'During gigs or book signings, people often come up to me and tell me: "I wasn't a reader, but your book made me experience the pleasure of reading and now I really enjoy reading." I don't say that because I think my books are now so good, but because it shows that once someone experiences how much fun it can be to read a book, a new world opens up.'
Ask Swiss writer Joël Dicker (33) one question and he burns into an inspired, breathless argument about the importance of literature, the love of books, the meaning of reading. He talks with as much pleasure and passion as he writes. His new novel The disappearance of Stephanie Mailer is, like its successful predecessors The truth about the Harry Quebert case and The book of the Baltimores, another tasty page-turner with an ingenious plot, humour and plenty of momentum.
A 650-page book: that's quite a lot at a time when people are increasingly Netflixing and reading less and less.
'That's true, there is less reading, but I don't think we should give up the fight to get - and keep - people reading. Reading is essential for your life, your career, for society as a whole. Many people try to escape reality for a few hours by binge-watching because it makes them feel good. By the way, more and more novels are being adapted into series; think of Game of Thrones By George R.R Martin, Pretty Little Liars By Sara Shepard of The genius girlfriend by Elena Ferrante. Whereas a two-hour film is often too short for filming a novel, a series offers much more space.'
Your own story
'But there is also a big difference between watching television and reading a book, and that is your own imagination. With a book, as a reader, you yourself are part of the creation process, you have an active role because you imagine the characters, and the locations. You give it your own interpretation, which is based on your personal experiences. Each reader creates their so-so story, and that story in turn mirrors something back and says something about the reader.'
Why is that important?
'Because that way, reading gives insight into yourself: into your feelings, your thoughts and what you consider important. I think a society of people who read is a more pleasant society, because people understand themselves and others better, are more at peace with themselves and are more open to another person's point of view. Today, especially on social media, we are mostly very busy with how we look. Every day you have to take so many steps, you have to go to the gym twice a week, and eat healthy. Everyone wants to be in good shape physically, but when it comes to our knowledge, our minds and brains, we are not nearly as caring and disciplined.'
'With all the technology, we use our brains less and less. How many phone numbers do you know by heart these days? When I was little, I knew a lot of them, but now I hardly know my best friends' number - they are in my phone. I am definitely not alone in that, and I find that worrying.'
Have we become lazy? I think if people can choose between reading Ferrante's four books or watching the TV series, most would go for the latter.
'That's true, yes. Yet I think it is also because not everyone knows the beauty of a good reading experience. During gigs or book signings, people often come up to me to tell me: "I wasn't a reader, but your book made me experience the pleasure of reading and now I really enjoy reading." I don't say that because I think my books are now so good, but because it shows that once someone experiences how much fun it can be to read a book, a new world opens up. I like to use a dictionary for the same reason: every time you open it to look up a word, your eye also catches other words you didn't know or don't use very often. It enlarges your world.'
Cool and sexy
'It is good to think how we make reading for young people cool and sexy again. Otherwise, we will soon have generations of young people who only dream of becoming famous on YouTube or Instagram or becoming the new Kim Kardashian. Society cannot function on that. We have so many tools at our disposal that we can no longer live without them. As a result, our knowledge diminishes. We use auto-correct because we no longer know how to spell words, we can no longer read a map because we use navigation systems or Google Maps. With a real map, we can hardly get by.'
Given the popularity of your books, you manage to appeal to a lot of readers. What is the secret?
'I don't know exactly. While writing, I don't think about a goal or my readers; I write mainly to entertain myself. But I did become a writer because I believe in the power of literature, and in sharing that pleasure. I have indeed been very lucky that my books have reached so many readers. Everyone gets something different out of them.'
'When last year The disappearance of Stephanie Mailer uitkwam in Frankrijk, gingen de recensies en gesprekken over de positie van vrouwen in deze tijd van #MeToo, en dat vrouwen nog steeds niet gelijkwaardig worden behandeld. Vervolgens kwam het boek uit in Spanje op het moment dat de Spaanse regering net was gevallen vanwege een groot corruptieschandaal. Omdat corruptie ook een rol speelt in mijn boek, ging het vooral dáárover. In Mexico draaide het vooral om het feit dat er een journalist wordt vermoord, iets wat daar ook geregeld gebeurt. Het is heel interessant om te zien waar welk aspect van het verhaal eruit wordt gelicht.’
What is this book about for you?
'The book takes the form of a detective: there is a crime, then the investigation follows, and at the end of the book you have all the answers to the questions. But for me, that's not the most important thing. I see it mainly as a novel about people with a scar, a personal tragedy, who have to figure out how to move on with their lives. This is something we all go through to a greater or lesser extent. All of us have to come to terms with what we have done or left behind, what we regret or things we wish we could change. We only have one little life, and it is fragile. Everything we do or don't do has consequences, which we have to accept and learn to live with. So for me, this novel is about redemption and the question of how we can forgive ourselves.'
Were you struggling with that theme yourself?
'Well, in my personal life there is no big drama I have to deal with, if that's what you mean. But it doesn't necessarily have to be something big either; we all also go through small tragedies in our daily lives that others sometimes don't even understand the impact of, for example, when losing a pet. That's why I think everyone can identify with it, because, after all, we all grieve or regret something.'