‘One could die of the freedom offered by novels ‘ — An interview with Jean-Baptiste Andrea, by Thom Cuell

Jean-Baptiste Andrea’s novella A Hundred Million Years in a Day is an evocative, dreamlike story about memory and obsession. Stan, an academic coming towards the end of his career, is haunted by a story he heard as a child, about the fossil of a dragon, encased in an Alpine glacier. Determined to discover the creature, he signs up a loyal friend and an eccentric younger assistant to accompany him on the expedition. As bonds are forged and tested, the hazardous quest for the earth’s lost creatures becomes a journey into Stan’s own past.

A Hundred Million Years And A Day is out now with Gallic Books

Jean-Baptiste Andrea is a French novelist, film director and screenwriter. A Hundred Million Years and a Day is his second book.

First of all, could you give us a short introduction to A Hundred Million Years and a Day?

Stan, a university professor, hears an old tale about a dragon buried under an alpine glacier. He decides to set off to find the monster, suspecting it to be the fossil of a gigantic dinosaur, certain that such a major discovery will change his life. 

A Hundred Million Years and a Day has many threads running through it, but what ties it together for me is the idea that our lives are defined by the stories we tell ourselves, and our ability to persuade others to sign up to them – is that idea of narrative something you were keen to explore?

Friendship is an important theme of my novel. But if you tell yourself a story, it’s not so much about persuading others to sign up to it, as it is to persuade yourself. Most of us, when we were younger, have told ourselves this big story about who or what we would want to be later on, about which dreams, which « dragons » we would love to chase. But most of us have also given up on it, stopped believing in it. The main theme of this novel is about « re-believing ». Some sort of awakening.

Your protagonist, Stan, is caught up in his own past, as much as he is in the archaeological past he his apparently hunting for – as an older man, his childhood is vividly present for him. Did you see him as being trapped by his past? 

In a way, yes. He’s not trapped in the sense that he thinks about the past all the time – it’s actually the contrary: he never thinks about his past, pretends it didn’t exist. It’s only when his quest starts that he finds himself forced to acknowledge his past and make peace with it. The link between the child he was and the adult he is is broken. And his journey – even though he doesn’t realize it at first – is about mending it.

One of the more memorable characters in the novel is Yuri, the ventriloquist’s dummy, who is able to say things that are unsayable for the other characters. How did his character develop?

Thank you. Yuri wasn’t part of the novel when I started writing, and I usually do not write unless I have everything, the whole storyline and characters, in place. But when I wrote the bit where the team starts climbing toward the cirque, I stopped because I felt something was missing. Hard to explain, I felt I needed something more, a sprinkling of madness, like salt in a recipe, and Yuri appeared in my mind. Snap, just like that, in his very Yuri-esque way. It was so sudden that I hesitated, thinking « okay, either it’s a great idea, or people are going to think I’m crazy and I’m ruining my own book ». Since I loved Yuri, I decided I didn’t care about ruining the book, I wanted him up there and that was it.

The Alpine setting is crucial to the mood of the novel – the glacier which your characters are camped on seems indifferent, or even hostile, to human effort. Was that sense of place important to you when you were working on the book?

Absolutely. Nature is neither hostile nor friendly, nature is neutral, it’s what you bring to it that matters. But nature is wisdom. At first, the protagonists, especially Stan, are deaf to this wisdom. Little by little, they start to listen. Nature is very much a character of this novel. As it should be of our lives, by the way.

A Hundred Million Years and a Day is your second novel, and youve also made a number of films: how does your approach differ, for each medium?

Well a film is me filtered through financiers, producers (thankfully, I’ve had great ones), accidents (happy and unhappy), and years of work to make one single feature. As a result, I would say a film is at best 50% me when it’s finished. My novels are 100% me, unfiltered, naked, no additives or preservatives. So when readers like them, I’m immensely grateful and free to bask in their love! And if they don’t, there’s nowhere to hide, it’s also 100% me, I’m fully responsible. I like it much better.

Writing for film is fantastic training, though. One could easily die of the freedom offered by novels, and it’s great to practice within a more limited environment, learn about structure, about building a story. And it’s not because it’s limited you can’t be creative.

Overall they’re hard to compare in that they’re similar and different. But there really is nothing like the joy (and the pain) of writing a novel. Writing for the screen can’t even touch that, except in some very, very rare cases where you have absolute freedom to do whatever you want.

When an idea comes to you, do you immediately know whether it will work better as film or text?

I’m going to be a bit provocative: I think any idea will work better as a novel. You just have to be able to write it…

If you were an Egyptian Pharaoh and had to be buried with a few key objects to take to the next world, what would they be?

Great question, first time I’m asked! Actually, I wouldn’t take anything. My wife and I lost nearly all of our earthly possessions in a storage fire a few years ago while we were moving. I would say 95% of what we’d accumulated. Gone. It helped us put things in perspective. I do not have the same relationship with objects since then. I always feel I can lose them, or that owning them is temporary. Wisdom has been forced onto me, but it worked.

Now if I REALLY had to take something, it would probably be a little snack, because I tend to get hungry at around 11am. And if there is an afterlife, there might very well be an 11AM in it. So marmalade sandwich, please, and go easy on the marmalade.

Do you have a favourite joke, proverb or quotation?

Simone Weil :« Pain and suffering are a kind of currency passed from hand to hand until they reach someone who receives them but does not pass them on ». Explains all the evil in this world, and tells us how to solve it too, in 26 words. Absolutely brilliant. As usual when you read a great quote I thought « Hey, I was thinking the same! » And I actually did, it’s a running theme in my novels. Except I didn’t say it in 26 words. She did.

Whats your favourite portrait (it can be a song, a painting, a film, anything)?

Probably Leonardo’s painting The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne. I used to spend hours in front of it when I lived in Paris. Really. Such beauty, such delicacy makes me optimistic for mankind. Great artists are a direct link to an invisible world where pain is gone. Which I’m hoping to reach one day, armed with my marmalade sandwich.

A Hundred Million Years And A Day by Jean-Baptiste Andrea (translated by Sam Taylor) is out now with Gallic Books