My Father's House
Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their research for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Ben Tanzer considers how being simultaneously true to an experience and true to a story can be more complicated than it first seems.
I suppose one could ask what kind of research one has to do when they write about death, or maybe more accurately, why would they even want to? Where’s the gain there? None really. I don’t think. Maybe it’s even better not to do so. There are other, better milestones to write about and research certainly. Like losing your virginity for example. It may not be pleasurable, or fun, it may even be scary, something you regret, and wish you could take back. But there will be other chances to at least get sex right, or better, or you can even choose not to at all after that. It worked for Morrissey. Initially anyway.
But death, while you can control it, somewhat, and there is some element of choice, some times, yours maybe, others possibly, there are not many do-overs, and you may not get to resolve anything even when you know you better get on it. So the research is tricky. Now, you can do something like Thomas Lynch has done and write eloquently and beautifully about what you know, the process of burying the dead, what it means for families and community, the historical elements present in anyone’s passing, poetry about the end of life by someone so close to it. Or, you could be Jodi Picoult and write of death in terms of the twisted, mostly horrible ways we can get there and the ripple effects on family and community as a character in and of itself.
Of course these works are written from a certain distance, which in a sense is exactly what research is, learning about something from arm’s length as you seek to understand the experience of an event, activity or behavior through the eyes of someone else and the other. And therein lies the rub with death, we can’t make death happen so as to learn about it. But death can happen to us. It will happen to us. It does happen to us and when the us is a writer that death also becomes something else, an idea or feeling maybe at first just lodged in our brains, caught there, stuck, and not going away, because it can’t, not when you write, or when you have no choice but to write. Nothing ever really gets away, writers aren’t built like that.
So we will write about death, maybe not all deaths, but at some point death will hit us in a way that doesn’t let go. Likely it will be traumatic in some way, or profound, possibly, and unless we choose to consciously ignore it, for as long as we can anyway, we will write about it eventually. The question though is whether that requires research, or as writers do we have enough to go on based on the mere fact that we have experienced it. I am stuck on this because of my own recent experience writing about death in my novella My Father’s House.
When I first conceived of the book I had something nonfiction in mind, something like The Basketball Diaries, an homage even. And if I’m being honest the idea came to me when I learned my father had been diagnosed with an especially virulent and mostly untreatable form of cancer. I knew there would be material. I was a vulture and I was ashamed, but not so ashamed that I didn’t journal about it, or think about what it might look like at some point when I would inevitably try to make something literary out of the experience.
Now the less self-critical take on this, is what I heard Studs Terkel say after his wife died and he wrote Will the Circle Be Unbroken? Writing was his tonic. It allowed him to cope. To make sense of the loss. Or if not make sense of it, at least be able to go on. Because writing does that, it’s how we get through the day. The more self-critical argument is something Graham Greene once said, that all writers have a sliver of ice in their hearts and that at least in part is what writing about death entails. That balance. It allows us to cope, but it’s not like we have a choice, because it’s not just coping, it’s also reflex.
When I first wrote my nonfiction rumination of the subject of my father’s death, then known as The Cancer Diaries, it didn’t work, and I wasn’t sure why. Later I thought I knew why, I had limited the possibilities of the story by focusing only on the nonfiction elements of it and my thinking was that if I turned it into something fictional, something that arguably requires little research beyond trying to understand my own voice, needs and intentions, then I could write something more nuanced and layered, something that worked.
I suppose that could be sort of the end of it, except that I recently heard interviews with Darin Strauss as talked about his book Half a Life, which is a memoir about a girl he accidentally killed when he was a teenager, as well as, Blake Butler talking about his memoir Nothing, which focuses on his battles with insomnia among other things, and both authors talked about work that exceeded and expanded upon their own stories and got into questions of science, psychology, theory and culture, which made me think anew about My Father’s House and why else it might not have worked as nonfiction. I never even remotely tried to leave my own head as I first approached it, something that would require research, and something I now think I will have to try to do next time around.
Because there will be a next time. Death will return again and again. Which on the one hand makes me sad even as I write it, but on the other hand has me already thinking about how will write a book that does not remotely exist. Not that, that matters. I write and so I already know I will be writing the book at some point, though hopefully later than sooner.