When I grow up, I’m going to be a child


For the first time, Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt has agreed to a book of interviews about his childhood, his multiple vocations and his life.

For the first time, Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt has agreed to a book of interviews about his childhood, his multiple vocations and his life. Who was Eric-Emmanuel, the little boy from Lyon in the ‘60s? What stories did he already carry in his head? We learn about his education, his background, his dreams and his regrets. With sincerity and aplomb, he answers the questions put to him by the journalist Catherine Lalanne, editor-in-chief at Pélerin and responsible for this new “Workshop of Childhood” series (“Atelier de l’enfance”).
The secrets Schmitt shares about his life, his values, his numerous activities and the meaning he sees in life and art, make this a unique volume in a class of its own. His readers (and they are many) will devour the chapters of this book, which offers a generous window on to the author’s private world; the writer, playwright and philosopher who emerges may well be at odds with the image some people have of him. There is much in this volume to surprise readers, too.


RCF - « When I Grow Up, I’m Going to be a Child »

Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt is one of the most widely read contemporary French-language authors in the world. In a series of interviews published under the title When I Grow Up, I’m Going to be a Child, he reveals how his work is informed by the grace he received during his “Night of Fire” (1) in the Ahaggar Desert where he had become separated from his companions: “I blazed with a presence. I realised that everything has meaning. The grace of that night has never left me. (…) I decided to become the scribe of that joy. (…) Plato said that the philosopher has a unique capacity for wonderment. If I elaborate on his theory of emotion, I come up with my position as a writer: wonderment. My characters live every day as if it were their first. They greet the world, they don’t bid it farewell” (2).

Raised in Lyon by parents who were passionate about music and the theatre, he studied at the Ecole Normale Supérieure, where he passed the most prestigious French teaching qualification in philosophy with flying colours. At 28, he discovered Christianity. “Today, as a believer, I don’t think I’m very different from the sceptical but trusting boy that I was. Faith hasn’t taught me anything – it doesn’t dispense extra knowledge in the sense that science does; it renews one’s relationship with the unknown. I pay credit to everything I don’t understand. Belief gave me the original wonderment and deference in the face of mystery” (3).

In an age when media networks are continually haranguing us about the permanent threat of terrorism, Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt says: “but they also give our routine lives that “first-time” flavour: go out, mingle, travel, study, live it up, get together with friends, embrace your families” (4).

His attitude is remarkable in an era that peddles disillusionment and “associates optimism with the village idiot”. “On several occasions, ” he writes, “the child in me nearly died: the creative child was buried under education; the philosopher-child, who marvels, questions and considers, was convinced that he knew it all by the time he was 20 and could stop looking; and the playful child is at risk of being crushed by the spirit of gloom” (5). The lifestyle he proposes is one of constant beginnings. “I refuse to be tired of life. I have banned all sense of ‘seen that, heard that’. I break with every habit. I intend to cultivate newness, a first-time flavour and eternal naivety. Art helps me. When I stand in front of a painting or listen to music, I return to a primal, virginal state: I am party to an epiphany. Dawn has just broken” (6).

For Schmitt, “it’s not that there aren’t plenty of things to marvel at in this world; it’s that there aren’t enough people marvelling at them!” (7).

Eric-Emmanuel SCHMITT: La nuit de feu (Night of Fire), Albin-Michel publications 2015.
Eric-Emmanuel SCHMITT: Plus tard, je serai un enfant (When I Grow Up, I’m Going to be a Child). Interviews with Catherine Lalanne, Bayard publications 2017, page 96. When asked what the best gift of that night was, he answered: “Talent is wasted if it’s only used to serve itself. I need to live and write from my soul, which saw. In the current time when people kill in the name of God, I act so as to respect the same God in others and in me. God’s friends are always going to be those who seek him, not usurpers who make a loud noise in His name claiming to have found Him (…). God isn’t proved by reason, and no religion is right or wrong. Tolerance of other people’s beliefs comes from accepting our common ignorance (…). Personally, I’m aware that I don’t know anything but I live in ignorance by the light of God and the Christian revelation” (pages 118-119).
Ibid, pages 105-106.
Ibid, page 103.
Ibid, page 12
Ibid, page 137.
Ibid, page 120.

