The Interview: Bookbag Talks To David Barrie

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The Interview: Bookbag Talks To David Barrie

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Summary: Bookbag was impressed by David Barrie's debut novel, Wasp-Waisted and couldn't resist the opportunity to ask him a few questions.
Date: 29 September 2009
Interviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee

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Bookbag was impressed by David Barrie's debut novel, Wasp-Waisted and couldn't resist the opportunity to ask him a few questions.

  • Bookbag: When you close your eyes and imagine your readers, who do you see?

David Barrie: People sitting in trains, buses or in the underground, a book in hand, lost in a fictional world, holding at bay the impending arrival of the workday or celebrating their rediscovered liberty at its close.

  • BB: We hear that you've lived in Paris for a number of years. What first took you there and how do you feel about the city?

DB: Like many who have ended up living here, Paris started as a love affair (in my case, with the iron-pillared magnificence of the old reading room of the Bibliothèque Nationale, which alas has since gone the same way as the circular reading room of the British Library), and developed into a habit which has become more deeply-ingrained with each passing year.

  • BB: If you didn't live in Paris, where would you want to be?

DB: When I stumbled across it, I briefly had a fantasy about running away to Homer, Alaska, an endearing community of Alaskan eccentrics living on the edge of a landscape so powerful and unscathed that it felt both belittling and invigorating to behold it every day. More soberly, however, I'm aware that I draw both comfort and inspiration from living in a place that wears its history on its sleeve and provides constant reminders of the centuries of human endeavour of which it has been the theatre. If Paris were ever to burn down, I'd probably try to get to Venice before it sinks.

  • BB: Here at Bookbag we're used to people from all professions becoming authors, but we think that this is the first time that we've been impressed by a book by a management consultant. Are you an author who has always had a yen to improve people's management skills, or a management consultant who has wanted to publish crime fiction?

DB: There are two types of management consultant: those who have lots of grey hair and a hard-won expertise in a particular field, and those who are just good at telling stories (some people call this lying) and pretending to be able to solve others' problems. I'll leave you to guess which one I am. Were I to characterise myself, it would be as a management consultant who sought refuge from being obliged to use nothing but PowerPoint to express his views and opinions. Call me an old reactionary if you like, but I've got a soft spot for paragraphs, and could happily live the rest of my life without ever encountering another bullet point.

  • BB: What attracted you to crime fiction? Police procedurals have always seemed to me to be the most difficult books to do well.

DB: Crime fiction, with the odd exception, is characterised by a strong narrative drive: problems are resolved and lessons are learned; the world rarely ends up a better place, but in the course of the investigation it is rendered more intelligible. Police procedurals not only entertain, but make the reader flex his intellect, forcing him into the detective's shoes, creating a form of personal implication that lends more weight to the stuff of the tale. Contemporary critical theory seems to believe that the best way to exercise a reader's mind is for the author to denounce the artificiality of the tale as it is being read. I have never understood the appeal of this approach. I want to derive the same sense of imaginative immersion from reading as a five year old does from being read to. Crime fiction, to its eternal credit, is one of the few literary genres to staunchly defend this pleasure.

  • BB: We have to ask this question. You are obviously very knowledgeable about women's lingerie and particularly the better quality merchandise. How did you acquire this knowledge and, er, was it fun doing it?

DB: Hmmm. You don't seriously expect me to answer this question, do you?

I'll hide behind some statistics: the Paris Yellow Pages lists 246 specialist lingerie boutiques (who are most assuredly not selling Marks & Spencer style undies), which works out at about one for every 20 streets in the city. By comparison, there are about 1200 boulangeries, which makes you wonder whether somebody is picking up something insubstantial and semi-transparent for every five croissants sold. Given how extensive many women's collections of lingerie turn out to be, this ratio may actually hold up.

Down the years I've discussed with a number of women what is involved in acquiring, exhibiting and – perhaps the most interesting question of all – making the deliberate choice ahead of time to wear expensive and alluring lingerie. It's a fascinating subject and some of what I was told made its way into the book.

Setting aside my own personal endeavours, Wasp-Waisted also owes a debt to the documentary resources of the Fédération Française de la Lingerie and the Ecole Supérieure des Arts et Techniques de la Mode.

  • BB: Who, or what, was your inspiration for Franck Guerin? Will we hear more of him?

DB: As a management consultant, I have worked extensively with public sector organisations in France and come across many cases of what are sometimes referred to as les moines soldats de la République (the warrior monks of the Republic): talented and dedicated individuals who put in endless days to make sure that the state's innumerable public agencies function as well as possible, despite receiving neither recognition nor substantial remuneration in return. In a nation where half the population dreams of becoming a fonctionnaire (a civil servant with comfortable working conditions and a lifetime job guarantee) and the other half despise the fonctionnaires as lazy, ill-tempered and incompetent parasites, it's striking to see how those with a sense of vocation manage to soldier on despite the innumerable failings and problems they see around them. Franck Guerin was born of that, and of my desire to recount a tale of apprenticeship (just as Les Trois Mousquetaires tells of d'Artagnan learning from others how to be a musketeer, so Franck learns how to be a detective).

I like to think we'll hear more of Guerin, if only so that he can tell us what happened during the Corsican incident.

  • BB: Bookbag was impressed by the fact that you were able to write about the erotic without ever descending towards pornography. Was this a difficult balancing act? Bookbag was delighted that you were able to talk about women's underwear without it necessarily being a prelude to its removal.

DB: The power of lingerie lies in its ability to distract, to veil, to invite and to mesmerise. Its power is fundamentally cerebral and its domain that of suggestion and anticipation. To move from that to the physiologically explicit would have been not only superfluous but counter-productive. The singular virtue of the erotic is the fact that it chooses to trust in – and thereby borrow from - the reader's imaginative powers.

The mildly erotic passages of the book were by far the hardest bits to write and, to be honest, I still feel very uncertain about them.

  • BB: If you had to choose your favourite crime fiction writer, who would it be? Which is the best police procedural do you think?

DB: The crime writer I admire the most is Elmore Leonard, for his apparently inexhaustible ability to invent new universes. Although he does occasionally return to the same characters, he has refused the crutch of the recurring detective around which most crime writing careers have been built. He doesn't write procedurals, I imagine because he's too interested in recounting both sides of a tale simultaneously, but I have never failed to be impressed by his work.

As for procedurals, I would say I discovered the form thanks to Michael Connolly. However, I would be prepared to argue that the best procedural ever written, even though it's not classified as crime fiction, was John Le Carré's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

  • BB: What's next for David Barrie?

DB: I'm half way through another novel set in Paris with Franck Guerin. Fortunately, current economic conditions mean that this is a quiet time for management consultants, so I have plenty of opportunities to work on it. Unfortunately, the naive enthusiasm which carried me through the voyage of discovery that was the writing of Wasp-Waisted has been replaced by a certain bruised wariness, which is slowing progress. But I expect I'll soldier through, if only in order to get rid of the innumerable post-its with plot details and snippets of dialogue that conceal the wall in front of which I sit and type.

  • BB: Thanks a lot for that, David and I for one am really looking forward to hearing more from Franck Guerin.

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