What Inspires a Writer? The Answer May Surprise You

The other day I went to the cemetery at Montparnasse to visit the grave of Jean Seberg.

I am in Paris for two months, working with a friend, photographer Zoe Ali, on a project called A Boy, A Girl & A Gun. The title is inspired by Jean-Luc Godard’s film À bout de soufflé (Breathless). The boy in that film is a young, insolent, and dirtily handsome Jean-Paul Belmondo. Seberg is the girl, Patricia, an American in Paris who is not as naïve as she first seems.

As a writer, books are the first and primary inspiration. I am immersing myself in the ancient world while I am here in France, rereading the Bible, Petronius’s Satyricon, and Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian. The last is one of my favorite works of fiction of all time, an astounding novel that within a few paragraphs convinces you that you are hearing the voices of the ancients. I am examining Yourcenar’s language and sentences, trying to understand how she did it.

So books come first but all the other arts also inspire and challenge a writer. Back home, the Melbourne Film Festival is about to begin. Every year, for three weeks, I put everything else on hold and attend movies all day. It is an opportunity to hear voices from all over the world, to get an understanding of how filmmakers and artists are responding to history, to politics, to war and suffering, to changing social structures, to the always pertinent questions of love, family, work, and friendship. The wonderful thing about a film festival is that it gives you that opportunity to hear the world. Unfortunately, not enough books get translated into English. At the end of the film festival my mind is abuzz, I can’t wait to get writing.

So, alas, this year I am missing the festival; but fortunately I am in a city and a country whose cinema culture has inspired me from when I was a youth. I recall seeing Breathless as a teenager, and the shock of Godard’s experimentation was so powerful that I could hardly get up from my seat at the end. The film introduced the jump cut into cinema, and the jump cut has been an important way for me to think about my own writing.

How do I move a reader through time? How do I make the reading remain exciting? What is superfluous and what is essential in storytelling? I like to think that Barracuda, my latest novel, was written under the sign of the jump cut.

I have seen Breathless over and over again since that first time. It is Godard’s film but not only Godard’s film. I can’t imagine it without that seductive, cheeky charm of Belmondo; it would not be as powerful if it were not for the measured, canny withdrawal that is integral to Seberg’s performance. She imbues Patricia with a complexity that isn’t there in the initial conception.

So that is why I came to visit her grave. I wanted to say thank you. For being Patricia, of course, but for also being a courageous figure in her personal and political life. Seberg was mercilessly harassed by the FBI and the Nixon Administration for her advocacy of the rights of Native Americans and for her support of the Black Panthers. I have no doubt that their hounding led to her so very early death. She was a brave human being, and a braver actor than critics assumed. Thankfully there was one critic, Godard, who saw her talent and thought of her when it came to shooting his first film.

I wanted to place something on Seberg’s grave. I took a pen from my satchel and I dug it into the earth. That was my small thank you to her, for being one of the inspirations on my long road to being a writer.

Congrats to Cristine W., Melody R., Margie H., Sandy H., Marlene V., and 95 other members of the Read It Forward community! Their entries were selected at random to win an Advance Reader’s Copy of Barracuda by Christos Tsiolkas.

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