Monthly Archives: July 2014

Saint Malo: Corsair City on France’s Emerald Coast

30 July 2014

Less than an hour west of Normandy’s famed and much-visited Mont St. Michel lies the Breton port of Saint Malo, long a haunt of corsairs and trans-Atlantic fishermen. In its seafaring heyday, St. Malo was a walled fortress island, connected to the mainland only by a narrow causeway. Today its harbor has been reconfigured to serve yachts and pleasure ferries that traverse the English Channel or merely cruise along the capes and headlands of the Emerald Coast.

The delicate bend of St. Malo's sea wall protects swimmers from the rougher waters of the open Atlantic.

The delicate bend of St. Malo’s sea wall protects swimmers from the rougher waters of the open Atlantic.

While the Cathedral of St. Vincent anchors the center of the city and the famous Breton crêperies line the inner wall of St. Malo’s ramparts, its face is truly turned more towards the wide world of the sea than to its own hinterland. From the Aquarium Intra-Muros (inside-the-walls) to the seafaring exhibits in the Musée de la Ville, from the cross-channel ferry port to the fine sand beaches and fortress-islands just outside the city ramparts, St. Malo is a seafarer’s paradise.

This is a city whose importance is far bigger than the compact cobbled streets of its walled domain. Evidence of its civic pride can be seen in the splendidly carved shop signs throughout the commercial area, in the varied and accomplished street performers who gather inside the Porte St. Vincent and on every open corner, in the massed grey-stone facades and mansard roofs of its government buildings.

St. Malo's merchants pride themselves on elaborate shop signs, often embellished with floral arrangements.

St. Malo’s merchants pride themselves on elaborate shop signs, often embellished with floral arrangements.

The old corsair history is somewhat downplayed—though pirate motifs abound in the shops—but all Malouins point with pride to their connection with Jacques Cartier, European “discoverer” of the mighty St. Lawrence River in French Quebec. Cartier was born in St. Malo and sailed from there in 1534 to the Gaspé Peninsula in modern-day Quebec. He returned with two Iroquois warriors and news of a vast new fishing grounds waiting to be exploited.

Even today, standing on the ramparts looking out to sea, the eye is drawn past the beaches, the islands, the lines of sailboards silhouetted in the evening sun. To the north lie les Iles Anglo-Normandes, known in the English-speaking world as the Channel Islands. Beyond them is the Channel itself (or, as the French call it, Le Manche) and the wide open sea of the North Atlantic.

High-speed ferries and catamarans sail daily from St. Malo to Jersey and Guernsey (and beyond, to the English coast). Other boats slip along the Emerald Coast to Dinard, Cap Frehel and inland, up the Rance Estuary, to the medieval village of Dinan. Book in advance with Emeraude Lines or Condor, both of whom offer special family and day-return rates.

But even confirmed landlubbers will find plenty of diversions.

Just wandering the streets is a treat. Specialty shops abound, selling perfumes, pastries, and pirate-effigies. Besides the ubiquitous crêperies, there are restaurants featuring Turkish, Italian, and Javanese cuisine. Haute couture jostles with pavement vendors and, in season, sunburned bathers seeking a shady street side perch to sip their coffee or wine. It is not so much that there are specific sites to see in St. Malo, but rather an ambiance, a salty taste to the air, a soft subliminal lapping of waves that enlivens the spirit.

This street performer in St. Malo's main square poses quite convincingly as a marble statue and expects suitable compensation in return.

This street performer in St. Malo’s main square poses quite convincingly as a marble statue and expects suitable compensation in return.

By all means, visit the museums for historic details and insight into the mindset of the Malouins. But when the cobbles grow bumpy under your feet, climb the stairs to the city ramparts—and beyond to the beach at Sillon Isthmus and its sister, Plage de Bon Secours, where old men play boules in the shade of trees and bathing beauties nestle in sun-drenched rock clefts.

These extra-muros sections of St. Malo change each day, in accordance with the tides. The St. Malo basin has some of the highest tides in the world—upwards of 40 feet—and the long empty sand beaches disappear rapidly beneath incoming waves.

At low tide, a causeway leads out from Bon Secours beach, to Ile du Grand Be and the tomb of the illustrious 18th century French writer, Chateaubriand. Around the point, a smaller island houses a crumbling fortress and more piles of sea-girt, rust-colored rocks. Here is Grande Plage, which stretches on for miles. These are great play areas for kids, but beware the incoming tides! Try building a sandcastle and watch it disappear with the setting sun.

Evan and Alex Gabriel witness the final moments of their sand castle.

Evan and Alex Gabriel witness the final moments of their sand castle, as the incoming Atlantic tide encroaches.

Then climb back up the cobbled boat ramp into the dusk-softened streets and the strollers delaying their evening meal. It’s all of a piece—the sea, the stones, the shoulder-to-shoulder building facades. Let the days stretch out ahead—more side street exploring? A revisit to that special shop? Maybe it’s time to rent that para-sail or hope for luck at Le Casino.

Rare Unpublished Interview

9 July 2014

Webmaster Stephen Kral (if you like elements of this site, he’s the one to thank) interviewed me last year, for possible publication in a West Coast journal. That never happened, so I figured I’d share it here:

SK: What books were in your home growing up? What stories first captured your imagination?

DG: Our home was stuffed with thousands and thousands of books from both my parents’ personal libraries. We siblings augmented those with our own growing collections built around trips to the Salvation Army store on Nicollet Island’s skid row out in the middle of the Mississippi, where books cost a nickel and once a year Grandmom would roll into town and take all us kids to buy as many as we could carry.

