Sophie Hardach wrote The Registrar’s Manual for Detecting Forced Marriages while working as a reporter for Reuters in Paris. The novel follows the intertwining lives of a young Kurdish boy trying to build a life in Germany and a registrar working at a Parisian town hall.
If that sounds like an unlikely combination, I can assure you the result is equally as surprising. While grappling with issues of immigration, identity, love, and marriage, the book also displays an unexpected humor that made it a pleasure to read.
As with some of my favorite discoveries, I didn’t know much about the author or the story going in. I was delighted to first hear Sophie speak at the American Library and then delve into her delightful debut. Both her talk and her book sparkled.
On the occasion of the paperback release of The Registrar’s Manual next Thursday, March 29, I’m pleased to have Sophie on the blog today to answer a few questions.
You’re German, live in France, and write in English. Wow! How does this trilingual mix influence your work? And why did English become the language of your creative self?
I fell in love with English literature as a teenager, and unlike most teenage love affairs, this one turned into a lifelong passion. English is my ideal home: a place where everyone is welcome, where writers from countries as far apart as Nigeria, Ireland, the U.S. and Singapore – to name just a random few – mingle and contribute. I can think of no other language today that is so open to new influences, so ready to absorb new trends.
As for how my own mix influences my work… hmmm. Not sure. I suppose I like to mash up different languages, and I love a bit of word play, but then again, so do many monolingual people.
Fiction at its best can place us inside the shoes of people very different from ourselves, yet highlight a common sense of humanity. (This is probably why fiction readers rate higher on tests measuring empathy!) Even knowing this, I was impressed by your range – a young Kurdish immigrant, Selim, and your nameless narrator transforming from an anarchist teenager to a French civil servant. What is your process for imagining yourself into different characters?
I didn’t know fiction readers rated higher on empathy tests! I bet they all cheated. Anyway, back to characterisation: I think we all carry hundreds of different characters inside us. It’s what makes up a human personality, right? So in a way, inventing a character for a novel is not all that different from slipping into a certain role for an everyday interaction. Broadly speaking, my characters tend to start off as foggy shapes on the horizon, and then I obsess about them until they become very real and close. I love Flaubert’s quote about Emma Bovary – “Madame Bovary, c’est moi!” – I think it’s that powerful sense of recognition, identification and closeness that makes us connect with a novel or a poem or in fact a character.
I’d say this book is a delightful example of pure fiction. From your talk at the American Library, I take it you found much freedom in being able to “make stuff up” after a full day of reporting for Reuters. Still, I can’t help thinking your reporter’s background must have helped. Your book touches on subjects such as the PKK, the plight of the Kurds, the issue of forced marriage – surely you must have done much research to be able to seamlessly weave these issues into your narrative. How does your work as a journalist inform your fiction? (Does the opposite occur, as well?)
I love the freedom of writing fiction, but I guess some journalistic habits are hard to shed. For example, at one point in the “Registrar’s Manual” a Palestinian boy teaches Selim how to slurp tea through a lump of sugar. A Turkish friend read that scene and told me that some Kurds drink their tea that way, too. So when I travelled to south-eastern Turkey, I went from shop to shop trying to find those mythical sugarlumps. It became a bit of a quest. In the end, all the shopkeepers agreed that the only place where you could buy the sugarlumps was the city of Van (where they had the big earthquake recently).
To be honest, I don’t think my editor and my readers really cared about the precise origin of the sugarlumps. But it was somehow important to me to properly establish that tiny fact, maybe out of journalistic pride.
It doesn’t work the other way round, though – journalists certainly shouldn’t embellish their pieces with fiction!
Writers are often said to have a few obsessions they return to again and again. Is this true for you? Are the same types of stories intriguing to you both as a journalist and a creative writer or do you find a different sort of inspiration for each?
I’m much pickier as a novelist. As a journalist, all you have to do is find one or two interesting angles to make the story sing – and most of human activity is in some way interesting. As a novelist, you’re going to spend at least two years of your life with that story, so it really has to become an obsession, as you say. I tend to like Graham-Greene-type stories about people who become involved in big issues almost against their will. I suppose both the Registrar and my current novel-in-progress fit into that category, so that might be a recurring theme.
Your book displays a nice sense of humor, even while dealing with weighty topics (immigration, identity, forced marriage). How did you achieve such a level of levity with what could be very heavy subject matters?
Hmm it wasn’t a conscious effort. I just find that life is often very funny in a slightly cruel way.
Can you talk about what happened after your book was accepted for publication? How much editing and revision did you go through and what was the relationship like with your editor?
Ah, I get the chance to praise my editor! She’s wonderful. Jessica Leeke at Simon&Schuster. She came to Paris, we spent all afternoon going through the entire manuscript page by page, and then we congratulated each other and went out for drinks. This was followed by several months of re-writing. Editing is such a subtle craft: we didn’t really change any major plot lines but sort of chiselled away at the whole thing until it was the book both she and I wanted. A good editor has that magical ability to ask just the right questions and help you see your work in a clearer way.
What’s next for you?
I’m working on a novel about conscientious objectors in London during the Second World War. It’s about a love triangle, and about two families – a Quaker clan and a clan of diamond-cutters. I know all about the rose cut now. And about traditional Quaker dress.
Thank you, Sophie!
Find out more about Sophie and her work at her website. And pick up her book!