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In 'The book of Goose', two French girls write a book that alters their lives

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Agnes and Fabienne are partners in crime, as children can so sweetly be. They're 14 and growing up in a small town in France after World War II, where they look up into the sky and as Fabienne makes up stories and Agnes writes them out. Fabienne was eyes and ears for both of us, she says. With the encouragement of Monsieur Devaux. an older man in the village, they turned their stories into a book, which was published and celebrated in Paris, then London, as a haunting portrayal of children's lives in post-war France. And then they hatch another plot in real life. "The Book Of Goose" is a new novel from Yiyun Li, winner of the PEN/Hemingway Award and author of six works of fiction, including the story collection "A Thousand Years Of Good Prayers." She joins us now from Princeton, N.J., where she teaches. Thank you so much for being with us.

YIYUN LI: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: These stories that Agnes and Fabienne make up can be pretty jarring, can't they?

LI: Well, that's their life, which is in a post-World War II French countryside. So, yes, they are jarring. They are about animals, dead babies, live animals and, you know, crazy people. But I don't think the girls find it jarring for themselves because that's how children experience life. It's just part of their world.

SIMON: And why does Fabienne insist on Agnes being identified as the only author?

LI: Yes. So that's the mysterious part about this young girl who has all the imagination to make up all the stories. And yet her instinct is she's not pretty enough, she's not compliant enough for the world to know her as a girl author while her friend, Agnes, has all the, you know, capacity of catering what the world needs. So she says, you know, let's make this a two-person game. I write. You are the name of the book.

SIMON: And Monsieur Devaux, he's written a lot in his life but never been published. What does he see in the stories that the young girls show him?

LI: So here is an older man who is, you know, truly, as you said, he is an author, unpublished. And I think he understands the need for the countryside stories for how, you know, the French children lived after World War II. So I think he is, as you said, the first salesperson. He has a, you know, instinct for the market. So that's why he decides to help these girls, you know, push these girls out as child prodigy.

SIMON: Without giving too much away, they - the girls find it easy to cast Monsieur Devaux as a - I'll just put it this way - an unsympathetic character.

LI: Well, I think, you know, these girls imaginative. They're also ruthless. You know, there is some mercilessness within them. And again, that's from where they are as these two have a world. Anybody coming into the world, they send an invitation, but they expelled Monsieur Devaux as ready as they invite him in. You know, it's a very girlhood, you know, phenomena.

SIMON: Yeah, to take things in and cast them off in the same minute.

LI: Yes, yes, yes.

SIMON: Except, of course, it has real-life consequences for Monsieur Devaux.

LI: It does. And, you know, later in the book - I don't want to give too much away - there's a, you know, echo. There is a reiteration of that. But these girls, they don't think about what they do to other lives, as you said. You know, lives are changed because of what they have done.

SIMON: You were born in Beijing and came to the U.S. - as I do the math - in your late 20s. What led you to imagine these two young girls in post-war France?

LI: You know, people say, why French countryside? And sometimes I think, why not, right?

SIMON: Perfectly valid answer.

LI: (Laughter) Yes. Yes. And in a way, I don't particularly think this is a French story. This is more about girlhood story. As children going through 12, 13, 14, they're on the cusp of becoming, you know, adults, and they still maintain, you know, the childlike world. That's an interesting age. And especially two girls close in their relationship around that age, they can make up entire world. They can make up entire life for themselves.

SIMON: Yeah.

LI: And I'm really attracted to that age and girls, you know, during that transition period.

SIMON: I've read interviews with you where you talk about going through a very tough emotional period.

LI: Yes. Yes. And I suppose this was - you know, it's a long few years. I myself experienced suicidal depression, and then I lost a child to suicide.

SIMON: Yeah. Totally personal question and, in a sense, the least important question, but do you think we read that in your work now somehow?

LI: Well, I suppose you can never say no to these, you know, possibilities. I'm sure an author's life bleeds into her work. And I mean, clearly, "The Book Of Goose" is not autobiographical because it's about French girls. But I think an author, in a way, is porous, right? Our life bleeds into work, and work also sort of bleeds back into our lives. So I maintain that porousness to allow this communication between myself and the characters.

SIMON: Your novel keeps raising a question and doesn't have a facile or reassuring answer, which is why do writers write - I mean, fame, money, revenge, joy?

LI: Or all of the above.

SIMON: Yeah.

LI: Yes. I suppose for Fabienne and Agnes, Fabienne did say at the beginning of their writing the book she wanted to be known, you know, not like fame-wise, but she wanted to - she wanted the world to know how their life was like. That's her, you know, explanation. I think that's probably one motivation some of the writers write. And as you said, you know, fame - you know, Agnes went on to become a child prodigy, you know, poster child, you know, on the magazine cover. But also loss - you know, with the two, by gaining something, they have also lost a lot of things in their lives.

SIMON: Including each other.

LI: Yeah, that's the most precious thing they have is each other. And in the end, they - you know, they have to endure that eternal loss of each other.

SIMON: Yiyun Li - her new novel is "The Book Of Goose." Thank you so much for being with us.

LI: Thank you so much for having me.

SIMON: If you or somebody you know may be considering suicide or is in crisis, please call or text 988 to reach the suicide and crisis lifeline. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.