Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their process for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Brett Biebel writes about 48 Blitz from Split/Lip Press.
When I was a kid, my dad would throw me the atlas as we started out on our annual family vacation, and there’d be a couple pages marked, but I don’t think I was actually navigating. Sure, he’d sometimes ask about mile markers or the next rest area, but I always got the feeling he already knew the answer. That what I was doing was merely following along. I did like to think about town names. Landmarks. Monuments. I know I liked looking at the map more than I liked looking out the window, and maybe that was because imagining what was happening in all those towns and on all those roads was more compelling than actually seeing it.
As I got older and took road trips of my own, I kept the atlas habit. I still do, even though, of course, there are probably more efficient ways of getting directions. In particular, I remember one trip out to Denver. It was me and two friends, and we drove from the southeastern corner of Minnesota all the way across the Great Plains and to the mountains, and the most memorable part of the trip was Nebraska. People think I’m crazy when I say that, but it’s how I felt. How I still feel. On the way back we drove through the middle of the night, and I can picture the moths swarming in the headlights, the way the humidity was too strong for the car’s A/C. I think 48 Blitz was born then, even if it took another decade or so for it to make its way out into the world.
I had that trip in mind as I started on the collection. I kept thinking about maps. About crafting order onto sprawl, trying to capture that sense of possibility. And, as I wrote the stories in this collection, the two constant references I had were an up-to-date road atlas (opened to Nebraska) and Google Maps.
The book’s 48 stories all take place in the Cornhusker State, most of them along I-80, and, even though I’ve never lived in Nebraska (though I do visit often), I think they’re all trying to capture something I feel more deeply every single day. Geography is destiny. It is culture. It is speech. It is ideas. It determines schooling and sports allegiance and healthcare and the statistical significance of your one, single vote. It tells us who we are, and this is why one of the first things we say when we meet someone new is: So, where is it that you’re from?
The characters in 48 Blitz are from Nebraska, but most of them are from nonspecific Nebraska, from Cozad or Ogallala or Kearney. They’d probably answer that “where are you from” question with something like “oh, you know, little town a couple hours west of Lincoln [or maybe Omaha],” and that’s why I kept checking maps as I was writing. Searching for drive times. How long would it take to get from Lincoln to North Platte? Sidney to Alliance? What would you pass along the way, and what the hell would you find when you got off the interstate (aside from nuclear missile silos (which turn up often in the book) and farmland and the world’s only Stonehenge replica made from old cars)? For these characters, in these stories, the thing that matters most is distance, is how far you are from something the country at large will recognize, and I needed to stare at maps to get a sense of that. I needed to use a “street view” that was really a “county road” (and sometimes not even that) view, and if geography really is destiny, then maps are sacred. They’re a Tarot reading. A horoscope. An encounter with an oracle. They look you in the eye and tell you that life looks a little bit like this, and they’re fuzzy on the details, but here’s the most exciting part: you’re the one that gets to figure out the rest.