A Conversation with Sarah Smith
Q: WHY DID YOU choose the title A Citizen of the Country?
SS: Being “a citizen of the country,” for me, means that you identify yourself with your country; you are responsible for it, for both the good and the bad that it does. It’s being married, being a parent, making something outside yourself the center of your life. Reisden has Jouvet, his marriage, his son; André has the theatre; Perdita has her marriage and her baby, but also her commitment to her work and to Gilbert; and they all have the sudden loyalties and responsibilities that a threat to your country, a threat of war, provides.
As it usually does, responsibility leads to trouble, conflict, desires that can’t be reconciled.
For me the most frightening person in the book is Lucien Pétiot, who is a citizen in a very simple sense. French security is compromised? Too bad, somebody has to die. Cyron playacts—literally—at being a citizen and doesn’t consider its consequences until he sees how many deaths he’s caused.
He never sees how many deaths he can still cause.
My Dutch publisher says this novel is about insanity, the form of complacent madness that doesn’t really understand that other people exist: “We had to destroy the village in order to save it.” The only sanity is seeing that other people are real even if they define themselves as “the enemy”; their life and death are as important as yours, and in the end both of you may be citizens of the same country.
Expediency can be insane; justice, responsibility, and compassion are sane.
Q: In the beginning of this novel, Reisden declares: “A family is a hostage to fate.” Has he changed his mind by the end of the novel?
SS: No. It’s true. Choosing to become a mother or a father is choosing to be vulnerable forever. He never wanted to be vulnerable. He's slowly growing into it.
Q: As the guardian of Jouvet’s archives, Reisden faces a constant struggle to keep these sensitive records secure and confidential. Was this a real problem for the psychiatric profession in its early years?
SS: It remains a problem, and not a simple one. Not only does a psychiatrist get pressure to release damaging information, but he or she often has to balance the confidentiality of the doctor-patient relationship against the patient’s chances of hurting other people. It’s a real issue if, for instance, you suspect your patient of being a bomber. If you’re “a citizen of the country” in any simple sense, you might decide to serve your country rather than your patient.
Reisden’s country is Jouvet, and his patients are his countrymen, but he has to decide whether André is a danger to Sabine. He’s haunted because he’s not sure he made the right decision.
Q: Does Reisden represent a new kind of twentieth-century man with his faith in psychiatry and the talking cure?
SS: He’s making up the twentieth century as he goes along. He’s not a trained Freudian psychiatrist; he does all the things that a psychiatrist is not supposed to do. Fundamentally he’s much more interested in protecting the weak and finding justice for the innocent than in whether André’s id has overrun his ego. He’s a guardian.
And he believes in the talking cure almost as a confession — he’s a Catholic, though not a believer.
Rather an old-fashioned man, in fact. Don’t tell him I said so.
Q: Sabine believes she has the power to foretell death. How would you respond to readers who wonder if she is simply delusional and using this alleged power to justify her actions?
SS: I know a woman who says that, back when she was young during World War II, she used to see people on the street, young men she hadn’t seen for a while, and then, as they came closer, she would realize that the person she was waving to was a complete stranger. First it embarrassed her; then it frightened her, because a day or two later she would hear that the young man was dead. It happened about six times, she says, and stopped after the war.
I was fascinated by the story, and I thought, “What if a woman could see the deaths of people she was close to? Her nurse, her father, her schoolmates? What would she do about it?”
Other people might try to prevent it, but not Sabine. She’s eminently practical or a complete psychopath, I don’t know which. I rather like her. She’s so uncomplicated —just like Lucien Pétiot. Pétiot likes her too, but it doesn’t save her.
One of my early readers wanted her to survive and go to Hollywood!
Q: Could you tell us more about the form of witchcraft Sabine practices, which you mention in the afterword was lost in the devastation of World War I?
SS: I wish I could. Almost everything we have of the witchcraft culture in Flanders comes from one book written in the 1880s. We know some things, for instance that male witches were often priests or shepherds and that they used Saint-John’s-wort, but it’s very fragmentary. There was much more information, of course, before the library at Arras burned in 1914.
What we know resembles parts of Appalachian folk medicine and Pennsylvania Dutch witchery, which are better documented, so I used things out of those traditions.
And a lot of it is just small-town power struggles. I love the politics between Mademoiselle Françoise and the new coven leader; it’s like New England town meeting members getting into a spitting match.
After I wrote the book, a Flanders witch emailed me and said Flanders witchcraft is still a going concern; but there’s no guarantee that what he practices now is like what they did then.
Q: What else of the culture of Flanders was lost in World War I?
