It began about five years ago in Maury with a chance remark followed by a visit to an abandoned concentration camp. I stepped past the barbed wire, walked through and around crumbling buildings, made photographs. Then I began to write.

Rivesaltes begins with two historical figures, the photojournalists Robert Capa and Gerda Taro, and continues with fictional characters in stories of three wars that intersect at the Rivesaltes camp and together comprise a fictional history of twentieth century Europe. It is a historical novel, but the stories of refugees created by war have an immediate and emotional connection to the present day.

The novel’s cinematic quality is derived from the pictures of Capa, Taro, and other great photographers of the period. A significant amount of research time was spent examining their images. That was the fun part. And it was a pleasure to work in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, a place that confers serious intent with registration as an authorized researcher. A bargain at eight Euros. The microfiche archives of the Conseil Générale in Perpignan were not quite so enjoyable.

Five years of research, writing, and revising. The first draft came out in a rush. The characters drove the story to places I’d never envisioned, new characters appeared when needed and they took the story in different directions. I was just the guy with his fingers on the keyboard. The story raced to its conclusion and then the hard work began.

Photography is instantaneous. An image may be informed by years of experience but it is created in a fraction of a second that captures a facial expression, the peak moment of action, or the perfect light.

Writing is interminable. Revision on revision, finding the right word, crafting the perfect sentence, molding and shaping until you just can’t do it anymore, and decide to call it complete.

Finished? Only until an editor gets her hands on it. But it’s time to find out if anyone wants to publish it so queries will go out to agents who will say yes, no, or nothing at all. First up is an agent who was considerate and respectful of my first book, although she ultimately decided it wasn’t for her. I came to agree with her judgment and stopped submitting it, but I think there’s some value there and I may yet find the way to make it work. Rejection sucks but it’s part of the deal, much more often than not. The odds are long. Capa rarely had a winner at the racetrack; let’s hope we have better luck in the literary lottery.



A Walk with Bob and Gerda

Not along after Endre Friedmann and Gerda Taro invented “Robert Capa” they established the Atelier Robert Capa on the second floor of this building at 37 rue Froidevaux, (François-Xavier-Eugène 1827-1882, a commander in the Sapeurs-Pompiers, the fire and rescue brigade of Paris), in the 14th arrondisement. It was the closest they ever came to having a home and turns up repeatedly as a touchstone in the invented life of Capa. Most interesting is its appearance in Patrick Modiano’s novella, Suspended Sentences, as the setting for a story about creativity and loss.

rue Emile Richard
rue Emile Richard

I don’t know what was on street level in 1936, now we find a florist and funeral service business because across the street is the cemetery of Montparnasse. That’s where I am, standing on the corner of the rue Émile Richard (1843-1890, a President of the municipal council of Paris), which bisects the cemetery and is now the site of a small tent encampment of the homeless. Several campsites along the street are furnished with modern red office chairs in such good condition they appear to have been recently delivered.

tent and chair
tent and chair

Walk through the cemetery and you come to the Boulevard Raspail, (François-Vincent, 1794–1878, French chemist, physician, and politician), one of the main thoroughfares of Montparnasse.

Turn left on the boulevard and you’ll pass several hotels, a school, and a student residence. Paris is a national education center and the presence of students and scholarship animates and rejuvenates this historical city of imposing architectural monuments. Just a few blocks down is the corner of Boulevard Montparnasse, the site of Le Dôme.

Le Dôme
Le Dôme

In the thirties this café was the gathering place for the growing coterie of photojournalists who were drawn to the city. Some, like Capa and Taro, were Jews who had fled the growing threat of National Socialism in Eastern Europe; some, like Henri Cartier-Bresson and Willy Ronis, were French who came here to meet with their peers. They were joined by André Kertész, Giselle Freund, David Szymin (Chim), and others in what must have been the greatest gathering of photographic talent ever to grace a coffee shop. Photographers aren’t always verbally gifted but I’d guess the competitive banter of this group was lively and amusing. This was their living room, clubhouse, and office where they met to compare notes on editors and assignments and plan coverage of the great stories of the time.

Cafes had personalities then, created by the crowds they attracted, so while you might find Hemingway and Picasso in a raucous scene at Le Select, Sartre and de Beauvoir would be presiding over a quieter discussion at Café de Flore.

