A few weeks ago I had the great pleasure of sitting down with bestselling author Tatiana de Rosnay to speak about her novel Sarah’s Key being adapted into the Kristin Scott Thomas feature film that is expanding over the next few months. She went on a press tour to promote the movie, and as she mentions in my exclusive interview, she wouldn’t be doing it if she wasn’t proud of the film. Of course, there is a lot to be proud of as I thought the film was incredibly well-made and affecting. The film and the book interweave story lines of a modern day journalist investigating the Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup for an article and a young Jewish girl in the 1940s that lives through the experience. Those stories intersect in a morose way that changes the journalist’s life forever. Among the topics de Rosnay and I discussed were her involvement in the film, whether she likes to read the book before seeing a film, the different boldness in the novel that sets Sarah and Julia’s stories apart, when she realized the book had become a hit, and a touching case of life imitating art. For the audio and full transcript, hit the jump.
As mentioned above, you can click here for the audio and below is a full transcription of my interview. If you have seen or read the book, this is definitely an interview to check out. It is also spoiler-free, so you can go in with little knowledge of Sarah’s Key and you might find your interest piqued. That’s certainly my hope.
Collider: Welcome to Dallas.
Tatiana de Rosnay: Yea, it’s my first time in Dallas.
First time? OK. Sorry about the weather… it’s kind of to the point where even we’re embarrassed.
De Rosnay: I saw that on the news this morning.
Yea, it’s hot.
De Rosnay: One of the hottest places in the U.S. right now.
Yea. I don’t know if we can compete with Arizona, but we’re close.
De Rosnay: You’re not too far from Arizona from what I see on the temperature report.
Yea, it’s kind of crazy right now. So, this is your first time into Dallas. Is this your first time into Texas?
De Rosnay: This is my first time into Texas and Dallas, yea. I’ve never been… I mean I’ve been to the States a lot. But this is my first time here.
De Rosnay: So I’m sad not to be able to see more of it because I’m going to San Francisco after this.
So you stopped by just for the screening and then this press?
De Rosnay: Well, we’re doing a big four city tour. New York, Dallas, San Francisco, and LA. Press junkets for the movie.
Uh huh. So did you see it… it was at Toronto, correct?
De Rosnay: Well the movie came out for the first time in Europe last year. So it was out in France and in Europe in October 2010. So that’s when I saw it for the first time. And toured with it.
So you got to see it again last night… Oh, you didn’t watch it?
De Rosnay: No. I was in the plane at that time. I’ve seen it a lot. But I saw it again at the New York opening at the MoMA on Monday. That was very exciting.
So, did you participate in the Q&A? Were you able to?
De Rosnay: Last night?
De Rosnay: Well, I was there for about half an hour. Great audience. Very good questions. It’s very nice to meet my readers. A lot of people had read the book because I… maybe I’m sure you’re aware this book has done very well in the States. So a lot of excited readers were there last night so that was really nice.
Yea, definitely. So what is your reaction to the film so far? I mean…
De Rosnay: What do you think?
De Rosnay: Would I have come all the way from Paris, France…
De Rosnay: and do this four city tour if I didn’t like it? Honestly, tell me the truth.
Absolutely. Well, you know, some people do. Some people, they’re tied to their product.
De Rosnay: I’m a writer. I’m not an actress.
This is true.
De Rosnay: I’m not the usual part of the movie team. If I’m here today, it’s because Gilles Paquet-Brenner did a very good job and I want you to tell all my readers in the U.S.A, and they’re three million of them out there…
Uh huh. That’s a lot.
De Rosnay: to go and see this movie. That’s why I’m here.
How involved were you with the film? I mean, I noticed you didn’t have any writing credits. Not a lot of information is known about the production process for this particular film. How much input did you have, if any?
