An interview with Posy Simmonds

The illustrator tells Pierre de Villiers about her student days in Paris and the film version of her graphic novel Gemma Bovery

What’s it like to see the world you created in graphic novel Gemma Bovery up on the big screen?

I saw the film last year in France and it looked very much like my drawings. The French countryside and what people wore, it’s extraordinary how it was done. I think Gemma Arterton is amazingly beautiful and she makes a very fruity Gemma while Fabrice Luchini is a force all his own as the baker.

Your work satirises those who live in the French countryside but don’t bother to learn the language. Have you witnessed this first-hand?

I have been in parts of France popular with the English, so I’ve heard them yelling in English. Not all of them necessarily yell in the street, but I have met people who say: “I don’t really talk French except to the builders and then they still didn’t understand about the tiles.” I think to myself, well b….y well learn French!

How often do you travel through France?

I’ve just spent a few weeks in France visiting friends in Gaillac, near Albi, and I also know Brittany quite well. I get to Paris quite a lot; it’s an inspirational place. It’s interesting how the smell in Paris has changed. It used to smell of Gauloises, but doesn’t anymore.

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Which is your favourite part of Paris?

I’m addicted to shoe shops and there’s a particular one I like in Rue du Cherche-Midi, which is near the Bon Marché department store. I sometimes have a sandwich outside and look at the shoes in Cherche-Midi. I love watching people and Paris is particularly brilliant for that because you can sit outside restaurants.

You studied at the Sorbonne in Paris? How enjoyable was that?

Oh, I have very happy memories of that time. It was a big transition from being in the English countryside at a girls’ boarding school to suddenly being in Paris, more or less on my own. I had never been in a city before because I grew up in the country so it was completely wonderful. I walked everywhere and I transformed myself from wearing a respectable tweed overcoat and black patent handbag and shoes to, when I went back, wearing a black leather skirt, black stockings and a black polo neck, looking like an Existentialist. My father looked at me and said: “Oh God”. [Laughs]

Is that where your love for France started?

Yes, my immersion into Paris was very striking. My mother’s ancestors were French Huguenots who lived near Albi and had to leave after the massacres in the 17th century. They came to London and some of them went to Ireland. I’ve travelled to Albi to try to find out more about my family’s history.

Franco-Belgian comics seem more popular than ever. Why do you think that is?

Yes, they are everywhere at festivals and comic shops. Part of their popularity is due to the fact that the media has become much more word and image, and the whole web is word and image. I think people are used to it now.

You must be proud of the role you’ve played in popularising bandes dessinées (comic books or strips).

For a while I didn’t realise I was part of the comics scene, because I always worked for newspapers. In those days if you said you were in comics people thought you meant The Beano and Dandy. About 20 years ago, when Gemma Bovery came out, I went to the comics festival in Angoulême, and realised that it is now one big comics family, and that I’m part of it. That was rather good.

Gemma Bovery is in cinemas from 7 August.