‘The drugs were good, the music was good, the sex was good’ – cult French writer Ann Scott on her UK years | Books

‘The drugs were good, the music was good, the sex was good’ – cult French writer Ann Scott on her UK years | Books

She has been hailed as the literary queen of the Paris techno scene, whose cult novel Superstars immortalised the hedonism and rivalry of the sweat-drenched dancefloors and rave parties of 1990s France. But if the novelist Ann Scott, the winner of last month’s prestigious Renaudot prize, so poetically chronicled Paris’s generation X, from queer clubs to hard house, it was also because her own backstory gave a unique insight on what it was to be part of the underground.

Sent by her well-meaning Paris parents to England’s Shoreham-by-Sea in 1977 aged 12 “to speak English and play tennis” for the summer, she ran away from her host family to hang out on Kings Road in London with bands. Each summer she would repeat the same act of rebellion; by age 13 she’d been offered heroin by some of London’s biggest punk rockers. By 15 she was drumming in a band, at 16 was a skinhead, and by 18 she was modelling in London for designers such as John Galliano and being photographed for shoots in magazines like i-D and the Face. “Fashion was changing every year,” Scott reminisces. “You could just be anything.”

Now, almost 25 years after Scott gained cult status for Superstars, she is undergoing a revival. Les Insolents, the novel that won her the Renaudot, is a departure from the book that made her name. Set in an isolated spot on the Brittany coast, it tells the story of a Paris-based composer for Marvel films who moves to a rural house she has only seen in photos.

The win has seen Scott’s books hastily reprinted and repackaged, put on sale in airports and train stations and seized on for their wry take on modern French life. Critics are also turning back to her acclaimed 2017 novel, Cortex, about a domestic terror attack on an Oscars award ceremony, a plot-twisting and devastating saga about what it is like to survive violence. The book is a French take on Hollywood, but it also holds up a mirror up to France’s own collective desolation after the 2015 terrorist attacks.

Ann Scott on the cover of i-D magazine in 1986.
‘You could just be anything’ … Ann Scott on the cover of i-D magazine in 1986. Photograph: Nick Knight/Courtesy i-D

“This is nuts,” smiles Scott, now 58, of the rush of interest as she sits in her publisher’s Paris office, far from the wild coast of Finistère, where she moved three years ago. “The day of the prize, I got scared and thought, ‘Oh my God, I have to start the next one.’ I sat down in the corner at the party and wrote two sentences.”

Les Insolents – whose title plays on the cheek and insolence required to get through hard times – is both comic and tragic. It lays bare the ups and downs of Paris friendships between creatives, misfits and outsiders, “the type of friends you want to see the end of the world with”, touching on family secrets and encounters with strangers on a beach.

Scott says it is absolutely not a book about bourgeois-bohemian Parisians moving to the countryside “to make their own bread or keep goats”. (The initially hapless central character has to book a taxi to the nearest supermarket, which is miles away, and the dysfunctional house is so challenging it almost becomes a character in itself.) Instead, the book’s appeal, after the Covid lockdowns, is that it tackles the idea of “being able to be alone”.

“A lot of people can’t be alone,” she says. “And if you can’t be alone, that means that – unless you’ve found someone you’re going to be with for decades – you’re going to be with people who are not right for you and you’re not right for them either, and that’s horrible.”

If her novels so carefully portray being alone, it’s always in contrast to her masterful depictions of in-crowds and subcultures. Scott (the name is a pseudonym) was born in Paris to an art-collector father and a mother of Russian descent, a photographer who later retrained as a therapist.

In 1980s London, she lived in a Brixton squat then stayed at artists’ studios in exchange for cleaning, queueing for the dole “with people you’d seen on TV on Top of the Pops because they’d just got a breakthrough but didn’t have the money yet”. It was the end of New Romantics period – heady times where everyone wanted to be a star. “It was about glitter and drag queens, Boy George, Pete Burns’ Dead or Alive, all the shops, the fashion,” she says. “It was about people trying to be heroes or stars: they were 17, or they had shitty jobs, or no jobs, and they worked hard on a Friday night to try to be kings or princes. And they were beautiful, all of them, because they could be someone.”

