Author and pyschiatrist François Lelord tells us how he came up with Hector, the globetrotting hero of his modern fables. The third in the series, Hector Finds Time, is out now (buy from belgraviabooks.com for just £4.79 plus p&p).
When authors are asked to explain what made them write their books or come up with a new character, they always want to give worthy reasons. Voltaire might have said he wrote Candide to criticise the Ancien Régime, religious intolerance, Leibniz and utopian ideals in an amusing and entertaining fashion. All of which would be true, but you need only read the book to understand why Voltaire really created Candide: he had fun writing about his adventures! Much more than he must have done working on his epic poems and tragedies, which have become tedious for modern readers, and were no doubt already tedious at the time, to the extent that I wonder if Voltaire himself were not bored writing them.
If you were to ask me why I created Hector and his adventures, I might reply that I wanted to tackle psychological and philosophical themes in an entertaining way; to revive the French tradition of philosophical contes, or fables; to both move and enrich my readers, and so on.
None of this would be untrue exactly, but as a psychiatrist I am generally suspicious of people giving me good reasons for having behaved in one way or another, so I ask them to tell me about the circumstances leading up to their actions.
These were the circumstances: it was winter and I had gone along on a trip to Hong Kong with an art dealer friend of mine (I am not very good at holidays, so I always try to accompany friends who have a purpose). I was meant to be writing a serious book on happiness for my French publisher (my own idea, no less), but every time I sat at my computer and wrote a few lines, I was overwhelmed with indescribable boredom. This book on happiness was making me unhappy. On top of that, I was going through a period of questioning and doubt – Was I really going to carry on practising psychiatry until I could no longer get out of my chair? Would I still be a roving bachelor when the only women interested in me had serious unresolved father issues, if not grandfather issues? My friend sensed something was up and tried to cheer me up by showing me the highlights of the city-state by night, but it was no use. Then one morning while brushing my teeth in a freezing cold bathroom – a remnant of the British colonial era? – Hector was born! I could picture him clearly, younger than me, somewhat naive, full of good intentions - I have a few of those myself – and trying his best to understand the world and help his patients. I knew straight away that telling the story of Hector’s journeys would be a joy, that I would not have to hold his hand but rather it would be he carrying me along on his adventures, drawing of course on my own experiences and those of my patients, as well as dreams and books I had read.
As for the form it took, the conte, I would not dare compare myself to Voltaire, but many readers of the Hector series have urged me to re-read Candide. Doing so alerted me to the deep impression it must have made on me as a boy, and the extent to which it continues to influence me to this day.
So thank you to Voltaire and Hong Kong, Hector’s "parents", and to my readers, who have encouraged me in letting me know I am not the only one entertained by Hector.