Research Notes · 06/16/2017

Family, Genus, Species

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their process for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Kevin Allardice writes about Family, Genus, Species from Outpost 19.

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Research — to search — sounds glamorous, romantic, even adventurous. Indiana Jones does research. That dimly mulleted man Tom Hanks plays in The Da Vinci Code does research. A noble and globe-trotting — perhaps perilous — seeking out of the truth! To be fair, though, research only seems glamorous to those who don’t actually have to do it. When my wife and I travel abroad this summer, she’ll be doing research, holed up in dusty archives for her dissertation — though I imagine those archives have no sinister henchmen lurking in the shadows — while I will have a gelato and entertain fantasies of what research actually entails.

Even though my first novel, Any Resemblance to Actual Persons, which delved into mid-century Hollywood, did require some schooly stuff like note-taking and keeping track of sources, I hesitate to call my own writing-adjacent spasms of activity “research.” Less the globe-trotting seeker of information, I’m often more like a strip of flypaper passively flitting in the breeze, life’s detritus clinging to me, eventually — often after many years and without my fully realizing it — making its way into character and story.

For my new novel, I needed no sources other than the bits of the world that had stuck to the gummy part of my brain. Set in a backyard urban farm in Berkeley, California, Family, Genus, Species follows a twenty-something woman, Vee, as she tries to deliver a simple birthday present to her four-year-old nephew. What should be a simple task erupts into an epic and increasingly nightmarish quest, all in the shadow of civil unrest that brings out the family’s fraught ideologies.

And yet if research is searching for the sources that will give shape, color, texture, or meaning to a later work, even if those sources are auto-sourced rather than journalistic, I’ve recently noticed a pattern in my process of just the opposite: In the final editing stages for both books — returning to them after months away — I discovered scenes and small details that had autobiographical origins I had, after years of writing and rewriting, completely forgotten. What followed was a different kind of research — not to search but to remember, re(verse)search — and what I found was the strange economy between form and meaning.

Midway through the novel, there’s a scene in which the protagonist, Vee, recalls a seemingly small moment that involves two other characters, each of the three people having a completely different understanding of what is actually happening. Each character has an experience that ultimately serves his or her own self-narrative, and two of those characters’ later attempts to reconcile their narratives result in further miscommunication and conflict. For years, I had written this scene in different forms from Vee’s perspective — before, even, this novel existed — and before that, the scene began in an unfinished novel but from the perspective of a different character.

It wasn’t until I was poring over the galley of the novel last year that I remembered there had been an autobiographical seed that got me writing that scene in the first place. The realization was a small shock, the shock that the pluralism of fiction could valiantly usurp the mono-narrative of experience. Writing and rewriting is a way of cementing memory — or, rather, of turning the imagined into memory — and the different versions of this scene that existed over the years and drafts is now more vivid than the memory of my own experience that was the initial spark.

I can now recall those early attempts at writing that experience into fiction; focused on fictionalizing my own perspective, I was simply using fiction to validate the experience as I understood it. Those early versions were, of course, shit. My interest was selfish. It was only after I gave the scene away, handed the power of perspective over to a character who might experience it in a way I hadn’t yet considered, that the story began to grow limbs, stand up, and walk on its own, for me to follow. If I compare the scene in the finished novel with the memory that it began with ten years ago, the two are totally irreconcilable, and the former holds far more meaning to me.

It’s what we refuse to give away that becomes precious. That favorite childhood toy will only accrue meaning when it’s given to a stranger, and a story that pluralizes — rather than validates — a single experience is the one worth telling. While, for me, the front-end research flatters my idea that the author is in charge, it’s the backend research, the post-writing, where-the-fuck-did-that-come-from self-interrogation that tells me the story’s in control here.

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Kevin Allardice is the author of the novel Any Resemblance to Actual Persons (Counterpoint, 2014). He was born in Oakland, California, and was a Henry Hoyns fellow in fiction at the University of Virginia, where he received his MFA in 2010. His short stories, winner of the of the Donald Barthelme Prize and twice nominated for a Pushcart Prize, have appeared in The Santa Monica Review, The Florida Review, Gulf Coast, The North American Review, and elsewhere. He currently lives in Berkeley, California.