Guillaume Musso: "My accident still has an effect upon me"
South of France – Spring 1999 – around midnight. Alone in the car, I’m driving back along the motorway to Montpellier.
My thoughts keep drifting back to Nice where I’ve just spent the evening with my girlfriend. I’m 24, at the stage of life when I am finally growing. At that stage of ‘firsts’ – first paycheck, first proper job, first serious relationship…
As I cruise through the night, an incredibly powerful collision jolts me back to reality. I’ve just hit something and the car is spinning out of control. I slam into the barrier. I swerve to the other side of the road. I’m stunned and for a moment I’m certain I’m going to die.
My whole body freezes, as though I’ve just been given an electric shock. I’d never worried about death, but in that nanosecond I understood that it can arrive without warning. I finally manage to bring the car to a stop and get out.
Shaking, I take a few steps to the safety of the hard shoulder. My heart is pounding and it takes several minutes to reach the emergency phone. Luckily, a breakdown truck arrives quickly. Standing in front of my wreck of a car, the repair man can’t help saying: “It’s a miracle you weren’t hurt!”
In the days that follow, I have continual flashbacks and dreams about the accident. I have a constant feeling of panic. In an attempt to conquer my fear, I start reading the experiences of other people who have lived through near-death experiences. And I scour books that deal with the subject. Gradually my fear metamorphoses into curiosity.
I notice that many survivors of near-death experiences rearrange their priorities afterwards. They focus on the essentials, paying less attention to the minutiae of daily life and more attention to others.
A little as if they had tangled with death in order to appreciate life more fully. I too decided to use my accident to ask myself some questions about my life. I recalled my adolescent dream of being a writer. For a long time I had stifled my desire to write because I lacked confidence and was afraid of failure.
Although I had published a first novel that had received glowing reviews, its success had been limited. My accident pushed me to write again, this time with a different ambition. Now I wanted to write a novel that would enrich readers, that would make them think, as well as entertaining them. I quickly wrote 80 pages of a story that I called Afterwards, in which I dealt with some of the questions thrown up by my accident.
I immediately sent the 80 pages to a dynamic editor I’d heard talking passionately about publishing on the radio. As luck would have it, the editor was gripped by my first pages and encouraged me to finish the story.
Even before it hit the bookshops, the book had been bought by a dozen foreign publishers. And when it did appear, it met with unexpected and gratifying word-of-mouth success wherever it was published, and was made into a film with John Malkovich and Evangeline Lilly.
My accident was more than 13 years ago now, but it still has an effect upon me. It unblocked my writing. And it encouraged me to engage with themes like chance, destiny, the passage of time, bereavement: in particular, it made me realise that it is the fragility of our existence that makes life precious.
On that motorway, that evening, death came close to me. I felt its icy breath, but it slipped away, leaving me with the appreciation that we only have one life. And that it is very important to try to realise one’s dreams.
Guillaume Musso’s book The Girl on Paper (Gallic Books, £7.99) is out now in paperback