An imaginary city, a town made of mist

Anthony Doerr, author of All the Light We Cannot See, writes:

I first saw the majestic seaside city of Saint-Malo after a full day of travel while on a French book tour. We arrived after dark and went straight to a crowded dinner on small chairs in a small room. Much eating and talking and smoking ensued, followed by more eating and talking and smoking. By the end of the meal I was desperate to get up and move. So while everyone else trudged back to the hotel, I went in the opposite direction, and climbed a long staircase, and found myself—utterly by chance—atop the massive stone ramparts that encircle the whole city.

Sixty feet below, a beach glimmered in moonlight; the lights of a couple of ships bobbed in distant swells. To my right, hundreds of tall windows glowed yellow. I breathed the ocean, I peered into the third floor windows of flats–I remember seeing a pair of women at a little round table drinking wine and laughing—and somehow the combined effects of jet lag, fatigue, and three glasses of Muscadet all made me wonder if I might be dreaming. I felt as though I was walking through an imaginary city, a place that was part-fairy tale fortress, part-M.C. Escher drawing, part mist and ocean wind and lamplight. A place surrounded by nature and yet bulwarked against it.

The Grand Plage at St Malo

The next day I spent twelve hours walking the entire city, around it, through it, even under it. Gulls soared past my head like ghosts; moss glowed in cracks between the cobbles. It all seemed so medieval and abiding and indelible. But when, like a foolish American, I mentioned this to my French editor, he informed me that the entire city had been leveled by American artillery at the end of the World War II, and had to be painstakingly rebuilt, block by granite block.

For a year I had been searching for a setting for a new book I’d been working on, a story in which a boy trapped in a cellar listens to a girl read a story over the radio. I imagined the boy was in some kind of trouble, and I had conceived of the girl as blind, but for months I hadn’t been able to settle on a location or the circumstances of the boy’s entrapment. I didn’t even know when my story would be set.

But as I walked the streets of Saint-Malo, and wondered how such a violent event could be so thoroughly erased by reconstruction, I knew I had found the book’s setting. Here were all these old granite mansions with impregnable cellars, built by corsairs to hold their loot, scoured by the winds of the sea; here the Germans managed to hole up for more than two months after the 1944 invasion of Normandy, supported by an underground hospital, water tanks, phone lines to Berlin, and it took a week of steady bombardment to root them out. What, I wondered, did it feel like to live through that siege? And would it be possible to identify, not only with the occupied, but with the occupiers?

Over the eight years since that first visit, though I traveled back to Saint-Malo two subsequent times for research, the place still feels more like a dream to me than a real city, a town made of moonlight and lichen, of mist and legend.


Boise, Idaho, 2014


Hailed as ‘hauntingly beautiful’ by The New York TimesAll the Light We Cannot See is published today. Anthony Doerr reveals more about how he came to write the novel in this video.


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