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My First Book

My dad and I in 1983

I wrote my first book when I was 8 or 9. I can’t really precise the exact date. It was a time travel middle-grade fiction that my journalist and very patient father typed on his gray Remington. It was called “The Punjabi List”, about a boy who would travel in time after switching groceries lists with an older man, the guardian of a secret.

We made copies, stapled them together and I bounded them on the long edge with a cool turquoise blue tape that gave it the aspect of a kid’s schoolwork. I drew something on the cover, I guess the “visual story”, but I really suck at drawing, so it only added to the handcrafted looks of it. It was my Christmas’ gift to every single member of my family, probably in the beginning of the 80s. I don’t remember getting feedback, I don’t even know if anyone read it – probably my parents. Regardless, that’s when I thought I could really be a writer, because I would have to use my unwavering imagination.

My first book from 1983! Never good with drawings, but the story is great!

Then, time passed, life happened

When I was 16 years old, I signed up for a student exchange program in France, where I had lived in my early childhood. I wanted to reconnect with my roots, that I had buried deep inside of me, so deeply that I completely forgot how to speak French. At this point, I felt a burning desire to rekindle with the culture and re-ignite the first language I ever dominated. But I had no clear idea of what I wanted to be professionally, other than dealing with words. That far away memory of wanting to be a writer had collided with my growing notion of the real world, and I started to doubt my Mark Twain mantra “they did not know it was impossible, so they did it.” Could I really, my insignificant me, grow up to become a writer?

Once in a French High School, I enrolled in French Literature classes, just to study my favorites and discover new ones. The language came back to me, fully, in about six weeks after I landed. And the best part is that I made no effort and had no accent. That year, I read 52 books for school, analyzing each one of them with my teachers. I would lock myself in a library, start and finish it before I could pee. Thank God we didn’t have cell phones in 1990! My attention was undivided: on the train, on the bus, at home, in a coffeeshop.

Reading had become a refuge

I was going through a very difficult time since my arrival in the north of France. The student exchange program had first placed me in the house of two prostitutes, which I fled within two weeks. Then, I was fostered by an older couple, extremely interesting and loving, but they had just sent off their youngest of four kids away to America, so they could face – alone – a mid-life crisis. He was a set decorator for the opera and theater and would spend most of his time in his studio in Belgium. She was a stage costume designer, frequently in Paris to work at L’Opéra. The net result is that I would spend long stretches of time alone in that big three-story house, snow covering every inch of the ground. Sunlight was rare, and I usually was indoors, at school, while something was shining outside. Slowly, I got extremely lonely and the books, along with a public swimming pool I would go to do my laps, became my solace.

I was 16 when I moved to Tourcoing

When the couple was finally home, they needed time alone, of course. When they started fighting, I would leave the house, go to a coffeeshop or the main library. Sometimes it was their silence that expelled me from that Victorian brick-house, as a sign that they needed more space. One day, walking around with my heavy backpack, I crossed a movie theater! The town, Tourcoing, was so small that I didn’t even know it had a movie theater! “Dick Tracy” was playing, and I bought not only a ticket, but a whole monthly pass. Woohoo!

Movie Magic

Although the screening room was empty, for 105 minutes I completely disconnected from my reality and had a laugh. Next day, I went back there and found out that the movie would be playing the same film for the whole week. Don’t get me wrong, I did enjoy Warren Beauty’s hard-boiled detective and its aesthetics, but I didn’t want to learn the lines by heart. Again, I was alone in the room. Me and the projectionist. Very “Cinema Paradiso”, if you ask me.

I went back almost every day to that empty, warm, dark screening room, to watch the same film three, four, even five times. Which led me to analyzing every single bit of dialogue, characterization, editing, acting, camera movements. Months later, when I finally moved to Paris, I was deeply in love with the Seventh Art, and I kept my memberships to many “cinoches[1]” where I could watch masterpieces any day of the year. But most importantly, that small movie theater located in a dark alley of that cold corner of France pointed at the right direction: I was going to study to become a screenwriter.

Cannes Film Fantasy

My last week in Paris... I knew what I wanted!

In May 1991, I went to the 44th Cannes Film Festival alone, with nowhere to stay and nobody I knew. I was just so fascinated by the movies that I could not help it. Well, this whole adventure will be saved for another post, but all I need to say is that when I left France, after a year of reading more books I had ever read, and watching more films that I had ever watched, I was already a writer. This year spent in confinement, soul searching and art absorbing, didn’t make any sense, until it did. And went it made sense, it became my whole life.

[1] Small independent movie theaters.


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