Interview with Anne Golon at Versailles

The extensive interviews with Anne Golon which were presented for her readers on the English webpage "The World of Angélique" - the official website celebrating Anne Golon's historical novels. Unfortunatelly, this website is not current and "alive" now.

In an exclusive interview conducted at Versailles in the autumn of 1999, Anne Golon spoke freely about various aspects of her life. It was conducted with the invaluable help of Anne's daughter, Nadine Goloubinoff, who acted as interpreter, and is transcribed here in full. (Harvey J. Adkins)

Part 1: Life, Angélique and hopes for the future

You were born Simone Changeaux. When did you become known as Anne?

I had about four or five pen names before Anne Golon.

So today, do you think of yourself as Anne, or Simone?

Most of my family call me Joëlle, which is from my first pen name. My husband Serge called me Joëlle. When I wrote the first Angélique book, as I'd taken my husband's name (Goloubinoff), I rather stupidly also took his pen name, Golon, which he'd used when he wrote a book of memories he had written with the help of another French writer. At this time everyone was starting from zero.

You were 18 when you had your first book published, but it was also the year that the war started. In the preview of one of your books you said you cycled through occupied France to Spain.

That's correct. During the war when the Germans were occupying France, the French were privileged because the Germans had orders not to be as they were in other countries. That's why I was allowed to go. It was very difficult in Paris. I wanted to leave, and I was painting the countryside as I went. I wanted to see other places, and I wanted to cross France from one side to another. In 1941 I made a tour of Poitou on my cycle, and I asked for hospitality each night in convents. That's why I know this area well, and the atmosphere of the convents. Maybe that's why I saw at that time a trace of the past, because there were no cars, only horse and carts, and the people were still in the original and traditional costumes. There was no leather, so I wore traditional clogs on my cycle. It was difficult, but I couldn't find modern shoes so I kept them on. I went to the authorities and told them I was collecting paintings and material for a book and asked permission to buy some clothes, but you couldn't find anything at this time, because the Germans were taking everything. I wanted to go to Britain or Spain, but if I'd tried they would have shot me. Instead I headed for the Spanish frontier, just to put my foot into free territory. I cycled from Versailles to Poitou, and got to know and like the area, then I pedalled down the coast to La Rochelle through the occupied area. On the way to the Spanish frontier there was a free area, but it was forbidden to cross it. The Germans wouldn't go in the free zone in uniform until 1942, when they took over everywhere. I was between the sea and the forbidden area when I was arrested by the Germans. I was taken into a castle, questioned and put in jail with another woman. They hoped we would speak and give things away. I told the commandant I just wanted to put one foot in Spain because it was a free country. I said: "I'm young, I want adventure, and I want to write a book on the beauty of my country." He saw my paintings and believed my story. He told me there was still a very beautiful place to see, the Basque country - the area where Louis XIV was married. So he let me go free with a paper after seeing my paintings. And when he let me go he said if you are doing it for aesthetic reasons, go and look at that sculpture and this church. So he believed me, and he said oh, you French women! It was like a small miracle in the middle of the war, because the war was horrible. And all the soldiers didn't shoot me, a young woman, because I had these papers, and without them I wouldn't have been able to go. And so I reached the Spanish border, put my foot into Spain, and cycled back.

What did your parents think of you going off like that as a young girl?

My father was a navy officer and he flew, and I helped him during the war. I told him I would only do a few miles every day and I would sleep in convents so I would be safe. Everyone used cycles to go to the countryside to get eggs and so on, then went home. For me, it was just another step to keep going. It was beautiful - no cars, no tourists. It was very important for me because I got the impression for the future.

Was the idea for the Angélique books growing even then?

I was writing already, but I didn't specially think I would write about that area. But I thought it could have been like the 17th century because there were few people, and castles - and people were living like in old times. The rest of Europe was living in horror, and I was lucky, and I thought I can't relive my youth.

After the war you won a literary prize and used the money to go to Africa in 1949. Why Africa?

