Georges Simenon, Norman Bates, NaNoWriMo and me

Paris Noir, Brassai - 1934

Over the weekend I read a review by Patrick Marnham of Pedigree, an autobiographical novel that Georges Simenon wrote in 1948. Back in the olden days before I became a workaholic and a mother, I read a lot of mysteries, including several of Simenon’s Inspector Maigret series. I don’t remember specifics but I enjoyed the books and thought that Maigret – and, of course, Simenon – had a real handle on his characters and what drove them.

Since I’ll be writing a mystery for my National Novel Writing Month foray, I perked up on seeing Simenon’s name in the paper. Here’s what I learned from the article: first that he had written 76 Maigret mysteries, each of which generally took him about three weeks to write. (More on that later.)

Pedigree, on the other hand, took several years and included enough real life examples that three different people later sued him for libel. The review described the “lifelong trauma” that was Simenon’s relationship with his “volcanic, unloving” mother and that informed much of Pedigree.

I also wasted spent some time this weekend browsing through one of those Scariest Movies of All Times lists that crops up every Halloween and ended up watching the shower scene from Psycho for the hell of it. So I was already geared up for a monstrous mother. (Yes, there’s a BATES MOTEL hand towel in our guest bathroom. I got it at the Universal Studios gift shop and not the motel, but that can be our little secret, okay? It’s what Mother would want…)

After 76 Maigret books, Simenon wanted to concentrate on dark literary fiction, what he called romans durs or “hard novels” — hoping to win the Nobel Prize. He didn’t win it, but he did write 117 romans durs. Almost two hundred novels. Phew. That makes Joyce Carol Oates look sorta like a piker.

How did he do it? According to Patrick Marnham’s review:

His working methods were notorious. He did not just write his stories; he lived them. He immersed himself in the personality of his leading character, went into “a sort of trance” and, possessed by the world he was creating, worked in short bursts at tremendous speed.

He would type a page every 20 minutes, 1,500 words an hour, 4,500 words a day for 20 days. In this way he could produce three or four books a year and take nine or more months off. While he was writing he could drink two liters of red wine a day and still lose weight. His children would watch him from the window, notice how his walk changed and try to guess what sort of character would emerge in the next book.

Simenon’s mother? Shortly before she died, she visited him and gave him back every cent he’d ever given her over the years.

When she died, Simenon’s inspiration died too. The man who had published 76 Maigrets and 117 dark novels battled on for 12 months and then gave up writing fiction.

Yeow. Talk about a muse.

SO: Am I ready for NaNo now? Nah. I’m still trying to figure out what, or who, or where my muse is. I suspect that I’ll never follow Simenon’s methods – and that’s probably a good thing. I have the skeleton of an outline and I’m fleshing it out now. But the “sort of a trance” while immersing myself in my characters is useful, I think, to help me get to know my characters better.

Especially my darker characters.

I just need to be careful in the shower.  🙂

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