A Conversation with French Writer Nicolas Mathieu

Posted September 18, 2023

Nicolas Mathieu, a French writer who won the prestigious Prix Goncourt in 2018 for his novel Their Children After Them (Leurs enfants après eux), visited Georgia Tech on Sept. 11, 2023, as part of a collaboration of the School of Modern Languages, the Cultural Services of the French Consulate in Atlanta, and Villa Albertine. Stéphanie Boulard, professor of French in Georgia Tech’s School of Modern Languages, moderated the event. 

The event, part of the French Speakers Series, attracted around 50 enthusiastic participants who joined the conversation during lunchtime. 

“The discussion was a truly unique dialogue between two passionate literary minds whose profound connection with the world of literature illuminated the beauty of writing and literary analysis for the audience,” said Sophie Landrieux Kartochian, a lecturer of French in Georgia Tech’s School of Modern Languages. 

The occasion began with a discussion of Mathieu’s evolution from a budding writer to literary sensation as winner of the French equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize. Boulard navigated various overarching themes that permeate Mathieu's literary works, including the significance of place and roots, the parallels between writing and music, and literature as means of escape. He also discussed novels as cinematic sequences and the transformative power of literature, which Mathieu said had played a role for him personally. 

He said his literary acclaim has granted him a powerful voice, enabling him to portray individuals from diverse backgrounds and break free from the chains of social determinism, as discussed under the theme of "briser les chaines de transmission." Additionally, the conversation addressed his endeavors to shed light on underrepresented aspects of female sexuality and desire in literature. 

One particularly impactful aspect of the conversation was Mathieu's insight into his writing process. He shared that it all begins with a character, a character he allows to lead him through the writing journey without predetermined outcomes. Mathieu emphasized that his characters were not preconceived, and his literature was far from being demonstrative. He strived for what he aptly termed "transparent writing." 

Boulard raised a common thread she had identified in his novels: the theme of anger. Mathieu paused and contemplated the observation before acknowledging its truth. His central characters indeed harbored a deep-seated anger toward complex situations, yet they channeled that emotion into a formidable resistance, illustrating the profound ability of literature to offer a means of punching back at life's challenges, testifying for life itself. 

Students seized the opportunity to deepen their understanding of the literary works they are studying in their courses. Among the queries was the question: "What advice would you give to an aspiring writer?" Mathieu graciously provided three pieces of advice that resonate with all: Read: Immerse yourself in literature to enrich your craft; Maintain Discipline: Dedicate time each day to writing, whether it's a set amount of time or a specific word count (for Mathieu, it was 1000 words every day); Be Available: Create the necessary mental space in your life for writing. Organize your daily routines to accommodate your writing aspirations. Don't wait for inspiration; simply start writing. 

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Stéphanie Boulard (left) speaks with French writer Nicolas Mathieu (right) at the event on Sept. 11, 2023, at Price Gilbert Memorial Library.

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Megan McRainey