Personal and Otherwise — March 6, 2013, 9:00 am

On the Origins of Stories

“I could trace the origin of this story for pages, back and back and back.”

A woman writes to me about the origin of my story “Deeper Winter.” Where did it come from? she asks. I begin my answer with the following:

We were walking alone in the Tarentaise Valley beneath a full moon. Everything was cast in silver-blue light – the narrow path, the village we’d left behind, its seventeenth-century stone churches, the mountains rising some eleven thousand feet above the sea. We were exhilarated to feel so small. We watched the creeping lights of the distant snow cats. On a moonless night we might have mistaken them for airplanes. What would it be like to do that job? I asked. To be alone up there. I want to write that story. An immigrant. Someone from Morocco. Or Senegal. Yes, she said. To go from one landscape to its opposite. It must be something like driving a boat, I said. Going out every night. Sailing home in the early morning. Right, she said. Imagine his wife preparing a Thermos full of coffee. Wrapping sandwiches in paper. Waiting for him to return — sailor out to sea, wife pacing her widow’s walk. She took my arm and held herself close, and we went home together in the cold to our hotel, where the next day I woke early and began to write.

It is a good story. The kind an author might tell at the end of a reading. It’s neat and cinematic and there’s some truth to it too, but it leaves certain questions unanswered. Why am I interested in this image to begin with? And why would I want to put an immigrant in the cab? And why would I see some connection between those mountains and the ocean? And how does Morocco or Senegal become Mexico, which, eventually, it does? So I add this:

In Los Angeles, I had a friend from Ecuador who lived with his two sisters in a studio apartment. He was a janitor at a middle school, paid under the table. He’d come to California on foot, in the backs of pickup trucks, on trains. He told me harrowing stories about passing through Colombia. He’d crossed eight borders before he got to Los Angeles. When I met him he was in his early twenties, but he was just sixteen or maybe seventeen when he’d left Ecuador. We’d go to a bar on Fairfax not far from where he worked. There was something desperate about him. He’d call me high at three or four in the morning to talk. Alejandro, he’d say, I don’t know what I’m doing, man. Sometimes I just wouldn’t have the patience, and I’d tell him I had to sleep, and then the next day I’d feel ashamed of myself. I remember a time we were out drinking and I became afraid he might kill me. I don’t remember what happened exactly, just a look on his face. Fierce hatred. Other times at the bar he seemed to be on the verge of crying. He was volatile. Moody. All those remnants of an existence I couldn’t know. Slowly he faded from my life. I didn’t have the generosity then for that kind of friendship.

This is also a good answer. I did know that Ecuadoran man, and I did think about him as I wrote. But it, too, feels incomplete. I keep writing:

Over the course of many years in Idaho, I worked as a cook and a gardener. I built decks and installed insulation and sprinkler systems. I took countless walks on clear winter nights in the Wood River Valley. A thousand times, I watched snow cats moving across the slopes. I watched storms float in and out, sat at the bar at Grumpy’s watching the cooks turn burgers, listened to hundreds of conversations about the rise and fall and rise and fall of the construction industry, about the rents, the lack of affordable housing, the town losing its soul. I watched the bartenders, the ski instructors, the builders, the waiters, the teachers, the shop owners, all move south down the valley where rents were cheaper. Without all of this experience I would never have written “Deeper Winter.”

And that is all part of it, I realize, but there is also this:

I know a man who works as a gardener, who was robbed by the coyotes he paid to take him across the border the first time he came to the United States. Those same coyotes beat him and threatened to kill his wife, who he has not seen for three years. When the INS found him unconscious in the desert they took him into custody. They told him if he testified against the coyotes they might give him a green card. He agreed and they released him and said they’d be in touch. A few months later he was arrested and deported. No one believed his story. Six months later he came back over the border, this time on his own. Slowly he made his way north to Idaho. Now he’s careful when he drives up and down the valley – always going just a bit faster than the speed limit so as not to appear suspicious. He laughs when he tells me these stories, rocking from his heels to his toes and back.