To get out of Europe, where we had been in jail for five years during the war. I wanted to go the furthest I could, but I couldn't speak English, so I chose somewhere where people spoke French. It was called Equatorial Africa - part of the Congo. I wanted to write articles on people living there and people building things for Africa there. I had a list of names of people there, contacts to look up, and Serge Goloubinoff was there working on various projects. Every country has its own adventures.

Were you married in Africa?

Yes. I went into the jungle some months after I arrived and made a big tour with a doctor who was treating people for sleeping sickness. By the time I returned we were in love, but we never said "Let's get married." When we wanted to return to France we decided to get married so we could come back together.

When did you get the ideal about writing about Versailles and Angélique?

When I returned to France. It was the end of the colony and my husband was very ill from colonial disease and I had to find work because he couldn't find any because he didn't have a licence. Maybe it was because he was out of France for too long, or maybe it because he was on the side of De Gaulle. It was very difficult. So we began to work together. The only thing we had was my pen, so, with his help, I wrote some scientific articles and some memories because he lived in many strange situations and saw a lot of things. I was writing, and when he recovered he was selling the articles to newspapers. I always loved history. 'Gone with the Wind' inspired me. During the war people were trying to escape through books, and this was a time when books helped people to live. I hadn't read any French historical novels. It's only recently that I read Notre Dame de Paris.

And how did it affect your lives when Angélique became a big success?

We were saved! We could eat, and we could escape to a more healthy climate in Switzerland, and could buy a house. Then Serge could buy a ticket for travelling in Africa again.

And when the book became a success you must have become well-known in Paris. Did you meet many new people?

No, not at all. Anyhow, I had no interest in that, it was in my nature to let him be on the front page. I was always writing, writing, writing, and our life was quite nice then. It was beautiful. It was good to know we could bring up our children and sustain them.

Would it be true to say you wrote to support your family but also because you love writing?

Yes. I had written a lot of books before the Angélique books, under other pen names. Every book has a different background, a different psychological problem. I always enjoy writing.

You talk about psychology. You obviously have a great knowledge of human psychology. Where did you discover that?

It's part of the talent. Some people learn it from people outside - and some don't have to learn it, they have a personal feeling for it, a talent. If I didn't have a psychological sense I couldn't use it in my writing. But you have to have lived it. That's why there is less of it in the early Angélique books. After the action came the psychological parts. I sometimes see something, then think it is superficial and not like real life. But Angélique was not like that.

So how much of Angélique is there in you?

She expresses what I couldn't be. If I had lived an idyllic adventure like Angélique I could never have been an author. Angélique is more outer, and I am more inner, quiet. Angélique interests me because she has all the reactions of a woman of impulse that has never been described before. And all this opportunity that I had in the war - which of course was not as dramatic as it was for Angélique - nobody helping me. I felt I hadn't lived so much until then. That is what happens to a human being who is totally abandoned by her close family or friends. I always had the feeling when I was writing something new, that there would be some readers that would find some help in the things I was writing. For instance, during the war, it was the Jews. I saw how they were treated, and in Angélique in Revolt a similar thing is happening to the Protestants. All these people were not of a 'good' religion and were persecuted for it.

And how proud do you feel of having created Angélique?

I'm happy.

Just happy?

Very happy. It's mine. It's a reality. Nobody, nothing can stop that or change it. Before, I read a lot, and I had a vision - to be able to write - and it all came together. Writing has always be a pleasure, whatever the moment. It's like a movie. I'm meeting people and hearing them, and I don't have time to take notes because I'm hearing them. My dream is to have a way to write faster.

Do you have any regrets?

I have no regrets about my writing. It helped me live and it was a very satisfying life.

Do you still have the ideas?

I know what will happen to them, but I won't tell. I'll wait to write it.

In 50 years time, how would you like to be remembered?

