Camille Bordas on Giving Ghosts the Attention They Require

The narrator of “Chicago on the Seine,” your story in this week’s issue, works in consular services at the American Embassy in Paris. The narrator likes to indulge in stories about his job—spy stories, exfiltration stories—but what does the job actually entail? And what got you thinking about such a career?

His branch of special consular services typically deals with repatriation of U.S. citizens for whom things have gone awfully wrong abroad. I don’t exactly remember how or why I landed on this line of work—this narrator has been on my mind for so long. A few years ago, I actually wrote a whole novel in his voice. In the novel, he worked in the private sector (he was an insurance guy), but his job was still medical repatriation. The story lines were different, but it was essentially the same man, with the same heap of concerns and fantasies. What I can say for sure is that the word “repatriation” always impressed me. Just like the narrator, I always imagined big dramatic stories behind it. I first heard it as a small kid, when I lived abroad with my family. My father was a telecom engineer, and he had a three-year stint in Mexico in the nineties, so we all moved there. We were “expats,” I was told. I remember that, when I or one of my siblings felt a bit sick, a parent would ask, in jest, if we thought the situation demanded medical repatriation. The idea, I assumed, was to de-dramatize our illnesses: you only went home when things were really dire. I think none of us were in a rush to go back to France, so the answer was always, “I’m good! No repatriation necessary.” But I did wonder about those for whom it was necessary, what conditions would warrant this extreme measure.

On this occasion, the narrator has to repatriate the body of an American woman who died while on a work trip in Paris. The woman’s daughter calls him because she’s worried that her mother’s body will be left alone until it’s returned to the U.S. She’s worried, in fact, that if the dead are left alone before burial they’ll be subject to disquiet, volatility, and eternal roaming. The words “spectral invasion” are used. It’s an eerie turn for a matter-of-fact story. How do you think about blending the quotidian and the spooky?

When I was in grad school, I took this amazing class with the philosopher Xavier Papaïs which focussed on ghosts. It was in fact called Fetishes and Ghosts—fetishes as in the objects we worship because we think they’re inhabited by spirits, not the other kind. The class blended pure philosophy with anthropology and clinical texts, and it looked at different ways in which human societies deal with ghosts—mainly, the rituals they put in place to insure protection from them. In order not to get haunted by the dead, in order for your dead to become ancestors and tutelary figures instead of ghosts, you have to give them a certain number of things, a certain level of attention. The material covered in that class was so rich and layered that I’ve continued to think about it more than ten years later. “This leaves the door open to spectral invasion” is an actual sentence that was spoken in that class. I guess that, just as “repatriation,” years before, made a strong initial mark on me, so did the phrase “spectral invasion.” It stayed in a part of my brain for a while, and then it ended up colliding with the word “repatriation” in a way that I found intriguing. The two notions made sense together to me, for reasons that I find obvious now but that might appear odd or eerie to most. I liked that.

It turns out that this is not the first time the prospect of ghosts has played a role in the narrator’s life. It’s entangled with his relationship with his mother, who died when he was young, and his relationship with his father. How did those elements start to surface in the story?

Because this story actually emerged from a novel, I had many of the elements in place already. I knew the narrator himself was kind of haunted and stuck. I knew that his mother believed in ghosts and he didn’t, and that the way he communicated with his father was through movies. But I’ve come to realize that one of the reasons the novel could never quite work was that it was burdened with a lot of knowledge I had accumulated about ghosts (from that class I just mentioned but also through talking to people who’d had their houses de-ghosted, and people who’d thought their houses had been haunted but ended up realizing that all they had was an electrical problem, etc.). I like the motto “Write what you know.” I think it makes sense. But, when it becomes “Write everything you know about what you know,” the novel (or the story) you’re working on loses buoyancy. My novel was sunk, and I realized that. But there was still something in it that appealed to me. So, I stripped it of ninety-nine per cent or so of the ghost knowledge, and I think this made the whole thing—even some of the non- (or indirectly) ghost-related parts, like when the narrator rides the bus or goes to the movies—a lot spookier.

Your new novel, “The Material,” comes out this month. Does it share any themes with this story? What else should we know about it?

Thank you for asking! In my mind, my new novel is the polar opposite of this story, but I’m probably wrong about this—incapable of seeing the ways that they are exactly alike. To be honest, I started writing “The Material” deliberately against the ghost novel I had abandoned. I wanted away with first person, away with flashbacks and family drama (which the failed novel brimmed with). So “The Material” is a third-person, multi-perspective novel that moves only forward. It’s about aspiring comedians getting their M.F.A. in standup comedy in Chicago. Fast-paced. A lot more jokes. Zero ghosts. ♦

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