BEHIND THE BOOK
Back in 2009, while listening to “Newshour” on the BBC, I heard a description of a memorial service marking the anniversary of WWI’s Battle of Verdun, at a place called the Douaumont Ossuary. I still remember my surprise at a single detail the reporter slipped into the story in his brisk British clip: that the bones in the Douaumont Ossuary — and there are thousands of them — were collected from the battlefield over a period of years by just a few people. Immediately, I thought: What if that was your job, what would that work do to you?
Though I was in the middle of writing my first novel at the time, the macabre image of the ossuary stuck with me, as well as the unique scenes of physical and psychic destruction and reconstruction it conjured. I began to imagine a character — Tom — an American involved in the effort to build the ossuary, comfort the mourners, and gather bones and detritus from the field. After visiting Verdun in the summer of 2011 — walking the furrowed battlefields, touring the old forts, and visiting its memorials and cemeteries — I was able to begin the novel Tom would narrate, though I had no idea where his story would take me.
As it turned out, it took me to Bologna, to battlefields in northern Italy and Slovenia, and, finally, to Paris. Most of my research, however, was conducted in far less romantic settings — the reading rooms of libraries and the stacks of used bookstores. I spent countless hours leafing through the letters and journals of American ambulance drivers and Hungarian hussars, along with firsthand descriptions of French war memorials and Italian mental hospitals. Such accounts were critical to understanding Tom’s voice and experience, and to conceiving the many characters he would meet along the way.