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An Interview with Jean-Claude Dunyach

by Sven Klöpping

Your stories resemble surrealist paintings: roses grow out of bellies, a Ferrari is swallowed by a street … Have you been influenced by artists like Dalí, Magritte and others? And do you integrate these influences consequently in your settings?

Surrealism is part of the landscape, in Europe, so yes, I’ve been influenced by it (I am very fond of Delvaux, Leonor Fini, and of course Dali and Magritte, to name a few). But I’ve gradually lost it, I think. My early years were Baroque, and it had become a trademark, so I decided to veer away from that entirely and walk off my own well-beaten path. I will get back to it eventually.

Are there any writers who have influenced you?

Everything influences me! Writers, all sorts of artists (painters, musicians, photographs and architects – I’m very fond of human created landscapes) and the man in the street if it’s his behavior or he looks sufficiently unusual. Stories are everywhere. And many of them wander freely around you, waiting to be captured.

As for writers, the list is long – I’ve read a book a day my entire life and I’m especially fond of shortstory writers like J. G. Ballard, Ian Watson, Julio Cortazar, J. L Borges, F. S. Fitzgerald, R. Brautigan, Buzzatti, Calvino, many Japaneses (Kawabata, Abbe Kobo, Banana Yashimoto, Murakami)… Science-Fiction is a wonderful playground for shortstories. Every month or so, I read one that knocks me off my feet. It’s wonderful.

I’m also very fond of SF written by women (Elizabeth Bear, K. K. Rusch, Linda Nagata, Chris Moriarty, or the French Catherine Dufour and Sylvie Lainé, to name a few). Their books have a very distinctive flavor that I like.

As you are able to write very visual, colorful scenes, could you also imagine writing fantasy, which has much more commercial potential, internationally?

I don’t really decide what to write. Stories settle in my mind and I decide to write them to get rid of them – writing is a form of eviction, driving unwanted occupants out of your brain. I did, however, write a dark fantasy novel (Game of Circles). Well, actually I wrote and published the first volume and I’m well into the second one, after a couple of false starts. There should be three of them. It’s dark, baroque and extremely cruel. I love it.

For writers in less well known publishing markets, international collaboration is essential if they want to sell their works and if they want to get readers’ attention. Do you think there is enough collaboration in Europe or could it be better?

Oh, it certainly could be much better. I fully agree with your analysis and I am convinced that we should exchange more at the European level. A few years ago I circulated a document in English describing the French SF scene, and some friends did the same for their countries. But real collaboration is hard to implement. When I was associate editor of the French magazine Galaxy, we tried to publish Italian, German and Spanish authors along with the Anglo-Saxon ones. But good translators are hard to find – we were lucky to work with some of the finest – and it was frustrating to read a good short story from someone who didn’t have a novel translated in French.

In France and Franco-Canada, there is a well-established sf market (which could be bigger and better, but, well, it’s still good). Why is it so difficult for French authors (and for others) to become internationally known? Do you need good contacts?

It is not that difficult to become internationally known; what is difficult is entering the Anglo-Saxon market, which is very complex (and expensive) to enter as a non-native speaker. The first thing, obviously, is to find a foreign editor that can read your story in the original language (it might be the case in Europe) – or to translate it into English because every SF editor in the world reads English. And that’s where the problem lies…

I have been published in the United States and in the Anglophone world, but this is because I have enough money to pay for translations myself. I have a remarkable translator, Sheryl Curtis. Although she often works pro bono, as a labor of love, she is also (and rightly so) motivated by the need to pay her bills. Because she is a talented translator, my writing gets published. But I don’t recover my outlay for years; I have to wait three or four years for a story to earn enough money to refund the price of a translation; I don’t really earn any money otherwise. Now, as two of my collections have already been published, and they are released as ebooks, that costs me nothing but allows us to do more, as I can recoup costs more quickly. And I’m less worried about doing that.

This of course applies to short stories. But you need a few thousand euros for the translation of a novel and, since you can’t be sure that you’ll be published, it’s a bet, and a dangerous one.

