It was a news report on the radio that first caught the imagination of novelist Nick Dybek.
Dybek was living in Seattle seven or so years ago and happened to catch a BBC report about a memorial in France to honor the soldiers who fought in World War I's Battle of Verdun, the 300-day-long battle in 1916 that left 230,000 French and German soldiers dead. The report mentioned something that Dybek never had heard of before — the Douaumont ossuary, which contains the skeletal remains of some of the slain soldiers.
For years after the battle, people would wander through the battlefield (most of the fighting took place in an area that's only about 8 square miles) and collect those remains as they emerged. "Thousands of bones were left on the battlefield around the city," Dybek said.
And then, Dybek's imagination started asking questions.
"I thought that was really macabre," he said. "What if that was your job? What would that do to you as a person every day?"
And he found himself haunted by "that image of someone trying to pick up these pieces that didn't fit together any more."
Eight or so years later, those questions have resulted in Dybek's second novel, "The Verdun Affair." Dybek, an assistant professor in the School of Writing, Literature and Film in Oregon State University's College of Liberal Arts, will read from the novel Friday night in an event at OSU. (See the information box for details about Friday's reading.)
In an interview this week, the 38-year-old Dybek talked about the book's long gestation, which continued, in an informal way, for months after he heard that initial BBC report. He read a lot about the Battle of Verdun, one of World War I's bloodiest engagements. He learned more about the ossuary. He worked up some initial material to gauge if there was interest in a novel set in the aftermath of the battle. And then, "at the point when someone agreed to publish it," he got serious about the research.
So he traveled to France, and his research there helped frame some of the novel's key points. For example, he learned that it was the Diocese of Verdun that helped to get the ossuary project off the ground in the first place. (In the opening pages of the novel, one of the priests at the diocese is frequently on fundraising trips.)
He also learned that the battlefield had an almost magnetic appeal for people who traveled to the site for years after the battle, hoping to find any kind of clue that would help them fill in the story of a loved one or friend who had gone missing. The priests did what they could, but sometimes had to fall back on the power of spinning a story — something that both parties understood likely wasn't true, but still something to hang onto.
"That," Dybek said, "was one of the entry points for the plot."
Dybek jokingly referred to an old saw from a writer who once noted that there are only two plots in all of fiction: "Someone goes on a journey. Or a stranger comes to town."
By that yardstick, "The Verdun Affair" has both plots. In the book, an American named Tom Combs is working for the Diocese of Verdun — he's that guy Dybek first imagined, the one working to collect bones. The battlefield is visited by Sarah Hagen, another American, who's looking for her missing husband, Lee. Combs, who's watched the priests spin their stories, follows suit and tells Sarah that, yes, he met Lee once.
They meet again at a mental hospital in Italy, where an amnesiac patient may, or may not, be Lee Hagen and where they encounter Paul Weyerhauser, an Austrian journalist searching for an American ambulance driver.
The book begins, though, in 1950s Hollywood, where Tom is working as a screenwriter and has an unexpected reunion with Weyerhauser.
The result is what Dybek calls "a book about memory."
It's also about the stories that we tell ourselves — and that explains to some degree Dybek's decision to set part of the book in Hollywood. In part, it was because Hollywood was about as far away geographically as you could get from the battlefields of Verdun. But there's something essentially new and quintessentially American about Hollywood: "Hollywood at the time had very little history. Even the roads were brand-new. It made for an interesting counterpoint to France."
Also, Hollywood "is like the story that America tells about itself," he said.
In addition to the mystery surrounding Lee Hagen, the novel also features a love story, but Dybek said he wasn't thinking about the book in terms of any specific genre. "I did think of it in terms of tone," he said. "I knew I was writing some pretty dark stuff. ... A love story serves as a counterpoint to that."
"The Verdun Affair" is Dybek's second novel, but he didn't start out to be a writer — the original plan was to be a musician. a guitarist. But then, as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, he took some writing classes and soon reached the inescapable conclusion: "I was just better at this than I was at that other thing." After graduate work at the University of Iowa, he bounced around the country, from the Seattle area to New York City and then to the Twin Cities of Minnesota for a teaching job. When the writing job at OSU opened, he applied, and was happy to make his way back to the Pacific Northwest.
"It was appealing to be back, especially after a winter spent in Minnesota," he said.
Working with graduate students at OSU is inspiring, he said, "seeing how committed they are to making a go of this. ... It gives you strength, I guess."
That strength is helpful to get through those days when the lonely work of writing isn't going as well as it could: "You're in a room alone and some days you think it's good and other days, you think, 'What on Earth am I doing?' ... You've got to like being by yourself a lot."
These days, in addition to raising a 4-year-old daughter, Dybek has started work on another novel. He joked that, having just written a World War I novel, he is "obligated" now to write a World War II novel — and, in fact, the new novel is set against a World War II backdrop. He recently returned from a trip to Europe to do research for the book.
But, other than that, the new project is not very far along. He does hold out at least one hope for it: "I'm really hoping it won't take me seven years."