Sophie Calle: What attracts me is absence, missing, death | Eva Wiseman

She makes art that is intimate, romantic, funny, dramatic and confessional And yet after four decades there are still new truths about Sophie Calles past to be revealed. Eva Wiseman visits her at her home in Paris and hears an astonishing revelation

It is extremely important to Sophie Calle that she is able to disappear at a moments notice. That tomorrow she could lock the door behind her and become somebody else, somebody other than an artist whose 38-year career has involved documenting and exhibiting the most intimate details of her life. Calles father (the man she says she became an artist for, as a metaphorical seduction) died two years ago; her mother (whose deathbed she filmed, showing her final breaths at the Venice Biennale) in 2006. Last year her cat died she is making an album about him. My last dependent. Which means that now I could leave in one hour, forever. And maybe one day, Ill use that.

Its a hot day in the Parisian suburb Calle has lived in for almost 40 years. Inside her house, a glass-fronted studio hidden behind a graffitied garage door, its cool and smells of freesias which Calle picks through as she talks. She is an artist who works with absence, whether stolen paintings in an exhibition of missing art, or boyfriends who have left. She publishes delicate books of photography and text, work thats won as many eye-rolls for its Emin-adjacent intimacy as it has prizes. And at 63, she is finally about to break America, with her first full-career retrospective opening this week.

In 1978, when she was 25, she returned to Paris after seven years abroad. Her father, a doctor and pop art collector, had paid for her travels as a prize for completing a degree under Jean Baudrillard, who agreed to fake her diploma to help her escape round the world. Back in Paris, her mother now on her third marriage, she moved in with her father. To impress him, she decided to make art. Weeks passed, and she struggled to find a routine. One day, she decided to follow a stranger. She chose a person a day, stalked them through their lives and, in doing so, found her own. One of these trails (which took her to Venice in a blonde wig) became a piece called Suite Venetienne, which launched her strange and mutable career, one anchored in rules and routine. In the accompanying essay, Baudrillard considers, the sensuality of behind-the-scenes power: the art of making the other disappear.

Pet project: Calle with her stuffed monkey. Photograph: Patrick Swirc for the Observer

She is an expert in short sharp stories, intimate revelations extracted with or without the subjects consent, and her pieces speak to non-art audiences, too. She invited strangers to sleep in her bed, she filmed people seeing the sea for the first time, she worked as a maid, photographing guests belongings and once, after finding a strangers address book, she phoned everybody in it to create a portrait of its owner. As revenge, he found and published a nude photo of Calle she, typically, was delighted.

Her art is accessible because of its deadpan romance and drama, the voyeuristic thrill of it like a trawl through a private inbox. Her confessional pieces (including the book Exquisite Pain, where she recounts her heartbreak to everybody she meets, asking them for the worst moment of their lives in return) are almost a tease autobiography wrung dry of all emotion, pathologically honest, and often hilarious. Its intimate, but… not. She was shortlisted for this years Deutsche Brse photography prize, and the serenity of the photographers gallery in summertime was broken only by small snorts of laughter.

Calle designed her home in 1979, and she filled it with animals. A giraffes head is mounted behind the fireplace, and it is named after her mother. A stuffed monkey sleeps beside the sofa, and under the iron staircase each member of her small taxidermied zoo is named after another of her friends. Her father is a tiger. There are two workspaces, one desk covered with found Victorian photographs of babies; she collects them for the hidden mothers shadowed in the background. The other is a white wall on which shes pinning works in progress, including a project with the Museum of Hunting, about the hunting of women. Shes been trawling through the personal ads in a paper called Le Chasseur Franais, to work out what men are looking for in a wife. Between 1895, when it started, and 1905, its mostly money. And after, its virginity. And after that, its sweetness. What are men looking for today? A woman who is nearby.

Take Care of Yourself (2007) in which musician Laurie Anderson was one of 107 women who responded to a note left by Calles ex-boyfriend. Photograph: Sophie Calle/Adagp, Paris & ARS, New York, 2017, Courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery, Fraenkel Gallery and Galerie Perrotin

When, at 51, her boyfriend broke up with her via email, signing off with the line Take care of yourself, she sent it to 107 female professionals to analyse. He was evaluated by a physicist, shot by a markswoman and performed by actor Jeanne Moreau. The effect was that Calles emotion was blurred and distorted with the womens professional work. The piece, which has been touring for the past 10 years, took on a life of its own, finding Calle a new audience of young women. And her work suddenly has company, not just in Tracey Emins bed, but in the raw telly, say, of Phoebe Waller-Bridges Fleabag and the novels of Chris Kraus, female artists who elevate the interior lives of women, with all the pain and blood that implies.

Theres something of the quirky about her, of course, that word used so often as a dismissive pat on the head of women that tell intimate female stories. But, even in the shadow of a giraffe that is her mother, her eccentricity is the last thing you notice.

Sitting in a straightbacked chair, her feet bare, she warns me she compiles journalists mistakes about her, for a future project where she intends to carry out the errors they make. I laugh; she doesnt. Perhaps, I say, there is another way to collaborate on this piece. She says shell consider it, and then we talk about death for a while.