Bernard Ginisty


Bernard Ginisty

Le Bel âge (Canada) - « Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt, smuggler of lives »

Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt has had a bad night. He’s fallen foul of a rotten cold and is hoping to be well enough to play Momo, Ibrahim and other characters in the one-actor stage adaptation of his famous novel, Mr Ibrahim and the Flowers of the Koran tonight. “If I have to cancel, I’ll be in an even worse state than if I perform!” he sighs down the phone, between coughing fits. His determination is no surprise when you know his commitment to communicating with the audience in order to brighten up their lives. “We live in societies that are stamped with the seal of misery. But misery is related to absence, and once you nurture it, there’ll be no shortage of things for it to feed off, because you can always spot the absences in your life: the people you’ve lost, the time you’ve wasted, the money you don’t have … Whereas joy is related to plenitude. It’s about the ability to enjoy relations with other people, about taking pleasure in the ability to do things and in the things you’ve done. Every life is full of joy and misery and it develops according to the light that’s cast on it,” adds the writer who, in a delightful and accessible way, tackles major existential issues, such as faith and the search for happiness. And that is his recipe for global success.


Testifying to that success are his twenty-odd plays, which include Enigma Variations, The Visitor and The Diary of Anne Frank, all performed regularly in 50 countries, while an array of best sellers, such as Oscar and the Lady in Pink, The Alternative Hypothesis, Odette Toulemonde and Other Stories, and more recently, Night of Fire and The Man Who Could See Through Faces, have been translated into 44 languages. The result is that this doctor of philosophy, who grew up near Lyon in France, has, in less than two decades, become one of the most widely read French-language authors and one of the most frequently performed in the world. “That instant success gave me wings. The fact of being wanted gives you amazing energy! I sometimes think my work would be less interesting and less prolific if I hadn’t entered into this contract with my audiences … But then again, what do I know?” ponders the Academician, who also writes graphic novels, adapts opera libretti, produces films and directs and acts in plays at his own theatre.


Open your eyes


How to explain such creative bulimia? “When I write, I feel I’m giving life. It can happen on the page or on stage. Writing is first and foremost about attending to the world in immense detail. I’m someone who pays attention to my characters and to their imaginary stories. Basically, I’m a smuggler of lives!” concludes this writer built like a sportsman, from the manorial farm in Belgium where he lives. “This historic monument south of Brussels dates back to 1601, and it’s where I feel at my best … As I speak, I’m surrounded by my three dogs: Fouki, the mother, and her two puppies, Lulu and Daphnée. I love animals and I’m terribly fond of them. They have the same importance in my life as people.” And that’s the only intimate detail he discloses in our interview, because Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt is extremely discreet on the subject of himself. “I have my moments like anyone else, but I don’t want to talk about them. By remaining silent, I keep my balance and I’m more productive as a novelist and a playwright,” he emphasises, with a smile in his voice, implying, at the same time, that his vibrant humanity can best be discovered through the words of his characters. Anyone who has been lucky enough to see him at the National Theatre in Montreal (or anywhere else in Québec) in Mr Ibrahim and the Flowers of the Koran, his mythical ode to tolerance and friendship, can vouch for that. Schmitt says he has wonderful memories of his performances there: “Honestly, it was like a honeymoon with Montreal audiences! They roared with laughter, at other moments they were in tears ... It was one of the highlights of my life!” raves this artist whose creative spark never seems to wane.


