Sébastien Doubinsky is a bilingual French writer and academic, born in Paris in 1963. His last two novels, The Song of Synth and White City were published this year in the United States, respectively by Talos/SKyhorse and Bizarro Pulp Fiction/JournalStone. He currently lives in Denmark, where he teaches French literature, culture and history at the French department of the university of Aarhus.
Charles Tan: Hi Seb, thanks for agreeing to do the interview. First off, for readers unfamiliar with THE SONG OF SYNTH, how would you pitch it to them?
Seb Doubinsky: “The Song of Synth” is a dystopian novel set in a world close to ours, but where our nations are replaced by independent cities-states, like in the Antiquity. The main character, Markus Olsen, lives in Viborg City, which is the capital of the Nordic Alliance. An ex-hacker, he is condemned to work for the government if he doesn’t want to spend the rest of his life in jail. He is also a junkie, addicted to a new designer drug called “Synth”, which can literally transform the world around you. One day, he finds a mysterious credit-card and an illegal e-book in which he is presented as a hero. This will lead him to a wild goose chase after his true self, whoever it is.
CT: When did you know you wanted to write about Synth and Viborg City?
SD: I have always been fascinated about the way William S. Burroughs depicted addiction in his novels, and the way he linked it to politics. I find the ambivalence of drugs extremely interesting: on the one hand, they make you feel free; on the other hand, they lock you up in an almost inescapable prison. I wanted to use this as a background for a dystopia that would take place in a Scandinavian setting. Why Scandinavia? Because I live in Denmark, and to me, this country has become a model of the post-democratic world in which we are living now. From the outside, it looks like a paradise, from the inside, things are much grimmer. So, for me, linking the two was obvious from the start – the drug paradoxically allowing me to tear the illusion down.
CT: I’ve been following your work and THE SONG OF SYNTH took you some time to write. What challenge did you have to overcome before you could complete it?
SD: Well, it was a difficult book to write for me, because I wanted it to be subtle – and not a boring political rant. I wanted Viborg City to combine Huxley’s Brave New World and Orwell’s 1984, which seems impossible at first glance. But I had this feeling that the West was moving in this direction, and I had to write about it. Then I had the same problem with the Samarqand part – which is the “evil” city in which Markus finds refuge: I had to make it a safe haven for Markus, without turning it into a beautiful and naive paradise. All this fine-tuning took some time…
CT: How did the character of Markus Olsen develop?
SD: Actually, Markus is inspired by people I have known in a long time, old friends who were punks and radicals in their youth, and sold out to the system. I am not talking about those who have completely accepted the system – those are completely lost for me. No, I mean those who still have some punk, some radicalism in them, and suffer because of it. I wondered how you could live with that. I personally couldn’t, and that’s why it fascinates me. And that’s how Markus became to form in my mind.
CT: What made you decide to write the book in two parts?
SD: It was obvious for me from the start. I couldn’t develop Viborg City without Samarqand, like the Yin and the Yang. It was a question of honesty and balance. One is darkness, one is light – then again, when you look in the details, not all is completely dark or bright. I don’t believe in dichotomy. It’s too simple. So I needed to create two cities that would offer different readings and possibilities.
CT: You’ve also written a lot of French novels. Are there any differences in your process when you write in English, as opposed to French?
SD: Well, actually, my writings are very different. In English, I have a very coherent world, which is this cities-states world. You have New Babylon, New Petersburg, Viborg City, and Samarqand, and all my stories take place within their walls. In French, I am much more like a movie director, who chooses to shoot a story he likes. And the stories don’t have to be similar – on the contrary. So I write very different novels, with different themes, from Billy the Kid to a surveyor lost on some Italian island…
CT: How did Talos Press end up publishing your novel in the US? What impact did PS Publishing publishing your novel first in the UK have?
SD: My agent and dear friend, Matt Bialer, thought that The Song of Synth would work for them and he was right. He felt that it would be a great place for it, and there also, he was right. I am also lucky to have had the support of Jeff Vandermeer, who accepted to write a blurb for the book, although he was swamped in his own projects. And PS Publishing has been tremendous for me, because it has put me in contact with wonderful people, writers, critics and readers.
CT: Could you also share something with us about your latest novel, WHITE CITY?
SD: White City , which is published by Bizarro Pulp Press, an imprint of JournalStone, is a dystopian noir, also taking place in Viborg City. Three characters – a best-seller writer, a journalist and a cop – are dragged into a murder case which has strong political implications, albeit not the ones you could expect. It gives the reader another vision of Viborg City, much darker and sinister than in The Song of Synth.
CT: Anything else you’d like to plug?
SD: I have had the incredible honor of having a novel accepted by the prestigious Dalkey Archive Press, Absinth, which will come out in November 2016. This one takes place in New Petersburg, and deals with the Apocalypse – in a mix of Tarentino and Vonnegut.