Published interviews and personal profiles

French Schools

Les mails échangés avec Tobias Hill

Mercredi 4 avril 2007

Good evening, Mr Hill

I am the professor of french Litterature who works with the Villa Gillet at Lyon, and my students (Lycée Albert Camus de Rillieux-la-Pape) have been reading The Cryptographer, which they really enjoyed. Yet, the reading of your novel made them wonder about a few things such as the title, the characters' names or yourself. So we have prepared some questions the students would like to ask you...

Dear Franck,
Here you are -
I hope these answers are useful.
Will you be coming to the festival? I hope to see you then.

1. Why are aspects such as «the spectacular» or «disaster» missing in The Cryptographer?
…hrrm! I feel as if you are using these terms in a way I don’t quite understand. I’ll pick at the question anyway, but excuse me if my answer isn’t quite what you are after. I wanted The Cryptographer to have a surface tranquility. This isn’t to say that the events going on below the surface are tranquil. The key event in the novel (as in many novels before it) is the fall of the potentate. The concatenations of that fall are both spectacular and disastrous. I could have written at greater length about the fall itself, but I wasn’t interested in writing a disaster movie. What is more interesting to me is what happens before and after the fall (The Cryptographer is a novel in which the key event occurs at the midpoint. In many such stories, the storyteller is more interested in the before and after than with the crux itself). Why did I want a surface tranquility? Because I think this is part of what people seek out in the wake of disaster. People abhor abnormality in the way nature abhors a vacuum. What is spectacular is the ability of people to adjust to disaster. This is what happens in the wake of John’s fall: the world rushes to return to normality. His fall is like those of Gatsby, or of the historical John Law: there is a splash, there are ripples, and then the disaster is swallowed up and the world moves on, almost as if nothing has happened at all.

2. Did you meet the French translator?
Yes. During the process of translation I spent several days in France, working through the text with Jean Vaché. We were also in regular email contact during the process. This is not always the case. For example, The Cryptographer has been translated into German, Greek, Dutch, Portugese, Czech, Russian, Serbian and Chinese, and it is only in the case of the French edition that I spent so much time with the translator. More established authors often arrange a grand meeting of translators where common and specific issues can be addressed. This is something I would like to do one day.

3. The title of the second chapter is “Fall”, following “Winter” in the first chapter. Was your choice of this word done to surprise your readers? to give them clues at to the end of the novel?
In English the second chapter title has two meanings which are only incidentally suggested by the French. Fall progesses naturally from Winter but is richer in that it applies both to the season (autumn, or fall) and to the events that follow. This is typical of the issues that crop up in translation !

4. How many books did you sell?
So far, about 120,000 copies. I don’t pay too much attention to the business of publishing, however: my business is to write.

5. Do you consider yourself as a science fiction writer? / How do you place yourself in relation to science fiction?
I grew up in the age of the moon landings and the Cold War atom bombs. Science fiction had a potency at that time that it no longer possesses. Its import has dwindled. Those first lunar steps - and the countless missiles in their hidden sarcophagi - they seemed to suggest that science fiction pointed the way. As children in the 1970s we took it as read that the future would herald a spectacular ascent to the stars, or a cataclysmic descent into nuclear war. We read 2000 AD comics, watched Space 1999 and other popcorn trash on television, and later read 1984 and 2001; A Space Odyssey. Then as those prophesied years approached and passed, one after another, we realised that science fiction had deceived us. The future we were entering was neither utopian or dystopian. Science fiction had disappointed us. The world does change, of course, and technology, being autocatalytic, progresses with ever-increasing rapidity: but on the whole its changes are subtle. The software of our lives alters: the hardware remains largely the same. I live in a Victorian house in a city still largely constructed of Victorian houses. There are no floating suburbs. There are still leaves on the train tracks. If I were to be transported back into the world of those Victorian house-builders, how would I amaze them with tales of my future? I could tell them about the moon landings and the bombs, and those things would certainly amaze and trouble them. But if I did so I would be in some way deceiving them. The bombs and lunar landings are true, but they are not what I think of when I wake, not what I see when I look out of the window as I shave in the morning. What I see and think are much the same things the builders saw and thought. So this is my relationship with science fiction: I have come to distrust it. I no longer believe in its extremes. But this is not to say that the future does not interest me as an author. The future in The Cryptographer is the future I have come to expect: the hardware is the same; the software changes, and the software changes us. But subtly.

6. Did you find the title of your novel as soon as you started writing it? Were there other titles you might have chosen?
The novel began with a impulse to describe the fall of a great man. From that proceeded (more or less in this order) the need for a source of material power; the necessity of considering the meaning of money; the desire to avoid a poor rewriting of The Bonfire of the Vanities or The Great Gatsby; the consideration of cryptography as a source of power (and a metaphor for trust); the necessity of a story set very slightly in the future. From this you can see that the title came quite late on in the process. The inclusion of cryptography came about partly because, as I thought about money, it came to seem to me an insubstantial thing, based essentially on nothing but trust. Cryptography allowed me the opportunity to play with that theme. John Law becomes a man with a secret. His fortune is based on the impregnability of a code, a code that cannot be broken. But he is a man with a secret, and the secret is one he can trust to no one, since to do so would be to shatter the trust in the code. There were no prototype titles. I like to choose titles only when I know exactly what I am writing about, and that is not something I can be sure of until I have seen what I have written.

7. Are the characters’ names Law and Lawrence related to law? to each other? What about the choice of Anna Moore?
The names are a kind of game. I wanted to play with the element of cryptography, though it was important that this did not hold up the reader, or obstruct the narrative. So there are various games in the book. In terms of the names, there are relationships between Law and Lawrence, between Moore and Law, and of course between Law and his historical counterpart. The novel contains a kind of shadow-portrait of the historical figure (so a novel which could be described as futuristic is also historical).