Nevertheless, he would be the first to admit that he doesn’t have the key to unlock personal creativity. “I don’t hold the key for the simple reason that, when it comes to creativity, we’re not all talented in the same way. But opening your eyes and arms is something we can all do. We do it spontaneously when we’re children because a toddler’s brain is keen for knowledge and new sensations. Then we stop when we grow up, because we have the illusion that we know, that we’re mature and that we possess truths. But that can inhibit our action and our engagement with society, maybe even our impulse to reach out to other people. In short, it can have a totally paralysing effect. And once you start to suffer from it, it’s a disease that’s worth treating.”


Like children


It was in that spirit that he took on his latest work, When I Grow Up, I’m Going to Be a Child, a series of frank interviews with the journalist Catherine Lalanne. In the course of the exchanges, Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt goes back to the garden of childhood and the sources of his artistic inspiration with an inspiring optimism. In the first lines of the preface, he writes, “I haven’t had the same childhood all my life,” before saying, later on, “We have several childhoods in a single life, which vary according to the age at which we tell them.” From the creator’s point of view, “we always see the past through the window of the present. In troubled times, for instance, we look for the roots of the conflict. Whereas in calmer times, we discern the origin of that tranquillity.” So, how does he regard his childhood from his current perspective? “I’d say the same as I describe in the book. I’m at peace, I’m steadfast, and I’m grateful to what I was given by the people I had around me.”


In saying that, he naturally thinks of his grandfather, François, the wise and mischievous artisan jeweller and stone-setter, the memory of whom is still very vivid and who features strongly in the book. “I’ve paid tribute to him by dispelling the cliché about old people. Thanks to my grandfather, I see the aging process as a guarantee of liberty. That’s when we can break the rules, weigh anchor and stop caring about gossip!” In truth, Schmitt is indignant about the generally reductive attitude towards old age. “Aging isn’t about shrivelling up, it’s about growing up!” he quips with an energy that contrasts with the general tone of the conversation. “At 20, I was blasé; at 50, I’m astonished by people’s diversity. As a young adult, I could only see what people had in common; I saw them as archetypes. The more I discover people’s complexity (there’s no single way of loving, desiring or living), the more I marvel. These days, I tend to look for the specific rather than the constant,” admits the philosopher, who also sees this book as a manifesto against the cynicism and disillusionment that are too often spread around our world. “In all my writing, there’s a will to share joy, confidence and optimism with my readers. Even if my native joy has often been put to the test by deaths, illness or injustice, it’s nevertheless grown stronger over time. And it’s become deliberate. I nurture it and I cultivate it.” For the eternal philosopher in him, joy and optimism don’t mean he denies that life can be difficult, but they give one the strength to overcome life’s obstacles, to turn them into something useful and positive, for oneself and for other people.


We’re coming to the end of the interview, but I can’t leave Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt without asking him to elaborate on a sentence at the end of the second chapter of his book: “Love is earned.” It’s a deceptively simple sentence that’s pregnant with meaning, especially at a time when effort isn’t much in vogue. “I’ve always felt that you have to be lovable to be loved. That doesn’t include the love of a parent for a child, who may or may not incite it, but being prepared to give another person the best of oneself is an excellent attitude. I’d go so far as to say that a person should give the best of themselves to life. If you don’t work on yourself, if you nurture bad moods and impose them on those around you, if you hide the treasures of goodness within yourself, what right do you have to ask anything of life and of other people? You’ve got to be a bit consistent!”


Schmitt goes on to talk about the future, although it seems a bit premature to be taking stock just yet. “I don’t know what the future holds for me. Will I live out more of my childhood in the years to come?” he laughs. One thing’s for sure, Schmitt the thinker hopes one day to rediscover the contemplative nature which he believes characterizes childhood. “I’d like to relive the magic of those times. Maybe I’ll manage it when I feel that my task is accomplished …”


For the record, Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt got over his cold and was able to perform that night, to his own delight and the great delight of his admirers!