SS: Everything, down to the shape of the ground. Before I went to Flanders, I read a description Edith Wharton wrote of a motor tour she took there in 1910. I was expecting woods, flocks of sheep, lots of small villages. It’s unrecognizable. I took a trip there almost a century later; the trees hadn’t recovered and most of the villages were gone.
The fields around Vimy are marked with red signs: DANGER, UNEXPLODED BOMBS. There’s so much explosive still in the ground, it can’t be farmed, can’t even be walked on. Around the trenches themselves, around Vimy Ridge, the ground looks like frozen waves from being shelled continuously for years. There are huge craters from French and German sapping, big enough to swallow a building. In some places the trenches are only yards apart, the distance between an audience and actors on stage. Men launched themselves over the edge of the trenches at one another’s lines. Thousands of men simply disappeared, melted away.
Q: Did you always know what the secret of Montfort would be?
SS: I discovered it when I got to Arras. I wandered over to the tourist office in the town hall. “This way to the Boves!” was on a sign right outside the office. I had no idea what a bove was, so of course I had to see. In the tunnels was the “church” where the witches met, just the way it is in the book.
Ooo, witches. I had to use it.
The next day I went to Vimy. I’d been looking for six months for a place to set the story, and there, across the Corridor of Blood, was the biggest castle I’d ever seen, practically a village. Mont St. Eloi is a ruin and a sacred spot, the perfect castle for André.
Reading up on Mont St. Eloi, I discovered the rumor that the tunnels extended all the way from Vimy to the castle, underneath “the Montfort road.”
Q: Is the Grand Necropolitan Theatre based upon a real theatre?
SS: Yes, and André is based on its director. The historical Count André de Lorde was the son of a very poor French count who practiced as a doctor. That Count André’s father really did take him to deathbeds and really did die when André was five. His mother didn’t die, though; she married a famous French classical actor, Jean Mounet-Sully, who was much more sympathetic to him than Cyron is to his stepson.
Apart from their early lives, André de Lorde and my Count André turned out very different men. André de Lorde had a day job as a government librarian!
André de Lorde cofounded the famous Grand Guignol horror theatre, which is the Grand Necro right down to the pattern on the carpet.
Q: Why is Cyron, himself a famous actor, so blind to the fact that his adopted son has followed in his footsteps?
SS: Cyron's a soldier who acts. He wanted André to be a soldier, but André’s an actor through and through.
But don’t you think fathers and sons always have trouble seeing themselves in one another? Reisden and Gilbert do.
Q: The parallels between André’s and Reisden’s lives are quite striking—both the adopted sons of powerful men with very difficult childhoods—yet they took very different careers. Why did you choose these particular careers for them?
SS: Working with a character is a process of discovery as much as choice. I thought Reisden was going to be a biochemist forever when I first started writing about him; he took another direction. On the other hand, I always knew André was involved in theatre and film.
The two men both use theatre to deal with problems in their lives. In The Vanished Child, Reisden acted a part that was too threatening to play in real life. When André can’t bear to think about what his mother did, he turns it into a film. Reisden and he understand each other utterly at that level; Reisden makes him watch the film, and André makes Reisden watch.
Q: Why did you choose to make André’s film, Citizen Mabet, an adaptation of Macbeth?
SS: Because I wouldn’t have to explain the plot! And it was fun having Macbeth and Lady Macbeth guillotined and having her do her mad scene on the scaffold. And I got to do a script for a silent film, which was pure film geekery.
Q: Is Citizen Mabet based upon a particular early film? Or is its director based upon a certain early filmmaker?
SS: There were quite a few films like it at the time —big fat historical films, special-effects films. For a summer I had the luck to be a projectionist for William Everson, the famous film collector. So I saw a lot of those films.
One of the closest films to Citizen Mabet is a really early French film by Ferdinand Zecca, who became Méliès’s editor: The History of a Crime (1901). It’s on YouTube; take a look. There’s a wonderful guillotining scene; you look at it and for a moment you’re sure the filmmakers killed someone.
Q: You don’t tell us whether Citizen Mabet is a success; will it be?
SS: A star dying young, a tragic accident? Heck, yes. It’s going to be a huge success.
Q: What will happen to Ruthie and André?
SS: Of course it’s difficult to tell what will happen before writing it. I have ideas…
Q: André wonders, “How can anything last . . . especially the happy family Reisden wants for his boy?” Will it last?
SS: André knows Reisden’s illusions the way Reisden knows André’s.
Of course Reisden wants it to last, because at that moment he is very happy; and of course that moment can’t last. 1914 is coming. Babies grow up. Wives have agendas. But Goethe said in Faust that when you say “to this one moment, You are so sweet, oh! Stay awhile,” that’s the moment when you begin to lose your soul.
And they have a major surprise coming, a major disaster. That’s in the next book.
