Guillaume Besson is the author of the novel Le rêve australien (The Australian Dream) that he wrote after his Australian travels. It tells the story of two characters Valentin and Pierre who leave France to travel in Australia. We interviewed Guillaume Besson about his novel.
At the beginning of the book, there is a quote about the moon and the sun and their relationship with the Earth. Are you interested in astronomy?
I’ve always been fascinated by space, the infinity, other galaxies. In this book, I wanted to present Australia as another planet, red, closer to the sun. Going to Australia is like going on an interstellar voyage across continents and oceans to land on a very special and exotic island
It’s interesting that the first chapter of the novel starts with a quote referencing deportation to Australia. What made you decide to include this reference?
In May 1787, England was emptying its prisons by sending young English convicts to be deported to Australia. The journey was long and terrible, but once there they worked hard, got amnesty for their sentences, and as free men discovered happiness.
Today, young people from all over the world flock to the Australian adventure in search of meaning. What they have in common is the fulfilment that comes from exile. I wanted to draw a parallel between these two eras, and my characters follow the path of Australian colonisation: they arrive in Botany Bay (Sydney), work in the fields, travel up the coast and enter the outback to meet the Indigenous Australian people.
Are the characters of Valentin or Pierre at all based on you?
Pierre is an enthusiastic young man from Provence; Valentin a mischievous and cynical Parisian. I grew up in the Drôme and studied in Paris, so there may be a bit of me in each of them. But they are fictional characters, with their own personalities!
Is the story told in the book directly based on your lived experiences in Australia?
I went to Australia when I was 19 and I had the most beautiful year of my life. I lived in Coogee, a stunning beach South of Sydney, with 15 foreign housemates, and I travelled all around Australia. The places that I describe in the novel are those that I saw: Sydney, the Whitsundays, Uluru, the Great Ocean Road, Perth… But the characters are fictional and the plot is fictionalised.
On the first page of the story, you describe the Australian outback as seen by the plane as you fly over the country. You’ve described it so well; the reader can almost see it!
When you arrive in Australia from Europe, you fly over the Outback, that immense ochre desert. This vision is both magnificent and almost frightening: it is an arid, burning, wild land. It is the land of the Australian Aboriginal people, of the trails of the Tjukurpa, the dreamtime, and of the first beings, the spirits who shaped the Australian landscape.
Is the feeling of disbelief that Valentin feels the same as you felt on your first flight to Australia?
Yes, as the plane flew over the Outback, at 10 kilometres altitude, I felt as if I could see the curvature of the Earth. The backpackers are astronauts, embarking on an interstellar flight from planet Earth to planet Australia. I think that the fatigue of the 24 hours flight must have played a role, my head was spinning!
I laughed a lot at this line « les Australiens étaient des Anglais, exilés sur un continent ardent où ils avaient attrapé un coup de soleil permanent. »
“Australians were English, exiled to a fiery continent where they had caught a permanent sunburn.”
I’m mocking myself a little too. My mother was born in Douai, in the North, and I’ve inherited a skin even whiter than the English. She warned me about the dangers of the Australian sun, and I and I slathered myself in sunscreen 50 for a year to avoid becoming a crayfish! I spent a year on the beach and when I came back, I hadn’t even tanned…
The way in which you describe Paris (from Valentin’s point of view) is not the way in which we are used to hearing Paris described. Do you think that the experiences in a country or a town can influence your views of a place? For example, I have only been to Amsterdam once. When I was there. I had a flu and was sick for the whole weekend I was there. For me, Amsterdam is not sunshine and tulips; it’s grey and sad.
In the novel I depict a dull and sad image of Paris, that of the icy winter, the absence of light and the stress of the big city. This is the Paris that Valentin leaves, affected by a heartbreak, which makes him brood. I spent several years in Paris, and I love this city, which can also be the city of parties, arts and meetings. But you mustn’t lock yourself up in Paris! And when you come from the South, you quickly miss the sun.
Why did you decide to write the novel?
I returned from Australia when I was 20 and not a day goes by without me thinking about it. I am constantly nostalgic for that island. I wrote my Master’s thesis on Australia, returned to Tasmania when I was 24, and am planning a new trip. I couldn’t live there because I’m too attached to my family and friends in France, and Australia is too far away, but my mind often escapes there…
I wanted to write this novel because every time I meet someone who has lived in Australia, the same sparkle lights up in our eyes when we talk about that country. I feel like my story is ‘universal’ in the sense that Australia has shaped the lives of many young people of my generation, and I wanted to tell that story, the hostels and the vans that cross paths.
Did you do any writing courses before writing it?
No, but I’ve been writing since I was a kid. I come from a family where writing is a shared passion, through my mother and my sisters. As children, we would spend hours writing our adventure books side by side.
How long did it take you to write?
I spent 2 months structuring the novel and the plot, 4 months writing it, and 2 months re-reading it, so a total of almost 8 months. I also reworked it afterwards on the advice of my editor at JC Lattès.
I think it’s your first novel. What were the challenges in writing it?
Personally, writing is a pleasure, so I had fun writing this novel. The hardest thing is the impression we give to our friends that we are “doing nothing” when we isolate ourselves. Writing is a long, intense process. I can’t write in an hour, I need a five-hour window to be effective, because inspiration and rhythm don’t come right away, but once they do, you don’t want to stop.
How did you find your publishing house?
I sent my manuscript to several publishers, and received a few rejections, some generic and not personalized, others encouraging. I was lucky enough to meet Karina Hocine, formerly an editor at JC Lattès, now at Gallimard, who believed in my novel and agreed to publish it.
Did you write it when you were in Australia?
No, I wrote the novel 5 years after my Australian trip, at 24. But I had kept a ‘Diary’ in Australia, which was useful in finding the places.
How long were you in Australia?
For one year exactly from July 2012 to July 2013.
Is there a message you wish to convey through Le rêve australien?
This novel is an invitation to travel. I feel sorry for the generation that is now 18-25 years old, as their travel opportunities have been greatly affected by COVID. Australia has completely closed itself off to foreigners for two years, barricading itself against the virus. But I am optimistic and convinced that thousands of French people will soon return to Australia, and I encourage them to do so. You have to travel this country, explore it, drive for hours, meet young foreigners, get interested in Australian history and aboriginal culture, and return home grown up.
Now that Le rêve australien has been released, are you writing other novels?
I’m about to finish writing a second novel. The theme of this one is different. This time, the young people don’t escape to be able to exist, they stay in France and get involved.
We thank Guillaume for this interview!
Where to buy your copy of Le rêve australien
You can purchase the novel Le rêve australien by Guillaume Besson (in French) via the links on JC Lattès the publishing house’s website: https://www.editions-jclattes.fr/livre/le-reve-australien-9782709665193/
If you’re interested in reading other French books, check out our article about
And for books set in France, but in English: