Sanaë Lemoine on France, teenagers, and creating The Margot Affair

Sanaë Lemoine has lived all over the globe. When she was creating The Margot Affair, a specific time and place kept calling to her. Thus, Margot was born as a seventeen year old living in Paris.

Margot is on the cusp of adulthood when she decides to change the course of her own life, and as a result changes the trajectory of all of her relatives’ lives. When she reveals she is the secret daughter of a politician and a famous actress, her secret world is unspooled and readers get to watch as the wall of lies built up around her comes tumbling down.

Lemoine has an MFA from Columbia University, where she also taught essay writing. She has also worked as a recipe writer and was most recently a cookbook editor for Phaidon Press and Martha Stewart Books.

I talked to Lemoine about how place and time influenced her debut novel.

Your biography on your website reads, “I was born in Paris to a Japanese mother and French father. I was raised in France and Australia, and now live in New York.” How did your parents culture and then where you grew up shape you as a writer?

One of the reason it comes up in my bio is because it does feel like an important part of who I am today. It is a little complicated to describe in two or three sentences. I was born in Paris and my dad is French. My mom is Japanese, but she spent most of her adult life in South America. I was raised speaking Spanish with her and French with my Dad.

Then we moved to Australia when I was four and that’s when I first learned to speak English. I also first learned to read and write in English and that became my primary language out of the home early on.

We moved back to France when I was twelve and we stayed there until I finished high school. Then I moved to the U.S. where I’ve been since then.

As you know, my novel is set in France. I thought a lot about what place to write about and what place I know best to feel most comfortable to write about. What was the place I had the most authority to write about? The answer is a little bit of everything and nothing at the same time. 

I wonder if one of the reasons I wrote about a character who is in high school in Paris was because some of my most vivid experiences in my life were from that point in my life when I returned from Australia.. It was a very difficult adjustment even though I was half French. That space is something I was thinking a lot about.

Were you reliving your teen years? Either how it happened or how you wished it happened?

When I started writing this novel, I had just moved to New York for my first year of grad school. I really felt like I was starting my adult life. I feel like the big shift was that I discovered my own father had a hidden family. 

The setting revealed itself to me as Paris because it’s where I first heard about his family and it’s tied so much to my French identity because that’s tied to my father. It felt like a story that had to take place there any no where else.

I don’t want to draw too many autobiographical parallels with the novel necessarily. I was older when I found out about the hidden family. Margot is seventeen in the novel and is about to start her last year of high school. I was really interested in that point in time where she’s on the cusp of adulthood and she feels like she understands her place in the world. Yet at the same time, like all seventeen year olds, she is naive and doesn’t understand adult relationships. I was very interested in that precise moment. It also comes along when she makes this choice to to move herself from someone who is invisible to someone who is more visible. 

What was it like tapping into her psyche during such a unique time period in Margot’s life?

On one hand it was fun to be able to work in that specific time frame. The novel takes place over just one year and it is very contained to Paris and specifically her apartment. On the other hand it was very challenging because the novel took so many years to write. When I first started I was in my early twenties and was closer in age to Margot. Now I’m thirty and I found myself growing impatient when my narrator. I wanted her to be wiser or more self-aware, but I had to remind myself of what it means to be that age. Instead of aging her, I had to dig deeper into the questions I was asking or the themes I was exploring to mature the book.

I feel like watching Margot move throughout the novel, I saw her making seventeen year old decisions. Was there every any a point where you had to drastically change a decision she made because you realized she wouldn’t make that decision?

I’m glad I had that time and space from France as a location but also as a high schooler. The plot did change quite a bit through revision. The biggest change was giving Margot more agency. That came pretty late in the drafting process when I decided it would be Margot who told a journalist about her father. It took awhile for me to get to the point where it was obvious it was her. It was more interesting to explore the consequences that she must face when she realizes it was her that betrayed her father and to make this choice to change her circumstance.

It was less of having to revise something because a seventeen year old wouldn’t make a decision I wrote but it was more figuring out what decisions she would make and always making sure I was exploring those repercussions of those decisions.

Another thing that makes the book so strong is location. How did you approach writing about Paris?

I went about writing Paris without thinking about it as the travel destination that it is. It’s such a familiar place for me from living there and having relatives there. It still feels like my physical and symbolic home

For me, it was much less about the setting of Paris and more about the characters existing in the city that I was familiar with. I wanted to give the readers a sense of the space without having to call out the landmarks. I wanted to capture the feelings of the neighborhood.

I feel like there are some readers who expect a tour of a city when a setting is named instead of living in the character’s world that happens to be in a specific city.

At the end of the day, whether it’s a family here or in another country, you’re grappling with the same heartbreaks. 

Since you started writing this when you lived in New York, did you treat trips back to visit family as research opportunities?

I do go back to visit family and my husband’s parents live in Paris. I was fortunate that it was so easy to fly to Paris from New York. In the past couple of years, I was more intentional with walking around the city. I went to neighborhoods I haven’t been to before and not just returning to the places I was so familiar with. There was an effort to document and take notes, but the hardest part of the novel was really figuring out the desires of the characters, the pacing of the plot, and how to create tension.

Was it easier to discover how to get over those roadblocks when walking around Paris or when you were writing for long periods of time in New York?

There were moments of inspiration in Paris. I tend to write in long hand on paper when I was there and when I came back was when I dug into the draft in a more serious way. I know all writers don’t have the luxury of visiting the place they are writing about so frequently. When I was in New York and writing a scene that felt specific to Paris, I would have to figure out how Margot would act there.

You touched upon this briefly, but what were some of the big lessons you learned while writing this debut novel?

One of the most instrumental things for writing this book was taking a yearlong workshop. It was a novel writing workshop where instead of workshopping twenty pages of a story, we’d workshop fifty pages. What was really interesting there was that several of us realized we were writing interconnected stories. Realizing that and shifting to figure out a novel’s structure, momentum, and character arcs was a big learning moment. It took awhile for it to fall into place.

The way I write and revise is starting from scratch. I don’t spend a lot of time on tweaking sentence structure. For me, it’s really about overhauling the draft. Once I have a full draft, I start with a blank document to try to figure it out instead of just copying and pasting to move things around.

Plot and structure was probably the toughest for me. The other big thing, which was advice that came from my agent, was to make I explored the consequence of every decision made. That really helped build tension from one scene to the next. I wasn’t always thinking of the reader. In my mind things were clear, but to realize I had to make things clear to the reader helped create that sense of movement that propels the reader forward.

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Adam Vitcavage is the founder of Debutiful. His interviews and criticism have also appeared in Electric Literature, The Millions, Paste Magazine, and more.

Visit Sanaë Lemoine at her website and follow her on Instagram.

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