Writer and illustrator Penelope Bagieu is one of the most popular bloggers in Europe, but until now she’s been an unknown in America. Her blog Ma Vie Est Tout a Fait Fascinante (My Life Is Completely Fascinating) chronicled Bagieu’s life, complete with illustrations. She then created a character named Josephine and has written three graphic novels about Josephine and her life adventures in Paris. (Though the books are currently available only in French, the fetching illustrations make it fun and relatively easy for non-speakers to follow along.) In her first-ever U.S. interview, Penelope talked about Paris’ blogger scene, how to create your opposite, and whether it’s true that American women are less stylish than French ones.
Why did you start your blog? What did you hope to accomplish?
I started my blog at a moment when my career as an illustrator (in advertising) was going really well, and I had more and more work. I realized that I never drew for myself anymore, nor for the sheer fun of it – which is pretty sad, considering I chose this job because it was my passion. So I wanted to create a space where I could draw for nothing: not for a commissioned work, without a brief, without anyone giving me their opinion about my work, pretty much like drawing on a wall. I always kept diaries (in pictures, because I’m not so good with words) so I just thought I would do it “nice and clean” this time and put it on a site, where I could organize them and browse, and that I would draw one picture every day no matter what. And in order not to add extra work to my busy days, I decided to tell a little episode of my life – something that happened to me the same day, something insignificant, just everyday stuff. And well, I still do, almost four years later.
How similar are you and Josephine? Where does Penelope end and Josephine start?
I wanted her to be different from me in every possible way, so that I wouldn’t talk about myself AGAIN (i.e. my blog). So I pictured her as tall and blonde. She could only work in a very corporate office (I share a studio with other designers), with mean colleagues and a coffee machine: all that is on only a myth to me. And I wanted her to have a bad bad family, one you can’t rely on that will always judge you and give you no consideration (because my own family ROCKS). Eventually, she HAD to be single, so that I could imagine fictional dates, hookups, first phone calls, etc… since I’ve been in a relationship since EVER, and I wanted to explore other stories.
However, you can’t avoid putting a little spoonful of yourself in yout characters (especially when you get to bond with your character so much, after working on it for years). In time, she gained a little more of me, I guess, even if it was unconscious.
Have you based characters in the books on people you know in real life? How do they feel about their portrayals?
Her three best friends take their roots in my good friends (this is why I thank them so much for being such a great crew, ’cause not only are they wonderful as friends, they also give me tons of inspiration). In the latest episode, her boyfriend Simon is a little similar to mine, in some ways.
Josephine has been called “The French Bridget Jones.” Do you agree or disagree with this comparison?
It’s very flattering, of course, although Josephine is not desperate about being single. When you think about it, her life gets worse and worse every time she’s seeing someone, and everything goes back to normal once she’s single again. I’d say she’s more of “the everyday French girl.”
What is the blogging community like in France? In New York, it seems like everyone has a blog to the point where it’s a cliche, and even girls who aren’t writers think of themselves as Carrie Bradshaws in training. Is Paris the same way?
The third Josephine book (Spoiler alert!) ends with her pregnant and in a happy, committed relationship. Will the series end there, or do you have plans to keep the story going further?
I will need to take a break from her, as I had planned before beginning this book, because I must focus on the film that we’re about to write. But I guess I can’t really get rid of her that easily- [writing her has] turned into some sort of habit after all this time. My brain keeps popping “Josephine ideas” every day, even if I’m working on something else at the time. I suppose I miss her already or something. Well, anyway, I have all the “fourth book material” in my head, so it’s just a matter of time. In one or two years, maybe.
What kind of feedback have the books gotten in France? What about from other countries?
I meet readers regularly, and mostly, they told me that the latest book was their favorite, so I’m really pleased. Usually, what I hear the most is “this is SO me”, and that’s what makes me so happy about going on with this character. At some point, it reaches other girls.
Josephine’s boyfriend Simon is Jewish, and she isn’t. Why did you choose to downplay their interfaith relationship?
In France, we view religion very differently from the United States. To belong to a community (religious, ethnic, or other), and be ostentatious about it, is not something you want to do in France. Our country is based on the principles of a unified secular state, where all the citizens are first FRENCH citizens. That’s what explains the laws about laïcité (secularism), the ban on visible religious signs such as the veil for Muslim women. People don’t talk about their religion – ask someone if they are Jewish, for example, and it’s too direct, even impolite. That is not done.
There is a lot of anti-Semitism in France, lots of clichés. I wanted to show that the differences between religions do indeed exist and that it should not be denied, but it’s also true that plenty of people don’t care at all about one’s religion. They are living together and it does not pose a problem.
It seems like American women are obsessed with figuring out what French women do to stay beautiful or how they pick out their clothes. Care to offer up any tips?
I guess that’s because we walk a lot (nobody owns a car in Paris), we drink excellent wine, and we don’t work as much as American women! As for fashion, I beg to differ, since my all-time favorite clothes come from vintage shops in Portland, Oregon. I was completely amazed by the style of girls out there, and stole a lot of ideas and style tips from them ! It happens to me all the time: people will ask me “wow, I love your coat/ring/boots/belt/hat, where did you get it?”
Two words: Portland, Oregon.
Editor’s Note: This interview was conducted in English and French and has been condensed and edited for clarity.