We are thrilled to welcome Tatiana de Rosnay, who will present her latest book Rose, on Thursday22 September at 19h30 and hope to see you here. In the meantime, enjoy this interview with the author.
Tatiana de Rosnay was an established journalist and author of several French novels when she decided, 10 years ago, to write a book in English about the 1942 Vélodrome d’Hiver roundup, in which the French police arrested 10,000 Parisian Jews, including 4,000 children, and detained them for days under horrifying conditions before deporting them to Auschwitz. After struggling for three years to get the book published, “Sarah’s Key” went on to sell 5 million copies in 38 countries.
“Sarah’s Key” tells the interlocking stories of Sarah, a 10-year-old girl who locks her brother in a cabinet to hide him during the roundup, and a 45-year-old modern-day journalist who becomes obsessed with finding out if Sarah is still alive.
She finished the book in 2002, only to see it rejected by more than 20 publishers, partly because of its dark historical context. Ms. de Rosnay eventually gave up on getting “Sarah’s Key” published. “I couldn’t face another rejection,” she says. She wrote two more novels, which sold about 2,000 copies each “if it was a good year” she said.
Then Ms. de Rosnay had lunch with Héloïse d’Ormesson, whom she had profiled in French Elle in 2005 when Ms. d’Ormesson started an independent publishing house in Paris. Ms. d’Ormesson’s boyfriend and business partner, Gilles Cohen-Solal showed up unexpectedly. Mr. Cohen-Solal, whom Ms. d’Ormesson describes as un ours mal léché—a gruff bear—peppered Ms. de Rosnay with questions about her background and work. Ms. de Rosnay, who is half-English and half-French, was irritated. “I wrote a book about the Vel’ d’Hiv,” she said. “And nobody’s interested.”
Mr. Cohen-Solal was interested. Two weeks later, he and Ms. d’Ormesson agreed to publish “Sarah’s Key” in France. It went on to sell more than five million copies and has been released in 38 countries. Four of Ms. de Rosnay’s other books are now being made into movies.
This is the first book you’ve written that was made into a movie. How involved were you in this process?
From the beginning, they showed me the scripts, kept me briefed about who was going to play what role. You will see Kristin Scott Thomas is the perfect person to incarnate Julia Jarmond, and the little girl who plays Sarah, Mélusine Mayance, was extraordinary…. Some movies you come out smiling. This isn’t one of those movies. When I saw an unedited version for the first time, I cried for three hours.
How faithful was the script to your book?
I read the three different versions of the script, and when you see the movie you’ll see what they’ve left out. I don’t want to give too much away. Bertrand [Julia’s husband] in the movie is much nicer than he is in the book. I modeled him on an ex-boyfriend of mine.
Was there anything you felt strongly about in the book that wound up on the cutting room floor?
I didn’t object to anything at all. Gilles [Paquet-Brenner, the director] did this movie for a very special reason too. His grandfather was deported and died [during the Holocaust]. He loved the book and knew he wanted to make a movie out of this book. I like to say that the book and the movie have the same DNA. It’s his movie and it’s my book. It’s got his personal touch in there.
Did you know Gilles Paquet-Brenner beforehand?
No. I saw one of his movies. He became famous in France about 10 years ago when he was 25 or 26, for a movie with Marion Cotillard, “Les Jolies Choses” [“Pretty Things.”] When I saw him for the first time at La Coupole, which I am sure you’ve been to in Paris, I saw this youngster. I said to myself: “This guy is like 12! What is he going to do with my Sarah?” I then realized by listening to him and looking at him that he was going to respect this book.
Tell me about the actress who plays Sarah, Mélusine Mayance?
Mélusine makes this movie. She is the same caliber as Jodie Foster was in “Taxi Driver,” the same as Dakota Fanning was in that movie with Tom Cruise, “War of the Worlds.” She’s that kind of incredible—you can’t even say “child actress”—she is an actress. When I went on the set for the Vel’ d’Hiv scene—we shot it at a huge stadium outside Paris, in Vélodrome Jacques-Anquetil—there were all these special effects afterward to make it look like an indoor stadium. But there were at least 500 extras dressed up in 1940s style wearing the Jewish star, and at least 100 children. I had never been on a movie set before. All of a sudden this little girl came up to me and said, “My name is Mélusine Mayance. I am your Sarah.” And there she was. This is Sarah. I couldn’t speak.
