Photos — Maurice Haas Date — 1 April, 2010
What happens when an author and a comic strip artist, both of international renown, get together to tell the story of a watch brand? Brazilian novelist Paulo Coelho and Paris-based comic strip artist Enki Bilal talk about creative processes and an experiment that represented something new for both of them: a joint literary and artistic interpretation of the history of IWC’s foundation.
Enki Bilal: Although we were both familiar with one another’s work, we had never previously had any personal contact. In fact, we had no personal contact at all throughout the entire project. It was not until the book was unveiled in Schaffhausen that we met for the first time.
Bilal: The aim of the project was to recount our shared passion for watches – our obsession with time and its measurement. To do that, we did not have to physically meet…
Paulo Coelho: On the contrary: in some ways, a meeting could have seriously jeopardized the project. Bilal’s drawings affect you, and they can also make you feel slightly awkward. That is the magic of his work.
Bilal: I was a little uneasy at the beginning. I was asking myself how anyone could illustrate Paulo Coelho. That is because illustrations haven’t really interested me for some time. However, when I got to read Paulo’s text for the first time, images started springing up in my mind. I then set myself the task of conjuring up the spirit of Paulo’s characters while simultaneously remaining faithful to my own style.
Coelho: I’d already been familiar with Enki’s work for a long time, of course, and that was one of the reasons why I accepted IWC’s invitation. When I was asked three years ago to write something about my relationship with time and IWC and it was hinted that Enki would be illustrating my text, I found it a very interesting proposition.
Coelho: Enki made absolutely no effort to reproduce my text in images. He simply took my original as a starting point and then embarked on a very personal journey of his own. In other words, although we were sharing the same vehicle, we experienced very different impressions from differing perspectives. Both of us saw and interpreted the landscape somewhat differently as it passed by.
Bilal: A picture is present immediately and directly. It creates the first impression. The text, on the other hand, is something of a mystery, which we only experience and examine after a delay. I personally find it a bit of a pity, because this mechanism means that the illustration anticipates the concept developed in the text, and influences the act of reading. At the same time, a good illustration can underpin the text, sell it, stimulate reading – and still leave room for the surprises that, of course, you would expect to find in Paulo’s stories.
Bilal: We engaged in two creative processes which occurred at different times – first the text, then the image. However, I have also been involved in a project in which the illustrations were drawn first and the text followed later.
As an author you do not write in a vacuum: you are always bound up with the reality of your own life
Bilal: The book was called “Un siècle d’amour” and I worked on it with the writer Dan Franck. It takes the form of a biography of a painter and covers the entire 20th century. The painter paints nothing else but nude portraits of the women he meets during his lifetime. One woman tells him of the Russian Revolution, another speaks of the global economic crash of 1929, a third of the end of the Second World War. It’s the history of the century told through the eyes of women and painting. It was not until I had painted the pictures that Dan Franck started to write the story.
Bilal: He had a lot of fun. Because he could experience a completely new way of putting his imagination to work by taking the existing images as his starting point – a detail around the lips, an arm. I can only recommend that you try it that way around some time as well, Paulo.
Coelho: Send me the book! It sounds like a very interesting experiment. It is true that painting acts as an agent provocateur for literature. And I myself have had the experience of being inspired to a story by the sight of Rembrandt’s “Night Watch” in Amsterdam. In my head. I still have to write it down.
Bilal: When I read Paulo’s texts for the first time, I was immediately able to identify with his passion for watches and time – a passion, let it be said, that is full of contradictions. On the one hand, we are fascinated by the technology and craftsmanship that go into mechanical watches. On the other, we are slaves to time and lead lives that are dictated by our diaries. I find it fascinating that we humans have developed such a sophisticated mechanism to measure time, and in this way hope to exercise a little bit of control over it.
Coelho: Before this project, I had only ever once had the privilege of working with an illustrator – Moebius, a genius who transformed my “Alchemist” into pictures. I enjoyed that very much. Usually things don’t work out that well. Because a text is a text and leaves a lot of freedom for the imagination. Texts are an exciting medium because readers need to make use of their own imaginations. Film and television, in contrast, tie themselves down to a particular interpretation.
Bilal: The disappointment felt by writers whose work has been filmed is often due to the pace of the format, the conditions that are dictated by the producer and camera crew. The viewer is nothing more and nothing less than a viewer. He is forced to go along with the rhythm and content of the images. Of course, nowadays you can pause a DVD or watch a scene again. By contrast, when you read a book, you create your own fantasies, which have been awakened by the author. In fact, illustrations too can harbour similar dangers. Under certain circumstances they can distract the reader from the feel of the text.
Coelho: When I read a text, I am, effectively, my own director. I imagine how the rooms are decorated and furnished; I see clothes, faces and figures in my mind’s eye. When I write, I make a conscious effort not to describe my settings. I leave a lot undefined. I might set the scene on a beach or in a grand hotel, but I intentionally don’t describe the details so that readers can use their imaginations. That all has to happen in their heads. The reader has to play a part in the text. If you compare a film version with the piece of literature that inspired it, the book almost always comes out on top. They are simply two completely different media.
I was fascinated by the Big Pilot’s Watch – the legend associated with it immediately sparked my imagination
A picture is present - immediately and directly
Coelho: Let’s take an example. I start recalling an episode with IWC’s founder Florence Ariosto Jones on the banks of the Rhine in Schaffhausen. He’s watching the water flow past and thinking about how he can persuade the local craftsmen to join his company. All this happens only in my mind, is the product of my imagination – I had never before been to Schaffhausen, I have no idea what Jones was like in real life. But despite all that, the readers, using the power of their own imaginations, will participate in the experience that I have created around the few known historical facts about Jones.
