Constance Debré Finds Beauty in Cruelty

In her latest book Playboy, the author addresses the unfair power dynamics that come with narrativising your life

BY Ren Ebel AND Constance Debré in Books , Interviews | 07 MAR 24

Ren Ebel You’re visiting Los Angeles?

Constance Debré Yes. I don’t have a house in Paris, so I’ve been travelling for years like this. I’m in love with Los Angeles.

RE What do you love about it?

CD When I’m in Paris I don’t see anybody. I keep avoiding people. But it actually takes a lot of energy to avoid people all the time. LA is perfect for a creative person because during the day no one sees anyone. Everyone is focused on their work.

RE Have you found a place to swim? 

CD I swim every day at the West Hollywood public swimming pool. It’s amazing.

RE Have you noticed any difference in terms of how people receive your work in the US?

CD I have the feeling they understand more the fact that it is a position, a literary work, and it is not about my life. I think it’s very clear when you read the sentences that what matters is the way it is written, not the story. I mean, there is no story. Maybe France is so bourgeois that a girl becoming a lesbian has to be a whole thing; or the fact that my grandfather was a politician excited them. I don’t know.

Constance Debré, Love Me Tender, 2021, book cover. Courtesy: Semiotext(e)

RE It’s true that Love Me Tender [2021, trans. 2022] doesn’t feel like a memoir. Yet, I found myself invested in the narrator in a very direct and personal way, which surprised me. I think it has to do with the lack of psychology in your writing, which leaves readers to feel and work things out alone. 

CD The fact that there is nothing psychological in the book is one of the most important things for me. I think that all we have are facts. The problem with many books written in the first person in France is that there is no hesitation. The writer is the narrator, and they have no doubt about themselves. Do you know who you are? I don’t know who I am. It’s very messy. It’s always moving. At the end of the day, I don’t ask the question of who I am.

RE I’m fascinated by how your writing style is influenced by your background as a lawyer. 

CD The best thing you can do if you want to learn about language is to go to law school. It’s in law that language is most precise, because once you decide on a word there are legal consequences afterwards. The French tradition of law is to use as few words as possible. There is a distance from the facts and, especially in criminal law, which was my practice, those facts are often very violent. The language of the law deals with these facts in a very cold way. I think this contrast between something burning – death, violence – and this cold way of telling it, is beautiful. This is something I like, the way you might like chocolate.

Constance Debré, Playboy, 2019, book cover. Courtesy: Semiotext(e)

RE The suspension of judgement feels important in your work. In Playboy [2019, trans. 2024], the narrator’s transformation – her sexual encounters, turning her back on expectations – seems to be in the name of a sort of freedom. But then, near the end, there’s a conversation with her father which leads us to think that perhaps it isn’t freedom at all, but genetics, an inherited addict’s personality or compulsive disorder.

CD Yes, I mean ‘freedom’ is a word you hear all over when moving from heterosexuality to queer sexuality. But what does that mean? This word is so vague, always so vague. I don’t think being free is even the goal. Or being happy – that’s worse. To me the goal is to try to think correctly and to behave in a manner which feels fair. But it has nothing to do with freedom or happiness.

RE Speaking of good behaviour, I love the passage in Playboy, especially its placement within the book, where there’s a flashback.

CD The teacher?

RE Yes. There’s a cruel prank played on a teacher, and it isn’t really personal, or about getting even, or a provocation for the sake of provocation. The kids just want to feel the consequences of their transgression.

CD The way we often talk about ourselves, or about our relationships, is like, ‘yes, I’m good, and he or she is a bitch’. We all do it. It probably helps us get through things. But it isn’t the truth. We all have a form of cruelty, of something very unpleasant. We’re not angels at all. I think writing especially is linked to power. If you’re using the events of your own life, you’re also using other people. You have a power not only over the people who become characters, but also over the facts. It’s a form of cruelty. Sometimes, I feel it is very beautiful when my girlfriend is cruel to me – or my son, or people around me. There is beauty in it, I think, because there is something fearless about being cruel.

RE My six-year-old daughter can already be quite cruel, but also so aware of what she wants.

CD Exactly. It’s something they have, and then we tend to hide or diminish it. But when they are this age, it is so beautiful. It’s their desire. It’s very clear. And they have no shame in it.

Constance Debré’s Playboy is published by Semiotext(e) in the US and will be published by Tuskar Rock in the UK on 23 May 2024 

Ren Ebel is an artist and writer from Los Angeles. He is currently living in France. 

Constance Debré left her career as a lawyer to become a writer.