Was your own daughter a model for Sarah?
The book is dedicated to three women in my life, my Russian grandmother Natacha, who fled the Russian Revolution, and that’s why I am called Tatiana; my mother Stella who is British; and my daughter who is described as “my beautiful, rebellious Charlotte.” When I wrote this book 10 years ago she was 10. And yes, she was my model for Sarah. Sarah is a little girl who acts with her heart and tries to do what’s best. Charlotte is like that. When I imagined Sarah and Michel playing in that cupboard, it was because my kids used to do that. They would hide and play in this cupboard and we would have to pretend we didn’t know where they were. That’s where I got the idea. It’s the mom.
This is a work of fiction, but it takes place during a very dark moment in French history. How did you work to make the story of Sarah and her family plausible and realistic?
I’ve been in contact with many Vel’ d’Hiv survivors since the book and many of them tell me, “This could have happened.” Because you have to remember it was the French police coming to arrest those people that morning. People thought they were coming back. They thought they were being taken somewhere to get their identity validated. This wasn’t the Nazis coming. This was the good old gendarme, the French police. So Sarah thought she’d be back.
There’s a scene in the book where Julia Jarmond says that she wants to apologize to the descendents of the Starzynski family for “being 45 years old and not knowing.” Could you talk about when you first heard about the Vel’ d’Hiv?
When you grew up in France in the 1970s and 80s the Vel’ d’Hiv wasn’t part of the history program. It is now. I grew up knowing nothing about it. Jacques Chirac made that famous speech in 1995 [apologizing for France’s complicity with the Nazis during WWII]. That was the first time my attention was really drawn to it. I had heard about it, probably in the late 1980s, for the first time. It was all part of a shameful part of France’s difficult past of collaboration.
How did you come to write a book about this event?
In 1999 I just started to write another book in French about a woman who moves into an apartment where a serial killer has killed the first of seven young women, so she’s going to be influenced by this tragedy that took place there. She goes on to trace every single one of those seven victims. One of them was a descendent of the Vel d’Hiv roundup. Pacaline, my heroine, decides to go to the Rue Nélaton where the Vel’ d’Hiv used to stand. This book was all about how places harbor memories of dark things that happened there, which is also the case in “Sarah’s Key.”
When I went to the Rue Nélaton [to do research for the previous book], I realized that on the premises of the Vel’ d’Hiv there’s an annex of the Ministry of the Interior and a small plaque where you read about the details of the Vel d’Hiv. It suddenly clicked. I thought, “Tatiana what do you know about this?” I started asking around and of course my Jewish friends all knew about it. They said, “It’s one of the biggest taboos in our society in France today.” People don’t talk about it because it’s so shameful because of the French responsibility. Those 4,000 children, many of them were born in France.
So you started researching it?
I had absolutely no idea I would write the book. It was just for me, Tatiana, a French woman born in France wanting to know more details about this event. All the books I was looking for were out of print. So I managed to get hold of them at secondhand bookstores, going to the Jewish Quarter, talking to people, finally what was really the moment was when I said to myself “I have to write about that” was when I went to Beaune-la-Rolande which is the village about 100 kilometers outside Paris where the children were separated from their mothers in that horrifying scene I describe in the book. On screen it is absolutely unbearable. And that’s exactly how it happened. You can see these children being torn away from their mothers by the French police, water being thrown at them. It’s monstrous. When I went there, I saw on the premises of that camp there’s now a school. And when I asked the students “Do you know what happened here?” nobody seemed to know. I was beginning to get almost sick. I kept seeing my kids getting torn away from me.
My poor husband who saw me go from one book about a serial killer to another book about this, endured the worst five years of his life. He kept saying, “Can we please talk about something else?” and I said, “I cannot bear the thought of these kids and how they died.”