How much of the novels is true?
Because this question was being asked so often, I decided that I needed a definitive answer. So I asked for my novels to be analysed by France’s famous INSL (Institut National des Statistiques Littéraires). It took them several months, but they eventually came up with an answer, which was 64.3%. What this means is that any event in one of my fiction books is likely to be 64.3% true – on average, of course. Some events might be 100% true, others zero.
Note: this compares to 75% for the average biography and 69% for an autobiography (which drops off to 47% for a politician, actor, sportsman or pop star).
Another note: my history books are 100% true, and seriously researched. Just because you add a joke or two in a history book, it doesn't mean you got your facts wrong. And my publishers have fiendish copy-editors who triple-check every name and date and then force me to check again as punishment.
Have you ever owned a tea shop in Paris?
No. I did once toy with the idea, but gave up when I realized I didn’t want to spend my days listening to French people mispronounce “fruit cake”.
How long does it take to write a book ?
As long as it takes. A Year in the Merde took about nine months, Merde Actually the same, though I went part-time in my dayjob while I was writing it. By the time of Merde Happens, I'd given up the dayjob to be able to go and travel around in America, but that was so much fun that I realized I was going to miss the deadline, so I came back to Europe for three months to write Talk to the Snail. I didn't need to travel for Snail, because most of it was in my head, and just needed a few intensive sessions at the laptop to get it down on paper. I have since realized that it can take a very long time to write a history book, because 1000 Years of Annoying the French took two years of delving into sources like the diary of a Parisian contemporary of Joan of Arc, the letters of Mary Queen of Scots and travel books inspired by Voltaire. But it would have taken even longer without the internet - thank heavens so many libraries are scanning their old books and putting them on line. I'd still be stuck in a library basement.
Do you have a routine when you’re writing?
Not really. I do it whenever I feel like it. Sometimes I sit at a desk and plug away for a few hours until my back aches. I also scribble dialogue on bits of paper on the metro, I take my computer on trains. I print out passages that I’ve written and read them at the café. I wake up in the middle of the night after dreaming of a better punchline for a joke. I work in a kind of spiral, getting ahead with the novel, going back and rewriting what I’ve done, getting ahead some more, pushing on till the end of the plot, and then going back and honing away at everything till I’ve got every word exactly how I want it. Which leads me to …
Did you expect A Year in the Merde to become so successful?
God, no. I wrote it thinking “this is going to be something different about France”, and I hoped that somewhere out there, there might be people who’d be interested, but I never really expected it to take off like it did. There was a truly magical moment when the orders started pouring in, and I began to get emails from people saying how funny they thought it was, and I thought, bloody hell, something very special is happening here. And that’s what I still think every time I see someone reading one of my books.