Le Dôme was the home for photographers and, of course, it was a very different place then. Now the interior is an upscale seafood restaurant that smells only of cashmere and money. The terrace is more casual, and more democratic. I’m seated next to a well-dressed man in his sixties (I need to upgrade my wardrobe), reading Racine and taking notes: a professor, I’d guess. Next to him is a younger man intensely focused on his MacBook, and obsessively checking his phone. I’d like to think he’s a lovelorn novelist. Why not, it’s Paris? There are several women of different ages, some alone, some in pairs, all having lunch. A middle-aged couple orders the skate wing lunch special and the novelist another coffee. A young woman with a suitcase orders a café crème, tends to her text messages, and leaves a few extra coins for the waiter. The professor finishes preparing his lecture and relaxes with a glass of white wine.

Le Dôme Terrace
Le Dôme Terrace

I order a beer, which comes with a small bowl of olives, then get a little hungry, so I order a sandwich mixte au pain Poilane, without butter (I love this city but don’t want to die here, at least not yet). I ask for a little mustard. It’s a good thing I’m not very hungry. I make a few pictures and a few notes for this essay and order a coffee. I leave an extra tip for the waiter because I think it’s what Capa would have done, even if he had to borrow the money from Cartier-Bresson.

Capa and Taro have gone off to war in Spain. They are photojournalism novices and their quest is not to document facts, but to witness and support Republican victories. Only Capa will return.

I decide to go to Père Lachaise and find Taro’s grave. I ask for directions in the cemetery office but the computer cannot find Taro, then I remember her birth name, Pohorylle, and we get a hit. I’m following my map down a path covered with autumn leaves when I pass an attendant who shouts and points: “Jim Morrison, that way.” I shake my head and walk on.

Père Lachaise
Père Lachaise

Taro is buried in a small Jewish section near the Mur des Fédérés, the group monuments to those unidentified souls who died in wars and Nazi extermination camps.

Gerda Taro Grave
Gerda Taro Grave

Her tomb is small, much smaller than her neighbors, and plain, adorned only with a simple block with her name and dates, and the Giacometti falcon that was commissioned by the Communist Party hoping to profit from her death, although she was never a party member. Visitors have left a few stones, several painted with the colors of the German flag, although she was not German, and a print of a Capa photo of Taro resting by the side of a Spanish road. Some flowers are long gone, but their plastic wrappers remain.

Taro Grave
Taro Grave

She’s mostly forgotten now. After she died in Spain, Capa tried to save her work and he probably did, but credits were haphazard. Many old prints bear stamps that say both “Photo Capa” and “Photo Taro,” and many negatives carry no attribution at all. It’s often impossible to know for sure who made the photos, so the credit usually goes to the famous Capa, who might never have achieved that fame if he hadn’t met and fallen in love with Gerda Taro. It’s a subject that is explored in greater depth in Rivesaltes, a novel in progress.

Gerda Taro
Gerda Taro

©2015 Ron Scherl

Memorial du Camp de Rivesaltes

It’s not easy to find. I expected it to be near the roadside steles that have been in place for years but it’s not there and there are no signs to indicate where they have built this memorial and museum to tell the story of the camp at Rivesaltes. I have to wonder if there isn’t still an element of shame alongside the better instinct that allowed it to be built so we would not forget. More likely just a bureaucratic delay, the museum only opened to the public this week. You can find it at the base of the wind farm.

Camps of all kinds are, of course, numerous and widespread; from Auschwitz to Manzanar they are a feature of life on a planet where war is common. But Rivesaltes is unique in the variety of different populations it has detained: Spanish refugees from the civil war; German intellectuals fleeing Nazism, Roma, Jews, German military prisoners of war, Harkis. Rivesaltes holds the history of twentieth century European conflict.

The site of the camp is huge, over 600 hectares that now wraps around an industrial zone, and the museum has been built behind that zone, beside a farm of wind generators, far from the department road. You would not find it if you didn’t know where to look.

Rivesaltes-9471 The museum building itself is built into the ground and from above resembles a soaring monument at rest, surrounded by the crumbling barracks and latrines of the detention camp on their way to returning to the earth. There is a path circling the building and, on an overcast day with the wind blowing, you can almost feel what it must have been like to be imprisoned here.

Rivesaltes-9508The entrance is a long descending ramp that appears to lead nowhere, but turns to the right to reveal a door.Rivesaltes-9525

The receipt for my eight euro entrance fee is printed with the name Marie Weiss-Loeffer, a young Roma woman, and the date of her escape 10 Novembre, 1941.

Rivesaltes-9555Rivesaltes-9558The main room is divided into sections that tell the story of each of the populations with historical footage projected on the rough cement walls, oral testimonials accessible through tablets, and informational films on video monitors. And there is also a look forward, a consideration of how we will deal with the same issues in the 21st century. The overlapping sounds and the design of the structure itself simulate the lack of privacy in barracks life.

