Soft In The Head

Marie-Sabine Roger
Pushkin Press

This is a charming, funny, tender, fresh, moving, poignant and sunny novel which rightly became an International Bestseller!

Soft in the Head was written in 2008 and published by Editions du Rouergue. In 2010 it was made into the film called My Afternoons with Margueritte, directed by Jean Becker, starring Gerard Depardieu. This sweet book was translated from the French by Frank Wynne and published in 2016 by Pushkin Press. I shared my feelings about this feel-good book with Global TV The Morning Show.

I had the pleasure of having a remote conversation with the author, Marie-Sabine Roger. Please take the time to count the pigeons and read her eloquent responses to my questions.

What was the inspiration for this novel? Do you know someone like Germain or Marguerite?

I was a teacher for around ten years, just after my first books for children were published.

I worked with very young children (from 4 to 11 years old) and most of the schools I worked in were designated “Educational Priority Zones”, so called because their students were affected by significant social problems: unemployment, single-parent families, violence at home, depression, poverty, etc. At that time I met a lot of children from disadvantaged backgrounds whose parents had low levels of literacy and were sometimes even completely illiterate. That didn’t stop them from being good parents or affect their ability to make good decisions. They weren’t lazy (as they would prove when they were given the opportunity to work) and they were curious about the world around them. But those families had great difficulty finding rewarding jobs and in fitting into a French society that often confuses being “cultured” with being intelligent. And their children had more difficulty at school than other parents’ children, because there was nobody to help them revise or do their homework when they were at home in the evenings.

Throughout all those years I saw a lot more future Germains in my classes than future Marguerittes, and, like a lot of other teachers I’d often go home thinking about the inequality of the situations these children were born into: on the one hand there are those who grow up in houses where they are surrounded by books, for whom culture is something they absorb without even thinking about it (but who aren’t necessarily the hardest workers); and on the other hand there are those who will have to work stubbornly all their lives, endlessly digging, turning and watering the barren, dry earth – and while they will often get a meagre return for all their efforts, sometimes beautiful gardens can grow.

This is your first novel to be a bestseller that was then made into a movie and now translated into English!! Did you anticipate any of this? What has surprised you most about the success of this novel?

“Surprised” doesn’t even come close!

I could never have imagined that Soft in the Head would find so many wonderfully passionate readers – and all over the world too, now that it has been translated into ten languages.

To be honest, before being enthusiastically accepted by my French publisher, Editions Rouergue, the book had been rejected by a dozen other publishers. (Which should give hope to those budding authors who get a couple of rejection letters: don’t give up!) When the book came out in France it got no coverage in the press. But, luckily, it was taken up and championed by a number of booksellers, and then by an even larger number of readers. Then Jean Becker decided to adapt the film for the big screen, with Gérard Depardieu in Germain’s role and Gisèle Casadesus playing Margueritte, and foreign publishing houses began publishing translations abroad.

Does the expression “a fairy tale” mean anything to you? Because it certainly does to me.

And now the miracle continues with this English translation! (It really is a miracle, I think: very few French authors are translated into your language.)

To translate your work into English takes a leap of faith unless you know the translator and/or are fairly fluent in English. Did you choose the translator & work with them yourself or did you have to trust others?

It’s very important for an author to know that their book has been translated in a way that’s faithful to the original. Translation is a very intimate act, actually. With a film adaptation you know the director and screenwriter are going to highlight certain parts of the book and leave out others, maybe even going so far as to invent scenes from scratch if they think the film needs it. But a translation puts the author’s words in someone else’s mouth. It’s a very delicate sort of alchemy, because we don’t experience and describe situations and feelings in exactly the same way in different languages. (Even if I am regularly surprised, when speaking with my English friends in France, by how much our two languages have borrowed from each other over the years.)

So the English translator, Frank Wynne (whom I only know via email) had to completely reimagine the book – take it in, absorb it, and then put it back together again in your language. This task was made all the more difficult by the fact that, in Soft in the Head, Germain often invents words and expressions and reinterprets a language that he struggles to master, in order to make it truly his own.

I didn’t know Frank Wynne, and the only thing they told me about him before he took the translation on was that he loved the book. It may seem strange to you, but that was enough for me. Not because of some dumb pride on my part – I simply didn’t need any other references or proof of his abilities (although there was a lot of that available!): I told myself that if he really, deeply loved the book, then he’d find the words to make other readers love it too. Love is a terribly contagious thing!

You’ve written books for both children and adults … does your process change for either audience?

People have often asked me over the years what I think makes a “good” children’s book. The answer seemed clear to me: a good children’s book… is quite simply a good book. The processes involved in writing a novel and a picture book are different, of course, but the goal is the same.

From our childhood to old age, our whole life is built on the foundations of the first emotions we experience: the first times we laugh, feel scared or cry. Inside every – or almost every – reader, there is a little girl or a little boy who wants to finish reading a chapter under the covers, despite the fact that Mum and Dad have been making it quite clear for at least half an hour that it’s high time to turn off the light and sleep. If the little five-year-old girl, who still exists in a corner of my mind, gets bored and yawns while the adult that I have become is writing a story, then I know for sure that the story won’t be any good.

Besides, all parents know that it’s much easier to get kids interested in a story that captures the grown ups’ imagination too: J.K. Rowling understood that, and her Harry Potter cast a spell (excuse the pun) on as many adults as children, all over the world.

What is the message that you want the reader to take away from this story?

My book doesn’t have a message as such. That would imply that I somehow know better than you, and that I want to give you a lesson in life, which is not the case. In this book, as in all my others, I’ve written about things that have affected me emotionally. Sometimes these are very painful, wounding things, but I wasn’t trying to write a sad book – on the contrary, I prefer to leave space for smiles, laughter and tenderness.

I think my book talks about the way we look at others, and the way they look back at us.

If, from the day you were born, you’ve been told that you’re stupid (or ugly, or boring perhaps) you might end up believing it. But sometimes it’s enough for somebody, just one person, to look at you without any prejudgements, to love you for who you are, and then everything can change, the pendulum in your heart can start to swing again.

Often mothers and fathers look at their children like this. Not always, unfortunately. In Soft in the Head Germain was never loved by his mother, he never knew his father and he was hated by his teacher. (Who can deny the influence, good or bad, some teachers can have on our lives?) And then Margueritte comes along. She counts the pigeons, just like him. She talks to him with respect (using vous in the French, although this is hard to translate into English…). She thinks he’s funny, and sensitive. She accepts that she doesn’t know everything about him, and pays attention to what he tells her about himself. She makes him feel like a member of the human race again. She puts him back on his feet, which is a priceless thing to do for someone.

As for Germain, he understands Margueritte’s loneliness. He goes to great lengths for her, lengths he could never have gone to for anyone else, not even for himself, because to go those lengths you have to feel some love for yourself, and you have to be brave enough to risk failure, which is always possible.

Soft in the Head is a love story, nothing more, nothing less: the story of a grandson’s love, which blossoms as the result of a meeting, late in the day, as the sun is going down, between a grandson who’s never really been loved and a grandmother who never had a child. The fact that they’re not related doesn’t change anything. The fact that they have little time left to love each other doesn’t change anything either, because to have been truly loved for a single day is enough to understand the meaning of the word “eternity”.

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