8. Did you do researches on cryptography?
Yes. Not that I’m any kind of cryptographer myself. I’m hopeless with numbers.

9. How did you create the codes imprinted into the bodies of the people who die?
That was just an idea I came up with. Actually that’s one of the most science-fiction like details in the novel, isn’t it? My impulse in including the idea was a bit like that of an inventor, which I suspect is an impulse felt by many writers of sci-fi.

10. How do you write? Do you start with a rough draft of your work?
I write very slowly, and comb through the text many many times. I don’t have solid drafts, in the traditional sense, so much as many layers. Palimpsests. This is partly to do with differences in writing tools. Writing on computer (as I do with novels) allows a great fluidity. There are both pros and cons to that fluidity, just as there are to writing with a typewriter or a pen.

11. How long did it take you to write The Cryptographer? Do you have a framework before starting a novel or do you improvise?
The Cryptographer took about three years to write. Different writers plan their novels out to very different degrees: on the Richter Scale of Plannng I’m roundabout a 7. I have several frameworks as I write, but there are also many things I don’t know. I enjoy the interplay of knowledge and improvisation. There is a friction or energy that arises out of those two methods. So I don’t plan too much.

12. How would you characterize yourself : as a poet or a writer? or both?
For me they are not so different. I sometimes think there are only two kinds of writing, good and bad; the form or genre hardly matters. I also try to work poetry into my fiction. The danger there is that the powerful tools of poetry will get in the way of the narrative - that is what happens in bad poetic fiction, and I try hard to avoid it. The poetry shouldn’t obstruct the reader. I see poetry as a tendency in language, as much as a type of writing; a tendency which is to do with music and intentionality. The form (a sonnet, haiku, villanelle) is a net for catching at poetry, not the poetry itself. If you consider poetry in that way, it follows that it may present in some degree in many pieces of writing. What I try do is to clarify it.

13. Did you choose the photo on the cover of the book? ( the French translation does not have the same cover as the English one )
In fact the French edition has the same image as the English paperback original (the first edition, not the mass-market paperback), though Payot & Rivages used a close-up version of it - which I rather like, the figure being clearer yet more clearly dwarfed by the scale of the edifice around it.
Best wishes,


Dear Tobias,

Thanks a lot for your very quick and long answer. I ‘ve given your mail to the class, which enables us to better understand your writing process. You probably know that within the context of “the international forum on the novel” , the work we do on the Cryptographer aims at writing a report which will be published in May in the free edition of the Lyon newspaper “Le Progrès”. The class will also create a blog whose address will be forwarded to you as soon as possible .
We also have some more questions to ask you -

Could you explain the notion of trust you often mention and tell us how it is at the heart of your novel?
Who are your favourite poets?
Which French writers had an impact on you?
What about films or film makers? Which ones had an influence on your writing?

The class will be there on May 30th for the debates and round tables you will take part in. So, if you are in Lyon before of after the international forum, could we possibly meet you? in our school for example? Thanks again for your time,

Yours sincerely
Franck Belpois,
French literature teacher

Dear Franck,

I arrive in Lyon on May 30th and leave on Saturday June 2 - so things may be tight for a meeting. I could try and be available on the Thursday or Friday (31/1).

Trust...well, let's see.
At the heart of the novel is a man who has made a business out of a secret. Not just any secret, either, but that of an inviolable code. His business only exists because people believe the code is inviolate. If people thought the code could be broken, they would lose faith in Soft Gold, and in Law himself. As we read, what we gradually learn is that the code is not inviolate. It is in the nature of codes that they can be broken. Tunde Finch tells us that there is no perfect code. But Law doesn't acknowledge this. He continues to live as if the code cannot be broken. What would happen if he were to do otherwise? If Law gave any sign of knowing the code could be broken, he would betray the trust others have put in it. What then do we think of John Law? Is he a liar? Is he deceiving us? Is he justified in doing so? Alongside John, at the centre of the novel, is Anna Moore. A tax inspector, Anna works in a sphere where clients are distrusted by default. Her colleagues barely trust themselves, let alone one another. Yet she finds herself trusting John Law, even after she knows that he has not told the whole truth - that he is acting as if something is wrong, in fact, since he is salting away money in obscure accounts, as if preparing for a disaster. Even as that occurs, she begins to have feelings for Law - not love, perhaps, but something akin to love. Why not love? Perhaps because love can't exist without trust. Does Anna trust John? What is it she feels for him? Behind these actual characters is the shadow-portrait of the historical John Law, and the examination of money. The historical Law's moment of genius was the creation of money without gold or silver to back it up in the vaults. In other words, he created a money based on nothing but trust. As long as that trust held, Law's power and wealth were unequalled. It was when people began to worry, when the trust began to fail, that the historical Law became the catalyst for one of the first great financial collapses in world history - a collapse so great that France even now rarely calls a bank a bank, the scars of the Royal Bank disaster having bitten so deep. What does the historical John Law tell us about the reality of money? And what does the invention of a money based on trust tell us about the character of John Law himself? (and that applies to either Law, the one in the future or the past).

Favourite poets/favourite French writers/favourite films...those are very hard questions, since my answers will change week to week. Asking for the best poem/French writer I've ever read is like asking me to remember the best egg I've ever eaten! At the moment I'm very much enjoying Alain-Fournier (you'll see him echoed in Law's estate), and Raymond Carver's poetry. And last week I enjoyed I Turkish-German film called Head-On in English, Gegen die Wand in German, directed by Fatih Akin.

All the best,


Voilà, l'idée de la rencontre semble possible, ce qui serait vraiment bien !

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