I’ve submitted tons of manuscripts in the standard form in the Anglo-Saxon market — one hundred and fifty thousand words alongside plot outlines — and even if the book is already published in French, has won awards, etc., in general the publishers’ response is, “This looks great; when can we see the rest?” And I say, “Send me a contract and I’ll pay for the rest of the translation.” And they respond, “No, I can’t give you a contract based on the first hundred and fifty thousand words; I need the whole thing.” In other words, they expect me to spend ten thousand dollars on a translation and later they’ll give me twenty. Or maybe not; if they don’t like the book. They have no one to read a book for them in French, no one.

The market share of translated foreign language books published in the United States is something like two percent – and this includes all languages. In France, it’s more than 30%… We don’t play by the same set of rules.

Online publications are a good opportunity for young writers to publish their stories, but unfortunately there are also a lot of bad quality stories amongst them. Should there be a quality check, an official “trademark” for good online SF?

That’s a good point.

Whatever form your story will be published in, you need an editor to choose, improve and validate it. If you self-publish your work, there is no guarantee for the reader that it is any good. So there is a need for online editors – many are already available in the Anglo-Saxon world. In France, we have online magazines like Angle mort (www.angle-mort.fr) that publishes superb stories. They are becoming a quality trademark, for sure. We need more initiatives like that.

What are the best ways for unknown writers to stand out, to be unique? Should they write unique content or is it also style that matters?

If you’re unique, you’ll have your own way to stand out. But style versus substance is an old, overused, debate. As a reader, I need both. Plenty of both.

And remember: deep in his own heart, everybody is unique. You can’t assume that your own uniqueness will be sufficient, unfortunately. A lot of work is also required.

When did you write your first sf story and where was it published?

I started writing in July 1981, because I had time on my hands. It took me a month to write my first short story – did I mention that I’m a slow writer? – then I wrote another one in August, a third one in September. I sent the last one to the French magazine Fiction, and it was accepted in five weeks (I was really lucky). They published it in March 1982. After that, it was easier, I had direct contacts with the editor at Fiction, I started to meet colleagues and other editors at SF conventions and I regularly wrote a handful of short stories every year. My first novel, on the other hand, was written in 1986, much later.

What are your plans for the future? Do you want to publish some novels or are you a short story writer?

I am definitely a short story writer and I can’t imagine not writing some. However, I did write six novels and I’m still interested in longer forms (I’m also working on novellas that are another literary species). I have two novels in preparation, the big fantasy one I mentioned earlier and a strange sf story with one main female character that should be published in chunks – the first part has been published as a novella by the French magazine Bifrost.

And I’m also planning another novel set in the Animalcities universe. But that will take time.

Tell us a little bit about the French SF scene. Which writers should one know, which books are the best?

Well, answering this would be the fastest way to become hated by all the friends I would forget to mention! Let me leave it at this: I’ve updated my article on French SF, which should help international readers learn more about us.

The important thing is: there are a lot of new writers blossoming every year! We just published “Destination Universe”, in February of this year. It’s a professional space-opera anthology and half of the authors are newcomers. They’re good, believe me!


If you were guest on a space ship, what would you do first?

Most certainly ask for the location of the nearest toilets as I tend to be space sick. Then I would go on the deck and contemplate the stars!

Thanks for this interview!

Copyright © 2012 by Jean-Claude Dunyach & Sven Klöpping

Jean-Claude Dunyach, born 1957, is one of the leading contemporary French sf writers. He has a Ph.D. in applied mathematics and supercomputing and works for Airbus in Toulouse in southwestern France. Dunyach has been writing science fiction since the beginning of the 1980s and has already published seven novels and eight collections of short stories, garnering the French Science-Fiction award in 1983 and the Prix Rosny-Aîné Awards in 1992, as well as the Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire and the Prix Ozone in 1997. His works have been translated into English, Bulgarian, Croatian, Danish, Hungarian, German, Italian, Russian and Spanish.

Sven Klöpping was born in Herdecke/Westfalen in 1979. He has published stories at the borderline of inner space sf and contemporary mainstream fiction in anthologies and magazines, Nova among them. Several of his works have been translated for sf websites such as Fantastic Metropolis and the Romainian Lumi Virtuale. His fiction has received several awards. His website is at www.svenkloepping.de. His most recent project is a poetry site to be found at www.lyrikonline.eu.

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