A life of literary excess: Georges Simenon

I’m introducing the guest post of Clara Godwin-Suttie about Georges Simenon. I’m familiar with his work; I read the first book about Maigret when I was 12-13. Currently, I’m reading his biography, The Mystery of Georges Simenon, written by Fenton Bresler (a second-hand book – the last one – I got via bokborsen), and I’d advise you to grab a copy too. His life and writing routine are so fascinating you’ll be inspired much more than by hundreds of motivational books on writing. Reading about his daily routines inspired me to finish ‘The Story of Harmless Bullet’ – 5 chapters in one week, and even write 4300 words in one day. It wasn’t much, though, considering that Georges Simenon was writing 8000 words each day and usually published 10-12 books a year. Now, read on… 

the book biography of Georges Simenon

 For those unfamiliar with 20th-century Belgian literature, allow me to introduce you to one of the greats – Georges Simenon. Simenon lived around Europe and North America, drinking, writing, flirting, and just generally doing everything he wanted. If Simenon didn’t describe himself as a hedonist, he certainly would have provided an ideal for those to look up to. His work is the most translated in the world: he wrote over 200 novels and claimed to have slept with 10,000 women. Let’s look at his life and see what aspiring writers can learn from his extraordinary writing routine.

The first bit of advice from Simenon would be that one should write constantly. Simenon started his career at age 15 when he took a job with Gazette de Liege. He started writing just random bits and pieces, general human interest stories that wouldn’t get him the front page but would allow him to practice and make connections. Then he just kept going! Simenon’s most famous creation was a pipe-smoking detective named Jules Maigret, and he wrote 75 novels and 28 short stories about Maigret’s adventures. At his best, Simenon could write up to 80 pages per day, and it’s estimated that throughout his life, he penned 200 novels, 150 novellas, and then an uncountable number of pulp pieces, articles, and autobiographical works. In an interview, Simenon said, ‘I write fast because I have not the brains to write slow.’ Allegedly, he could complete a novel in 11 days – the thought of this makes my fingers hurt. 

Georges Simenon writing

from ArtPhotoLimited 

 The second bit of advice from Simenon would be to not worry too much about formal education. Look, there are some people who seem to do fine without a lot of schooling, like Mark Zuckerberg or Bill Gates. Simenon was one of them. In good conscience, I can’t tell you to stop doing your homework, but it undoubtedly worked for Simenon, who left school at 15. His reason is that his father was very unwell, and given that this was around the time he started working for Gazette de Liege, we might wonder if he had to help pay for his father’s medical care. After things began to improve, Simenon did not return to school.  

from TheTimes

 The third bit of advice from Simenon would be to draw from your own experience. To say that Simenon spent time with some unsavory characters would be an understatement. He apparently loved to spend time in the Belgian and French underworld, where he met criminals, anarchists, and (at least) two murderers. Why is this relevant? Because he wrote one of the killers into a novel! Much like the second piece of advice, I don’t think you should hang out with murderers to become a good writer, but if the opportunity presents itself, you could take advantage of it. In a slightly less unpleasant way, Simenon allegedly based the character of Jules Maigret on his father and a police officer he knew. Experts also think he might have written parts of himself into Maigret… although I don’t think he did much police work himself. 

from Prospect Magazine

 The fourth bit of advice from Simenon would be to borrow other people’s ideas occasionally. Everyone, from Shakespeare to Oscar Wilde, has been inspired by other writers and storytellers. At some point, this becomes a little obvious, and although one can claim to be playing with troupes or giving an old myth a modern retelling, eventually, you wander into plagiarism… I can’t count the number of times JK Rowling has been sued for stealing the idea for Harry Potter. People love detective stories – maybe they like the gore, or perhaps they want to think that if they’re murdered, then someone will bring their killer to justice – so it’s not surprising that Simenon would have a murder mystery in his vast works. Especially considering the sorts of people, he hung out with. The most famous detective, real or fictitious, is Sherlock Holmes, a pipe-smoking detective. There’s also Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, who is from Belgium. So, if Jules Maigret looks familiar, don’t be too shocked. Don’t let that stop you from enjoying the stories, though! 

Jules Maigret by Jean Gabin (movie)

 The fifth bit of advice from Simenon would be to ignore omens. Simenon was born on Friday, the 13th of February, but it was officially listed as the 12th because of his family’s superstitions. It worried Simenon’s mother, so she asked his aunt to fudge things when registering his birth. Simenon wasn’t primarily Catholic or concerned by this, so now most records state his actual birthday. Simenon wrote about the changed birthday in his novel Pedigree to emphasize how he felt about this

 The sixth bit of advice from Simenon would be not to be yourself. Sorry, 21st-century wisdom, I know this goes against your sensibilities, but that’s what Simenon said! Many writers use pen names, especially women or anyone writing something lewd, and Simenon was no exception. The only difference is instead of having one pen name, he ended up with at least 15-20. He even occasionally used his birth name! Given how much he wrote and how wildly different some pseudonyms were, I wonder if we’ve found all of his novels or if some are floating around that have been misattributed to him. 

 The seventh bit of advice from Simenon would be to look for suggestions. I can’t verify if this is true, but a rumor claims that Simenon once wrote a novel in 24 hours. To make this story stranger, he did it while sitting in a glass box outside the iconic Moulin Rouge, where passers-by and patrons stopped and gathered around. If Simenon got stuck, the audience offered suggestions, and apparently, he wrote them into this story. I can’t imagine anything worse than writer’s block with a peanut gallery, but I’m not Simenon. 

photo from Nonsolopipa 

 The eighth bit of advice from Simenon would be to stick to a routine. Humans are creatures of habit, and an upset in our rhythms is incredibly frustrating. Think about how much people moan when the clocks change! Simenon found the best way for him to produce a novel and repeated it. Clearly, it was truly effective. He would start by listing characters and adding details like their addresses and descriptions on a manilla envelope. Why a manilla envelope? Who knows… Whatever works, right? Next, he’d carefully lay out everything he needed for the next day, including lots of coffee (relatable) and equipment for his typewriter (dated). Then he’d start work at dawn the next day (he usually woke up at 5 am), write frantically until 10:30 am, then stop. He would, understandably, be covered in sweat, but he wouldn’t change his shirt (for 11-12 days!) until the novel was finished. Much like his trick at the Moulin Rouge, I don’t think this would work for me (or many other writers), but if you’re trying to get started and don’t have any ideas, perhaps you could give it a go. If nothing else, the terrible smell would motivate you to get the novel finished. 

 One could reasonably argue that Simenon’s life was almost as interesting as his novels. His romantic life, indeed, was absolutely scandalous, and I’d like to know what he was up to during the Second World War because everyone is conveniently hazy on the details. Georges Simenon would not necessarily be my first choice as a role model, but it must be conceded that he worked hard and wrote well, and for an aspiring author, that’s all you need. 

photo from Inside Story 


The Mystery Man


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