De Rosnay: I’d say that this whole adventure was on a much more emotional and friendly basis in the sense that… First of all, the producer of the movie, Stéphane Marsil, happens to be a very good friend of my sister. So that’s the first thing. And then, the guy who wrote the script, Serge Joncour, happens to be a very good friend of mine. He’s a writer and I know him very well. So when I knew that the movie was being bought by Stéphane Marsil and was going to be written by Serge and Gilles Paquet-Brenner, I immediately felt that I could trust them and when I met Gilles, he was a great guy. Young guy and tremendously dynamic. And they all said to me, “We’re going to respect your book.” And they showed me the script very early on, which I loved, and then they took me on the set. I play a cameo part in a restaurant scene with Kristin Scott Thomas and my kids play in the Vel’ d’Hiv scene, so I was included ever since day one in the whole business of this movie. And you know I have four other books that are becoming movies in France and I know that those movies will never reach the emotional level that I went through, sharing everything that happened… Making this movie, promoting this movie. Because we’ve toured Europe with this movie. Gilles and I, and the actresses, so it’s been a… Maybe my name isn’t in the credits but look, *points at poster behind us*, hey, it’s right there. It’s as big as Kristin Scott Thomas’, right? Please.
De Rosnay: And what I love is, “From the beloved novel…” I love the fact that America has put that. “Beloved.” Because that’s the most important thing for me. That my readers will find this book and I’ve trusted Gilles from the start, so this is a very close… It’s both a friendship affair and a professional… You know, it’s almost like… it was perfection, really. I think most authors will not be telling you this.
De Rosnay: I’ve met many authors who were very upset with the, uh…
With their adaptations.
De Rosnay: Yea. I think I’m the rare case…
Well, yea. I mean obviously you’re on the press tour. So I’m very curious. With films that are made out of books, do you prefer reading the book before the film?
De Rosnay: Oh, me?
Yea. Or, after. Or do you have a preference?
De Rosnay: Well, you know something… it depends. There are two of my favorite books, The Great Gatsby and Gone With The Wind, that were made into movies. And I love those movies as much as I love the books. That’s really rare. Sometimes I get to see a movie that’s adapted from a book that I haven’t heard about, or that I love the movie so much that I will of course read the book. This is the case with a movie that I saw recently: The [Private] Lives of Pippa Lee by… I think it’s Rebecca Miller who did the movie (It is). And I loved the movie, but I really want to read the book. So it really works both ways for me. I have discovered great books through movies, and the other way around. So I think they’re really linked. I think books and movies are going to go a long way together in the future. I think we writers are very important material for directors.
De Rosnay: They need us.
And especially because they need something new to adapt. I mean, Hollywood, they often recycle ideas and novels are a key ingredient to say, “Hey, this is something fresh. This is something different.”
De Rosnay: Exactly.
It’s funny because you have mentioned several times in several interviews that you didn’t discover this event… I don’t watch to butcher the name…
De Rosnay: The Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup.
The Vel’ d’Hiv…
De Rosnay: Yea.
And you discovered this in ’95 after [French President Jacques] Chirac’s…
De Rosnay: Well, not discovered it. I’d say that was the first time I’d heard… of it… heard the name. That’s the first time I remember hearing the name.
Was it kind of a release to write the film, er, novel through Julia’s eyes? Because she’s discovering it in the novel as well. Were you working through some emotions yourself with how you wrote her character?
De Rosnay: Well, she’s very different to me in her lifestyle in the sense that she’s American, I’m French. She’s married to Bertrand; luckily I’m not. But yes, I did give her the shock and the horror that I felt. And discovering everything that happened in July, 1942, because it’s the details of the Roundup that we were not taught about in school. Now, children are. In that perspective, yes, we are very alike in the sense that she takes this very seriously and I felt such pain and horror when I realized how these children had been treated and I think that’s what I gave to Julia Jarmond and that’s what Kristin Scott Thomas brilliantly portrays in the movie. That wonderful emotion and that class of talent that she has.
