LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Leila Slimani's new book "The Perfect Nanny" begins with four haunting words - the baby is dead. The book tells the story of an unspeakable crime and lays bare a fear that is buried in the mind of any mother who has ever left her child in the arms of another. "The Perfect Nanny" is the story of an upscale Parisian family and a nanny who starts to unravel.
LEILA SLIMANI: I had the feeling that she was like a plate that you put every day on the table, and she breaks every day a little bit. And one day, you put it on the table, and she breaks into pieces.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: WEEKEND EDITION's books editor, Barrie Hardymon, spoke with Slimani earlier this week.
BARRIE HARDYMON, BYLINE: Where did you get the idea for this frame of the murders?
SLIMANI: When I wrote the first version of the book, just about a family and a nanny and their life, it was very boring. And I was like, how am I going to do to build a book that is not boring but a book that is also about our life? The way of a nanny take cares of the children and makes food and feed them and everything.
I read an article in a French magazine about a murder in a family in New York, and I was very shocked, of course, by this tragedy. And I began to make research about all the murders of children by nannies in France and United States. And I kind of do a mix between all those stories, and I had the idea of this particular murder.
HARDYMON: I must say that that murder was so unspeakable. I remember my nanny bringing it up with me, and it was - we stared at each other and could barely talk about it. It's a brave choice (laughter) to have wandered into that, I have to say.
SLIMANI: I think it's a sort of a primitive fear. I remember the first time I saw my child. Of course, I felt love, but I think that the first feeling that I felt was fear. And I looked at him, and I was like, I'm not alone anymore. My - someone needs me. And if something happens to him, I don't know what is going to happen to me. I don't know if I'm going to survive. So I wanted to speak about this fear.
HARDYMON: It's really unusual to see the intimacy of the relationship between a mother and their caregiver, their nanny, their babysitter explored so intensely.
SLIMANI: You know, I think that's a very, very complex relationship because this is a relationship of power but not as simple as you can think because the mother is the boss of the nanny, but the nanny has a sort of power, too, because she takes care of the children. They live in the same home, but the home is not the home of the nanny. She's sort of a member of the family. Everyone says, oh, she's one of the family, but actually, she's not. You want your children to love the nanny.
SLIMANI: But at the same times, you want to stay the mother, and you want to be the most loved. Sort of - there is a sort of jealousy between the mother and the nanny.
HARDYMON: There's a moment at - toward the end of this book where you describe how Louise is feeling about the children. And she says the children's cries irritate her. She's ready to scream. Nagging whines, foghorn voices. Louise can't sing a song without them begging her to do it again. They want the eternal repetition of everything. And I - you identify with this person that you know is going to murder these children.
SLIMANI: And, you know, I wanted - I really wanted to write about the work of all those women coming from Philippine (ph), from Africa, from Maghreb, from Russia to take care of the children of the Occidental woman. And I was saying to myself, without those women, other women couldn't work. They make it possible for us to entertain, to have a working life. But at the same times, we don't value them. We don't see them. It's like, you know, Russian dolls. There's a woman inside a woman...
SLIMANI: ...Inside a woman. If you want a woman to work, at...
SLIMANI: ...The end, there is always another woman inside the woman, taking care of the house and of the children. We do as if it was easy, as if we could do everything. But actually, we need help. And those women - they give us a lot of help.
HARDYMON: I want to ask you just quickly about the title. The book is - it's - I'm going to say this terribly, so forgive me. It's "Chanson Douce" in French, and it is "The Perfect Nanny" here in the U.S. edition. One is - sort of is lullaby love song, and the other really gets at this idea of perfection in both motherhood and nannyhood (ph) and child rearing. Did you have input into that title? I'm just curious.
SLIMANI: Yes. You know, my editor, John Siciliano - he asked me, of course, what I thought about the title. And I thought it was a very good title, especially for the American public...
SLIMANI: ...I think, because I watch a lot of, of course, of American movies and American TV shows, and I'm always very fascinated by the image of the perfect mother, the soccer mom as you say, no?
SLIMANI: And maybe our generation is the first generation of woman whose mother told us, you can do everything. You can marry or not marry. You can have children or not. You can do whatever you want. But how can we do everything? Our mother - they didn't tell us how exhausting it was and how much anxiety we were going to feel doing so much thing.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: That was our books editor, Barrie Hardymon, speaking with Leila Slimani. Her new book is "The Perfect Nanny."
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.