Punt Volat: Did you know the ending—how the four story arcs would intertwine—and then “work backwards,” so to speak, or did you connect them all after writing the four sections?
Marc Joan: In fact, this story evolved organically, in true pantser style. It started—about five years ago—with Valentina, the intent being to play with the spy-story genre. But this light-hearted aim was rapidly subsumed by darker themes—not because that was my (conscious) aim, but because that’s how the words bubbled up, as it were. At the same time, some of the other individuals I’d come across when I lived in Geneva began to worm their way into the narrative. This raised the question of how their disparate stories could or should relate to each other. Then it became a somewhat iterative process of writing each of the four arcs with reference to the objective of the piece as a whole. More specifically, I found that I wanted to write something in which the characters were spending a lot of time surreptitiously watching each other without ever really understanding each other—thus Valentina is watching Omar and also has been spying on the police, such as Daoud; Omar has been stalking Isabel; Isabel has been keeping tabs on Valentina; and Daoud has been watching Omar. The only one who gets any meaningful enlightenment from all this spying is Valentina—and, because of her dementia, that enlightenment may soon be forgotten.
PV: Which of the characters was the most difficult to write? Which came easiest? Why?
MJ: Each character is deeply flawed, which made writing them easier! Of them all, Omar was the easiest to write, because in my younger days, regrettably, I knew people who would make a living in the way that Omar does and who expressed opinions similar to those we hear from him. To write Omar was therefore, mostly, just an exercise in memory. Isabel was the most difficult, perhaps because her deepest flaw is not apparent in this story—she pops up in something else I’ve written—and it was hard to avoid making her appear anodyne.
PV: Both setting and history are important elements in this story. Did they play a role in dictating which characters to include, or did you know your characters first?
MJ: Geneva has been and is a magnet for immigrants, expatriates and emigrés of all kinds: Russians, Eastern Europeans, Western Europeans, Africans, Asians, and so on. It’s also quite diplomat-heavy. So it was an easy choice when I was thinking about an espionage-themed story, and as the story changed into something else, the immigrant theme was a natural evolution. All four characters owe something to individuals I have met or seen in Geneva but also contain elements of people I have known in other countries and times. So again, the answer is not either/or but a bit of both!
PV: The story does present issues related to immigrants. Do you have strong feelings about these issues or were they important details to include for the sake of the story?
MJ: Geneva has seen very high levels of immigration, which is stretching the tolerance of many residents. Perhaps for this reason, and perhaps for cultural reasons, many immigrants do not feel welcome in the city. The question of how much immigration to allow, and from where, and how to ensure integration of immigrants, is difficult and highly-charged, and I did not want “Swiss Watch” to take a simplistic position on a complex issue. Hence, while immigration is ubiquitous in “Swiss Watch”—all four characters are immigrants, and the only “real” Swiss people appear off-stage—the narrative does not comment on the benefits or costs associated with migration per se. That said, the personal migration-associated cost-benefit struggles of each character are touched upon, and “Swiss Watch” would have been a very different story were that not the case.
PV: Did you need to do any research for this story?
MJ: A little: to ensure I knew about the economic conditions in Niger, about the way social security works for immigrants in Switzerland, about how the Swiss police force is structured. But the rest of the details came from my experience of living and working in Geneva.
PV: How have your life experiences influenced your writing?
MJ: I am something of an eternal immigrant myself—in today’s terminology, a “third-culture kid”—and I strongly believe that this kind of dislocation, and the breadth of experience that may result from it, feeds into and may even trigger creativity. My expatriate upbringing in India, in particular, has had a fundamental impact on what I can and must write about. Also, if you always feel a little “foreign,” then you tend to observe things more than perhaps you otherwise might, and that provides material for the writer.
PV: Do you engage in any particular idiosyncratic practices in terms of writing?
MJ: I am quite superstitious about telling people what I am working on until it is close to complete. Anything that is at the idea stage should be closely guarded until it is reified in paper and ink; otherwise, it loses its power. I know that sounds odd, but there it is.
PV: Are there any manuscripts or projects you are developing at this time that you can inform us about?
MJ: Those that are complete or nearly so include (i) a novel, which could be described as Indian gothic, and which is set in South India during the period 1799 – 2059 (~250 years of carnage leading, finally, to absolution); (ii) a novel set in Geneva; (iii) a collection of linked short stories loosely dealing with mental health themes; (iv) a collection of supernatural-themed short stories; (v) a collection of short stories in the literary fiction mode; (vi) a collection of short stories dealing with issues such as consciousness, free will, and what it means to be human.
PV: Is there any certain project you aspire to create that you have not been able to realize yet?
MJ: Yes, but because I am superstitious about such things, I won’t talk about it!