The overwhelming amount of information takes its toll and you begin to understand the incomprehensible scale of devastation. Camps like this were created to separate us from those we fear. They continue to be built today.


©2015 Ron Scherl

A Tale of Two (or Three) Suitcases

One of the joys of researching a historical novel is the uncovering of parallels, unrelated facts that nevertheless strike me as significant. When you read a lot of mysteries, as I do, you come to believe there is no such thing as coincidence. Everything is significant.

The scope of the novel encompasses several wars from 1936 to 1962 and there are many parallels involved. War does awful things to people no matter who’s fighting; brutality breeds only more brutality and what’s learned is passed through generations. You torture mine, I’ll torture yours even more. It’s a chain of iniquity that continues to this day.

But we were talking about suitcases. When photojournalist, Robert Capa, fled Paris as the Nazis arrived, he may have had with him a suitcase full of negatives from the Spanish Civil War, photos by Gerda Taro and David Seymour (Chim) as well as Capa. The suitcase was lost for many years, until it turned up in Mexico in 1995. When it was found, it was hoped by many including Capa’s brother Cornell, that it would contain the negative of Falling Soldier, Capa’s most famous photo that is said to depict the moment of death of a Spanish Republican soldier. Cornell Capa’s hope was that finding the negative intact and in sequence would finally put to rest the controversy that has always followed the photo: real, or was it staged?

Unfortunately the negative was not in the case, the controversy continues, and no one is absolutely certain how the suitcase wound up in Mexico. I have a theory about that and it fits nicely in a novel.

The parallel suitcase belonged to Walter Benjamin, the German Jewish philosopher who committed suicide in France after fleeing the Nazis, appearing to make it safely to Spain on his way to America, then being turned back by Franco’s guards. Despairing, ill, fearing he would be turned over to the Nazis, and unable to summon the energy to try again, Benjamin took an overdose of morphine in Portbou, Catalonia on the French/Spanish border. The suitcase containing the manuscript of an unpublished book he had carried from Germany was never found.

In a totally unrelated postscript: Harry “Suitcase” Simpson was a well-traveled Major League ballplayer who played for seventeen different teams in the majors, minors, and Negro Leagues. There are two theories on the nickname: one because he was always being traded and two, because his size thirteen shoes reminded a sportswriter of a cartoon character named “Suitcase.” I can’t find any evidence that Harry ever lost a suitcase and as far as I know, he never met either Capa or Benjamin, but I’ll take any opportunity to throw in a baseball reference.

©2015 Ron Scherl

Writers and Agents

My first novel attracted some interest from an agent who read three very different drafts before finally deciding it wasn’t right for her. She was encouraging and complimentary and her feedback was very valuable to me. It made me really want to work with her. The novel has taken on a much darker tone – it’s no longer a light-hearted travelogue of southern France complete with food, wine and colorful natives – it’s more honest, more personal and painful, a true first novel. I may not have revised it to a book the agent wanted to sell, but I’m happy with it, now. Of course I had to go through the early rejection stage of thinking it was all shit and I couldn’t write a want ad, but I’m past that now and submitting to other agents.

I’m close to finishing the first draft of my second novel. This is a totally different animal; set in twentieth century Europe, it tells multiple stories in different time frames that converge in a single location. It too has taken some surprising turns – into consideration of issues of personal responsibility in the face of evil and how we learn violence. And two characters who were not in the original conception, both female, have assumed prominent, catalytic roles.

Let’s talk about agents. They are the gatekeepers to the world of traditional publishing; there’s no entry to major houses without one. There’s some variation but the basic process goes like this: I send a one page query letter describing my novel and hope that some word or phrase strikes a chord that makes her want to read a few pages of the book I’ve been writing for the last three years. If she hears the sweet music in those pages, she may ask to read more. If she doesn’t, there’s only silence. Now I understand the pressures on all sides. The agent already has clients and her first responsibility must be to them. What comes over the transom is future business development, part of the job but not the highest priority. Still, it doesn’t seem too much to ask for an automated return email that says: “No, thank you.” The writer’s only option is multiple submissions, a process that feels something like trying to strike a piñata without knowing it’s in a totally different room.

There are web sites like Agent Query and Publishers’ Marketplace that list recent publishing deals and give me an idea which agents might be a good fit. Then I go to their web sites, see who they represent and what genres they’re looking for, and try to decide if they’re right for me. It ain’t easy. Genres are marketing categories and they’re fluid. Where’s the line between literary and commercial fiction? Why do some mysteries cross over to become literary? What on earth is women’s fiction?

