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Shots: Peter Guttridge recaps his interview with Mark Dugain at the French Institute

Date: Jun 27 2014

The interview at the French Institute could have been so different. I’d diligently researched my interviewee, French bestseller, Marc Dugain, in English and French sources. (French dictionary by my side.) I discovered he had been a very successful financier. So successful that he had then set up his own airline, employing 2,500 people, which he eventually sold to Air France. He retired (in his mid-thirties) to concentrate on writing.

Dugain had already written his first novel, The Officer’s Ward, based on his grandfather’s experiences in a hospital devoted to the disfigured in the First World War. He wrote it in 21 days, which, frankly, is sickening. Especially when it then went on to win 80 – yes, eight zero - literary prizes and become a very successful film. Envious? Moi?

He has gone on to write a wonderfully disparate range of novels and moved into directing film versions of several of them. He began with the film of his Une Execution Ordinaire, set in Russia now and in the early fifties. Most recently he did the same with his, as yet un-translated, The Curse of Edgar, about J Edgar Hoover. His docudrama stars our own Brian Cox as Hoover and Anthony Higgins (who I remember best from The Draughtsman’s Contract) as Clyde Tolson. (Dugain is meeting both actors for a drink as I write this.)

In consequence of this research – did I mention the word ‘exhaustive’? – I felt pretty relaxed getting up on stage with him in the French Institute’s lovely first floor library. We were there primarily to talk about his newly translated novel, The Avenue of The Giants (Europa), about Edmund Kemper (the ‘Co-Ed Killer’), a real-life California serial killer in the Sixties.

It’s a terrific and terrifically unsettling novel, written in a matter of fact, first person voice that makes the horrors even more horrific. And Dugain, born in Senegal but a Frenchman down to his stylish suit and specs, nails hippy California effortlessly.

So there was a lot to talk about. He dropped a little not-in-the-research bombshell early on when he said that he had been married to a psychopath (his first wife) so knew a little bit about how to get in the head of his Kemper character.

But he saved his interview-changing remark until my last question about the source of his writing. Was writing in the family? He laughed and said something about his sister. He named her but he pronounced her name so quickly I didn’t catch it. However, I gathered she was a bestselling writer.

He went on to say that they both learned to write by writing long, long letters to each other. It was only when a woman in the audience asked him a question about that exchange of letters that I heard his sister’s name more clearly. Fred Vargas. The inimitable Fred Vargas.

So much for my exhaustive research. Well, except that, after I first posted this Daniela Petracco at Europa Books and Geraldine D'Amico at King's Place both suggested to me that I'd actually misunderstood him. His parents were Fred's Godparents and he regards her as his sister. Phew, think I've got that right now!

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