All That Followed
Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their process for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Gabriel Urza writes about All That Followed from Henry Holt & Co.
Writing All That Followed was at times daunting from a research perspective, in that the book deals tangentially with an extremely nuanced and complicated foreign political situation. The book is set in the Basque region of Spain, and the primary plot point of the novel is an act of political violence — the kidnapping and killing of a young politician — that is derived from the militant Basque independence movement often associated with the terrorist organization (the ETA). I’d had some formal experience researching Basque politics and the uncomfortable intersection between militant activism (or “terrorism”) and politics: in the summer of 2003, while in law school at the University of Notre Dame, I received a grant through the Kellogg Institute for International Studies to research the outlawing of a Basque political party by the Spanish government. This research gave me just enough information to bring me to the understanding that I wouldn’t really be able (or want) to address the complexities of the political situation in the novel.
And to be honest, Basque politics weren’t what I was primarily interested in writing about. Instead, I wanted the book to be about its characters, even though they each did have connections to politics. I read an interview with Tobias Wolff once in the Paris Review, in which he says something like, “The most radical political writing of all is that which makes you aware of the reality of another human being.” This idea was my central tenant while writing the book. So although I felt familiar enough with the Basque political situation to include it in the periphery of the book, I tried not to research this area too much. I was afraid it would take over the narrative. I wanted All That Followed to be primarily about the three narrators — an older American, a Basque Woman in her 30’s, and a young Basque radical — rather than about the politics themselves.
So instead of dedicating my formal research to politics, I read up on larger mythologies that would influence the inhabitants Muriga, the fictional town in which the novel is set. There’s a rich tradition of witchcraft and paganism in the Basque country, which makes its way into the novel in the form of a fictional Basque witch who was burned at the stake during the Inquisition in the 17th century. An amazingly-researched historical/anthropological book called The Witches’ Advocate by Gustav Henningsen offered tremendous insights and historical details in this regard. Similarly, books describing the effects of the Spanish Civil War (such as Ghosts of Spain by Giles Tremlett) and books about the Spanish government’s secret counterterrorism squad the GAL (such as Dirty War, Clean Hands, by Paddy Woodworth) helped me better understand the world that these characters reside in.
I was lucky enough to have grown up in a family with close ties to Basque politics and culture, and my father worked closely with the Basque Studies Program at the University of Nevada Reno; while writing All That Followed, I regularly raided my father’s bookshelves for rich historical and anthropological resources by scholars such as William Douglass and Joseba Zulaika, among others. Several people in the Basque Studies Program at UNR were extremely generous with their time and expertise, and talked over early drafts of the novel with me at length.
I also felt that it was important to the book that I spend time in the Basque Country while writing a first draft. My family is Basque, and growing up I spent quite a bit of time there — either for extended periods of time when my father was in San Sebastian for work, or for shorter trips to visit family. But it was important to not rely entirely on memory to create the fictitious town of Muriga, and so during the last year of my MFA I left school and spent a few months in San Sebastian. I took classes in Basque with a tutor (the cousin of a friend of mine), and I spent each morning in the basement of the library working on my first draft.
But I also made a point to get out and explore, to visit my cousins in Guernica or climb mountains with a family friend. These trips all provided small details or character traits that made their way into the book, and which I find to be my favorite details. It was an extraordinary luxury to be able to have both the time and the means to be able to live in the place that I was writing about, and I’m not sure the book would exist if I hadn’t made the trip.