French author Christelle Dabos talks “A Winter’s Promise”

Christelle Dabos is from France, and has taken French readers by storm with her new book, “A Winter’s Promise.” It’s the first book in the Mirror Visitor Quartet series. In “A Winter’s Promise,” headstrong Ophelia cares little about appearances. Her ability to read the past of objects is unmatched in all of Anima and, what’s more, she possesses the ability to travel through mirrors, a skill passed down to her from previous generations. Her idyllic life is disrupted, however, when she is promised in marriage to Thorn, a taciturn and influential member of a distant clan. Ophelia must leave all she knows behind and follow her fiancé to Citaceleste, the capital of a cold, icy ark known as the Pole, where danger lurks around every corner and nobody can be trusted. There, in the presence of her inscrutable future husband, Ophelia slowly realizes that she is a pawn in a political game that will have far-reaching ramifications not only for her but for her entire world. YEM spoke to author Christelle Dabos about her new best-selling book.

Young Entertainment Mag: How did you first get involved in writing?
Christelle Dabos: When I was a student in Nice, France, I bought a planner to keep me organized. Inside, it had a double page “Bibliography” where you could write down the important things you read over the year. And since I have a kind of special sense of humor, all I wrote there were the imaginary books I had supposedly written – knowing that at that time, I’d never really written anything. My best friend found my planner. She became instantly convinced that I was born to be a writer. She sent me literary challenges that I took up mostly for the pleasure of making her laugh. And suddenly, something clicked. A shiver, almost a fever, when I was faced with the words that had come out of my body. I was no longer pretending to write. I was writing.

YEM: Tell us about “A Winter’s Promise.”
Christelle: It’s the first book in The Mirror Visitor, a novel whose very title comes from its very origin. I wrote for many years (long after the planner) and to be honest, I stagnated. My inspiration ran out of breath, and my words too. And that was how it came to me: this face that came out of a mirror, her scarf falling down to the floor. And there, exactly as it was when I began writing, I felt a click, a shiver, a fever, except that this time a whole world came out of my body. A world that had been shattered into pieces, where all appearances would be deceptive, with characters that very quickly became close to me. I didn’t know it yet, as I was writing those first chapters, but six months later it would be my own mirror that would shatter to pieces when I was diagnosed with a jaw tumor. This story thus accompanied me to each medical exam, throughout my convalescence. It was enriched by my exchanges with the members of an online literary community, Plume d’Argent (http://www.plumedargent.fr/). And it was able to make its own exit from the mirror when it was published by Gallimard Jeunesse, on the occasion of their first Debut Novel competition in 2012. Today, I am working on the fourth and final book in the series, and it’s a considerable page of my life that I am turning.

YEM: What inspired you to write this story?
Christelle: So many things! This story was nourished by the mysteries of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, the magic of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter, the dreamy qualities of Alice in Wonderlandby Lewis Carroll, the aesthetic of Hayao Miyazaki’s animated films, the audacity of the character of Arsène Lupin created by Maurice Leblanc, the architecture of Paul Grimault’s The King and the Mockingbird, Louis XIV’s court at Versailles, fairytales, mythology, the old testament…

But this story also pulls its material from my own story. My interrogations, my dreams, my fears, my symbolisms, and everything that those closes to me had given me: my partner’s aesthetic sense, my father’s historical inquiries, my mother’s musical sensibility, many winks to my family and friends!

YEM: How did you create the fantasy world of Anima in this story? Where did that idea come from? 
Christelle: I was born in Cannes and I went to school in Nice, on the Côte d’Azur, but I chose to live in Belgium. I fell in love with the little brick houses, but especially with what is found inside of them: hospitality, simplicity, and humor. Anima comes in a large part from there. I suppose it can’t be very easy to translate this into English, but I slipped Belgian sayings into the dialogues here and there – especially into the great uncle’s retorts.

Anima also comes from a reflection my brother once made on one of my old texts. He told me that I described my characters through their accessories, that I gave objects expressiveness – in sum, that I had a somewhat animistic writing style. I had never realized it! I decided to go to the very end by creating Animists who transmit a bit of their souls to the objects that surround them.

YEM: Tell us about the main character Ophelia. Was she based off of anyone you know?
Christelle: The people closest to me, my readers and my editor all agree that Ophelia is a lot like me. The funny thing is that I don’t see her so much as another me. Ok, she has my awkwardness. And my nearsightedness. And my calmness. And my interest in history. And my fetishistic relationship with scarves. But in the end, I see her above all as my inverted reflection. I’m a tall, sturdy woman but I cry easily. Ophelia is the opposite: she looks fragile but is solid inside.

YEM: If you could travel through mirrors like Ophelia, where would you like to go?
Christelle: Here. The place I am right now. I’ve spent most of my life dreaming of another place where I could finally feel like myself, because I was never comfortable anywhere and especially not in my own skin. Today, I want to be happy where I am, wherever that may be, on this side of the mirror. To savor each moment, each meeting, wherever I may be. Isn’t that the most beautiful destination?

On the other hand, I admit that it would be extremely practical to be able to visit the United States. I have a monstrous fear of airplanes.

YEM: What advice would you give to readers that want to become writers?
Christelle: The best advice I’ve ever received came from my boyfriend: “write for pleasure.” Being published was just a (happy) consequence for me, but that was never the reason in itself. Reflect on the meaning you give to writing, the space it occupies in your life. Any time you doubt yourself, or block yourself, that motivation will be the thing that pushes you forward. Don’t write to respond to what you suppose must be the expectations of other people. Write the story that you, yourself, want to tell. Write authentically, viscerally. By being present in your text, in your words, a true meeting can be produced with your reader.

YEM: Are you working on any new projects?
Christelle: I write slowly, so I have the habit of not dividing my attention. I admire authors who can work on three, four, five projects side-by-side! For me, it’s one thing at a time. One foot after the other. For the moment, I’m dedicating myself exclusively to writing the final volume of the Mirror Visitor quartet. It’s exciting and painful at the same time: I want to live it intensely until the final period. But without working on it, I’m visited by images, characters, settings, scenes that I tell myself “Hey, that’s not the Mirror Visitor!” I write them down in a corner before closing the drawer. I’ll open it again when the time comes.

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