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.
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 14tharrondisement. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Paris has something for everyone. Last night I stumbled on the restaurant for people eating alone on a Sunday night. Check out the photo. The woman next to me is writing in a journal. Next to her is a woman reading. Behind the wine glass is a man writing in a journal. I’m the one taking pictures.
We’re in a nondescript Italian restaurant just off the Boulevard St. Germain, across the street from Les Deux Magots. Patricia Wells and David Lebovitz are not regulars here.
When I arrived around 7:30 – early for Parisian dinner but I was hungry – there was one other customer in the room, a man in his fifties, reading a magazine and eating a pizza. Since his magazine was in French and he seemed to know the waiter, I took him for a native. He was drinking only water. He was nearly finished when I sat down and left before my pizza arrived. Then came the reading woman. She ordered lasagna and a half bottle of wine and settled into her book. The woman next to me polished off a cheese pizza in about three minutes, pushed her plate aside, and began to write in her journal. The man behind the wine glass ordered a glass of red wine and wrote in his journal without taking a sip. His pizza arrived before I left but he continued writing as it cooled.
Some obvious questions arise:
Why are you eating pizza in Paris?
Well, as Abe Scherl once said: “You can’t eat gourmet every night.”
Why are you alone in Paris?
I don’t wish to discuss that. Other questions?
It’s just that it seems like a long way to go for a Sunday night pizza. You could have gone to Giorgio’s.
I didn’t come to Paris for the pizza. Anyone else?
Yes. Excuse me, sir, and correct me if I’m wrong, but I get the impression that all the patrons you describe are, how shall I put it, of a certain age?
Yes. Next question.
So, perhaps it’s not surprising that you find yourself there.
What are you implying?
Only that however unintentional it may have been, you may have found yourself in the right place.
The pizza wasn’t bad. Next question:
How much wine did you drink at dinner?
I don’t see that’s any of your business, but just for the record: a picher of 50cl.
How much is that in American?
About 2/3 of a bottle.
What else did you drink?
Just a cognac at the hotel honor bar when I returned.
I didn’t feel very well yesterday: woke up early but tired. It felt like a hangover but I hadn’t been drinking at all the night before. It was cool and overcast, a touch of autumn. I dressed in sweats and a t-shirt from the 2014 World Series. Had a bit of breakfast and it upset my stomach. A twenty-minute meditation was just a jumble of random thoughts and unexplained anxiety. Went back to bed with a Donna Leon book. Read, dozed a bit, didn’t have enough energy to keep the day from slipping away.
A chicken soup lunch didn’t help, tried to work but couldn’t find the words, back to Brunetti. It began to get dark and I knew what was coming. I poured a glass of rosé to try to keep summer alive but it was too late. 7:15, the first batter singles, the double play ball is mishandled, only one run but way too many pitches. Kershaw breezes through the first and the air grows heavy. They cremated Yogi’s body and now it’s really over.
I’ve recently begun the practice of meditation, actually I’ve been doing it most of my life, I just called it watching baseball. (Still deflecting serious issues with humor.)
I’ve been using a program called Headspace and like it very much. It’s a painless entry into the daily practice of meditation and it helps. I’m especially taken with the idea of looking at not only how meditation helps me, but how it also benefits the people closest to me. Anxiety makes me stupid; it blinds me to reality and causes me to obsess over fantasy. Depression makes me numb, forcing me to withdraw from relationships. Not a very healthy way to live. I believe meditation can help clear the fog and allow me to more openly conduct honest relationships, to recognize and accept their true nature, and to enjoy. Early days but that’s the goal.
If you’ve been with me for a while, you’ll know I quit antidepressant medications earlier this year because I thought my senses had been dulled to the point where I couldn’t feel anything at all. I believed, and still do, that the moderating effect of the drugs deepens the shell of depressive isolation by making it acceptable: “I can’t help it, I’m depressed.”
The emotions began to build and I had to learn how to deal with it. It’s been slow going – the drugs have been out of my system for nine months now – because so much of my time is spent alone. Writing takes up much of my day, baseball much of the rest. So it’s been a slow build but seems to be peaking now and not just because the season is coming to an end and the Giants look like they’ll fall short of the playoffs, but also because I’m planning a trip to France and the experience there that led to writing Angle of Reflection still resonates with me. It was intense in many ways but the medication prevented me from processing it all.