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‘It’s not that I needed the beach’ … Les Insolents by Ann Scott.
‘It’s not that I needed the beach’ … Les Insolents by Ann Scott. Photograph: SYSPEO/SIPA/Shutterstock

The sense of making art – “playing music, painting, singing, collage, anything, all the time” – and of being held close by the London party crowd would later infuse her novels back in France. “You never slept alone, you were always with people. You were cuddling, whatever happened, you were hanging out with people. There was sex as well but it wasn’t heavy. Less seduction and more tenderness.”

Back in Paris in her 20s, she taught herself to write. She would focus on one author each decade, continuously rereading one book – currently it is Don DeLillo’s Underworld. Her first novel, Asphyxie, was inspired by Nirvana and the Sex Pistols and tells the story of a band on the road. Superstars started out as a diary of her life as part of group of friends revolving around the lesbian club star DJ Sex Toy, at Paris’s underground queer clubs.

“At the time, the drugs were good, the music was good, the sex was good, but we were young then. I started writing a diary at home just to get by because my heart was broken, and suddenly it wasn’t so bad so I turned it into a book.” Today, she feels light years from the book. But what has remained is Scott’s skill in depicting relationships with both men and women. She shrugs off any role as a standard-bearer for bisexuality in contemporary French fiction. “Who cares – it’s about who can put up with you and who you like enough to wake up with in the morning,” she says.

Scott’s early books have been compared to those of the former punk and literary wild child Virginie Despentes. In fact they briefly shared a flat. “I wrote to her after I read her first book and we met at a Courtney Love gig at the Bataclan. I was living somewhere I didn’t like and she said, come to stay, so I came with my two suitcases and my cat.” They were both writing, and broke. “We’d go to bakeries at 7pm closing time to ask for the bread they hadn’t sold and they’d say no … She’s great, one of a kind.”

When Scott left Paris for Brittany in 2019 she had just finished writing her 2020 novel, La Grâce et les Ténèbres, about people in France who volunteer in citizens’ cyber-collectives to monitor jihadist propaganda online, spending their free time tracking suspected Islamist accounts, hoping to prevent potential attacks. For the research, she spent two years watching horrendous videos online.

“After that, it’s not that I needed the beach, it’s that I wanted to get away from people, the city, the noise, everything … I wanted to go to the beach and have a really wild landscape, rugged and windswept. I needed violence but just me and the violence of the landscape, not people violence.” Les Insolents, the novel she wrote in Brittany, is “a book about silence”, she says.

Scott often fills that silence with “ghosts in my head that I talk to” – imaginary mentors, from David Bowie to Miles Davis. She talks to the late fashion designer Alexander McQueen, whom she knew in London. “When I talk to him it’s about creativity: ‘Don’t let me write shit, don’t let me fall into things that are too easy,’” she says. “He had respect for ugliness, he had respect for despair. He could find beauty in anything and his heart was bigger than mine. I ask him to stand by me and tell me it’s going to be OK, because you need to be able to find beauty everywhere.”

From Paris techno parties to Hollywood galas, Scott’s writing contrasts beautiful party people with the fragility of life, the difficulty of being part of a crowd. Les Insolents is a conversation between the city and the empty wilds of nature. If something weighs on you in the city and you walk along pavements through bustling urban life, those problems still cling to you, she believes. But if you’re alone on a beach, problems lose their meaning.

For Scott, it’s important to confront the ugliness and despair of life, but you have to build yourself up and protect yourself, to be able to handle the hurt. “It’s OK to get hurt if you know how to get better,” she says. “If you don’t get hurt, you have nothing to say.”

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