Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their process for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Amy L. Clark writes about Adulterous Generation from Queen’s Ferry Press.
Most of the stories in Adulterous Generation are about young people in varying degrees of distress. While each is fiction, many of them come from the young person I once was, or the young people I knew then or know now, and the trouble we all found ourselves in.
So when I think of the research that went into this book, I think of myself as a sixteen year old. When I was a sophomore in high school in a very small, very cold town, I was a member of the literary journal club. I had been writing stories for years already, and once I got over my secret-passageway-to-another-world phase, many of the stories I wrote were about the experiences of people like me. Overly romanticized, maybe. Not quite true, definitely. But as a sixteen year old, I wanted to write stories about the people I sat next to in class, but who were rarely called on to speak. I wanted to write stories about the experiences I was having – the experiences that were never plot lines in the literature we read in English class.
One of the stories I wrote was based on something that happened to me and a friend. I fictionalized the names and some of the details, but concerns were real. The story was about a girl trying to get her seventeen-year-old friend to go to Planned Parenthood for an HIV test. This was the middle of the AIDS crisis, and we didn’t quite understand all the nuances of disease, but we were deeply afraid. I submitted the piece to the high school literary journal anonymously. None of the other students on the staff knew that I had written the piece, and certainly none of them knew that it was based on real-life events. The entire editorial committee agreed that the piece should appear in the magazine. Except for one student. The chief editor was a young man who was valedictorian of his class. He was a Young Republican and a practicing Catholic. He favored button-down shirts and sitting in the front row of the classroom, and our teachers very much favored him and his opinions. He didn’t just object to the piece I had written, he threatened to quit the staff if it were published. The faculty advisor took him and me out into the hallway for an emergency meeting when she figured out what was going on. The two of them asked me if I could remove the words “Planned Parenthood” from the story, and I said no. After some debate, the chief editor compromised on that. And then the faculty advisor asked him if he had any other concerns. “It’s just…” he said, “people like that don’t exist.”
The story was eventually published in the high school magazine. And though I didn’t know it at the time, this boy’s statement was the beginning of my research for Adulterous Generation. I never forgot that to people like that young man, people like me simply do not exist. I have been committed, ever since, to writing stories about what happens to people _like that _when no one else is paying attention.
I have long since come to realize that there will always be a segment of the population for whom I am invisible. What has been harder to come to terms with is the way in which time and memory shifts our understanding of not only what it means to be like that but also what it means to be us, to be who we are and remember who we were. I once reminded my aunt that I grew up in a trailer park and she said, “No you didn’t.” I was talking to someone I grew up with recently about the fact that our junior high school gym teacher was arrested for inappropriately touching girls in class, and she said, “but he didn’t go to jail!” I completely understand the impulse not to dwell on the past when the past was difficult or distressing. Part of the purpose of Adulterous Generation, for me, is to put some of that stuff to bed. But I also believe that it is important to remember. To take note. My junior high school gym teacher didn’t touch those girls because he had a sudden impulse to do so. He touched them because he could. Many of us had spoken to the principal years before he was removed from his position, telling her that the gym teacher made us uncomfortable; that he watched the boys get naked and told the girls not to adjust our bathing suits when swim class exposed more skin than we were comfortable with. My experiences as a young person provide the research for my book insomuch as those things that happened to me and people like me made me acutely interested in the systems that enable adults to behave badly toward certain children and the ways in which our own growing and changing sometimes encourages the complicity of forgetting.
So this is what this book is. It is my way of saying THIS HAPPENED. Maybe not exactly this way, or to this person; it is a collection of fiction after all. But this is a book about the kinds of things that happened to people like that in a time back then in places like those. I know. I was there. Taking notes.