The latest rewrite of Angle of Reflection is a much truer emotional narrative. It is deeper and darker, reaching places I could never go before. It’s better, but still doesn’t go far enough. A recent reading has convinced me that I’m still not hitting the essential, honest emotional core I’m seeking.
In other literary news, I’ve completed the first draft of the second novel, Rivesaltes. This is an entirely different book, composed of several stories about people caught up in the violence that engulfed twentieth century Europe from the Spanish Civil War to the French/Algerian War. One of the things I’ve learned about writing fiction is just how rough a first draft really is. There’s a long way to go.
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.
Podcasts and workouts. Perfect, like oysters and champagne. Get your head into something else and that thirty-minute elliptical workout just flies by, well, not really but it does go a little bit faster when the mind is occupied.
Lately I’ve been listening to writers talking about writing, something most people would find about as interesting as golf on the radio or your uncle’s Orlando vacation photos. But I can’t resist. I don’t learn much but I do get to feel like part of the club, experiencing many of the same frustrations and satisfactions. Writing is a solitary pursuit, and every once in a while it feels good to connect with other writers in this virtual group. Real writing groups are not for me, I prefer my therapy one-to-one.
These interviews do give you some sense of the writers and, when they respond with generosity, I’m more inclined to want to read their books. Debut novelists usually see the interview as a great opportunity and respond enthusiastically, veterans often find it a chore and grudgingly impart clichéd answers to standard questions. Certainly not a reliable indicator of talent but you need some way to work your way through the incredible number of volumes published daily.
The interviews usually begin with the writer describing the genesis of the book, then move on to discuss the elements that most interested the host: “Why did you decide to set your book in this tiny town in France?” “Because I live there.” One of the standard questions concerns the value of the MFA, a hot issue in literary academia: “It was a wonderful experience and it worked for me, but certainly it’s not for everyone.” Or, “No I didn’t take an MFA, but these programs have produced many wonderful writers, but we won’t get into names.”
The conversations usually end with the host asking the writer if she has any writing advice for listeners like me and, while there’s some variation in the wording, the message is almost always the same: just write. It’s a job and it’s hard work and you have to keep at it. Write in a Starbucks, or complete solitude; maybe mornings are best for you, or not; maybe you make an outline, or have no idea what comes next; write for three hours a day, or one thousand words, or just as much as you feel like; whatever methods you employ only work if you keep writing. You learn by doing it. You improve by revising it. And then you do it again, until someone thinks it’s worthy of publication – or not. At which time, you’re already at work on the next book. Success may bring confidence but it also brings the knowledge of just how hard this is.
A writer chooses a story (not his own) from the magazine’s archives, reads it to us, and then discusses it with New Yorker fiction editor, Deborah Treisman. Very different than a writer discussing his own work, it’s fascinating to hear two intensely focused and perceptive readers analyze a piece of short fiction, revealing to even casual listeners why it works and what went into making that happen. This is the big leagues.
No need to count, this piece is only about 560 words.
Ending the silence. My mother’s horrible death left me exhausted and more in need of repair than sharing, more than I knew, which for a time took what remained of creative inspiration. Finally, I encountered another detour, this time an opportunity to get my photographer hat out of the closet, ironically as the result of the illness of a former colleague. Now the job is done, mom is gone, and I begin again.
Angle of Reflection is currently resting with an agent who has promised to read it within a reasonable amount of time. That was about a month ago, so we’re probably about half way to any reaction. This agent had read an earlier draft more than a year ago and offered positive feedback and suggestions for change, but ultimately said no. This is a very different book: darker in tone, closer to the bone, probably not at all what she expects. Of course, I can’t decide if that’s a good thing but it does help shape my anxious waiting. My fingers are crossed, which is probably why it’s taking so long to type this. (Nervous laughter).
I’m about ready to get back to work on the next novel. It’s a much more ambitious project and had to wait until I felt I’d exhausted the possibilities I’d launched with Angle; of course I realize that should anyone want to publish it there will be more work to do, but until that happens, I’ve taken it as far as I can and it’s time to move on. I see Angle as the book that taught me how to write a novel, a much more difficult process than I ever imagined. It was about two and a half years of writing, considering, assessing, and revising, a very different process than making photographs. Doing it – and having a completed novel be the result – has taught me what works for me and what I can anticipate in the next book. It’s very hard work, more difficult than anything I’ve done before, but it also required a very intense emotional investigation that only came in small increments. Each draft dug a little deeper, each step went a little further. Then, in the middle of the process, I decided to quit using antidepressants and my path to the truth seemed much smoother. I didn’t know when I started this book that I was also launching an exercise in self-therapy.
