A Break in the Clouds

I travelled to France last month with a story in my heart. It’s a story I’ve carried around for years—one I chronicled here: The Prisoner’s Hands—and I spent time gathering details of place and researching the region’s history during WWII. I thought, having seen through the writing of two novels, I was ready to undertake something nearly bigger than me. This story reaches far beyond the realm of alternative history I created in Refuge of Doves. There, my goal was to invoke a sense of place and time, but not to mire the narrative in medieval depths or lose a sense of playful speculation.

 

But I’m wasn’t looking to retouch history here. Not with this story.

 

A book reviewer commented recently that the WWII literary idiom has been done ad nauseam. In the words of Love and Rockets, It’s all the same thing; No new tale to tell. The world doesn’t need any more stories from WWII.

 

As a reader fascinated by literature and research emanating from and inspired by WWI through the end of the Second World War, I couldn’t disagree more. There will always be room and readers for stories from these eras, as long as the stories are well told.

 

In the past week I’ve read two extraordinary novels that take place during WWII: Anthony Doerr’s All The Light We Cannot See, set in France and Germany; and Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North, set in southeast Asia and Australia. Doerr’s novel was just nominated for the National Book Award; Flanagan’s won the 2014 Man Booker Prize. Both are beloved by professional critics and every day readers like myself. So yes, there is room for more WWII stories.

 

But one night, deep in jet lag insomnia, as I read All The Light We Cannot See, I realized I had to set aside my story. I came to accept that I am not yet the writer I need to be to tell a story deeply layered with sociopolitical nuance. Nor am I yet the researcher who could create the authenticity readers would rightly expect. 

IMG_2455
Autumn light shines on a new story. © Julie Christine Johnson 2014

 

Tony Doerr spent ten years researching, crafting, and writing All The Light We Cannot See. Richard Flanagan wrote a novel steeped in so much historical detail and personal history (his father survived the Burma Death Railway—the subject of The Narrow Road to the Deep North), I can only guess he spent years carefully choosing each detail.

 

The understanding came laden with sadness and relief and not a small measure of anxiety for this writer. Setting aside a story I’d been thinking about for so long, that I spent time in France researching, meant I’d opened a yawning chasm of “Now what do I do?” My post-holiday plan, when I knew I would need to work on something new as I began the agent query process for Refuge of Doves and sought beta readers for Crows of Beara, had been to dive straight into a new novel.

 

Suddenly, I was without a story. I had no plan.

 

But if I’ve learned anything along this writer’s journey, it’s to trust that the next story is always there, shimmering at the edges of my peripheral vision, just within earshot. If I let go of trying to capture it and wait quietly, it will settle on my shoulder like a rare and fragile butterfly, or beam out like a piercing ray of sun from a rent in a storm cloud.

 

And come it did, during the middle of a writing workshop the week after our return. The story idea isn’t new—in fact, its themes and some its characters have appeared in at least one of my short stories—but the Eureka moment came only after I’d let go of the search. Suddenly, quite suddenly, at 2:45 on a rainy Saturday afternoon in late October, I had my premise, my protagonist, and the quivering butterfly of a plot.

 

Let the writing begin.

 

 

 

 

Nuit Blanche

Nuit Blanche . . . White Night—French for sleeplessness. It sounds almost celestial, doesn’t it? A vast, shining stretch of emptiness, a field of untouched snow, a freshly laundered sheet floating over a soft, welcoming bed.

 

Mais non. A nuit blanche is a very dark, lonely sort of hell. But it is inevitable, this desperate return jet-lag, the body crying for food, coffee, bright lights, a farmers’ market, a castle reach at the most inconvenient times.

 

Wide awake at one a.m. the day after our arrival, with just a handful of restless hours of sleep in reserve and still trembling from the stress of twenty-four hours of travel (white-knuckle driving in Paris morning rush hour traffic; white-knuckle queuing in a snaking line of hundreds for a flight leaving in two hours; white-knuckle bouncing along jet streams in a hot, cramped metal tub; white-knuckle winding through dark forests to return at last to our windswept island), I crept downstairs to the moonless dark of the living room—littered by luggage and still chilled from our absence—to wait out the nuit blanche with a movie and hot, buttered toast.

 

The afterglow of our journey lit my way and warmed my skin, freckled and peachy from days of hiking in the Dordogne. The region, resplendent in its sultry, tempestuous arrière-saison, had graced these fortunate travelers with October sunshine and a few welcome splashes of cleansing rain. I powered up the slide show function on my Nikon and took another journey, this time with knuckles unclenched.

 

I had fretted and fretted about this trip, shredding myself with worries about money, my flight claustrophobia, our sick cat, the resurgence of an Icelandic volcano, pilot strikes in France, not writing, oh, the list of the legitimate and the bizarre goes on and on.

 

The unfolding of my heart and mind, the releasing of the tension that had built since we hit ‘Confirm Purchase’ on those airline tickets back in April, began the moment we landed and continued as we explored anew, physically and intellectually, this place that means so much to us, to our individual and joined pasts, to our future.

 

But it was the present that captivated me, for I finally allowed myself to revel in it. My senses were gleefully pummeled by the taste of duck confît, the sight of pre-historical troglodytic dwellings beneath medieval castles, the wine-drenched scent of a village draining its fermentation tanks, the touch of acorns raining on my head from a sudden breeze, and the sound of French syllables swirling from all the mouths around us, including our own. I was grateful for the vulnerability and challenge of adapting to the whims and whiles of the different, eager as a hidden language revealed itself and poured out in a tumble, and delighted when a shopkeeper exclaimed, “Oh, I thought you were French!” As a traveller, I am renewed, replete with wonder and prismatic joy, able to see past the smallness of my worries as I open my heart to the newly possible.

 

There is linear time, real time, the actual days and weeks spent away. But then there’s travel time—the sense that you’ve been gone for ages, because of all that you experience during your sojourn. A traveller never returns home unchanged and that time travel is the distance between who you were when you left and who you are upon your return.

 

Yet, this time away returned me to someone I’d lost sight of during these past two years of change. To keep hold of her and not lose her againthat journey now awaits.

 

“A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. We find that after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.”

— John Steinbeck

 

 

Reflections on the Dordogne: Périgueux, October © Julie Christine Johnson 2014
Reflections on the Dordogne: Périgueux © Julie Christine Johnson 2014