The genius loci – when place generates writing ideas

January 24, 2017

E.M. Forster was walking in sunshine in the country outside of Rapello. The distant town was bright against a dark blue sea, and a breeze stirred leaves on the slender trees around him. And then it hit. A story came through in barebone completeness. ‘I would bring some middle-class Britishers to picnic in this remote spot,’ he recalled. ‘I would expose their vulgarity, I would cause them to be terribly frightened they knew not why, and I would make it clear by subsequent event that they encountered and offended the Great God Pan.”

He was twenty-three. His short story, ‘The Story of a Panic’, streamed out as he cloistered himself in his hotel room for two days. The tale of an errant boy brought to wildness by meeting Pan, expressing his love for a waiter, felt so dangerous (revealing repressed gayness) that Forster kept it back from publication for years.

Never before, and only once since, had a story come to him in such a storm of revelation. He called the process the ‘genius loci’, where some interaction with a wild place sweeps the whole skeleton of a story inside you and you’re left to flesh it out. It involved ‘sitting down on a theme as though it is an anthill.’

I’m sure this happens to others and would like to hear of it. It has happened once to me.

It was the summer of 1997. A road through a valley was the entrance wTetonsay to the Grand Tetons National Park: bald eagles stood in the grass along the riverbank and scanned the passing water. The Tetons are part of that race of mountains that master the sky. We hiked forest trails, and plucked wild strawberries dense with taste.

The campsite was tense on our return: rangers were tracking a rogue grizzly bear that had menaced campers. For all that, I felt calm. A stump of a tree flanked our tent. I followed an impulse to stand on it. The time was brief – my partner had wandered off to the bathroom, and it was all over by his return – yet it was also timeless. Light fell around my like snowflakes, while the characters and the fundamental theme of this book rained into my head.

That was the summer of 1998. The theme has kept me at work ever since. You don’t choose to write a story such as this. It chooses you. Light fell around me like snowflakes and the whole novel, and the themes and characters and conflicts of a novel settled into my mind.

The novel’s bare bones were as such: A famed Jewish cellist-cum-composer from Vienna was challenged in his Big Sur home by his erstwhile biographer. She was an Australian music scholar, driven by their joint backstory: her grandfather was the Adjutant at Dachau, and the composer had spoken on his behalf at his war trial. The music of J.S.Bach was central to the story.

The largest surprise? That a young woman would be angered by someone’s defence of her grandfather. It fit with a major theme of my writing; the way the effects of war are passed down between generations.

Still, I wanted nothing to do with this story. The Holocaust was too immense to take on. All I had wanted was walks in the mountain air. This idea would consume my life.

And of course it has. Mountains, the ‘genius loci’, have helped along the way. I have spent months in our home in the French Pyrenees as strands of the novel developed and intertwined. I travelled to Dachau, and sat on the train tracks at Auschwitz for a week’s retreat in the company of Peter Matthiessen, who was researching his own Holocaust novel. I conducted interviews, tracked down archives, and read volumes as though this were a major nonfiction project. The facts of history dictated the book, and took it to Buchenwald, Theresienstadt, Toronto and Auschwitz.

These have been twenty full-on years. It’s set for the world now – editors have Follow the Dog as their January reading. Hopefully 2018 completes the book’s journey from that tree stump in the Grand Tetons and into reader’s imaginations and lives.


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