The photo job was an effective jump-start. It wasn’t a creative opportunity, but it got me back out in the world. The need to work and interact with others got me out of the house and out of my head and, as a result, seems to have reignited the spark needed to get my butt back in the chair and my fingers on the keyboard.
Is emotion the gateway to reason or is it an obstacle to understanding?
I had always believed in the power of the intellect, that an educated intelligence should be sufficient to decode the clues and understand the opportunities and conflicts we all face. Now I’m not so sure. In fact, I’m pretty sure the opposite is true; it is only through emotional engagement that we can truly understand anything at all. How we respond to art offers a window.
Angle of Reflection contains a scene in a museum where Ben and Emma are discussing a Picasso exhibit. Ben is able to admire the technique and appreciate the results from an intellectual distance but maintains that Picasso never moves him. (Let’s assume he’s never seen Guernica.) Emma tells him it may yet happen and to beware of sealing his emotions in today’s opinion.
Later he reflects on a painting that moved him more than most: Vermeer’s, A Maid Asleep.“I couldn’t turn away. I was immediately and profoundly drawn into that world, I could walk into that woman’s dreams and imagine stories that explained all the elements Vermeer chose to include.” We can’t know whether the artist had the same stories in mind but it doesn’t matter, what is significant is that the emotional reaction to the image made the content knowable.
Here’s where we get back to the question of antidepressant medication: it is my contention that one of the severe effects of many years on SSRIs was a stifling of emotion, which led to a failure to understand what was happening to me. I couldn’t get to it because I couldn’t feel it.
I’m not the first to report this. “SSRIs also cause a multitude of troubling side effects. These include sexual dysfunction, suppression of REM sleep, muscle tics, fatigue, emotional blunting, and apathy. In addition, investigators have reported that long-term use is associated with memory impairment, problem-solving difficulties, loss of creativity, and learning deficiencies.” Robert Whitaker:Anatomy of an Epidemic, Broadway Books, Random House, 2010.
I’m beginning to feel that I’m nearing the finish line for Angle. Could be wrong, of course, I’ve thought this before, then I sent it to my editor. I began to wonder how you know when you’re done with a novel. There is no requirement for length, no facts that have to be explained, no rules to follow. Thinking won’t get you there. I suppose you can say that it’s finished when someone decides to publish it, but Fitzgerald was still trying to rewrite Gatsby as it was on the press. I asked a friend who is a wonderful painter how she knew when a painting was finished. She said: “I don’t know, I just feel it.”
I’m beginning to understand how Donna Tartt could spend ten years writing a novel. I used to think it would be impossible to maintain interest in the same book over that long a time. I used to think you could rewrite and polish only so many times before it was perfect. But that was before I tried to write a novel, and before I hired an editor to help.
A few weeks ago I sent my latest draft to my efficient and perceptive editor, a draft that I had polished through the technique of reading it aloud, recording it, and making changes as I listened to the playback.
I was really pleased with it. I thought reading aloud had helped to make the dialogue flow better and cleaned up some awkward sentence structure. I had noticed that when reading I stumbled over inaccurate punctuation and fuzzy thinking. Any text that I wasn’t fully committed to didn’t read smoothly. I had discovered a way to get to the truth of the book.
I was also weaning myself from antidepressant medication and was sure I was seeing the effects of clarified thinking and emotional access in my writing. I was right about that, especially in the passages dealing with relationships, but I was missing the bigger picture. In the process of stripping down some characters trying to get to the truth I wanted to convey, I lost some objectivity and allowed reality to overwhelm the fictional narrative resulting in a loss of pace, tension, and structure.
In other words, in finding some truth about myself, I managed to lose my reader. My editor had no trouble pinpointing the problems: “I think what’s missing in this chapter is an emotional hook that will compel the reader to care…As a reader, I feel unsure of what the book is about and therefore unsure of what I should care about, and why.”
I was surprised and disappointed.
When we talked she was quick to apologize for being so blunt, then added: “but isn’t that what you’re paying me for?”
She’s right, her comments and suggestions are enormously helpful, and I’ve gone back to work with enthusiasm, understanding the task is to fictionalize the narrative while retaining the emotional truth.
Not a problem, this is only year three of this book.