And where do I fit in? If an agent has big name authors will she have time for me? If she doesn’t, is she any good? Is a big agency with multiple divisions and foreign offices better than a boutique with personal relationships?

So I look for any clue that might indicate there’s a chance to break through the clutter, and send another query.

The alternative is self-publishing which holds no appeal for me; although many people think it’s the future, most of them happen to be part of a whole new industry that’s developed to support the new writer-entrepreneur. And if, as my friend Mike Shatzkin writes, very few self-published writers are selling many books, and agents and traditional publishing houses are wary of taking on a title that’s been self-published, then what’s the difference between the new model and the bad old days of vanity publishers?

Enough for now, I need to research the record for oldest writer to publish a first novel.

©2015 Ron Scherl


Back to work on Novel Two, which means relearning all the acronyms and trying to remember the factions they represented in the Spanish Civil War. So I took time out from multiple flavors of socialism to have some fun imagining a poker game that might have taken place in the Hotel Florida in Madrid sometime in 1937. Madrid was still in Republican hands although the Nationalist bombing campaign had begun. The characters are Robert Capa, Chim (David Szymin), Henri Cartier-Bresson, Ernie Pyle, Ernest Hemingway, and Richard Lenoir, who is a young, entirely fictional French journalist. The game is five-card stud.


Chim: “We don’t have all day, André, Franco’s planes are due any minute.” Chim, who had changed his name from Szymin to Seymour but was known to everyone as Chim, refused to call Capa anything but André, although that wasn’t his birth name either. His parents called him Endre Friedmann.

Pyle: “It would be more accurate to call them Hitler’s planes. The Condor Legion is leading the raids.”

Cartier-Bresson: “That’s not exactly comforting.”

Hemingway: “Your king bets, Capa. What do you say?”

Capa: “I need a minute, where’s Gerda?”

Lenoir, who is not playing, answers: “I think she went upstairs to edit photos.”

Capa: “Lenoir, can you ask her…No, wait. Can you loan me 100 francs?”

Lenoir: “Sorry, Bob. I don’t have it.”

At that moment the concussion from the bombing was close enough to rattle the windows.

Cartier-Bresson: “That does it. I’m going to the shelter.”

Hemingway: “You can’t leave, Henri, Capa has to bet.”

Cartier-Bresson: “I fold. Now I can leave.”

Pyle: “You can’t fold. It’s Capa’s turn.”

Capa: “Henri, if you’re out, you can loan me 100 francs.”

HC-B: “To be returned when?”

Capa: “When I win, of course.”

HC-B, walking away: “That’s what I’m afraid of.”

Chim: “I’m beginning to think the war will end before this hand, and neither ending will be pretty.”

Capa: “I raise a hundred.Henri will cover it, but it won’t be necessary. ”

Pyle: “I don’t think I want to know. I fold.”

Chim: “Me too. It’s up to you, Papa.”

Hemingway: “I’ve got to call your ass, Capa. How many of those aces do you have?”

Capa: “Two. That ought to be enough.”

Hemingway, revealing three nines, “Not quite.”

Capa: “Let’s have a drink. Lenoir, can you buy us a drink. What’s that you’re reading, a letter from your lover? Is that a smile. I’ve never seen him smile before. Is he happy?”

“Hard to tell,” Chim said. “That might be a smile on his face, I’m not sure.”

“I don’t think it’s a smile, maybe it’s a rueful smile. What would you call it, Papa?”

“Photographers, totally useless without a camera. You don’t know how to interpret or even describe, you can only record what your machines allow. It takes a writer to truly understand another man. The young man is trying to be happy but that is only part of the picture. When you study him, you see sadness behind the smile, which is not rueful at all. He does not regret; he hasn’t yet done anything wrong, in fact he hasn’t done anything at all. His sadness is not full of remorse, it is empty, unfulfilled. It is the sadness of a man who thinks he knows what he wants but cannot have it. Yet the possibility remains, it might still happen, but he cannot make it happen. He must wait for events to run their course, so he is frustrated, but his love has given him reason to hope. He is still in the running, if not yet in the lead. Gentlemen, our young Lenoir is in love, although he has not yet been able to make love to the woman he desires. He is trying to compensate by devouring, again, and again, the words that give him hope. But it is not enough. Il est triste, oui, but he is also very horny.”

That brought a great roar of laughter and cheers from the assembly of journalists.

“Bravo, Papa.” they shouted, and produced a round of drinks.

Lenoir looked up from his letter. He was not smiling: “Fuck you, all of you. Especially you, Hemingway.”

Papa roared: “Bravo Lenoir, not exactly eloquent, but the only appropriate response.”

©2015 Ron Scherl