Coelho: Well, of course, I did research a number of questions before I started writing these stories. Obviously, I can’t write about someone without knowing the facts of his life. But I did not visit Schaffhausen until after I had written the texts. When the Brazilian football team was playing in the World Cup in Germany, I accepted an official invitation to Zurich and took the opportunity to visit Schaffhausen. And I was utterly astonished to find that the way my literary imagination had envisaged it was so close to the reality.
Coelho: A few years ago, I wrote about Lebanon without previously ever having visited the country. And when I did go there, I had the same experience as in Schaffhausen. The ability to go to the essence of things and understand them without having seen or experienced them yourself – that is the magic of art. I call it the soul of the world, the place at which all information congregates.
Coelho: Yes, of course. But I had always thought they were too expensive for me (laughs) …
Bilal: I travelled to Schaffhausen, visited the town and the company – the IWC empire, so to speak – and was fascinated by its magical quality. Nevertheless, at the beginning I was a little worried that such a visit might hold me back – I might be so impressed by the craftsmanship that I would only be able to draw technical details. Paulo Coelho’s text steered me clear of this danger, and in fact completely liberated me from it.
Bilal: He developed people and personalities, turning them into stories. And despite that, I still had the magic of what I had experienced in the back of my mind – the workshops, these high-precision, mechanical processes that radiate attention to detail, the power of meditation and beauty like nothing else. This enriched me but, fortunately, did not interfere with my creativity. We therefore used our imaginations with complete freedom to transform the dream of chronometric engineering. Without knowing one another in person, we nevertheless had similar experiences.
Coelho: The recurring motif in my stories is a hotel. This is related to the fact that I play with the idea of time drifting past around this hotel – on the beach, in the rooms, among the inhabitants, the guests.
The watch has a quality, straddles an enormous period of cultural history – looking back into the past and forward to the future
Coelho: When the project was first suggested to me, my immediate reaction was negative. I didn’t want to accept the invitation, didn’t want to manufacture literature to order. At the same time, I was fascinated by the Big Pilot’s Watch – this technological masterpiece and the legend associated with it immediately sparked my imagination. And almost immediately, after leafing through the product catalogue for the first time, I had the outline for the seven stories. However, a good story needs a beginning and an end. And a guiding theme. And that is where the Portofino came to my aid. Once I had studied the seven families of watches in the IWC catalogue, I immediately thought of the legendary hotel “Splendido” in Portofino.
Coelho: Not always, but there are many personal echoes in the stories. I suppose that’s my way of being creative. If we talk about the Da Vinci, for example – a watch with an incredibly complicated movement and functions – I wouldn’t dream of trying to describe it. Instead, I write about its symbolic value. The watch has a quality, straddles an enormous period of cultural history – looking back into the past and forward to the future. This was the perspective I wanted to convey in my story. As an author, you do not write in a vacuum: you are always bound up with the reality of your own life. The pilot’s fear, the letter from the grandmother who feels responsible for her descendants’ future – part of all of that is me.
Bilal: But a word of warning, this is not “auto-fiction”, no self-depiction of the author of the sort that is currently so popular among Parisian writers. Coelho has raised it to a metaphysical, almost philosophical level where he quite as a matter of course addresses issues such as time and transience.
Bilal: My work does not follow any particular schedule. In the morning, I like to go out and drink a cup of coffee, read the newspapers – “Libération”, “Le Monde”, “L’Equipe” –, and every now and then, I buy a newspaper in Serbo-Croat to make sure I don’t completely lose my linguistic roots. That’s how I warm up before going to my studio at about nine o’clock to write, draw or paint. I’m very strict about that, even if I don’t get to bed until five in the morning. I don’t find it difficult sticking to it, I just have this natural discipline. And I know that I work best in the morning. In those five hours up to two o’clock in the afternoon, I’m at my most creative. I don’t what it’s like with you, Paulo, but after that I don’t get a lot done.
Coelho: As far as the time spent working is concerned, I totally agree with you. However, I operate differently. In the morning, I feel wide awake, sit down at the computer, write a few e-mails and letters, make my telephone calls. I do everything – apart from write. Then I go out. And when I get back to the office, I try to write again. And once again, I do everything else. And because I have deadlines, the pressure keeps on growing – pressure, pressure, pressure. And at the end of the day, when I’m really tired, I write for half an hour to free me of my guilt. And once I’ve started to write, I can’t stop. I need this enormous pressure. And that is why I genuinely only get a book written every two years.
Coelho: How else could I have written about IWC? I was supplied with the watch catalogue but the Internet gave me a wealth of valuable additional information. In the past, I used to spend days working in libraries; nowadays, I track down information on the Internet that is so specialized that you can’t find it anywhere else. The Internet is a great help to me in my work.
Bilal: The Internet is a very helpful but also a very dangerous tool. It can prove to be a trap and you have to know how to escape from it.
Paulo Coelho, born in 1947 in Rio de Janeiro, is one of the most widely-read authors of the present day. His books have been translated into 55 languages, topped the bestseller lists worldwide and are the subject of discussion at social and cultural level.
Paulo Coelho on the web: www.paulocoelho.com
Enki Bilal, born in Belgrade in 1951, is a comic strip artist, illustrator and film director. He has lived in Paris since 1961, where he studied art and literature. He found fame with his science fiction comics, which subtly combine artistic and political elements with social criticism.
Enki Bilal on the web: bilal.enki.free.fr