Kaouther Adimi is a young Algerian novelist living in France. A Bookshop in Algiers is her third novel and was published in France in 2017, where it sold over 50,000 copies and received the trifecta of major French award nominations for the Goncourt, Renaudot and Médicis prizes. Alice was delighted to speak to Adimi about her latest novel.
- What was the initial inspiration for your novel? / what drew you towards writing about the life of Edmond Charlot?
In Algiers, several independent bookshops have great stories, marked by the events of the 20th century. I had the project to tell the story of one of them and while researching, I found myself by chance in rue Hamani, the former rue Charras, in front of a small storefront that did not look like much and on which was written: “a man who reads is worth two”. Through the window, I saw a large photo of a man and the name “Edmond Charlot”. I did some research and I discovered that this tiny place had been an incredible place during the 20th century, a publishing house, a bookstore and an art gallery at the same time, which welcomed the greatest artists and writers from Algiers but also from Paris and other places.
- Why did you choose to structure the novel between the two timelines – in 2017, and between the 30s and 60s in Algiers? Was the novel planned this way from the offset? and – the prose style from the two timelines are very distinct – how did you approach writing the two very different sections?
I wondered if I wanted to write a biography of Edmond Charlot and the answer was very quickly found, that was not the project. Several things interested me: Edmond Charlot of course, especially the period from the 1930s to the independence of Algeria because that was the great period of the Charlot’s publishing house, the time when he published Camus, when he created his branch in Paris, won the great literary prizes and went bankrupt. What also interested me was that this bookstore survived the Second World War, the Algerian war and the civil war in Algeria in the 1990s. It remained there, in this little street, for decades. So the novel had to be both the story of Charlot, told as closely as possible, therefore through a diary, and at the same time the story of the bookstore today, by imagining its closure and what it would cause in this Algerian neighborhood. A third voice was also needed, the famous “we” of the novel. This voice tells the story of Algeria during the French colonial era. These are very personal pages that tell certain facts that seemed important to me: May ’45 and the great massacres in Algeria, the Algerians thrown into the Seine in 1961…
- Between Charlot’s diary entries and the contemporary passages of the novel which follow Ryad, you paint a very vivid portrait of Algiers, as well as highlighting some extremely traumatic events and periods of history. How do you capture a sense of place in your writing?
During my four years of university in Algiers, I had very few courses and I was not very assiduous. I spent my time in the buses and walking in the streets. To note what I heard, what I saw. I had the great, the immense chance to go for a 4-year walk in Algiers. It is what partly allowed me to write this novel.
.What type of research did you conduct – and how did you weave this research into your prose?
I spent a year scouring the archives, looking for anything that had to do with Edmond Charlot. Only one person who knew Charlot during the 1930s was still alive when I was working on this project, the poet Frédéric Jaques Temple. I was able to meet him and had the chance to correspond with him. He shared his memories with me.
For the rest, I went to several cities in France to find all the letters and documents related to Charlot, his publishing house or his entourage (friends, writers…). I emptied a lot of boxes and wrote to a lot of people. I also read all the books published by the writers he was publishing and the correspondence of that time. Finally, I did a lot of research to write the more “historical” parts. It was an exciting job to do (and exciting to tell).
- Our most recent issue of the magazine explored independent bookshops – so I must ask, what is your favourite independent bookshop? (or favourites!)
– Les vraies richesses, rue Hamani, in Algiers
– Page 189 and La Manœuvre in Paris
Which books have helped you through the past 12 months?
“Little Brown Bear” has helped me a lot to keep my 2 year old boy busy. And all of Patrick Deville’s books have been a great way to spend the last 12 months.
- Are you working on anything new at the moment?
I have just finished projects related to cinema (feature and short films). Working on this other form of writing is something that I really enjoyed. I’m just starting a new novel project