You mentioned, just briefly, that it’s now taught in schools.
De Rosnay: Yes.
Why do you think that is? What’s been changed? Because you mentioned in several interviews, that when you were growing up, you weren’t taught this in school. It was kind of glossed over.
De Rosnay: I think France is slowly coming to terms with this very difficult part of her past. And I think the change probably came in the ’90s… after Jacques Chirac’s speech. Jacques Chirac was the first president to publicly acknowledge the role of the French police during this Roundup. And I think that kind of shifted the way that people were looking at this and a lot of people were realizing that it was now time to look back at this past and instead of ignoring it, pretending it never happened, say, “Yes, it did happen” and make sure it doesn’t happen again.
Obviously, when you write a book like this, you may not have a sense of how far it will go. What was the moment for you when you realized, “Hey, this is really starting to take off”? Was there a moment in a bookstore or on the radio or on TV?
De Rosnay: You know, this book now has been published in 40 countries. It’s been a bestseller in several countries. In your country, in France, in Holland, for example. So I’d say that it was kind of a gradual thing. It didn’t happen like, bang. It happened little by little. But there was one moment. I think when the movie came out in France, and then with the French tie-in edition with that picture came up, and all of a sudden people were recognizing me in the streets. I’d had a lot of media coverage and TV shows, and whatever in France.
And you’re on the back of the book. *I point at my book*
De Rosnay: Exactly. And all of a sudden people were recognizing me and that’s when I suddenly realized that something had changed. Which I’m still sort of trying to get used to now because it is a little overpowering sometimes. But very exciting, of course.
I noticed in the book that there isn’t chapter titles. I don’t know if… clearly I’m reading the American book, but you wrote this in English from the outset.
De Rosnay: You’re reading it exactly like how I wrote it.
Your previous eight books were all written in French.
De Rosnay: Yes.
I noticed that not only do you not have chapter numbers, you also have different boldness between…
De Rosnay: the two stories.
Yea, the two stories. Was that a… and I overheard that you didn’t really make that conscious decision… maybe that was a publishers decision?
De Rosnay: Well in fact, when I wrote the book on my computer, I had put Sarah’s story in italics. And Julia’s story in normal font. And in France it was published like that. Sarah’s story in italic, and Julia’s story in normal font. But my American publisher decided… I think for some reason, explained to us that American readers didn’t like italics. So they chose the pale font for Julia and the strong font for Sarah. And I think it works really well. I also very much like this little design here, *points to top of each chapter with floral design*, which of course is not in my computer.
De Rosnay: But which I think was very pretty and I think it came out really nicely.
You have a French husband.
De Rosnay: Uh huh.
And your father is French as well, correct?
De Rosnay: That’s right. And Russian.
And Russian. What has your family been… how has the reaction been to that?
De Rosnay: You mean to my book? Or to my success?
To the book.
De Rosnay: Well this is not the only book that I have written. I’ve written 10 books that have been published and before that, I started writing when I was 11. I wrote about 15 books between the ages of 11 and 25, so my family are kind of used to me writing. So I think this was the one that changed so many things for me because it became a huge, bestseller…
But specifically, the subject matter. Has it…
De Rosnay: You know, I think that when you have a writer in the family, you’re used to that person having so much imagination. I think they were… I think my mother was very happy that I wrote this story in English. Because all those books that I was telling you about, that I wrote between the ages of 11 and 25, were in English. And then I switched to French when I became published. Then back to English for this one. I think that they… you’d have to ask them. I think they’re a little awed by everything that has been happening to me and they’re hoping that I’m sort of remaining normal and not getting swept away by all the excitement. I think my kids are worried that their mom is gonna change or my husband’s worried it is his wife. My mother’s always worrying about me, but you know what mothers are like.
[Laughs] Yea, absolutely.
De Rosnay: So I don’t think the subject matter… it’s difficult to answer your question because this is like just another one of my books, except of course it’s the one that drew all the attention. But I had already published eight books before that, don’t forget that.
