With The Collector out in bookstores, we asked Anne-Laure Thiéblemont a few questions about herself and about her book.
You studied to be a gemologist. How did you end up writing novels?
My companion Michel and I were in Madagascar, traveling from mine to mine in search of gems. One day, we took a bus into the middle of nowhere, to a village, where we slept on the dirt floor in a hut. The next morning at dawn, I was sitting in a field with a long line of silent women standing in front of me waiting to show me the emeralds they held in their hands. I couldn’t get that image out of my head. I wanted to broker gems to experience similar scenes, but I wrote a book instead.
What made you become a novelist?
I was very young when I decided to tell stories. It was like inventing myself over and over again with every new character. I would absorb lives, knowledge and experiences like a sponge, making them mine. I would take anything that I thought would help me grow and change. That is how I became a reporter. But I wasn’t interested in finding a scoop. I’m too subjective for straight news reporting. I like to mix fact and fiction. What I really wanted was to be a messenger, a go-between.
Where does your inspiration come from?
After getting a degree in art history, I started my working in antiques. I met people who were obsessed by owning objects, people who accumulated works of all kinds. I also met others who would burn books and lithographs so that they would hold a one-of-a-kind artwork. I remember one fellow who mortgaged his house to buy a Chinese vase, and another who hired detectives to find an antique carousel lost after WWII. I met people who surrounded themselves with art as if to protect themselves, and those for whom the objects served as a bridge between themselves and the chaos of the world. I listened to stories from auctioneers, antique dealers, and gallery owners. They all had anecdotes about a treasure hunt, or a stolen object that reappeared, or fraud, or fences tossing masterpieces in the garbage so as not to be caught by the cops.
What sparked the story in The Collector?
Once I was doing a story at a manor in Basque country. The owner worked in the textile industry, and had a basement full of Impressionist paintings. I didn’t see a single one of them. They were all encased in wooden boxes, lined up on rails. It was a mausoleum. This was the starting point for The Collector.
Have you always been interested in pre-Columbian art?
My interest in pre-Columbian art stems from the time early in my life when I lived in Colombia and Peru for a few years. Later, I reported about grave robbing. Artworks that are illegally stolen from tombs become orphans, without a chronology, separated from other traces of the civilization they come from. They are deprived of their social, economic and historical context. They cannot be explained. They are without roots.
In 1997 in France, the art world tried to clean up its act by signing the UNIDROIT Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Objects. However, sellers and clients often have a tacit agreement not to look too deeply into the background of objects that arrive in Europe. It is easy to work around the obligations of having an export certificate. Forged papers get presented to museums. Packaging is not sealed properly, and nobody notices. Genuine articles get replaced by fakes.
In a few words, what is the theme of The Collector?
The Collector is a first attempt for me to capture a few topics that fascinate me: transgression, the forbidden, illusions, and lies.