Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their process for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Melissa Duclos writes about Besotted from 7.13 Books.
Sometimes the Research Comes Second
When I lived in Shanghai for six months in 2004, I didn’t know I’d set a novel there. I started writing the first draft of Besotted five months after I returned to the U.S. My first bit of research was to re-read the calendar I’d kept while I was in China: the neatly written three-line entries in a daybook listing my daily activities. It told me only how overwhelmed I’d been and how often I went to Starbucks. The draft I based on this research was a first-person present tense travelogue narrated by a young woman named Liz who searches for home by leaving it.
Halfway through writing the travelogue, I realized I had to give Liz something to do. I couldn’t write an entire novel about an over-privileged white girl stumbling confused around Shanghai. So I made her fall in love with someone toxic and then I wrote a book about how she escaped.
I moved to Shanghai with my younger sister, and I didn’t fall in love with anyone — toxic or otherwise — while I was there. But I’d already done my research on escape. Liz falls in love with a woman named Sasha, a character I based on my emotionally manipulative college boyfriend. He sold his prescription Adderall to his frat brothers and flushed his antidepressants down the toilet. “I have you to make me happy now,” he told me. He lied to his psychiatrist about his parents and to his parents about his psychiatrist, and he shared it all with me. He didn’t want secrets between us. He bought me my first cell phone and then each month carefully reviewed the phone bill’s list of numbers I’d called.
He told me he’d kill himself if I left him, and so I stayed, trading my own happiness for his and telling myself any relationship worth having required sacrifice. After two and a half years, I thought I found a loophole. I couldn’t leave him, but I could make him leave me. I slept with someone else and told him about it the next day. In early versions of Besotted, Liz does the same. Both of us were forgiven almost immediately. Two weeks after my plan to get dumped failed, I finally ended it myself, doing my best to ignore his threats of self-harm, eventually cutting off all contact.
Like my first drafts of Besotted, this story has no climax. My college relationship ended — with tears but no suicide. We each went on with our lives.
In later drafts of the book, I shifted the story to Sasha’s perspective and the central question of the narrative to why, rather than how, Liz leaves. Because when something in our lives goes wrong, the why is most frequently withheld and is what we wonder most about. At that point, I knew this only in theory. While I thought of my college boyfriend as I traversed the landscapes of Sasha’s heartbreak, the two were no longer connected in my mind. I didn’t imagine he wondered why I’d left because I assumed he knew. At that point I hadn’t yet learned that admitting betrayal is not the same as being honest.
I tried for several years to sell the book. I revised based on feedback from literary agents until I stopped getting feedback that made any sense. And then I put Besotted aside and moved on, accepting it would never be published. I started a new book.
Nine years after I first rewrote my book from the perspective of a character who didn’t understand why her relationship ended, my marriage ended abruptly and I didn’t understand why. Had I written my divorce into existence? I knew that Sasha’s heartbreak couldn’t possibly foreshadow my own, but this wasn’t the relationship between fiction and reality I’d come to expect. The lived experience is supposed to come first.
Sometimes, I now know, it comes second. My book is better for it. After my divorce, following the urging of a friend, I submitted Besotted to a few small presses. Leland Cheuk, publisher of 7.13 Books accepted it, but he wanted revisions.
No one — not the agents who rejected it or the publisher who accepted it with requests for changes — ever told me that Sasha’s loss felt more cerebral than visceral, but among the biggest changes I made to the book in my final round of revisions was to Sasha’s relationship with her heartbreak. I’d previously written her as intellectually curious about Liz’s sudden departure, but after my husband left me, I knew her heartbreak would be a palpable and all-consuming thing.
Until my divorce, I didn’t know what it felt like to be someone else’s mistake. Once I came to know that feeling, I could finally finish Besotted.