Hospitals and graveyards are not places that paralyse me. They inspire me and my work, its what has always been attracting me absence, missing, death She has already commissioned her headstone. At the Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, 200 people told her their secrets which she wrote down and dropped into her grave, then hung around for a cheery picnic. To some, she says, she was an artist, others a priest, others a brick wall.

As she prepares for her first major US retrospective, I ask what she learned about American pain from listening to all these secrets. What the work teaches me is not important. Its what people take from it. I wait, and finally she elaborates. I found the people incredibly fragile. She sighs, thoughtfully. It seems the really tough things made people suffer less than the small things. Maybe because for the tough things you are in a group, with more people and it becomes a fight. The little thing that someone says to you happens in solitary. She scoffs suddenly. But its stupid to try to do a scale of suffering.

Here Lie the Secrets of the Visitors of Green-Wood Cemetery (2017) where 200 people buried private messages. Photograph: Sophie Calle/Adagp, Paris 2017 Courtesy Perrotin & Paula Cooper Gallery

Calle has always lived alone. Her toilet seat is electric, and designed to warm the buttocks to the exact temperature she prefers. She sees her boyfriend, an architect, once or twice a week. On her bag theres a badge that reads: I cant believe it, I forgot to have children! which she shows off with a sly glee.

I always feel sorry for people who have children. Its ridiculous because they look happy and say its a most beautiful thing. I think they are lying to themselves and to me. But its a defence. She puts her head to the side. Its not that Im afraid to have regrets, because Ive never had regrets. Maybe its a defence in advance. I feel light not to have that constant fear that something may happen to them or that they could be unhappy.

Here is something she bonded with the actor Kim Cattrall over, later inviting her to read excerpts from her late mothers diary (December, 1985: Sophies selfish arrogance! My only consolation is, she is so morbid that she will come visit me in my grave more often than on Rue Boulard) to be played alongside the video of her last breath.

Im not surprised people queued in the sun to tell her their secrets her fearlessness, the spine of her work, is insanely seductive. I wasnt prepared for the dizzying effect shed have on me, sitting with somebody who hasnt given even a crumb of a damn in more than 40 years, whose singularity of intent means she makes notes on Post-its about Tinder as we talk, who seems genuinely surprised people might be shocked she filmed her mothers death. I was told people die when you step out of the room. So I wanted to make sure if she had something to tell me, Id be there. A shrug, so simple.

Shes standing at the kitchen counter, eating small slices of cheese. From the fridge she retrieves an already poured glass of wine and explains why she lives alone. I dont want other peoples dirty laundry. I want to be able to feel free, even if Im not completely. Friendship requires effort, but I dont think of it as compromise. I dont go against my nature, and sometimes its not fun, but I like it like that.

Rachel Monique. Couldnt Capture Death (2007). Photograph: Sophie Calle/Adagp, Paris & ARS, New York, 2017, Courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery, Fraenkel Gallery and Galerie Perro

Her only commitment is to visit the doctor twice a year. When her father was dying, she started to feel a burning on her skin, a terrible itch. After an exhibition in Montreal she flew back to Paris, and went straight to the hospital, where a doctor found that two days earlier shed had a silent heart attack. It was as if I wanted to be more sick than my father, so hed have to protect me. She takes a sip of wine. I live a selfish life. Its for this reason, she says, that she has long refused to talk about her politics. I dont really want to enter this topic. But I wait, and she continues. I was a very strong militant feminist when I was young. It was everything, it was my life, she says, sitting down gently.

Calle has been interviewed thousands of times and shes interested in the process, in what she chooses to withhold. Which is why I ask her to repeat what she says next, a story shes never discussed before. When I was 18, I did abortions. It was illegal, so we had to learn to do it ourselves before the law passed. We learned the Karman method. Harvey Karman designed a tiny cannula, making it possible to perform early abortions safely and painlessly later I scroll through photos online, of a tiny glass straw thats still used today.

It was very easy and I did it at my house. We had a group. We would meet women, secretly, and help the ones that were less than three months gone. I did two abortions a week for about a year. Even when her career involves commodifying her experiences, there are stories she has yet to tell. Time changed, and I stopped participating and now I am only weakly involved. I do care but I am so protected, so lucky. She gestures towards her sunlit patio, an explanation. I live in a garden doing the work I like. Im not involved enough to talk about it. Also, the people wholl read this already think like me.

She holds up a finger. I think she regrets sharing this flake of her life. She says she has a suggestion for a collaboration. I should make a list of the questions she refused to answer. I look back at my notes, reading out loud. Do you feel brave? What did you learn about pain? How does it feel to be told someones darkest secrets? Whats your responsibility when a stranger cries to you?

Smiling, she pulls her feet up beneath her, and looks immediately relaxed, as if shes solved a problem by keeping even this little bit back. Yes. Gazing off towards the garden, its as if she has, quite suddenly, disappeared. So I gather my bags.

Sophie Calle, Missing is at Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture, San Francisco, until August 20 ( Her latest book, My All, is out now

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