A few summers ago, my wife and kids took a vacation to a fishing camp in middle-of-nowhere Canada, which to me is the opposite of fun. I declined. Instead I went by myself in Paris, where I intended to do some touristing, eat good rich food and spend mornings writing my fourth novel, which I was 100 pages into.
But as soon as I arrived to a city that was still reeling from a series of brutal terrorist attacks, a different book intruded on my consciousness. So I put aside that other 100 pages of the work in progress, and started afresh on a new page 1, with a laptop in a café in St-Germain-des-Prés every morning before setting out for an afternoon of walking, spending the whole day immersed in these imaginary characters, in this new story, trudging mile after mile, stopping on street corners to scribble notes.
In the middle of the week, I went to Shakespeare & Co. to have a drink with the proprietor Sylvia Whitman, and I ended up staying for five hours, talking to regulars who came and went, and Sylvia’s husband and son and shop dog, seeing this whole expat life in this remarkable bookstore that hosted events in the place facing Notre Dame, and the stream of visiting authors and the tumbleweed kids reshelving books, the entire terrific operation guided by this wonderful principle: be open to new people, be welcoming to strangers. It seems so obvious as a decent way to go about life. But it’s not usually a business plan. It’s a deliberate, purposeful choice of how to exist in the world.
Perhaps I was a little bit drunk, but I was struck by the importance of deliberateness, about everything in life. When I awoke in the morning, I felt more even more convinced of this, plus with the immense satisfaction that always comes from realizing that last night was not, after all, a mistake.
So I spent the rest of that week giving tremendous—nearly nonstop—thought to what my next book should be, which characters, what type of plot, themes, twists. What could the world possibly want from me that I can deliver? What would be the best sort of book for me to write at this stage of my career, at this moment in history? I’m a novelist, after all; anything is possible. I’m constrained by nothing except the limits of my imagination, and my willingness to challenge myself.
I came to a lot of conclusions.
Most important, I decided that my ideal next book would be one closely related to my 2012 debut, The Expats, but not a sequel. That it should be tied to real-world events, specifically to terrorism in Paris, but that it should also challenge our assumptions about terror’s goals, about its perpetrators. That the book should utilize my own personal up-close and traumatic experience of downtown New York on 9/11, but without being exploitative, without participating in the commodification of grief.
What else? That the central tensions should fuse personal, intimate conflict—within marriages, within friendships—with mortal jeopardy; that this combination of mundane life and extraordinary circumstances was the best aspect of The Expats, and is in fact what I love about thrillers in general. That the protagonist of that book is my most fully realized character, and that I wanted to further develop this person, this conflicted mother with her sputtering career, middle-age on the cusp of irrelevance. That I wanted these characters to confront their own mistakes, their own failings as humans, alongside the villains, the terrorists. Alongside me, too.
All this is an awful lot to figure out in just a few days. This can be a year’s worth of work, even a decade’s, a lifetime’s. I think this work is the hardest part of being a novelist: not the writing itself, but figuring out what to write. The typing of 100,000 words is the easy part.
And the most important part of this work didn’t happen at a desk, trying to bang out today’s arbitrary quota of words. This happened because I did this other mundane thing that writers do, that readers do: I whiled away an evening at an independent bookstore. In one of the great culinary capitals in the history of civilization, I dined on potato chips with plonk blanc. I talked to the owner, I talked to the staff, I talked to customers, all of us surrounded by shelves and stacks and leaning piles of books, by current bestsellers and Lost Generation classics, in this famous shop in a city where writers have been coming for hundreds of years to become who they want to be.
I didn’t even purchase anything that night. A bookstore is a place you can go even if you don’t want to buy a new book, a place to feel a kinship with other writers, with readers, to feel yourself—myself—in the context of all the other literature that’s out there in the world. A place where you can figure this out, or at least try: Where do I fit in?
Author photo by Sam McIntosh