Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their process for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Christina Neuwirth writes about Amphibian from Speculative Books.
My debut novella Amphibian is about an office that is slowly being filled with water as part of a managerial effort to increase sales. It was published last month by Glasgow-based indie press Speculative Books.
While writing these notes I am re-teaching myself how to solve a Rubik’s Cube. I first learned how to do it in 2010 and it took me a little while to get the hang of it. Once I had figured it out, it became part of what my hands were capable of doing — like learning how to play the piano as a teenager, my hands knowing the pieces better than I did, the notes and algorithms becoming muscle memory. It was a party trick. I could do it in three minutes. Re-learning it now feels really strange; it feels like my hands are back to doing what they once knew, but it also feels strange to think that I was once able to do it without thinking about it, whereas now I need to check the algorithm notation at every stage. An anti-clockwise twist of the upper layer, an anti-clockwise twist of the left side; the crunch of a new cube, conjuring a memory of the smooth noiselessness of the cube I had when I was younger, whose layers I could turn with the gentle tap of a finger.
Remembering how to solve a Rubik’s Cube reminds me of what it feels like to try to remember how I wrote Amphibian. I wrote it in 2014, and although I have spent a lot of time with the manuscript and its draft siblings since, it has proven tricky to try to remind myself of what it felt like to write it initially. I can recall some books I read at the time that may have influenced me, and I remember some of the TV shows I watched, but I can’t really remember what I ate; where I wrote it; what music I listened to. It is hard to believe I ever knew how to write it at all.
I first wrote Amphibian as a short story; it was maybe 200 words long. It had come out of the kernel of an idea, after my friend and flatmate Natasha had pointed out the reflection of the brilliant blue sky in a glassy high-rise building and said “that looks like they’ve filled the building with water.” Trying to picture what the writing of Amphibian was like four years ago, I know something that enabled me to write it was living with someone who was also writing. Natasha and I would both sit at our dining room table overlooking a sea of rooftops, each typing on our laptops, occasionally pausing to share a song.
The day she made the throwaway comment about the building and the water, I asked if I could make a story from the line. Then, I wrote about the day the office was flooded. Maybe I was echoing the titles of the animated TV show Norman Normal about a boy whose family have superpowers, which went something like “the day the microwave exploded I was up in my room reading comic books.” I wanted to write something like that — something where the extremely surreal thing that happens is cushioned in an unremarkable sentence, one that foregrounds what’s ordinary. So: “The day the office flooded we had a big meeting. So you can imagine that the flood came as a massive inconvenience.”
I must have read “The Distance of the Moon” by Italo Calvino ten times over while I was writing Amphibian; Calvino states the impossible in everyday detail. “Now, you will ask me what in the world we went up on the Moon for; I’ll explain it to you. We went to collect the milk, with a big spoon and a bucket.” I also listened to Liev Schreiber’s reading of this a lot — it was one of the few audio files I had on my phone at the time. The thing I kept returning to in that recording, I remember, was the laugh after a line where he lists the types of debris found in moon milk: “…shards of crockery, fishhooks, at times even a comb.” The precise detail was what, I thought, made it so funny; it was not a punchline sort of laugh, but more the kind of laughter that builds as a hum in the background; a laugh from a slowly building absurdity that spills over. Amphibian also doesn’t really have many punchlines; what I was aiming for was building a ridiculous whirring, and heightening it with specificity.
Looking back, I think what took the most work was resisting the temptation to over-explain. Ali Smith does this in her brilliant novel There But For The, where a man goes upstairs after a dinner party at someone’s house and locks himself in the spare room — and then refuses to leave. This isn’t a metaphor or a dream, he isn’t a ghost or a spectre, this is really happening. Like Calvino, Smith takes something that wouldn’t regularly happen, and makes it happen, then swiftly moves on to examine the very real consequences. I took that technique and applied it to my situation: that an office might really be filled with water, and that I could trust myself and the reader to state that — without lingering. I am beginning to realise that the way I wrote Amphibian was through the desire to create a feeling, to sit in that threshold of reality and impossibility. And although I’ve tried here, I am finding it hard to undo the story and see how it was made, no matter which way I rotate it.