I’ve devoted myself to writing plays for about a dozen years. I’ve often had the opportunity to take part in the staging of my dramatic scripts. That’s how I learned to flesh out my characters. If your character isn’t well drawn, then the actor responsible for bringing it to the stage will have a hard time doing his job properly. I believe theater is a wonderful school for teaching how to sculpt human material. But at a certain point in my career, I wanted to try a format that was a bit longer than a two-hour play: I needed more room to develop my characters, and to accompany them for a longer duration. I also had a need to explore them from the inside.
I’ve had this desire to write a novel for some time. The idea of recounting a story that takes place in Notre Dame of Paris is a matter of circumstance. A few years ago, I actually worked in the cathedral, as a supervisor helping oversee that everything ran smoothly between the two types of people who frequent this place: the tourists and the faithful. This experience of several months enabled me to discover a fascinating universe, a world in itself: a gigantic church traversed daily by tens of thousands of visitors from all over the world; a place of spirituality, of culture and history, but also a veritable institution with all its power games. I opened my eyes and ears wide, I took in images, sensations, bits of spoken phrases and facial expressions—as many colors as possible that I then put on my writer’s palette to paint fictional characters.
The idea of writing a thriller came to me almost last, while reading an essay from the 1920s about detective novels written by the German critic Siegfried Kracauer. He put forth an exciting idea: profane mystery had supplanted divine mystery, and the detective sometimes has to substitute for the priest, because the criminal that he’s seeking is above all a sinner in search of redemption. In this formulation, the detective is to the police what the priest is to the church. I wanted to take this idea literally in inventing a character who was a priest-investigator. This is how Father Kern, the main character of The Madonna of Notre Dame, came to be. Then I could get down to writing the rest.
The main challenge consisted of finding a good balance between reality and fiction. I knew the cathedral in great detail. I wanted to share this knowledge with readers, help them discover the dark recesses and mysteries of Notre Dame without giving the impression of reading a documentary volume. I came up with several personalities that I wanted to appear in the novel and whom I called the "lost of Notre Dame." I used the scraps of dialogue and anecdotes I’d collected while working there as the basis for constructing the other personalities. Through this ongoing confrontation between actual and imagined experience, The Madonna of Notre Dame was born. In sum, I didn’t stray far from theater: I used Paris and its cathedral as a backdrop, then I borrowed from the reservoir of those who frequent it in real life to create the characters in my novel much like a director does with his actors in the theater.
Alexis Ragougneau is the author of The Madonna of Notre Dame to be published on October 11 by New Vessel Press.