French novelist Erwan Larher on surviving the Paris Bataclan attack

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On the evening of November 13, 2015, several gunmen opened fire on the crowd at the Bataclan theatre in Paris. French novelist Erwan Larher survived the attack, and in the months that followed, he set out to document his experience. The Book I Didn't Want to Write is the result. This remarkable memoir weaves Larher's personal experience together with those of the wider community affected by the attack. Larher writes this account to make sense of the events that occurred, and that leads him to a deeper reflection about humanity, life, and tragedy. Jasheil Athalia interviewed Mr. Larher over the phone in November.

In the book you recount your struggle in deciding to write about happened. What was the most crucial factor in your decision to write this book?

Yes, I did struggle. I wanted the reader to be aware of the process I went through as a novelist in reaching that decision. I had to ask myself a few questions about what my writing process would look like, and how I would structure the contents of this book. The important thing was that I wrote this book as a novelist. Initially it didn’t even cross my mind to write about this, because this was a personal experience. As a writer I am accustomed to addressing questions aimed at the world at large. However, the decision to write came to me when I understood that this did not just happen to me, it happened to the society I lived in -- it happened to my country, and it happened to world we live in. At one point I opened my eyes to this realization and I thought maybe there is something there to explore.

I found your tone candid and at times mildly cynical. You write, "So, what are we going to do? Explosions. Assassinations. Commemorations. Indignation. The human spirit reacts. Everybody was Charlie, but schizophrenic." What did you want to evoke in the reader through your style of writing? 

Yes, maybe I was candid in my writing. But no, I don't agree with your comment on cynicism. I tried to be sincere in my writing. That sincerity was very important to me, as I did not want to mislead the reader. To be honest with you, I don't like cynics. I think cynicism is the disease of our times. I do, however, believe in empathy and generosity. Yes, I meant to be abrupt at times, I am even that way with myself. I was angry. I was angry at the world, and angry at the apathy. It’s easy to make comments about the terrorists and the bad guys, but do we question ourselves? I think those were the types of questions I hoped to evoke in the reader.   

In chapter twenty-five, you use an aspect of Greek mythology, specifically referencing Lachesis from the Fates to process the events that occurred. Why did you include this notion of fate in your book?

In my book I used this concept to assist in my questioning of why things happened and connected the way it did. I was so close to being hit in a major artery. If that happened, I would have died in twenty minutes. I was left with questions too. Why did some people survive, and yet, some did not? Why did I survive? It was natural to wonder about how everything aligned and how these events were tied to each other. As a writer I also thought it would be interesting for the reader to think about something like the concept of fate.  

You use humor in this book quite often. How did you intend for your humor to inform the reading of this book?

No doubt there are very emotional and frightening parts within this book. I think humor equally has its place. The way I look at it, having fun is a way of surviving as well. Sometimes having a good laugh can ease a very tense situation. I think humor is a good remedy to many hard things, and I wanted to embrace that as well, in this book. 

You must have been conscious of the sensitivities, politically-charged viewpoints, and critical questions that could arise when writing about something like a terrorist attack. How did you want to frame your voice in this discourse? 

It's very simple to me. I place myself as a writer wanting to bring to the table good literature. What is literature? To me, literature informs us about ourselves and the world as we observe it throughout the ages, transcending time and space. I mean look at Shakespeare for instance, he continues to speak to us until this day. I write my books hoping they will continue to be relevant even two hundred years from now. I think literature cuts across the politics, the discords, and the agendas. In some sense, that is how I view being a writer and placing my voice in all of this.

In your preparations to write and recount what happened, were there themes or questions you wanted to address through your writing? If yes, what were some of them? 

Yes, there were questions I wanted to explore through my writing. I wanted to question humanity -- the condition of humanity. I intended to explore a deeper perspective. I was asking myself through this journey, "What does it mean to be human, can we transcend ourselves?" I wanted the reader to question their own lives, and how they valued living. I wasn’t asking political questions about democracy or party politics. Instead, I hoped to bring the thought process of the reader to a place of honest contemplation. What does it even mean to live without a purpose?  

What was the hardest part of this book to write?

The book was hard to write not because of the emotions associated with it for me, but it was the technical aspect of the writing itself. The hardest part was attempting something I hadn't before. I had to write about myself while keeping focused on the bigger perspective of this book. This was new to me. Another aspect that was challenging, was writing about my girlfriend at the time and how our relationship ended because I had fallen in love with someone else. I had to make decisions about content, and how to share some of this information, so that was difficult.

Jasheil Athalia is a graduate studies candidate at Simon Fraser University. Her areas of research include theories of justice, decolonizing methodologies, and the applications of international humanitarian law.

Image: Courtesy Erwan Larher

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