I don't care. The work will speak for me. I believe the readers will rediscover it. One of my wishes is to see the film made the way Angélique was. In the first films, Michelle Mercier was chosen because she was the girlfriend of the director and in those films Angélique is written to be like Michelle Mercier is, not like she really is. So I would like to see a film with the real Angélique. 'Gone with the Wind' was an example of a good movie done by good people, close to the book.

There is a lot of talk on the internet about which of the actors and actors today would be good for the different roles, and which actress today would be a good Angélique. But we haven't been able to think of anyone.

It should be done by people who love it and understand it.

What is your greatest wish for the future?

To recover Angélique - not only the book, but the movie project, and soon to have the machine for working in the way of the new age! It will save much time. I want to work faster. I want to finish the 14th book. And, by the way, there will be a 15th.
Part 2: The working partnership between Anne and Serge

What was Serge's role in Angélique?

Some people try to pretend that all of the books were written by Serge - including the ones after he died! But the first books were a collaboration and it's interesting to note that all the series of books today say that Anne and Serge Golon wrote the books together. It was very special. If we are talking about a collaboration, the Sultan, which happens in North Africa, is a good example. He helped me because it his experience. He had lived in Persia, and Mulay Ismail was a real person, and he helped with his knowledge of the area and the history. Little by little I had enough information. I particularly liked writing 'Angélique and the Sultan', because it was the challenge of everything happening in an enclosed place. As time went on, Serge concentrated more on painting and research and I went with him to America for the new works, and gathered a lot of documentation and research. On my return he stopped helping me and I did it myself. I would sometimes ask him for help and he would help with my research, but I was doing the writing. This was around the time of 'Angélique and the Demon'.

The characterisations of the ideas of the people in America, the beliefs of the Indians and the ways of the trappers is very detailed and shows a great deal of knowledge. Where did you learn that?

One of my goals was to go to America, but I discovered I didn't know anything about the country. So when I went there I decided to discover about America and write the rest of the story - which isn't finished yet - about it. It was totally unknown at this time, what happened in those days in America. Nobody knew about the animals, or the Indians there. It was the very first novel to tell about the very first step of America. We went driving to Quebec from New York and stopping in places for three months. There were lots of historical places and examples of the trading places in those times. I saw how to make the green candles, and that is one of the suspenseful parts of the later novels. Wherever I went there was always some person who had done some research on his own place, and I used that.

Serge died at this time?

Yes, when I was writing 'Angélique and the Demon'.

What else was Serge working on when the books were being written?

When I was working on the books, Serge was not working, but he had a lot of business contacts and he was inventing things, medicines for diseases of the skin and things like that. He also found some mines in Africa and tried to lay claims, and he went to Africa, and he knew where the mines were. But he was not strong enough (financially), and the big groups wanted to take them without paying.

Serge was also a painter. Do you have many of his paintings?

Yes. There is a book printed with paintings from both of us.

What else do you have to remind you of him?

I don't feel free to speak about the very pure and very simple things I had with him because my adversaries are trying to use his memory against me. He was 18 years older than me, and he had lived much of his life before he met me. And what he had lived was so great. You could make three movies on his life before he met me. He had led a very adventurous, very interesting, exciting life. Even when we met it was another adventure. We were never a settled family. In many ways we were a very modern couple. Later, when I was working all the day, he took care of the children, so that I could be free to do my work.

It's very obvious you were very close.

Yes, we were both very adventurous. But regarding the books, he helped with the history and stories, but he never asked "What will we do with Angélique?" because he didn't care. It was not his creation, and he didn't have to put his stamp of ownership on it, not at all. It's like Angélique. It's the story of a relationship between a man and a woman.

Part 3: The Golons' unique writing process

The first Angélique book is huge - over 800 pages - how long did that take to write?

When one begins, one has the material prepared. I built the life of the characters, working day and night for 10 months, writing while also researching at the library.

It must have taken a lot of self-belief to write a book that big because it's a big risk, to put so much effort into something that might never get published. How much self-belief did you have?

One thing is for sure - there was no other work, so we had the time. Everyone was asking for new books because during the war there were no books.