I can never remember a time when I didn’t love stories. The first to really capture me were Winnie the Pooh stories, which my mother read to me when we lived in London. When I was 10 or 11, my dad shifted all his childhood books into our house and I immediately dug in. Cursed Be the Treasure . . . The Black Liner . . . Treasure Island . . . Bomba the Jungle Boy at the Moving Mountain . . . names I’ve never forgotten.

In another way, the first stories to grab me were the ones told by my parents and grandparents about their adventures around the world. I knew that if I wanted to sit at the table and enter the conversation I’d need to head off and have some adventures myself!

SK: What kind of stories are you interested in writing today?

DG: Ones that won’t let the reader go. Ones whose influence works around in the back of your mind and reappears at unexpected moments. I tend to find my way into the stories by selecting the terrain (or setting) on which I’d like to work. Then I start mulling over the cultural specifics of the place, or which characters might be involved. Plus I’m always looking for converging themes that can be developed. I want to reshape my readers’ expectations and understandings of life.

SK: You have described yourself as “a lifelong vagabond traveler,” as someone interested in life’s side turns and its trails into the unknown. In what ways do you think this vagabond sensibility influences your writing?

DG: The world is a large and wondrous place. As Kipling said, “The wildest dreams of Kew are the facts of Kathmandu.” I’m interested in creating and exploring characters who are willing to step out towards the edge of the map and keep going. I also view my passage through life as a series of twists and turns, following unexpected bends in the road.

I think the vagabonding approach has also helped me to hold the world’s demands at arm’s length. I’m a deeply Bible-believing Christian, and one of the messages of that book is that we are but wayfaring strangers, traveling through this world but never at home in it. Our true home awaits elsewhere. I’ve been on the road (spiritually, as well as physically) my entire life. Any demands made by a particular culture, or state apparatus, or whatever, are mere ephemera compared to eternity.

SK: Herman Melville could also be described as a vagabond of a kind and he considered the education he received as a young man on a whaling ship to be more valuable than what he might have learned at a Yale or a Harvard. As someone who has also worked on the deck of a ship, do you share Melville’s sentiment?

DG: I was very successful in academic settings, so I wouldn’t want to act as if they have no value. But I was always restless sitting in the classroom. Real life seemed to be going on outside the windows, while we were being presented sanitized and compartmentalized versions of the same thing. Truth be told, I’m not all that fond of working as a deck hand (Worst job ever? Trimming grain . . . especially for someone with severe hay fever), but the characters we encountered, the ports we explored, and the endless series of mad-panic crises we faced gave me more depth of insight into the thrust and meaning of life than anything a professor could choose to impart.

SK: To what extent is your writing autobiographical?

DG: Much of it is heavily autobiographical. I realized early on that what drove me to write was the same impetus as Jack Kerouac had—to mythologize my life. Of course, I’ve written pieces that are a long way from reality, but most of the time I’m drawing heavily on personal experience.

SK: When and where do you write? What is your writing routine?

DG: I do best in the mornings, especially when working on first drafts. Back in the day, aside from my writing partner (the late, great August Wilson), I seemed to be almost the only writer around who worked in restaurants and cafes, but with the rise of coffee shops and laptops, that’s become a commonplace. For me, the public settings provided a “white noise” background that kept me energized, but nowadays there’s no bustle, just a lot of silent people tap-tapping away. As a result, I’m now most likely to work in my tiny study at home.

Revising often goes well at night, when I can stretch out in a comfy chair and let another side of my personality take over, so that I feel as if I’m revising somebody else’s work. I’m still such a cut-and-paste guy that I’ll often chop out bits and pieces of the story I’m working on and slide them around on a table to see how different sections might work in alternate spots.

SK: As someone who has worked many odd jobs throughout his life, would you consider the work of a writer as much different than that of other lines of work?

DG: As I tell my son Evan, who has a burgeoning writing career, every job provides “material.” As a writer, you’re not just doing the job, you’re also observing who else does the job, and why they stick it out, and what specific techniques or interaction patterns are involved. You may end up finding just the slightest sliver of useful material from a specific job, but anything that gets you out of your ivory tower and into the big wide world is valuable. I wrote an entire book (Tales From the Tinker’s Dam) built around the misadventures of running a country pub in Wales.

SK: I understand you regularly take part in an annual youth writing workshop, how did you first get involved with these workshops?

DG: I joined the COMPAS Writers & Artists in the Schools Roster in 1986. This made me a Teaching Artist, who would travel throughout the state doing short term residencies in schools and helping kids discover the joy of writing stories. (A few years later, I took over the administration of that program and have continued to this day.) In 1990, another group wanted to start an annual Young Authors Conference, for kids in grades 4-8 who were already excited about writing. I helped them plan the event and participated as one of the teachers. I’ve been at that Conference every year since—and will be back at it again next spring.

SK: What advice would you give to a young writer?

DG: Stay nimble—everything will change. Stay committed—everybody will offer conflicting diversions. Dig deep enough within yourself to find pain or confusion that can be spilled onto the page. Lower your ego; raise your observation skills; ignore trends. Most of all, learn the joy of revision. You’ll be doing it forever.

SK: Are you working on anything currently?

DG: I’ve recently wrapped up the latest version of a short story collection that I’ve been reworking for years, called Wrestling with Angels. Trying to find a publisher for that and a coming-of-age novel called Paradiso.

I’m also working on some travel articles from recent trips, but the market for those has changed dramatically. I may transform some of them into a book-length manuscript I keep fiddling with. Hard to tell what shape that will end up taking, but that’s part of the joy of the process.