Most of us have been lucky enough to experience a good vacation. Maybe you've broken away from the doldrums of cubicle life and let loose in a foreign city with spicy food and loud music because you're sure no one will remember your name. Maybe you've abandoned the stagnant sleep of winter and felt your skin come alive again under the hot sun in a beach town a few rungs down the latitudinal ladder. Maybe you've turned off your alarm clock and slept blissfully, fi-na-lly, for twelve hours a night for an entire week. Most vacations are good, but Anthony Doerr's novel All the Light We Cannot See, which recently won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, reminds us that there is always the possibility that a simple getaway could turn into so much more.
Doerr has spoken openly about the fact that his breathtaking, imaginative novel took ten years to complete. But one of the most fascinating aspects about the germination of this novel--the mustard seeds of ideas that eventually became a book that took the literary world by storm--springs from Saint-Malo, a small town on the Brittany coast of northern France. During a book tour for his previous novel, Doerr found himself at a dinner in Saint-Malo with a strong urge to get up and walk around. Doerr already had the delicate threads of a new story floating in his mind--a curiosity about radio communication here, a girl reading a story there--but that night exploring Saint-Malo finally gave him the setting for his latest tale.
Of course, visitors have wandered Saint-Malo's shores in the past, and many have certainly left the area with fond memories and a collection of stunning photographs to share with friends and family back home. But it was Doerr's endless fascination with the world around him, with learning new things, that allowed him to turn a business trip into a novel powerful enough to carry readers away to a world most of us have never seen: the northern coast of France during World War II. Not content just to absorb the beauty around him, Doerr spoke to his editor about the beautiful place, and his editor informed him that the city of Saint-Malo had been almost completely leveled by American bombers in 1944 and then rebuilt after the war. This newfound knowledge helped Doerr flesh out what would become the two main characters in his novel: Marie, a blind French girl, and Werner, a young German with a talent for mechanics, who Doerr would eventually bring together in the seaside village as it collapsed around them.
While most of us accept that a vacation should be enjoyable, at its best, a vacation can inspire us, awaken our senses and our imaginations, and transform the way we see the world. Few of us will win the Pulitzer Prize, but all of us should take a lesson from Doerr to be open to the endless possibilities around us. Doerr talks about the sense of wonder he feels for the world and his yearning to always discover more, a wonder and yearning he tries to impart to his characters. Why not rent a car in France and see where your reawakened sense of adventure takes you? Set out from Saint-Malo, explore beyond the limits of public transportation and guided tours, and seek out the region's undiscovered nooks and crannies on a Brittany road trip with the convenience of your own personal vehicle. Be sure to carry a pen and paper with you; in Saint-Malo, you never know when inspiration might strike!