Growing up in Marseille as a misfit with a passion for drawing, Lucie Arnoux decides to settle in London to pursue her dream career as a comics writer. Je Ne Sais Quoi shows us London through the eyes of a mischievous and clear-sighted young French woman, the joys and pains of being an outsider and, ultimately, how to live life to its fullest. This is one of our favourite graphic novels of 2022, and you can check out the rest of the list here.
We chatted with Lucie on her amazing life story, and her experience as a French woman in London.
Really want to see how long your CV is! Do you keep a list of everything you have done?
I really should, I tend to forget them ! I’ve done a lot of art jobs. I’ve painted props for film and sets for theatre, sketched musicians live for festivals, illustrated video games and album covers, edited an art magazine, painted pub menus on walls and murals in hostels in exchange for room and board while I travelled, and I’ve done a few books… I really enjoy juggling lots of different creative jobs – I think it keeps me interested and forces me to stay creatively nimble. There’s lots of things I haven’t done yet with drawing that I still really want to try.
Can you share with us the story behind an item you have at home that reflects your amazing life?
I’ve always wanted to be asked that question ! There’s a whole mythology behind every trinket I own. Also thank you for saying my life is amazing ! It’s because I’ve mostly written about the good bits. I’ve got a few spots in my room that are full of meaningful items, kind of like altars. One of them is centred around a wooden jewellery box with lots of hidden compartments. I bought it in Malaysia with a friend I met there, who has since passed away. I remember him helping me haggle and me being so proud when we brought it home on his motorbike.
When did you decide to tell people your story?
I don’t think I realised I was telling my story. I was just telling stories I knew because they had happened to me, if that makes sense. I’d been trying for years to write epic tales of love and magic, and all I wrote was terrible. My mentor, who edited a comics magazine, asked me to turn my personal stories into comics. He actually demanded it, he’s got a lot of authority. So it started, and I never took the time to realise it was chunks of me I was putting out there.
And how did you choose the order of the stories?
At first there was no order, because the stories were published in the magazine. Clumped together, they were very chaotic. Every month I would just pick a story I remembered with no consideration to overall narrative or timeline. When I started speaking with Random House about publishing it as a whole book, I realised the best way was to do it chronologically, starting with Marseille, passing by Paris, going through London and ending on all the big travels. I hope it’s less chaotic now !
Can you tell us how you picked this title?
It was the result of conversations with my publisher. In the magazine the stories were just titled “Lucie”, which seems a bit navel-gazey in hindsight. The publisher really cared that the title meant “a French woman in London”, but I wanted it a little less obvious. “Je ne sais quoi” says it’s about a French person without saying it, and it’s a lovely little phrase.
Very refreshing to read the enthusiasm you have for Britain! What do you feel when people here tell you that they hate it here and find everything dull and grey?
My love for the UK is genuine ! And it persists, even after 11 years. It’s not that I love the dull and grey, but I do appreciate variety. In Marseille it’s always the same – sunny and windy. It’s wonderful, but seasons pass without much to notice. I love the drama of English weather, and all that exists to make it through those grey spells – warm and comfortable pubs, abundance of culture in theatres and music venues, mulled wine. I live near the Thames and Richmond park in London, and I’ve really enjoyed watching nature go through its cycles.
And actually, many people tend to romanticise French culture. What is it like when you explain you actually are less than enthusiastic about it?
It’s complicated. On the one hand, being an immigrant means you become the flag-bearer of wherever you come from, so I find myself explaining France and championing Marseille, my hometown. But I also often end up reminding people of everything that’s problematic in France, and what the U.K. does better. It’s funniest when I bump into other French people – I always get along best with those I can complain about France with. I think it matters for anyone who’s got a bit of a platform, which I had making a book, to point out what needs changing.
Any advice for those who want to try something drastically different but think they are now too old to try?
First, wanting it is so brave already. You’ve acknowledged the call of a new adventure, and that’s very exciting ! From what I’ve learned, trying something scary and different is not so much about doing the thing, but being okay about the thing not working. Whatever it is – taking the leap is what’s remarkable. And about being too old : if you’re not putting yourself in physical danger, there’s nothing to hold you back. If people say you’re too old, find better people.What I talk about in the book – the travels, the risks I took – mostly didn’t go well, or not as I expected. But it got me used to failure and disappointment and made me believe I would always manage eventually. And that confidence is the most precious thing to get out of adventures.
Get your copy of Je Ne Sais Quoi here.