Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their research for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, JP Smith cracks the seal on his novel Airtight (Thomas & Mercer).
I’m of the opinion that writing fiction is about finding a place we haven’t discovered before, and it’s that adventure, that exploration, that makes fiction what ideally it should be: a spotlight on a life other than ours.
But sometimes a novel requires research, and we’ve all read novels that are filled with facts and observations, but seem singularly unlived. When I began work on my fourth book, The Discovery of Light, which deals partly with Vermeer, his paintings and his life in Delft, I realized that nothing I’d read about the artist mattered as much as what I could see in his paintings. Yes, I used a few facts from his life, which mirrors the contemporary half of the story, a tale of a mystery writer whose wife, long-obsessed with Vermeer, has died either by her own hand or that of another in the NYC subways. The entire process confirmed what I’d already suspected: that once the research is done, the readings, the viewings of paintings, the trips to museums and such, it all has to be forgotten. One can absorb only so much, and one can take away only a thin layer — enough to give the book its color, its light and a sense of reality, as well as a touch of, if at all possible, the magic of felt life. But once I’d decided to write a novel not based on any research whatsoever, I had to set out on a different set of preparations.
In the past I’ve always avoided writing out of my life. My first published novel was set in Russia in the ‘30s, Paris and the South of France in the ‘40s, and London in the ‘70s, the latter of which I knew first-hand from having lived there for several years. (My first unpublished work was set in Dublin in the ‘40s, and the less said about that the better.) My second published novel featured a Polish jazz pianist, my third a Hungarian émigré seeking out his lost wife in Paris, and then came my fourth, which was The Discovery of Light. But my fifth had a female protagonist, and once again I’d traveled far from home.
L.P. Hartley famously began his novel The Go-Between with the line: “The past is another country: they do things differently there.” So there comes a time when our own past, though we inhabited it, slept in it, ate in it, made love in it, created enemies and made fast friends in it, becomes another country. And it’s then, gaining that distance, that allows us to see it for what it was, no longer subjectively but in the round. In interviews and other pieces I’d written at the time of Airtight’s publication just over a month ago, I’ve mentioned that the germ for the novel was watching Quentin Tarantino’s movie Jackie Brown. It was seeing these middle-aged people getting themselves tied up in a criminal enterprise that reminded me of something I was involved in decades ago, in college far from my comfort zone of New York. Because the college was in the middle of nowhere and allied to a church about as distant from my Jewish birthright as it could be, I took lots of drugs and sometimes even sold them. My nickname was “Candy Man” (of course), and after a deal, detailed in the book, in Cincinnati, involving a lot of weed and hashish of the lowest quality known to any reasonable hippie or freak at the time, the unsold remainder was buried in Mason jars — airtight mason jars — on the college campus. And then they were forgotten. By that time I was clean, off drugs, and well on my way to being an English major with a serious interest in becoming a rock star. Seeing these people in the movie gave me the plot built around this lived experience.
Until then the book would have been impossible to write. I was forever too close to it. My politics haven’t changed, and unlike many in my generation, I actually feel my drug experiences, especially with LSD helped me become who I am today. A bit nuts, I agree, but still…
But so many years have passed that now I could create two main characters who are, I hope, whole and wholly distinct from their creator. What I discovered while writing the book was that it wasn’t so much a kind of darkly comic crime caper about a couple of desperate Mad Men types who, to save themselves and their families, go back and dig up the dope to sell it at an enormous profit in today’s narcotics market (and for the sake of the book I changed the substance from grade-X grass to top-flight heroin), but the tale of a man, Nick Copeland, who, in returning to his past in memory and geography, realizes that what happens there doesn’t just end there; that what we do in our lives matters, that it can hurt others, it can leave scars and wounds, and there’s nothing we can do about it. And so his journey to this other country was also my own. And though I’ve never forgotten the people I knew and loved, the people I’d smoked dope with and tripped with, the people with whom I acted like an idiot too many times, and others, I hope, I did well by, I also remembered the things I should have said and done, and left unsaid and undone. The past may be a foreign country, as Hartley says, but it’s also always with us. It is us. If we can face it as writers, we may, if we’re lucky, create something lasting. And the research, well, it was over and done with long, long ago.
Read an excerpt from Airtight at The Nervous Breakdown.