I want to tell her more, to go on following the thread, but there’s no end to it. And it seems the only answer I can offer is not an answer, but a litany of other stories. The truth is that I’m thrilled by the mystery of the whole endeavor: the origin of fiction, the act of writing, the alchemy of invention and experience. I feel sometimes that a single story encompasses my entire life, and that strikes me as wondrous. I want to write and write and write. I could trace the origin of this story for pages, back and back and back. I want to write to her about walking with my mother in Mexico City, about my father teaching me to love the ocean in Santa Monica. I want to write about teachers, about books I’ve read and that were read to me, about films I’ve seen, whose images I can’t shake. I want to write about having no siblings, about living outside my native country for a quarter of my life. I want to write about loneliness and isolation, about why some injustices make me furious, and others fail to move me. I want to write about the way this story was preceded and informed by others: a man with a toboggan in a Midwestern park, a woman reeling from her parents’ death in London, a man in Los Angeles failing to be brave, kids selling magazine subscriptions in Idaho, a man cleaning toilets in an airport, A Marker to Measure Drift — my novel about a Liberian woman living illegally on a Cycladic island — “Deeper Winter’s” closest cousin. I want to write about working in restaurants and the things people did in those kitchens. About delivering pizza in Los Angeles. About working as a dishwasher. About working as a bartender at a hotel. About the employee entrance there and the men with whom I ate dinner in the cafeteria. About the guys working room service. The guys parking cars. It spirals and spirals and spirals.

I tell her, I could go on forever.

Single Page
is the author of two novels: You Deserve Nothing, which was published in 2011 by Europa Editions, and A Marker to Measure Drift, forthcoming from Knopf. His website is

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From the March 2013 issue

Deeper Winter

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Toward the end of the Obama presidency, the work of James Baldwin began to enjoy a renaissance that was both much overdue and comfortless. Baldwin stands as one of the greatest American writers of the twentieth century, and any celebration of his work is more than welcome. But it was less a reveling than a panic. The eight years of the first black president were giving way to some of the most blatant and vitriolic displays of racism in decades, while the shooting deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and others too numerous to list sparked a movement in defense of black lives. In Baldwin, people found a voice from the past so relevant that he seemed prophetic.

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Around three in the morning on a cold December Sunday, brothers José and Romel Sucuzhañay began to walk home from a bar in Bushwick, Brooklyn. It was a cloudy night, only a few degrees above freezing, and the houses and stores lining their route wore impassive, nighttime guises—shades drawn, metal grates locked down. Romel had only recently arrived from Ecuador. José, a thirty-­one-year-old father of two, ran a successful real estate agency in the neighborhood. The two had spent the evening eating and drinking at a quinceañera at St. Brigid Church, and afterward, they stopped at a local bar called Christopher’s Palace. They were feeling the alcohol as they headed back to José’s apartment. When they realized that José had left his coat behind in the bar, Romel took off his jacket and draped it around his younger brother’s shoulders. They continued to walk up Bushwick Avenue, swaying a bit, arms around each other for warmth and ballast.

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After eighteen-year-old Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, Bergis Jules found himself worrying not only over the horrors of the present, but also over how little of the present was likely to be preserved for the future. The best reporting on the aftermath in Ferguson was being produced by activists on Twitter, a notoriously ephemeral medium. Jules, then an archivist at the University of California, Riverside, had the impulse to start saving tweets, but wasn’t sure how. “That whole weekend, watching things unfold, I thought, ‘This is a really amazing historical moment; we should think about capturing it,’ but I was just talking to myself,” he says. The following week, attending a Society of American Archivists conference in Washington, D.C., he voiced his fears en route to drinks at the hotel bar. He caught the ear of Ed Summers, a developer who just so happened to be the author of a Twitter archiving tool—and who promptly programmed it to va­cuum up #Ferguson tweets. Within two weeks, he had amassed more than 13 million.

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Illustration by Stan Fellows

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