Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their research for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Courtney Elizabeth Mauk fans the flames of her novel Spark (Engine Books).
When I began writing Spark, I was living in a two-bedroom apartment on Herkimer Street in Brooklyn. My bedroom was in the front corner, about the size of a walk-in closet, with pea-green walls. I couldn’t write in there. Instead I wrote in the large, sunny room at the back — the actual bedroom, which we’d converted into our “studio.” My roommates, a married couple, slept in an adjoining room that probably was meant to be an office. One of them did metalwork. The other liked to make things out of wood.
You should never be a single person living with a married couple. Third wheel is an understatement. One member of the married couple was going through a gender transition, and many serious talks took place, followed by raucous fits of passion. They were my friends, and I loved them, but I found it hard to concentrate with so much emotional energy swirling around me.
In order to daydream — the most essential part of a writer’s process — I escaped to the streets. My usual route took me down Bedford Avenue, across Atlantic, up to Eastern Parkway. Sometimes I varied things by going down Franklin. Depending on which direction my feet led, I would end up in Park Slope or Boerum Hill.
It was never a conscious decision, but quickly these brownstone-flanked streets became the backdrop for the drama unfolding in my head. When I sat down at my computer and let my fingers fly, images from the day’s journey appeared on the page: the music store on Nostrand with its door wide open, jazz spilling out onto the sidewalk; the brick warehouses and broken windows of Atlantic’s dismal corridor, everything stinking of gasoline; the startling lushness and serenity of tiny Park Slope gardens.
Before I had always written about the Midwest, the place of my birth. Now I understood that I was writing a New York book. I’d lived in the city long enough for it to get inside me and stay.
As a little girl I had heard the stories: a child born to save another child’s life. Immediately I went the dark route; after all I was the kid who begged her parents to pull over when they passed a cemetery so she could wander among the headstones, making up lives to go with those faded dates and strange, old-fashioned names. I liked pink and ponies, too. That’s still a pretty accurate description of who I am.
What I imagined: a girl born to be an instrument of healing. The parents would favor the brother, the first-born, the one they had braced themselves to lose. The favoritism could easily have been reversed, but as a younger sister, I carried the usual baggage.
When I realized that this was the story I was writing, I looked up various cancers and anemias online. I didn’t want to give Delphie something real, but I did want his sickness to be based in reality.
I decided to use Fanconi Anemia as my model. I found this site especially useful: http://www.fanconi.org.
So here we have a boy with a rare disease and a girl born to save him with her blood. She would be inside him, connected on a cellular level, a bond much deeper than typical sibling friendship and rivalry.
The boy would have to kill someone. The lives taken would have to outnumber the lives given.
I considered several means of killing:
- Car accident = boring, too little motivation
- Murder = cold, too much motivation
- Pyromania = conflicted, not cold; motivated, but not to kill. Causing the deaths would be his tragedy, too
In college my friends and I built bonfires on the town square and, when we were feeling especially mystical and secretive, deep within the woods. We sat in a circle, hugging our knees to our chests, and let the flames hypnotize us. Entire nights passed that way, drunk on fire and cheap red wine.
On special occasions growing up, my dad would make a fire in the living room fireplace. We would roast marshmallows, and my mom would tell me the story that Sally tells Andrea about the sparks being fairies trapped inside the wood, bursting free, although in my mom’s version the fairies didn’t die.
Things I learned:
- Pyromania is an impulse control disorder, like kleptomania or trichotillomania.
- A pyromaniac does not set fires out of anger, for monetary gain, or to make a political statement. He sets a fire purely for the gratification the act of fire-setting gives him.
- Possible motivators:
- A primitive desire to demonstrate power and control.
- Suppressed sexual urges.
- Who the hell knows?
- The recovery prognosis for adults is not good.
I went through my apartment, looking for the things Andrea would need to get rid of before Delphie came into her home. When I thought I’d located everything, I found a lighter forgotten in the bottom of a purse. Slipping through the cracks, I realized, would be incredibly easy.
To learn about the world of burlesque, I talked to friends who were burlesque dancers. I watched them perform. One pretended to give birth onstage.
Sometimes you have to stop reading and just go there and see for yourself.
Try this experiment. Stand over the kitchen sink (safety first!). Light a match. Hold it as long as you can. It’s not easy. You will want to let go. Don’t. Not yet. Not until you absolutely have to. When you have to, drop the match into the sink. Take a deep breath. Light another match. Try to hold on longer. Feel the burn.