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author photo: Louis Desjardins
Q: In Latin, “maleficium” refers to “an evil deed, injury, sorcery,” and you’ve said that that the title of the book was inspired by the Maleus Maleficarum, which was the Inquisition’s infamous treatise on witches. It is a strange title, but like many exotic words in the book, it hints at a number of potential meanings . . . why did you choose it?
A: My stylistic choice to use ornate language, as well as rare and precious words, was meant to disorient the readers, as if they were hearing a foreign language, so that they might feel as if they were in a foreign country. This language is also meant to convey an incantation, to make the readers feel caught in the spinning of the tales, which act here as evil spells—thus the title Maleficium.
Q: How do you balance the lyricism of your writing with the precision of your historical research to create what so many reviewers have referred to as a “feast for the senses?”
A: I am first and foremost a writer of prose. I do not write verse, I never read poetry. In fact I’ve never understood why poets feel the need to constantly start new lines. This means that, unfortunately, I can be quite prosaic when I write. I am totally incapable of creating a metaphor. Clever analogical substitutions rarely pop through my head. I never see a bird when I’m looking at a handkerchief—or vice versa, for that matter.
As I can’t write poetical descriptions of reality, I try to compensate by twisting reality itself, in order to make it more lyrical. Thus, I pack my novels with unconventional and slightly skewered characters, ones that have as many physical as moral flaws, and a whole lot of idiosyncrasies. A young bride who strives to keep her virginity intact, a lady who talks to trees, a nurse who does embroidery on her own skin, a soldier who forages through the trenches of World War I in the hope of finding the Knights Templars’ treasure, a spinster who will eat only salty things at the risk of becoming a salt statue like Lot’s wife.
I set these characters in strange environments: an isolated house full of drying mushrooms, an igloo where light is refracted into a thousand prisms, a sunken crypt with a floor covered with enigmatical carvings, a fantastical funerary monument carved out of salt in an abandoned mine. And I equip them with unusual objects: glass made from boiled cadavers, an antique tapestry where the weaved birds form a rebus, salt cellars in the shape of famous ships.
In Maleficium, the male characters are all tempted by rare and curious objects: a strong-flavored variety of saffron, an insect unknown to science, a vertigo-inducing kind of incense, golden tortoiseshell, the purest of soaps, a Persian carpet made of human hair.
Q: In what ways does Maleficium differ from your earlier novels?
A: My three first novels, however unusual they might be, always remained in the grey zone between the real and the unreal—a zone that could be best described as the “highly unlikely, but still possible” or, to paraphrase Sherlock Holmes, the “however improbable.”
Maleficium is a shift for me, because I have left that realm to venture a little more toward the unreal. Thus the main female character has physical attributes that make her appear foreign, almost monstrous and alien. She has a harelip, but is also described as having a long tail, vulvar stamens, perfumed earwax, thorns growing from her scalp; she is seen carrying a larva in her navel, shedding tortoiseshell tears, extracting iridescent oil from her skin.
This was prompted by my intent to explore the demonization of women through malicious gossip, now that they can no longer be accused of witchcraft. It is also a comment on the way we often demonize foreigners in an increasingly globalized world.
While I was writing this book, my niece became quite famous as a singer, here in Quebec and in France. Malicious gossip about her started appearing on the Internet, and it made me very much aware of the cyber bullying phenomenon. This experience informed the last chapter of the book, which is why Maleficium is dedicated in part to my niece.
Q: To research this novel, you studied many nineteenth-century texts, but were you able to visit any of the locations you describe in Maleficium?
A: Although I have traveled quite easily in the past, I have been, for the past ten years, struck by paralyzing panic attacks every time I leave Montreal. Being incapable to go anywhere is a source of great frustration for me, since I dream of visiting exotic lands like India, Zanzibar, Yemen or Oman. Writing Maleficium was a way for me to travel to these lands, albeit in my mind, to visit interesting sites and to discover new cultures.
Q: Do you envision an ideal reader?
A: My ideal reader is not squirmish and hasn’t lost his sense of wonderment at all the strangeness this world has to offer.