. It was hardly a grand literary moment but I said in my mind to Yvonne, “I’ll see you right”– a real Aussie phrase. Ever since then I wanted to champion her side of things. She was such an unpretentious person that I didn’t feel I had to sugar-coat anything about her.
4. Simon Schama talks about historians becoming so immersed in their research that they begin to ventriloquise the voices of the past. Did you experience anything as useful as that!
Yvonne was so much about unsaid things, her unspoken thoughts, her uncertainty. Can I say that I felt the power of her silences? Although of course there were moments when she was pretty vocal with her husband!
5. So if you have to chose between Rue Jacob (in St Germain where Yvonne started her life with Le Corbusier) and the apartment in Boulogne-Billancourt (24, Rue Nungesser et Coli – 24NC – where they moved to) which would it be? I have to say I’d never have moved from the cluttered attic!
Oh, the romance of a cluttered attic, especially in the 6th Arrondissement! Boulogne-Billancourt is an interesting area with some rather sumptuous 1930s buildings but it doesn’t compare to Rue Jacob. It was totally not Yvonne’s sort of place. Although of course now Rue Jacob is so fashionable that I don’t think Yvonne would recognise it, although the Petit Saint Benoit restaurant seems unchanged.
6. One of my favourite scenes is when she and Le Corbusier meet up with Picasso and his girlfriend Francoise towards the end of the book. There’s a conversation there between the two women in which you say a great deal about the situation of women who are ‘muses’ to ‘great’ men. Do you have a favourite scene?
Too many! I always grit my teeth at the tragi-comic scenes with Le Corbusier’s mother as Yvonne tries to do the right thing. I like the tiny scene in the Pyrenees when Yvonne and Ed (the name Le Corbusier was called by his family) are collecting kindling in the bitter cold and they suddenly erupt into uncontrollable laughter. It says something of their essential closeness, I think, despite everything.
7. Your love of France shines out of the book could you tell me a bit about that?
It’s almost an affliction, my love for France! I think I’ve always enjoyed its difference. As a child we often went to France for summer holidays, or passed through it on the way to Italy or Spain. I remember houses with balconies (always a sucker for a balcony), people eating at tables outside, and crumbling old towns (and fetid loos, in the 1960s). I was always sad returning to the UK. As an adult I often considered moving to France, and I did do a little bit of work there as an interior designer. Now I live in Australia, I love returning to France each year if I can. It feels like home – a certain old fashioned quality, the love of food and wine, the fantastic buildings and the natural beauty. I even watch the French news most mornings on the TV as we get that here.
Looking across the hall at 24NC
8. Could you talk a bit about the technical choices you made in the book? Were you ever tempted to write the whole thing in the first person for example? You have two first person pieces at the beginning and end which are very vivid.
Good question. I started out writing in the 3rd person but abandoned it about halfway through because it felt too distant. Writing in the 1st person gave me a much stronger insight into who Yvonne really was, using her voice, but it had a certain clunkiness because I also wanted to convey certain information about what was happening around her, and I had to simplify the language as she was an uneducated sort. I missed writing descriptive passages and I often find that reading something in the 1st person can become a bit hectoring, like you’re sitting next to a bore who keeps talking about herself. So I put it back into the 3rd person and it felt much better, more spacious. The exercise of writing in the 1st person was a vital part of this process, though, and I think it’s a good exercise to get inside a character’s head. But I wanted to keep the sense that she was talking to the reader directly which is why I bookended it with 1st person scenes. I suppose going into the 3rd person at the beginning of the novel is rather like the traditional fuzzy screen in a film.
9. Was this a very different experience to writing your other book, Not Always to Plan? If so in what way?
‘Not Always to Plan’ was different in many ways, especially being set in modern day Australia, although I managed to slip in a bit of Le Corbusier. ‘Loving Le Corbusier’ required a different headspace in that I had to be factually responsible and didn’t have the freedom to invent so much. I wanted to follow the arc of Yvonne’s life and although I wrote in my first draft scenes when she was a girl in Monaco in the 1900s, I got rid of them because they were purely fictional. The essence of sitting down and writing was the same, though – becoming so absorbed in a character that the hours pass by unnoticed. I love that process.
10. Now then we’ve got to talk about what Le Corbusier did to the dog, Pinceau. I found that incredibly chilling. If he’d done that to your dog what would you have done?
It is chilling although it wasn’t that unusual at the time. Taxidermy was a huge thing in the late 19th century, too. But it does show the gulf between Ed and Yvonne at that stage. I’d struggle to like, let alone love someone who did that with my beloved pet.
The high bed at 24NC
11. “Artists, she thought, were like horses they needed space or you might get hurt” Excellent quote – it made me laugh and I have to say it rang a few personal bells – would you care to elaborate?
I’m glad you like that – I’m rather proud of it, although I’m not intentionally quoting anyone (to my knowledge). Don’t you think artists are like horses, rather wonderful to watch but temperamental and prone to galloping away? Ed was certainly someone who needed his own space. I’m not sure what my artist friends will make of it, though!
12. You’re given an unlimited budget to build a house anywhere in the world – where do you build it and which architect (living or dead) do you use?
The view from the area around the cemetery at Roquebrune where Yvonne is buried is simply breathtaking. I love that whole area – the sparkling sea, the wild mountains, and close enough to the Alps and Italy for the odd little sortie. So that’s the place. Architect? Of course I should say Le Corbusier but I won’t. I do love Frank Lloyd Wright’s horizontal lines and the Arts & Crafts use of wood and stone. But a building that was engineered to work with the climate would be the most important thing now, with lots of glass and a huge terrace overlooking the sea. Oh, and a fantastic writing room, of course!
13. Could you tell me a bit about books which influenced you or made you want to be a writer?
When I was a teenager I adored the novels of Iris Murdoch, the sense of civilised people behaving badly, and I used to scrawl terribly turgid pastiches of those. I suppose I’ve always been attracted to domestic dramas of some sort – Franzen’s The Corrections blew me away, and Mark Haddon’s lovely A Spot of Bother was a big influence on my style of writing. Alan Hollinghurst’s descriptive writing is so beautifully precise while seemingly effortless. And bringing humour into any novel is vital, I think – it releases the pressure sometimes. Kingsley Amis is the master of ambushing the reader with a seemingly innocuous phrase – a one-line description of people on a bus, for instance – that has you on your knees with laughter. I’d love to do that!
14. What’s the next thing you’re working on?
I used to do a radio series called Design Files, giving a potted history of a particular object, anything from a pepper mill to the paper clip. Often the design originated in France. I’d like to explore that more – a travel book of sorts, perhaps. For fiction, I’ve got the 1980s swirling around my head at the moment so I’m not sure where that’ll lead me.
Thank you Colin for a fascinating insight into the writing of this wonderful book and lots of good luck with it and your forthcoming projects.
Here is the link to Colin’s blog:
And the Amazon link for the book:
All photos are from Colin’s blog and used with his permission.