Inspired by a Documentary, a Novel, a Video and a Newspaper Article:
Writing Metropolis

An Essay by B. A. Shapiro

“Where do you get your ideas?” is probably the most frequent question novelists are asked. The answer is never easy as a story rarely pops up full force—at least for me. The idea for Metropolis germinated for over thirty years and finally came together through the convergence of a novel, a documentary, a video and a newspaper article. Who knew?

My previous three novels were historical art-themed stories told in multiple voices across multiple times, and I wanted to switch it up a bit. My plan was that my next would be a present-day story that takes place in Boston—where I live—rather than Paris or Philadelphia or NYC, like the most recent ones. It wouldn’t be about art, and it would have a single storyline and a single protagonist. Things didn’t exactly work out that way.

Although Metropolis is set in present-day Boston, it’s a compilation of six or ten or twelve different plots—depending on how you count them—has six major viewpoint characters and revolves around a mystery centered on street photography. I blame Vivian Maier, Colum McCann, “The Race of Life” and an article about self-storage in the Boston Globe. Or more correctly, I thank them.

In 2013, I saw the documentary Finding Vivian Maier, about an enigmatic, twentieth-century street photographer whose thousands of photos were never seen by anyone until after her death, and I was captivated by her work. A glimpse of a stranger going about everyday life, revealing the person as well as an insight into the human condition. A streetscape devoid of people telling its own kind of universal human truth. Black-and-white. Intense urban. And I knew I had to write a novel about street photography. But where, who and how to pull it off? I dropped the concept into my ever-thickening “Novel Ideas” file, but I couldn’t get it out of my head.

In 2009, I read the novel Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann and was so impressed with it that I decided I must write a story with a large ensemble cast of characters who, because of a fluke in time and place, are thrown together. They would have nothing in common, and in the ordinary course of life their paths would never have crossed. But now they’ve crossed and chaos ensues. Again, the “Novel Ideas” file, and again I didn’t forget.

Decades before all of this, when I was a graduate student studying sociology, I watched a video called “The Race of Life,” which you can now watch on YouTube. It demonstrates, in no uncertain terms, that the starting line in life isn’t the same for all of us: that your parents’ socioeconomic level can put you at the front or leave you behind. Something Americans are loath to admit. Surprise, surprise, now I needed to write a novel about social class in America. Specifically, the effect your class at birth has on your chances of success, as defined by our present culture. Once again, the “Novel Ideas” file, and once again I didn’t forget.

Although these ideas were all calling to me, none fit into my single storyline/single narrator plan, so I pushed them aside. Until I stumbled on an article in the Boston Globe about a hundred-year-old self-storage facility in Cambridge, Massachusetts. A five-story brick monstrosity resembling a medieval castle—including turrets—sitting across the street from MIT. And inside, door upon door of units filled with a motley crew of people—and an even more motley collection of the possessions they couldn’t part with.

Exit the single story line/single narrator. Enter Metropolis. Six characters who could not be more different from one another, on completely different paths in life, each with their own separate struggles. And yet here they are, their stories intermingling in unexpected ways, wrapped inside a tale of psychological suspense which is wrapped around a mysterious accident—if it was indeed an accident—that pulls them together and tears them apart.

– Zach Davidson, charismatic and good-looking, an ex-drug dealer who owns the building, loses it and tries to get it back.

– Rose Gentilini, the breadwinner of her struggling family, who manages Metropolis and takes bribes from people who live there illegally, while trying to keep her son out of jail.

– Jason Franklin, a really good guy, a lawyer who fell from his high-powered position at a highfalutin firm by doing the wrong thing for the right reason, who’s trying to get back on his feet from an office in a storage unit.

– Serge Laurent, a mentally unstable, homeless street photographer—inspired by Vivian Maier—who lives at Metropolis and wanders around Boston taking pictures, thousands and thousands of pictures, which he shows to no one.

– Liddy Haines, the epitome of wealth, culture and beauty, who trades the penthouse of the most luxurious high-rise in the city for a self-storage unit, where she’ll be safe from her abusive husband.

– And finally Marta Arvelo/Mercedes Bustamante, a lovely young woman from Venezuela working on her doctoral dissertation at a top university in Boston, facing deportation after her visa is suddenly revoked, who hides from ICE in her unit.

Black, white and brown. Christian, Jew and atheist. Gay and straight. Liddy and Marta grew up rich, Zach in upper-middle class suburbia, and Jason in the comfortable middle. Rose was the product of a gritty working class childhood, and Serge was abjectly poor. Some of them have slipped down the ladder and some have climbed it. But in the end, it’s where they began that makes all the difference.

Metropolis is a romp through the archipelago of cultural and economic neighborhoods in present-day Boston. There’s domestic turmoil, career catastrophes, wayward children, mental illness and financial ruin, as well as love and friendship found in the most unexpected places. I had fun writing it and hope readers will have fun reading it—and come away with an appreciation for street photography, the beauty of life’s unexpected juxtapositions and the difficulties our current society creates for those born on the lower economic rungs.