Monday, June 10, 2013

World-building in Collaborators – “In A City Far, Far Away . . .”

Every story has a beginning, not just in the text itself but in the mind of the writer. Sometimes we begin with an image or a phrase that’s so evocative, so mysterious and compelling we just have to find out what it means. At other times, a character will pop up and demand that her story be told. Or we’ll look at something quite ordinary and wonder, “What if?” What if this were different or that happened at another time? What if the rules of physics worked in ways at odds with accepted reality? What if magic – or vampires, or angels, or superheroes --  shaped the world?

In this case, my story began with a place. A city. Not any city, one specific city. My family and I had an opportunity to live in France for about nine months.

We arrived in Lyon in January 1991, shortly after the beginning of the first Gulf War, and none of us knew quite what to expect. We were nervous, being Americans abroad at such a tense time. It was (by California standards) bitterly cold, the streets covered with ice and slush. I had a little high school French, very rusty, and I’d injured my back before we left, but I went out every day, getting the kids enrolled in school, finding out where to buy bread (the corner boulangerie, of course) and when Rhône Accueil, a sort of international welcome gathering, met. We had some pretty dreadful days when everyone was sick and not adapted to the cold or to the French way of doing things. But with patience and open minds, we settled in. My older daughter attended a private bilingual school, where she was something of an exotic celebrity, coming from California, and the younger one soon made herself at home at the école maternelle (and came home chattering in French). I wrote every day, working on the revision of Northlight.

The snow melted, the sun warmed earth and air, the little garden of our house blossomed with spring flowers, and the city, which had seemed cold and distant, opened its arms to us. I suspect the hospitality had always been there, but it took us a while to come to a place of mutual appreciation. I also suspect that the improvement in my French, coupled with my willingness to “adapt myself” to French customs, opened many doors for me. The Lyonnais were intensely proud of their city and eager to tell me all about it.

And what a city it was! Situated at the confluence of the Rhône and Saône Rivers, Lyon was once called Lugdunum, the capital of Gaul. Later it became a hub of the medieval silk trade, a center of culture and commerce, and finally the heart of the French Resistance to the Nazi Occupation.

Our house stood on the western hill, where the Romans built their fort overlooking the peninsula where the two rivers flowed together. Everywhere in our neighborhood, I’d come across Roman ruins – from the amphitheatre still in use for summer concerts to bits of aqueduct and baths. Below us lay the Vieux Quartier, where people lived and worked in buildings that dated from the Renaissance. The cathedral, St.-Jean, was begun in the 1080s, took 300 years to complete, and is still in active use. In its courtyard, I found fragments of a 4th Century Christian church, and believe that the site was used for a much older pagan temple. Although I’m not Catholic, I attended Mass from time to time (in French, of course) to experience the millennium-long continuity of faith practice. As an American, I had little experience with buildings or artifacts older than a few centuries, and very few of those were still being used as they had been originally intended. And, of course, St.-Jean was the place to be seen, to meet people, and to make connections.

As I explored the city, either alone, with Anglophone friends from Rhône Accueil, or with my family, I was repeatedly struck by how history permeated every aspect. Some buildings showed damage from cannon balls during the French Revolution. Plaques marked places where citizens were executed by the Nazis or Jewish families were deported. Because the buildings in the older areas form solid blocks, passageways called “traboules” permit public access and many of them date back to the Renaissance, when they allowed silk merchants to transport their goods without getting wet on rainy days. “We French seek to preserve our patrimony,” a Frenchman said to me, “but you Americans seek to create yours.”

After visiting the tiny Musée de la Résistance, I became interested in how many varied ways the French responded to the German occupation. Some protested from the very beginning for religious or ethical reasons, but others went along, whether from fear or apathy or entrenched anti-Semitism, or simply because the war did not affect them personally. Yet others sought to exploit the situation for personal power or financial gain. Some became active only when their lives were affected.

I was so intrigued by the complexity and range of responses, the idea of stayed in my mind even when I returned home. When my older daughter and I returned to Lyon in 1994, the old Musée de la Résistance had been replaced by a modern museum in the building that had once been used by the Gestapo. The new exhibits gave me even more information. My daughter and I visited the village of Le-Chambon-sur-Lignon, featured in the documentary film, Weapons of the Spirit. The Protestants of this village, no strangers to persecution themselves, saved thousands of Jewish children by smuggling them into Switzerland and, when asked why they risked their own lives, replied simply that it was the right thing to do.

I knew then that I had to tell this story. Because I’m not a writer of history or historical fiction, but of science fiction and fantasy, I would tell it in the genre I know. I would set my tale on an alien planet, in an alien city . . . but one that I love even as I had come to love Lyon.

Oh, and should this pique your interest, you can find the book at Amazon and Goodreads and in trade papberback at other online booksellers.

No comments:

Post a Comment