Manon Chevalier

Blogs reviews

Voix de plumes - « Interviews conducted with tact and talent »

This collection, titled L’Atelier de l’enfance (Workshop of Childhood) and published by Bayard Editions, is a splendid idea. The objective is to explore the fertile garden in which artists flourish. Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt is in conversation with Catherine Lalanne, editor-in-chief of the weekly magazine Pèlerin and director of the collection.

The novelist and playwright tells us in the preface that he hasn’t been living the same childhood all his life, and this volume presents us with the childhood of his 50s. He concludes this appetizer with the revelation that he has now become his own child.

First up: Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt and Catherine Lalanne already know and trust one another; so, the writer had no hesitation in giving Lalanne a collection of photos from a family album. The images are reproduced at the end of the book. The journey to the land of Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt’s childhood begins on his parents’ balcony in their flat in Lyon; from that vantage point, the little boy could regard the world from on high and take it all in. Along the way, we discover the importance of a grandfather who scattered gold stars over his family’s life.

From an early age, Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt was a voracious reader. He virtually learnt to read from the Tintin albums and could hardly wait for the next Asterix adventures to come out. The classics followed during his childhood, then the philosophers as he entered adolescence.

Young Eric-Emmanuel’s underlying vocation, however, was not literature but music (it still is). As the author writes: “If Satan’s right-hand man, Mephistopheles, were to appear and offer to erase everything I’d written in return for turning me into the composer of an aria by Mozart or a Prelude by Chopin, I’d say ‘yes’ straight away!”. We also learn how his vocation to write plays was born and why he bought the Rive Gauche Theatre in Paris. Thanks to Catherine Lalanne’s subtle questions, we discover that Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt is an ode to joy. Not that he’s naïve and doesn’t understand the state the world is in (read Ulysses from Baghdad), he simply sees the glass as half-full rather than half-empty.

These interviews seem to have been conducted towards the end, or just before the publication, of Night of Fire, the novel that recounts how Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt found faith. Catherine Lalanne subtly leads up to this revelation via the road that led to it. The interview with Jeannine, Eric-Emmanuel’s mum, is sensitive and dignified, too.

In these interviews, people who only know the writer through his novels or plays will discover the man and what he is made of. Anyone who already knows something of Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt’s life will discover surprising aspects of his trajectory, his motives and his creativity. A lot gets said in these 180 pages but always with moderation, the result of interviews conducted with tact and talent by an interviewer capable of employing discretion – a rare virtue.
Pascal Schouwey

Pascal Schouwey

Dans ma Liseuse Hyperfertile - « Rush out and buy a copy »

I had the privilege of receiving this book before it reached the bookshops, thanks to the critical-mass campaign. I tore open the envelope like a child with a Christmas present, because I just love this author, his writing and the impression you get of him from his interviews in the media and on TV.

I started it straight away, but the book isn’t a novel: it’s a transcription of an interview with Catherine Lalanne on the theme of childhood. So, we learn who Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt, the child, was and we discover how he now regards that boy, how he related to his family, and so on.

He talks about the first books he read as a little boy, he discusses the uneasy young man, he describes his encounter with music, especially Mozart who has a special place in his life, and then he leads on to the theatre, describing how he was moved to tears by Cyrano de Bergerac, for example.

In the course of the interview, we follow him over the rooftops of Lyon, we gaze at paintings with him, we marvel at films, at art in general and at life plain and simple.

I can’t imagine this project was easy: talking about your family and childhood, opening up to readers about your private world. But Schmitt talks disarmingly about himself and manages to be exciting and touching at the same time (as when he describes the absence of children, for instance).

I loved reading this interview. I could hear Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt’s voice while I read it. And now all I want to do is submerge myself in his plays, because up to now, I’ve confined myself to reading his novels. I’m bound to be tempted to read Catherine Lalanne’s interviews with other artists … This book is available in the bookshops from today: if you like Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt, you should rush out and buy a copy.

My rating:

Read this book if you, too, want to rediscover the child that you were.