Bad Relationships, Horrible Jobs, And Being Knighted – Pénélope Bagieu Talks Exquisite Corpse

Penelope.Bagieu_photoToday sees the release of Exquisite Corpse by Pénélope Bagieu from First Second Books. Following a young woman named Zoe who is trapped in a bad job and even worse relationship, she comes to befriend a world-renown author who turns out to have a very damning secret about his literary career. It's a romantic comedy of sorts that takes place in Paris, and throws some great twists at the reader. Bagieu, a chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters, was kind enough to take some time out of her busy schedule to answer a few of my questions via email.

Cameron Hatheway: How long did Exquisite Corpse originally take to make? Months? Years?

Pénélope Bagieu: About a year, if I remember right: I started with weeks of easy quiet writing in cafés with no pressure from my editor, and then the pace increased, up until the point when I only had one month to finish everything, including color, and I went totally crazy and hysterical. As usual.

CH: Zoe goes from one horrible relationship, to an incredibly complicated one. In your mind, what's an ideal relationship to you?

PB: Well, if I were Zoe, to begin with I'd say a relationship where nobody's using the other would be nice. She seems to have a habit at that.

CH: With Zoe stuck in a dead-end job as a booth babe, did you ever have to take on an equally demeaning job? What's the worst job you've ever had?

PB: I did have to take on that exact job, which is why I always kept that in a corner of my head for "later." Among the dozens of jobs I had that really made me feel miserable, I think working in a primary school cafeteria, with toddlers throwing cheese at me and calling me a witch, was perhaps the worst. The "good" part was that I finished at 3 PM (but started at dawn). It was paid less than babysitting, if I remember right. But then I talked to the other women who were doing that, and most of them were a lot older than me, had been here for decades, had another part-time job (after 3 PM), and had kids. In a word, they were not doing that to pay for their college or to pay their student-flat rent (like me). And they never ever complained. So I immediately quit the whining and self-pity and kept my mouth shut.

EsquisiteCorpse-INT-FINAL-17CH: Although it was originally published as Cadavre exquis in France back in 2010, what was it like translating the book to English with Alexis Siegel? Are you excited to see its American debut?

PB: For once, I get to understand a translation (I don't speak any other language except English, and very very poor German, and one sentence in Spanish) so I'm really glad to be able to check and see that the translation is awesome! And I'm, of course, over the moon, to have my book published here. (Plus, Cadavre exquis is my favorite of my own books. I know it sounds weird to have a favorite book by oneself but I do.)

CH: Would you ever be interested in touring the United States on a book tour? Where would you want to visit? I know you visited New York back in 2012, how was that?

PB: Oh sure, that's partly why it t's so cool to write books: to travel! I'm staying in New York for a while for that reason, and I'm so happy to go to all these places I would never have been to, if it wasn't for promoting the book. I'm going to Toronto next week for TCAF, I'm so excited.

EsquisiteCorpse-INT-FINAL-18CH: Your illustrations of the characters and surrounding Paris are beautifully executed, giving it a fun, loose-yet-intricate style. Who inspired your artistic style when you were perfecting your craft?

PB: Mostly animation and 50's and 60's picture books. I ended up reading comics very very late. Too late!

CH: You were knighted in France (Order of Arts and Letters) after Exquisite Corpse came out. What was that experience like? Is there a Round Table that you all sit at, sketching away?

PB: I was a bit sad that I never got to have a sword, or that no one would ever kneel, or that my friends keep calling me "Pénélope" despite all my efforts to have them give a try to "Milady." Apart from that, it was so intimidating, and formal, and the Minister of Culture hung me this incredibly heavy and impressive pin with a silver cross. But that's it, pretty much. I never get to hang out with any of the other "chevaliers," like Bob Dylan, Tim Burton or the guys from Daft Punk.

CH: If you were to cast Zoe, Rocher, and Agathe for a movie adaptation, which French actors or American actors would be on your dream list?

PB: There is a movie adaptation on the way in France, so I don't want to influence anyone there, but for the American actors (that's the first time I've thought about that!), Emma Stone, Tina Fey and Edward Norton would be perfect, I'm sure.

CH: There's deceit in Zoe's new relationship with author Thomas Rocher, for he's withholding a damning secret from her in regards to his career as an author. Was Rocher's situation inspired by anyone or any event in particular in the French art/literature scene?

PB: He was inspired by most of the French authors I know personally: I'm sure American authors are not that different, in their habit of living for prizes, and reviews, in a total selfish but passionate way, without a care for anything happening outside of the tiny Parisian literary scene. They're fascinating.

exquisite_corpse_coverCH: What do you hope the readers take away after reading Exquisite Corpse?

PB: Oh, if they had fun, and were taken by the story, and surprised by the twist (or any of the three), that would be worth cutting down trees for, and I'd be very happy.

CH: What's next for you? Any more of your graphic novels or comics set to be adapted for English audiences? Perhaps the adventures of Joséphine?

PB: I really hope my next graphic novel that is published in France next September, about the path of another twenty-something taking hold of her own destiny (but this time in NY!) will be adapted here too. Wish me luck with that!

Exquisite Corpse is now available. Special thanks to Bagieu for taking time out of her busy schedule and Gina Gagliano for helping put this together.

Exquisite Corpse (First Second Books)
by Pénélope Bagieu
128 Pages, FC
$19.99

Cameron Hatheway is a reviewer and the host of Cammy's Comic Corner, an audio podcast. You can knight him on Twitter @CamComicCorner.