Jessica Fièvre: An Interview with the Novelist
With her perky smile and well-carved face, Michèle Jessica Fièvre might easily be taken for a model on the streets of Miami, but no, she writes novels.
Fièvre, who was born in the 1980s in Haiti, carved a little niche for herself in the mystery and horror novel genre. She became one of the youngest people ever to be published in Haiti, next to the 20th Century poet Carl Brouard, and the youngest to have published a novel. Her last name Fièvre means ‘fever’ in English, and she—through her writings—seems bent on giving her readers one, albeit a high one! Obsessed with macabre, mystery-filled subplots, her prose can haunt you even after you’ve flipped closed one of her books.
In addition to half a dozen novels published since her 1997 debut, Fièvre’s work has appeared in magazines, and more recently in Haiti Noir, an anthology of stories about Haiti. Although still at the apogee of her career, the novelist is highly interested in keeping the young Haitian literary movement going, having been the co-founder or founder of two important literary initiatives to encourage writing and help flourish the Haitian literary tradition.
Out of all your literary works, which was the most difficult to write? Sortilège Haitien required the most foot work. Although the book falls within the fiction category, I wanted most of the historical facts to be accurate; this required a lot of research, including phone calls and face-to-face interviews about the political turmoil, the murders and kidnappings, and the protests that were taking place both in the Capital and in the provinces at the time.
Sortilège Haïtien is the story of Manon, a young woman who discovers her sacred ties with Lasirèn, the goddess of the sea. After marrying the most corrupt politician in Port-au-Prince, she goes on a dangerous quest, using both her strength of mind and special powers to deliver Haiti from a powerful dictatorship.
Manon is a painter. I’ve always wanted to be a visual artist but, unfortunately, all I can draw are stick figures. I did not know much about painting then; therefore I needed to research the art and see some artists at work. Also, the novel addresses topics that are still taboo in Haiti, such as homosexuality. I wanted to stay away from clichés and decide whether or not my character would be pro-gay or homophobic since I’m not sure there’s anything in the middle.
According to the feedback you’ve gotten from your fans, and according to your own conclusions, which one of your books would lend itself to a movie adaptation? I think La Bête (The Beast) or Les Hommes en Rouge (The Men in Red) would make great movies. They’re both action-packed and have been said to leave the reader breathless from one chapter to the next. Scenes are very important in a script, and both stories are scene-oriented with special attention paid to dialogues.
At one point, you left Haiti for the USA, specifically South Florida. Leaving Haiti was not an easy decision. I love my country—my inspiration comes from my experiences there, and there’s nothing like the warmth and sense of humor of my people. In 2001, I was a third-year med student at Notre-Dame of Haiti. While other students seemed to be able to focus on their studies, what I mostly remember about this period are the panic attacks and the nightmares that haunted me at night. Due to the violence in the country, my anxiety had been growing for years. In 2002, it all just became unbearable. I needed to get away.
South Florida has since become my home. I like it here. I have found a community of writers that I wouldn’t trade for anything else. I graduated from Florida International University, and founded Sliver of Stone Magazine with some of my writer friends who also attended the Creative Writing program there.
I’m very involved with the Women Writers of Haitian Descent—WWOHD—a literary organization that encourages the development of Haitian women writers and fosters greater public awareness and appreciation of their work through local, national, and international education programs, lectures, and events. I’m the editor of Onè? Respè!, WWOHD’s literary magazine.
You’ve chosen to write most of your books in French. French is my first language. Growing up in Haiti, it was only natural that I write in French. I learned English in high school, and furthered my study of the language by watching HBO and reading the Sweet Valley High and Goosebumps series. When I left Haiti and enrolled at Barry University, I was forced to fully embrace English as a third language.
You completed your first novel Le Feu de Vengeance at just 13. Oh, I’ve been writing forever. I was actually in 5th grade when I completed my first manuscript, a novella titled La Fenêtre Magique (The Magic Window), which I gave to my teacher as an end-of-the-year present. I want to believe that she still has it, but—oh well! In high school, I finished Le Feu de la Vengeance (The Fire of Vengeance). I wrote most of the chapters during math class.
Which of your characters are you most like? I guess part of me can be found in all of my characters. I can tell you who my favorite character is: Magalie, in Le Fantôme de Lisbeth. I love her innocence, her talent, and her wit.
Any writers in particular that you model yourself after? I read so many different writers that it’s a bit difficult to say. Growing up, I loved stories edited by Alfred Hitchcock. The mysterious novels of Gary Victor, I found fascinating. Now I’m particularly fond of Anton Chekhov.
You are one of the most prolific young writers on the scene, having written and published eight books over the course of a decade. Where do you find the inspiration? Haiti remains my main source of inspiration. Whenever I travel there, I spend hours writing. There’s a feeling I get when I’m walking Haitian grounds—there’s nothing else like it.
Do you think that one day, the ink from your pen will dry out in terms of inspiration? Sure. When I’m dead.
What would you say was the moment when you felt you had arrived as a writer? I’m still growing as a writer. Plus my interests and my style are ever changing.
Any advice for other aspiring young novelists? I’ll say: Just write. Many novice writers get sidetracked because they keep worrying about whether they’re doing the right thing. Well, it’s a bit difficult to find out whether your writing is compelling if there’s nothing on the paper. Finish the manuscript—worry about fixing it later. Some do get the writing done but do not value the editing process enough. They’re over-confident and believe that the very first draft of their story is ready for publication. Remember: Even the most accomplished writers revise their stories multiple times.
What’s next for you as a writer? I’m pretty busy. I’m mostly focused on finishing my nonfiction book. I’m working on a manuscript that tells about my experience growing up in Haiti in the 1990’s. The memoir describes a sometimes difficult and sometimes pleasurable journey through my childhood and teenage years in Port-au-Prince. The book is reaching its final editing stage. I’ll be looking for an agent soon. I’m also working on a fantastic novel taking place in Haiti, and on a collection of horror short stories.