Back in the fall of 2004, I was in the middle of writing a fictional history of the life of Benedict Arnold. Saying that now feels like I'm warming up to tell a joke, but it was a task I had undertaken without irony. I had been stuck for several weeks (likely on the part about making it interesting) when I was asked to help install a sculpture in Amsterdam. I accepted, padding out my return ticket by a month with the hope that, by sequestering myself in a foreign country, I would break through my writer's block.
The sculpture was a giant human wrecking ball— participants climbed into a steel-framed ball, were pulled twenty-five feet into the air, and sent swinging through whatever obstacles we happen to put in their way. The project was great, but spending two sleepless weeks with twenty New Yorkers who argued incessantly over every little detail left me haggard. When it was finally over, I needed to put some distance between myself and Amsterdam. So I hopped on the first train that pulled into Sloterdijk station. It took me to Paris.
Not having a plan (or hotel reservations), and laden with tools and camping gear, I checked my bags so that I could hunt down some dinner and a hotel. Exhausted, I stumbled downstairs to the lockers at Gare de Nord, paying no attention to the sign on the side of the x-ray machine I had to feed my baggage through. The sign was in French, a language I command well enough to make sure my meat du jour is chicken, rather than snail. The sign undoubtedly stated that any computer run through this machine would be so fully erased that even the CIA couldn't recover the data, though I wouldn't suspect as much until forty-eight hours later, when I was staring at the blinking cursor on my otherwise blank computer screen.
So I was stuck in France for the better part of a month, anxious to write but with nothing to work on. I frittered around the country, a listless and completely accidental tourist. I probably shouldn't complain, but I really didn't have the money to enjoy myself, and frankly that sort of trip is always better done with some amount of company. After a few days, I began to stave off the loneliness by inventing stories about a mister Grey Stark, the old American secret agent with a new mission. His adventures brought him to all the same places I happen to go, and involved everyone I saw. He was having a better time than I was—or at least a more exciting one—and I lived vicariously through him.
When I finally returned to the states, I was again faced with Mr. Benedict Arnold, whom I had somehow decided could be cast as someone more interesting than he was. I found myself day-dreaming about setting that book aside and instead writing one about imaginary companion Mr. Stark. It only took a few days for me to succumb to the notion. I told myself that I could pump such a novel out in a month. After all, this was dime-store stuff, fun to read and easy to write. And while the former may be true, I was overly optimistic about how long it would take to write. By about five years.
Brett James, January 2010
The human wrecking ball on perhaps the only sunny day of the 2004 Robodock Festival.
In real life, Paris is far more placid than in my (or anyone's) thriller.
The Notre Dame de Marseille sits high over the city.
The ruined forts on Frioul seems to span recorded history.
The author in Geneva, at what he thinks is the end of a long journey (but what is really the start of a much, much longer one.)
copyright 2010 Brett James