You mentioned in the book, Sarah kind of struggles with, “Why am I not told anything? Why do all the adults always guard me from things?” You mentioned that you have told your children about this. Especially while you were writing it. You actually had them accompany you to several of the different sites.
De Rosnay: Yes.
What was your decision on that? I mean, was it, “I’m just going to tell them at a very young age”?
De Rosnay: Well, when I was writing this book… I wrote this book nearly 10 years ago now. So my children were… 9 and 11. I really think that I was so horrified by what I had discovered and how I was going to work this into the book, that I did tell them about it. I remember that they were horrified too, and I had to be kind of careful about what I told my daughter because she is very sensitive. Very sensitive. And she couldn’t actually quite believe what I was telling her and the photos that I was showing her of all these children. When I saw the movie, they played in the Vel’ d’Hiv scenes, and they were really moved by that. I’d say my kids probably know more about the Vel’ d’Hiv a lot more than kids of their generations. But I included them in this because I think it’s the mother in me that made me want to write Sarah’s Key because… it’s thinking about those children that sparked off this idea and that’s why the book is actually dedicated to my daughter, Charlotte, because she was the model for Sarah. She was the only little 10-year-old girl that I had so close to me. So Charlotte and Sarah are very similar.
De Rosnay: Different now. But of course Charlotte is now a young woman.
You mentioned in an interview…
De Rosnay: You’ve been doing a lot of homework.
De Rosnay: [Laughs]
You mentioned in an interview that you had a neighbor that moved in upstairs.
De Rosnay: Yes. Where did you read that?
Uh, it was a small interview. But I came across it. You know, life sometimes imitates art.
De Rosnay: It’s amazing.
What was that experience like?
De Rosnay: Oh, that was the most unbelievable experience in my life. So, in the apartment just above me, just after I had finished writing Sarah’s Key and was struggling to get it published… I had found my French publisher. An old couple moves in, Suzy and Maurice. In their 80s. I’m very fond of old people. I miss my grandparents a lot. I was very close to my Russian grandmother. So I kind of helped these people do their shopping and they’re so nice and sweet. And one day, Suzy asks me what my new book was about. She knew I was a writer. And I tell her, about Sarah. And her face changes completely. We’re standing in this super market, and she says to me, “Tatiana, on July 16th, 1942, I was your daughter Charlotte’s age when they came to get me. And they took everyone, but me, and they told me to hide and they pushed me away. They told me to tear off my star. These policemen saved my life but I didn’t know that right away.” And I couldn’t believe, this woman, this Vel’ d’Hiv survivor, was there living, just above my apartment. Not, you know, down the street. Or not across the road. Just above my apartment. So it was just unbelievable. And then I said, “Would you want to read this book? Can you…”
Yea, “Can you stomach it”?
De Rosnay: She said yes, so I gave it to her, and then for about three or four days, silence. “Oh, God.” This book hadn’t even been published yet. I had a pre-ARC edition. Advanced readers copy. And finally she rings and says to me, “Can you come up? I want to talk to you about Sarah.” So I went up there feeling really worried about how she was going to react to this book and what she was going to tell me. And she opens the door and she’s in tears. She takes me in her arms and she says, “I want to thank you for writing this book because people need to know.” And oh my God, just amazingly emotional.
De Rosnay: Yea, she’s an amazing woman, Suzy. She’s become a very dear friend.
I bet. OK, and that’s it.
While that ended our interview, we proceeded to chat a little bit more, but it was a haunting way to stop our formal session despite the fact that I had read up on the story a little beforehand. De Rosnay was a gracious interviewee and I had a lot of other questions I wanted to ask her. Perhaps one day I will be lucky enough to sit across from her because as you can tell, she is refreshingly honest and open. I really think her book has hit bestsellers lists because she is a talented writer, but she also picked a subject matter that not many know about.