How much of the research did you do yourself, and how much were you helped by Serge?

About equal, and of course we talked a lot about the book. At this time they were rebuilding Versailles, and we went along to see how it was going.

In the first two books there were very detailed descriptions of the wedding of Louis XIV, and the court. Were these taken from your research?

Of course. There were not yet costume museums, but we found extraordinary old books. There was one on the Court of Miracles too. And we went into Paris to see the places where the books took place.

Did your early books have maps of Paris as it was then?

No. I first thought about putting in the maps when I thought about the French reading about America. I didn't think it necessary to put in maps of France because I was writing in France.

What time of the day did you write?

I was writing all the time, whenever I could - in the morning, in the afternoon and evening, in between doing the research. And of course, I had four children to look after as well. My first child was ill and quite weak, and we had a German babysitter. She took him to her home in the mountains for his health and it saved him because of the better environment, and he was there for almost a year. And of course we visited him often and he recovered.

Did you write by hand?

Everything by hand.

And for the later books, in the New World, were they written by hand as well?

Yes, always, always by hand.

And do you still have the original manuscripts?

Some of them, yes. If we had all, we would need a house for them all, but we have enough to show what it was like.

How much do you write in one day?

It depends if there is a child with you. At the moment, because of the legal matters, not very much, but very soon I hope it could be from five in the morning until 1 pm. When I was in Switzerland the first year we moved there, I was writing 'Angélique in Revolt' and I had two children. I couldn't say how much I wrote. It depended on the life I was leading. Sometimes I had to look after the children, and people had to wait for the next story! Now, people can get the books one after the other. But they had to wait three or four years back then. That's why I am unhappy that they didn't translate the last three books into English. I wanted to finish the story for my readers.

Part 4: The importance of religion in the Angélique stories

In the books, you talk a lot about the Catholic Church, and Angélique seems to be a believer, but outside of the dogma. She has a feeling for the religions of the east as well.

That's why she is modern and she has a lot of friends, because she has the feeling of the new century. It's better to have this religious feeling because people have been paralysed in all religions and all faiths. That's why I wanted to add this story of the conflict between the Jesuits and Angélique, which symbolises the conflict against the woman which is the sin - the evil. I smile sometimes because I see all these people who didn't notice that this work is explosive.

It seems that Angélique is almost a forerunner of the New Age religions, the new way of looking at religion as against the old way.

Yes. I am astonished that more readers do not see this.

You were ahead of your time. Today, in the movies and the writings, people are now talking about witches and the new religions in a more open-minded way, and it seems that Angélique did that 30 years ago.

Maybe it's for that reason that it hasn't been taken more seriously, because it disturbs some people. Yet she was religious. She didn't ask herself questions. For example, when she arrived in Quebec, she thought she must have a priest for confession, or she will be rejected. She was happy to find herself in church again to sing songs like when she was a child, and she considered herself a part of it. The church tells her to believe that, that way, but the woman did not believe in it. We don't escape from our times. In the 17th century one couldn't let oneself say 'I don't believe', or they would be burned. And in many ways it's the same today.

There are many more groups today.

Yes. I am out of the group because I am a real believer and I saw something and I feel some things that are not with the French at all. I go to church, but now if we speak about God and prayer, people look at us as if we are crazy. There's also a scene in 'Angélique in the New World' (also known as 'The Countess Angélique') where she finds some mint before she meets Outaake, the Indian, and she is almost seeing God in the forests and in nature, which is very primitive and yet very open. When she is in the New World where the earth is new too, her strengths are more primitive. She is like a child and this is the way that things are taken.

It seems to me that Angélique was a forerunner to the French Revolution. That the corruption of the court was something that she fought against, and it was that corruption that led to the Revolution some years later.

No, it was not the corruption that led to the Revolution, but it is an interesting question. The Revolution, in fact, was a big mess. We worked on it and it was not like we all thought.

Author: Harvey J. Adkins