I’m sitting outside La Samaritaine on the Marseille waterfront, drinking coffee and pretending to read a French newspaper while the mid-morning crowds mill by. You may recognize this as the same corner cafe from the classic film The French Connection, where the undercover detective drinks coffee and pretends to read a French newspaper while the mid-morning crowds mill by. He’s actually keeping an eye on the bad guy across the quay, the one with the expensive hat and fancy moustache who’s talking to another bad guy in a camel-hair coat. In the very next scene, the detective will come home with a bag of groceries and immediately get shot in the face at point blank range by the goon in the camel-hair coat. As the killer steps over the dead man on his way to the street, he bends over the spilled groceries and rips the end off a loaf of bread. He stands there in the doorway and chews, nodding his head slightly as if to say, this is really good bread.
I got into town last night on the bullet train from Paris. When you first walk out the front doors of the Gare de Sainte-Charles and look down on the city, you notice the thin streets switchback down towards the sea like cobwebs from a drunken spider; no wonder the guidebook says even the locals get lost. I’ve never been here before, and the only picture I’ve ever had of this place comes from those first five minutes of an old gangster movie; yeah, I’ve got my work cut out for me. I need to become a local fast, or at least think like one: after all, I’m here to find the ending of a story. And I can’t leave without it.
So far I know this much: my character will sit in this exact spot at La Samaritaine, drink coffee and pretend to read a French newspaper as she watches the crowds mill by. Now, how do I get her from this wire-backed chair to the end of the book? Honestly, I have no idea; I guess I will rule out sending her back to her apartment with a bag of groceries to find a guy pointing a gun in her face. But I know if I keep working on it in my mind, going over all the possibilities as they appear, sooner or later I will find the next link of the story. That’s the way stories work: sooner or later, they come back to you.
Lately I’ve been thinking about how stories — all stories, not just novels or films — work in circles, like loops on the same chain. These days I tend to believe creativity has less to do with starting something “new” and more to do with simply tapping into the stories that already surround us. Sometimes as writers we believe that we create stories, but more and more I’m thinking that it’s the stories that create us. Look at me: right now I’m sitting in front of La Samaritaine because I saw it in a movie once. Pretty soon, I’ll find my notepad and write a scene where my character is sitting right where I am now. Sometimes we need to remember that stories are bigger than the people who try to write them down. They’re the ones that work on us, even when we’re asleep.
A month before I flew to France, I was at a writer’s retreat in Vermont working on earlier parts of Apostle Islands. At dinner one night, another writer and I start talking about our projects. She’s working on a series of poems that all involve farm equipment. Over dessert, I tell her a little about the story behind Nazareth, North Dakota and the sequel I’m working on now.
“The sequel sounds great,” she says. “Where does it take place?”
“Wisconsin,” I say. Then, I take a deep breath. “And Marseille.”
“Oh,” she says, leaning back in her chair. “Marseille, really?”
It’s the reaction I usually get.
She leans forward again, curious. “What’s the reason for ending it in Marseille? I mean, besides the fact it’s, you know, Marseille.”
I sigh and tell her my reason: according to legend, Mary Magdelene escapes Jerusalem by boat with her brother Lazarus, and they land on the other side of the Mediterranean at Marseille, where she lives until her death at age fifty. So when I started plotting the sequel, I figured my version of Mary Magdelene could end up there, too.
She wrinkles her brow. “Sure,” she says with a knowing smile. “That’s the reason.”
And she’s right to be skeptical, of course. If I think about it, there’s probably more to ending the story in Marseille than simple legend and history. She’s exposed a tender part of me, and right now I feel very defensive, as if I have to justify my trip to Marseille as more than just touristy fun. Sure, it’s unfair: I mean, no one rolled their eyes when I told them I’d be driving around northern Wisconsin to research the same book. But how do I convince people I’m a writer, not a tourist? How do I convince myself?
“Every story should end in the south of France,” I say, trying to act cavalier. The problem is I don’t really know what the word cavalier means.
“Not every story,” she says, getting up from the table. “Just your story.”
Since that day, I’ve thought a lot about the reasons I chose Marseille, and I’ve realized it’s about the challenge more than anything else. The one thing that’s surprised me in writing Apostle Islands is how much harder I’ve had to work to keep the story going, and to keep things fresh. After writing the first book, I figured the rest of the story would just unfurl itself and roll downhill like a long carpet; the characters and their journeys are already started, so how difficult could it be to follow them along? But now I’m finding out the hard way that when you write a sequel, you can’t follow the same ruts in the road you (and your reader) have already gone over. You need to seek out new territory. The story has to go someplace different for your reader, but it’s just as important for the writer, too, because you need to give yourself new challenges. Otherwise, the writing will suffer. When you throw yourself a curveball, somehow the story gets better because it still has to come back to you and make sense. You’re less likely to write something stagnant, or something you’ve seen before. For other writers, exploring the Bering Sea or an abandoned mineshaft or the part of the brain that makes us love the smell of coffee might be the challenge they need to keep a project going. But for me, putting my characters in the streets of Marseille and seeing what happens, that’s the challenge this time. How do I get them from Wisconsin to France, and back again? It sure won’t be easy. But that’s the point.
I’ve also realized that in the end, we don’t have to justify anything. We’re writers, we are the creators of worlds, and if a story takes you to Marseille or Moscow or Montana, you’ve got a sworn duty to tag along. The story is going to end wherever and whenever it chooses to end. The story is the boss, and the writer is just the sidekick, that person floating in the background who offers witty banter and cleans up after the hard work is all done. Listen, writers: we will always be Robin. We will never be Batman, or Batgirl. The story fights crime, not you. We should count ourselves lucky that we get to be so close to the action. Our reward is always getting the best seat in the house. And if you love stories like I do, that may be the best reward of all.
When you’re close to the end of a story, the worst thing you can do is try too hard. The story will always come back if you let it. It’ll come back different: strange or misshapen or maybe even weird, but that’s a good thing. If you let the story off the leash and roam a little, chances are it’ll show you a great place to end. It’ll come back to you with postcards, the cool kind with unique shots you can’t find in those racks outside every curio shop.
You see? Every story should end in the south of France after all.
It’s almost noon when the waiter at La Samaritaine brings out another cafe noir. I’m looking across the quay for any signs of a man in a camel-hair coat when I suddenly put down my newspaper and rummage around in my bag for my notepad and pen.
I’ve just had a really good idea.
This morning as I was walking down to the waterfront through the twisted, narrow, cave-like streets of Le Panier district, I got hopelessly lost. (And I don’t realize this right away, but it’s also the same neighborhood where the detective is killed in the movie, too.) Again, I am aware of stories linking together in some kind of invisible chain. I think I’ll have my character leave her table here and get hopelessly lost when she walks up into Le Panier. I see her walking into the seedy jazz club with the stuffed armadillo in the window I passed by (twice) while trying to find my way. I see her buying a drink. Something American: a beer. Then I see her talking to the trumpet player. Wait, the Angel Gabriel played a trumpet, didn’t he? Suddenly I feel the story taking a curve, another bend on the way back home. I’m excited to be along for the ride.
Honestly, I have no idea what will happen next. But of course, that’s the point.
Photos by Tommy Zurhellen