Q: Alexander and Perdita both know how much she has sacrificed in the name of their marriage and family. In fact, this knowledge threatens to destroy their marriage. Will Perdita ever reconcile herself to what she has lost?
SS: No, nor should she! This book gives Perdita not enough to do, because she has an eight-month-old baby. Anyone who’s been through that knows that your personal agenda’s in abeyance, and the most loving mother loses something of herself for a time—and can resent it. She’ll get it back.
There’s another issue, which didn’t make it into the book though I desperately wanted it to. Perdita isn’t “a citizen of the country.” She can’t vote. She doesn’t even have control over which country she’s a citizen of. When she married Reisden, she became Austrian. When he becomes French, she becomes French. The poor woman has been a citizen of three countries in two years, and as a good American, she’s getting a little annoyed.
What 1 have discovered about writing series of books about the same characters is that you’ve got to change focus as they do or you’re overwhelmed with backstory. For the moment, Reisden’s story is finished; he’s got what he wants, he’s happy. Perdita, on the other hand, has a great deal still to fight for and to learn. And something potentially really horrible is going to happen to her, and to her relationship with America.
You’ll see more of that in the next book.
Q: The silences are palpable in many of the relationships in this story. Is all that gets left unsaid difficult to capture in print?
SS: That’s the fun part of novels, isn’t it? What’s felt, thought, intuited, is right out there. In life we have to guess.
Q: Have we heard the last from these characters?
SS: Oh no. Be an Edwardian novelist and a lifelong Titanic geek, and miss that boat? Never.
Q: You are a scholar and a novelist. How has your academic training impacted your fiction?
SS: I think, if I had paid attention, I would have realized even in graduate school that I was more a storyteller than a scholar. Real scholars create theories—at least they did when I was in graduate school, when we used dinosaur-oil lamps. I was always more interested in the relationship between the storyteller, her audience, and the story—and I still am.
Once, working on the files of an eighteenth-century magazine, I came across someone saying something had happened “as quickly as a torch being knocked out against a wall.” I could see the whole thing, the torch, the wall, the splay marks of black soot where other torches had been put out, the linkman holding the torch. He needed a shave.
Right then I should have known I was no academic. Duh.
It turns out that this migration from academics to writing is a fairly frequent pattern for novelists, especially historical novelists. You out there, reading this, does it sound like you?
It’s also a pattern for biographers, and for detectives.
Q: How much research went into this novel? What kind of sources did you use?
SS: I read a lot about the period —I read a lot of books published in 1910-1913 about how the First World War absolutely could not happen, and if it did, it would be finished by Christmas. I read about stage magic, films, tunneling, psychology . . . but the ultimate discovery was going to northern France and walking around.
All those cemeteries . . .
In the municipal cemetery at Arras, there’s a whole section for people who died in the bombing of the town. One of the tombs says “Sacred to the memory of seven residents of the Old Women’s Home, one of whom was Madame such-and-so.” In other words, the people who went through the ruins of the Old Women’s Home found seven of something or fourteen of something else, but only one of the bodies could be identified. Brrr.
Q: In a novel of this scope and complexity, how difficult was it to weave all of the stories together?
SS: As long as I have my friend the delete key… I’m terrible at plotting so I use an outline and index cards to organize everything. Then I start writing, the characters take over, the book goes in a direction I never thought of, and there’s a lot of reorganization before I’m through. But an outline helps to remind me of what I thought the book was about.
(In case any of you write and have difficulty plotting, there’s a short article here, “How to Plot When You Can't.".)
Do I use Scrivener? You bet I do. I also use Airtable.
Q: Have you written books beside the Reisden-Perdita series?
SS: I have a non-series novel about a grad student who wants to write a biography of Shakespeare. He unexpectedly finds something, and gets involved in a four-hundred-year-old piece of detection that leads to vast conspiracies, unpunished murders, buried secrets, and romance. I loved writing Chasing Shakespeares, and I hope you love reading it.
I've also written a YA novel about ghosts, interracial romance, missing treasure, and a secret kept since slavery times. The Other Side of Dark won the Agatha for best YA novel (thank you, everyone who voted for it!) and the Massachusetts Book Award for best YA novel.
Q: What other books about the period would you recommend for further reading group discussion?
SS: If you’re interested in this prewar period, there are many wonderful books—the classic is Barbara Tuchman’s The Proud Tower. I’m also a huge fan of Sebastien Japrisot’s A Very Long Engagement.
If you’re a writer, or interested in stage magic or mysteries, try Henning Nelms’s Magic and Showmanship. At a writers’ convention, about twenty of us were talking about books that had influenced us and every single person mentioned it. I think it’s the greatest book about misdirection ever written. Dover reprints it periodically.