Second Acts: Pierre Delerive and “A Dark and Distant Place”

For years, Pierre Delerive dabbled. As a marketing director for Lever Brothers in Paris, and later for Unilever in Germany, he traveled often for work and would write in airports, planes and hotel rooms, “rather than spending my time in bars.” In the mid-80s, he was asked to head the American subsidiary of Granada and while he knew the business was in trouble, he jumped at the chance. “Coming to America – it’s the movies, big cars, big refrigerators, the national anthem. Who can say no?”

A few years in to his new American life — in 1988 — he had his epiphany. “I knew I wanted to write, and I also knew I was not good enough to do both my job and my writing,” he said. “So at 52 I resigned and started writing.”

His (grown) children were aghast, but he figured even if he failed and didn’t make a dime — and that’s how he assumed it would go, being a pessimist at heart — he would keep his expenses low and worse came to worst, he would drive a taxi. Quitting his day job was his only legitimate option.

“I had so much frustration in me — I don’t think I was brave at all. I simply had no choice. On my death bed I didn’t want to think, ‘If only I had tried, I could have been a decent writer.'”

And as it turned out, a few years later he had his first novel on the shelf: “Simple Soldat,” published by Albin-Michel of Paris in 1994. Even before the novel was released, he had adapted the story for the big screen, found a producer in Paris and directed the movie — “Le Fusil de Bois” (The Wooden Gun). Fast forward and he has just published his sixth novel, his first in English — “A Dark and Distant Place,” which is set in France, but intended for an American audience. “I really want to be read here,” he says.

Delerive set his first novel in the barracks and battles of the French Army during the Algerian War, where he served after business school from 1959 to 1962. He was stationed for 10 months on the border between Algeria and Tunisia, where his first story unfolds. War is a character in subsequent novels as well, which are often marked by the themes of deception and failed attempts to bury the past.

He and his wife, painter Toni Silber-Delerive, were married in 2005 (she’s a foodie, and the two met at a James Beard Foundation event in 2003). The couple has lived on Hudson and Hubert for 15 years. (He has two sons, one daughter and seven grandchildren from his first marriage, and they all live on the French island of Reunion in the Indian Ocean, east of Madagascar.)

It’s hard not to be jealous of Delerive’s routine. He wakes up late, and takes a midday bike ride three or four days a week, usually up the highway to 98th Street. From 2 to 6 in the afternoon, he writes.

“The first thing I do is visualize the scene — I shoot the movie before I write the book,” he says. “The real miracle is my characters are in charge. They are doing their thing. I am just following along. It doesn’t happen that way all the time but when it does, it’s such a joy.”

From an outsider’s view, taking that leap 30+ years ago was definitely worth the risk. But serendipity has also played a part. While on vacation in the mid-90s in the Bahamas, he met a women whose brother was a movie producer. He read Delerive’s screenplay, and the two made that first film with Delerive as the director.

“I said, ‘My God, this is easy. Why did I wait so long?'”




  1. This is the life I’ve always wanted! Fear keeps me back though. I am afraid my writing will not be worthy to be published. You are a courageous man indeed!

  2. Woo Hoo!!! Great article. Congrats!

  3. Writing is the real reward, Marjorie. Being published is the cherry on the cake. A big cherry certainly, but still … What matters is to write, Do not underestimate yourself. Discover the joy of writing, Besides what have you got to lose? Go for it.