Research Notes · 03/22/2013

Any Deadly Thing

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their research for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Roy Kesey writes about Any Deadly Thing (Dzanc Books).

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So, say you’re the kind of person who thinks that every fact in your fiction should be actually factual unless you’ve got a good, specific, story-driven-and-then-some reason for making one otherwise, (and whether in the latter case you’re talking straight-up counterfactual or just arguably tangential to the meatspace world makes no never mind for the purposes of whatever this is.) The kind of person, that is, who believes that there’s no excuse for unintentionally having a character make the wrong kind of mistake as re: L2 interference, or for allowing a would-be omniscient narrator to place a given species of fungi facing the wrong cardinal point. Say also that against all demographic odds you have somehow reached the halfway (okay, call it halfway+) point in your life perpetually unsure how long exactly you have to boil a hardboiled egg to get it just right, but totally clear on how long you have to grill a palm weevil grub to get it just right. Say thirdly that you don’t trust your memory, ever. And fourthly…

Psych! This whole time you thought we were talking about you, but really we were talking about me! Ha ha!

Which is to say, nearly all of my stories begin as first drafts full of sentences like this:

“She looked up the path, and there, between a bushy (bush of some kind?) and a tall (some species of tree?), she saw a _______./! (Mammal? Snake? Huge insect? Check climate check location check time of day.)”

In fact, hold on, let’s go ahead and get some actual examples from the early drafts of the stories that came together to form my new collection, Any Deadly Thing. Half a sec.

All right! So, the exhaustive, exhausting archival search I have just completed has yielded up the following list which I am in fact making up right this moment, but all of whose elements are very, very much in the spirit of the kind of thing I really do for real actually write down:

(Exact difference between Church Of God With Signs Following and Church Of Lord Jesus With Signs Following?) (Some kind of ax? Knife? Machete?) (How build roof?) (NoCal riverine botany options check temperature check elevation.) (Amazonian hardwood with cool name?) (Iquitos toponymy?) (Some cool thing about drawers.) (Ghost towns near N’s hometown?) (Capuchin as pet?) (Goldfish species, characteristics, symbolism?) (Teas?) (A Woman from Hong Kong — find refs.) (Chinese tax law, NICMB etc., uniforms what color?) (The inner ear — get vocab.) (Court-ordered restitution vs. highway clean-up or what exactly?) (Scams — list.) (Sea-Monkeys or ?) (Which weapons/munitions to Croatia early-mid-90s, how smuggled in, from where, etc.?) (Asunción city plaza — dimensions, layout, flowers.) (Stab wound — how survive? Credit card thing true?) (Bahía Negra topography.) (Intellectual Property Court of China — really?) (Tungsten! Or not.) (Iwo Jima assault — Higgins Boats? Made where?) (Puppetry/puppet design/puppet-making/animatronics — check all.) (Rich people live where?) (M-1 or something else?) (Cimetière de Montmartre — famous dead, get list.) (Chapter of the Night Journey?) (Prosthetics — mechanics, materials.) (Mallards migrate when?) (Green chain — possible tragedies?) (Disability insurance.) (Map of Konocti Vista, performers?) (Which sword 1930s?) (Tang dynasty — dancers, etc.) (Banned plays — Wu Han?) (Grad work in ornithology — timeline, requirements.) (Sexual selection mechanisms?) (Torpor!) (Capac Ñan — map, botany?) (Muyu — three legends minimum, plus details.) (Burmese food?) (Jinhuagong — mine still open?) (Pipe materials) (Rock climbing — learn all.) (Huaihai Campaign, details, good place to die.) (Mikalojus Čiurlionis — characterize, crits, spelling?) (How build bridge?) (Loganberries — a thing?) (Blooding — research all.) (Inuit — learn all mythology vocabulary hunting techniques & implements.) (Norse colony in Greenland — Diamond trustworthy?) (Seals?) (McKinleyville and/or Fieldbrook: map, topography, route, plus also McK totem pole — description, photos?) (All firefighting things.) (Leprosy thing!) (How build birdhouse [and for which bird?]?)

And so you see: you (not “you”! “Me”!) have to research everything. All of it. Every street name, every moon phase, every grade of steel. And what starts out as busywork turns out, each time, to be an immense source of pleasure. (It can also of course be a way to avoid the real work of drafting, but if you didn’t have this distraction you’d just find some other one, most likely even less edifying.)

Some of the pleasure is undoubtedly a result of the way that the unique aural textures of newly learned bits of specialized vocabulary can turn them (the bits, not the textures) into fetish objects (Backwardation! Contango!). Some of it comes from the challenge of dredging the brains of experts — dozens and dozens of experts, the great majority of them generous and gracious and whip-smart, which is why my acknowledgments sections are always so preposterously long. But most of it comes as a result of those moments when the back-reading process reroutes a piece of work, makes it denser or weirder or faster or smarter. Those moments are honest to god like some kind of drug high (vocab, materials, physiology?) except without all the powerboats and supermodels and that one guy in Cuernavaca with the pet eagle who gave you a pistol you didn’t want and sent you up on the roof to — Wait, sorry, what was the question?

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Roy Kesey is the author of Nothing in the World, winner of the 2005 Bullfight Review Little Book Prize, and Dzanc’s original publishing, All Over, a well-received collection of short stories. His work has appeared in McSweeney’s, The Kenyon Review and American Short Fiction, among other magazines, as well as in New Sudden Fiction 2006 and the Robert Olen Butler Prize Anthology.