Agrégée (holder of highest teaching diploma in France) in Literature and a playwright, this teacher ran a writer's workshop for six months on the Great War. Nicole Buresi told us about this joint work that culminated with the publication of a novel, Bassoles goes off to war.
How did you get the idea of doing a writer's workshop on World War I? Why did you place this correspondence in this setting?
It was commissioned by the media library and town of Loudun. I had run a workshop there in 2013 on "Words". When I was asked to run a workshop on World War I for 2013-2014, as part of the centenary celebrations, I hesitated at first since I'm not a historian.
But I thought the idea was excellent to help people learn about life and the war as experienced by the generation born in the last years of the 19th century, the great-grandparents or even grandparents of those writing in the group, even though I had to do major research for this undertaking. History is a fantastic source for the imagination and that terrible time was a highly charged period emotionally. All good reasons to get people to write on this topic.
The atmosphere of France in 1914, the way of life and state of mind of the rural population, the departure for the front and then the viciousness of the fighting... How did you manage to reconstitute all these elements? What type of research did you do?
To run the workshop, I got totally immersed in the subject. A year's work. The documentation available is vast. I could not possibly quote everyone I read. I consulted books of historians such as Jean-Pierre Guéno – Les poilus, Paroles de poilus –, reviews such as Les Chemins de la mémoire, Geo and others, visited websites such as centenaire.org, chtimiste.com which gives the itineraries of the battalions…, I visited the Meaux museum and Army museum in Paris, read several journals, notebooks, autobiographies by soldiers and especially lots of novels – by Barbusse, Cendrars, Chevallier, Dorgelès, Remarque, Junger… – Tardi's comic strips; I watched films, plays, documentaries, everything that could help me get immersed in the "atmosphere" of the time. I needed it to 'inspire' participants. While a school can transmit knowledge and historical information to students from the outside for example, even if they only take it in little by little, the approach is the opposite in the workshop: it is not a question of giving history classes but rather first and foremost of making things sensitive and tangible so as to arouse desire and even make it possible to create situations, characters... and anchor them in an imaginary place, i.e. Bassoles, in 1914.
Why did you choose the narrative form of the epistolary novel?
I had to meet certain specifications prepared by the team from the media library, headed by Élisa Dersoir: it consisted in inventing exchanges of letters between characters who were soldiers and their families. I found the idea fascinating. And it appealed to participants. It scared some away but those who stayed right to the end – six women – all adhered to the idea. However, at the outset there was absolutely no question of a novel. None of us was thinking about that and I was totally unaware of what we would succeed in achieving. The text took shape little by little, thanks to everyone's involvement.
Did you know in advance what construction you wanted to give to the book?
We had seven two-hour sessions. But in the end the two hours often ran into three. And after that we just stopped counting. We were so taken by the subject we had exchanges between sessions.
We started out with pictures, songs, objects (helmet, rifle...), paintings, photographs, fragments of novels, poems ... Everything that could arouse emotion. The names of the villages were created from the villages near Loudon (for example Bassoles is the beginning of Basse and the end of Sammarçoles), and the names of the characters came from the names of the participants. The six who kept up writing right to the end say they were delighted to have discovered their potential and I must admit I'm amazed with the result.
Initially I thought everyone would write a short story. But the group got so involved in the project, the motivation was so strong that we continued the workshop by e-mail between monthly meetings. We wanted to get a grasp on the story but it was the story that took hold of us. In fact this is not surprising: writing almost always brings out the past. There were really strong emotional moments, when our young fictitious soldiers or their relatives expressed their anguish at having to leave, how they worried about those they were leaving behind, their fears and anxiety under fire, their fatigue, their revolt... This emotion sometimes had unexpected effects, such as when a participant sang The Alsatian Schoolmaster a cappella, a song she had heard at home or when another participant remembered her grandfather's orthopaedic shoe... so we did not hesitate to include the poems in the body of the story. An encounter with the past, an encounter with others, an encounter with oneself above all... This is the magic of writing.
As the letters from the soldiers and their families took shape, we could see snippets of potential adventures. We wanted to develop them and this gave substance to this short novel (that is if the genre of the work still has meaning today). I submitted the "manuscript" to Marie-Noëlle Arras who co-directs the Chèvrefeuille étoilée publishing house in Montpellier as well as the review Étoile d'Encres and she submitted it to the reading committee who gave their approval. That was how the book came about.
We experienced a genuine collective adventure together in Loudun. But it did not finish with the writing. The students at the Art workshop then joined us and gave us their vision of the characters. Each of the participants in the writing workshop had prepared a sheet describing "her" soldier, sometimes even adding personal photos of her ancestors. They imagined in turn a portrait for each one... Their works have been incorporated into our "novel."
Furthermore, the text is being adapted for a theatrical reading which will be held in the Reine Blanche theatre, in Loudun, on 20 November 2015. It will be read out by the participants themselves.
Will there be a sequel? Who knows? I had temporarily abandoned a personal novel that was also set in 1914. I may take it up again some day. Meanwhile, I will still be hosting a writer's workshop at the media library next year . Perhaps in the secondary school if they ask me...
What are your current publishing plans? Is a sequel being prepared?
Bassoles goes off to war is being adapted for the theatre by director Nicole Desjardins (from the Vue sur Jardin company). She had already staged my play At dawn, I met my neighbour Orestes last year. Because up to now, I have mainly written for the theatre: Pierres de scène (published by Les Cygnes), Trois femmes dans l'escalier (published by Les Cygnes), and above all a rewriting of the myth of Orestes called At dawn, I met my neighbour Orestes, which was performed in Paris and Montpellier last spring. This play, which was the most important for me, is accompanied by a kind of pedagogical file which helps understand how I worked to update the myth. I thought that maybe we could use it in the classroom. I also regularly publish short stories in the review Étoiles d'encre and I intend to group them with others to compile one or two collections. The first publication I also owe to Chèvrefeuille étoilée is a collection of poems entitled Vivante, a route out of bereavement illustrated by Anne Lantheaume. I'm now planning to write a new novel. Will this in fact be a novel? I will go where the writing takes me...
 I could give a short bibliography, but I am afraid of leaving out numerous works. And this work is not the work of a historian, it is just a fiction from a writer's workshop. You just had to avoid historical errors in order to be credible, without claiming this was an authentic testimony.
 When I retired from teaching, I discovered writer's workshops. They opened up two possibilities for me: writing and leading workshops. For the latter, I took two courses, the Aleph and Lettrances courses.
Bassoles goes off to war, under the direction of Nicole Buresi, Chèvre Feuille étoilée, 2015.
Articles of the review
The year 1915 – Putting an end to the trenchesThe hecatombs of 1914 surprised and took aback senior army command. Once the front got bogged down, trench warfare turned out to be just as deadly as mobile warfare and did not enable any of the belligerents to gain a decisive upper hand. So how could you do away with the trenches and win this war a...Read more
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The Croix de Guerre is 100 years oldRight from the first battles in the summer of 1914, a shortcoming was quickly detected in the French system of rewarding deserving combatants. It was not until April 1915 that the Croix de Guerre was created which was then to become the very symbol of victorious First World War soldiers. Vidéo commé...Read more