Beatrice Hitchman’s ‘unputdownable’ début novel Petite Mort has received nothing but praise since its release in March. The exciting plot follows protagonist Adele Roux‘s personal journey as she tries to make a successful break into the burgeoning world of silent film in early twentieth century Paris.
As she is faced with the possibility of being forever consigned to the Pathé costume room instead of the glittering stage she yearns to command, Adele must consider how far she is willing to bend her moral compass in order to gain success.
When asked how Hitchman views Adele’s developing role throughout the novel, she says, “I think she’s ferocious in her ambition, and that’s the thread through the maze for her, what she feels defines her – until she questions her ideas. I think Juliette also says it, towards the finalé – she has got to the end of her investigation and found she’s not the person she thought she was.”
...There are so many lost films, and so those vast swathes of unknown things are ideal territory to place a mystery.The similarities between Adele, living as a young adult in the early twentieth century, and Juliette, a young woman working as a journalist fifty years later, is not the only instance of duplicity in the novel. Aside from the mirrored traits between characters, this theme also shows up palpably in Luce‘s character, after she embarks on a risqué relationship with Adele despite being married.
This particular aspect of the plot, along with other, subtler forms of dualities make me wonder what it is about the notion of duplicity that fascinates Hitchman, and whether she intended to lace the theme through Petite Mort so concentratedly.
“We’re different, I think, in front of each new person we come across – I think people are difficult and multiple – and so, in a way, pretence is just a part of who we are. And then what’s really interesting for me is to push that to the limit. Luce pretends for a living, as an actor, and that pretence becomes the reality: she’s like a hall of mirrors in which everyone – including maybe her – gets lost.”
Although originally born in London, Beatrice studied English at Edinburgh University, before moving on to an MA in Creative Writing. She also lived in Paris for a year and moved back home to Britain in order to establish herself as a filmmaker.
When contemplating Petite Mort, focused on the alluring world of film, set in Paris and of course a skilful demonstration of writing, the novel itself seems to be a melting pot of Hitchman’s life experiences with a dose of originality thrown in.
But when asked about the catalyst for the book, Beatrice says, “this novel wasn’t one of those where you have a big ‘what if?’ moment and that’s what sets the engine running. I started it without a fixed plot in mind, just following the characters around, so the ideas really occurred to me as I went along, and developed over time, as I drafted and re-drafted.”
Either redrafting has paid off or Hitchman is naturally adept at composing a story that resonates with readers. At certain points in Petite Mort, interactions between lovers and the characters expressions of their feelings at their most emotionally fraught moments, are powerfully recognisable to the reader.
The subtext is a début author that already possesses an effortless understanding of the human condition. For this reason, I can’t help wondering whether Hitchman herself believes writing is mainly down to intuition, or a skill to be cultivated.
“Maybe the foundations of it are intuitive,” she replies. “But I think you always have to reassess and relearn your practice and what you think you know.”
Considering her introduction to the process of novel writing, in comparison with the process of script-writing that she has been familiar with for longer, I ponder how the processes might compare. Are they different? Similar?
“There are lots of different film-making roles, but the one I’m most familiar with is editing. It’s a beautiful discipline: using only what you have to hand, showing above telling, trying to see the shape of the story, and always refining. To a large degree, those techniques are really also how I approach writing,” says Hitchman.
Moreover, I can’t help wondering whether there is something about the era of silent film that lends itself specifically to a tale of mystery. “There can be something spooky about watching a silent film today,’ she replies.
“The film grammar is so different, and you’re often missing an entire sense – sound – so I think silent films can feel mysterious in and of themselves. And then when you research the film history, you find that so much of what we’d like to know is lost: there are so many lost films, and so those vast swathes of unknown things are ideal territory to place a mystery.”
It’s no surprise that Petite Mort has already been described as ‘cinematic’, considering Beatrice’s own talents in film-making. And as Adele’s character is so authentic, it’s hard to stop the question from stirring: ‘If your book were made into a movie, who would ideally play Adele Roux?’
Hitchman tells me how much her friends “love” to speculate on this very topic. “My friend who’s a Killing fan sees Sofie Gråbøl for all the parts, including all the ladies in the Pathé factory and André (stick-on beard)…”.
Now that she has enjoyed a successful début in the writing world, I ask the question that her developing fan base will no doubt be wondering, what’s next?
The response is coy yet very promising: “Another novel…”
(Photograph by Sarah Lee)