Research Notes · 10/03/2014

Fat Man and Little Boy

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their research for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Mike Meginnis writes about Fat Man and Little Boy from Black Balloon Publishing.

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Three Reflections on Insufficiency

I.

I started college as an undeclared major with loose plans to study journalism and possibly start my own Internet newspaper some day — I won’t be the first person to tell you this, or even the last one to say it today, but I pretty much invented Vox (and explainer journalism more generally) ten years ago. Or anyway I had plans to invent it. Or anyway, I had plans to develop the expertise necessary to someday begin the process of inventing it. What I’m trying to tell you is that I (thought I) was a very bright, forward-thinking young man with limitless potential. The only trouble was I didn’t know anything about anything.

The one thing I had going for me was that I did at least kind of realize I was clueless, though I was careful to obfuscate this little bit of self-awareness by constantly making loud, baseless, frequently angry pronouncements about art, ethics, the world, and God, in whom I had just stopped believing. The theory was that if I majored in journalism, then I would learn how to research. If I learned how to research, then I would finally have the tools I needed to learn something about the world. In the meantime I could say a lot of opinions, behave as if these were backed by the research I would one day do, and then when I was older and no longer a fraud (because of my research) this would retroactively make it okay that I had always behaved as if I knew what I was about, what was really wrong with other people, and what the laws should be.

I never declared myself as a journalism major. I made it through three classes in the program before finally giving up. Though we did learn a little bit about how to interview a person, and though my teachers were mostly lovely people, we never did study research, and I suspect we never would have — at least not in the sense I wanted.

There were flirtations with programming and history, both of which probably would have been a better choice, but ultimately I majored in English. This took no one by surprise. Partly I loved the English major because it was a good way to force myself to read important books that I would otherwise never get through. Partly I loved it because the coursework was as easy or as hard as I wanted it to be. (I had a habit of writing thirty-page papers when the assignment was ten, sometimes because that was harder, but often because it was easier.) Partly I loved it because while the professors were only a little bit better at teaching research than those in the journalism program, they did at least mostly realize what they knew and what they didn’t. Expertise in fiction can be a wonderfully humbling thing; it’s really expertise in lies.

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II.

I studied for my graduate degree at New Mexico State University. One of the big selling points of NMSU’s creative writing MFA is that their program’s three years long. The third year is devoted entirely to the production and refinement of a thesis. Most students write short story collections. I chose to do a novel.

My thesis is called Fat Man and Little Boy. It’s being published (today! more or less) by Black Balloon Publishing. It’s a story about the atom bombs the United States dropped on Japan, reincarnated as people: a fat man, a little boy. They believe they are brothers. I had the idea in the second semester of my first year at the program. That gave me two summers and one school year in which to research and compose the book’s first draft. Though it would be mostly lies, it was still fundamentally a historical novel. I knew that I would have to do a lot of reading.

The thing about history, at least as I’ve encountered it in my life, is that it mostly doesn’t waste a lot of breath on the stuff that novels need most. Dates and major battles make good frames but you mostly want to avoid explicitly including them in your fiction. Powerful people can make interesting subjects but their lives are hardly representative of their eras. The most important facts in any given time and place are the prices of staple foods (bread, rice, eggs, etc.), the average weekly wage, and the cost of lodging.

The next most important facts — perhaps more urgently important to a novelist writing about the past — concern the objects that constituted the environment of the people about which one is writing. What kind of shoes did they wear? Did they eat sandwiches? If so, what kind? How common was meat? How did they get from place to place? Where did they live? Where did they store their food? How did they keep it from spoiling? How did they get water? How did they light their homes? What technology was available, and who had it in his or her home?

Good historians will often answer such questions, but rarely if ever with the sort of specificity and vividness that fiction requires. Generally speaking, they won’t think to tell you whether a chicken sandwich would be commonly eaten in French restaurants of a certain period. If you want to write about a distant time and place, and if you want your depiction to read as persuasive and authoritative to your audience, which will (if you’re lucky) include many people who know the period much better than you do, probably the best thing to do is to become an expert, or, perhaps more common, to already be one; that is to say that if you want, as I did, to write a novel that is partly set in Japan at the end of World War II and partly set in France after the war, then it would be most expedient to have longstanding interests in this period, these places.

I am not a history buff. I am very poorly traveled. (We never had the money.) I had no such longstanding interests. And worse, I have always had poor memory: most things I learn about the past are soon forgotten.

Still, this was the only book I wanted to write. I did my best. I went to the library. I read firsthand accounts of the bombings. I looked at photographs of survivors. I read a large chunk of a fairly comprehensive history of France. (I only had the time to read what I knew I needed.) I read primary documents wherever I could. Inevitably, the book grew and changed as I learned; much of its story takes place in Gurs, a concentration camp I’d never known existed until my reading for Fat Man and Little Boy.

I knew that my best would never be enough. I consoled myself on this point by making a few subtle nods to my inevitable errors in the text: there is a famous building in Hiroshima that appears in both Hiroshima and Nagasaki in my book, silently, unnamed in both instances. That was intentional. There is a physically impossible bit of description in a key scene that comes directly from what I have to think was a printing error in my edition of John Hersey’s Hiroshima (confusing “glass” with “grass”). I tried to tell myself that since the book was clearly a fantasy anyway, it was okay if I got some details wrong.

Still it made me feel like a failure when a member of my workshop pointed out that the customers of a French café would not generally tip, a detail of tremendous practical importance to one subplot. I should have known as much.

My time at NMSU culminated in a thesis defense. These were not usually high-stakes ordeals; though one outgoing instructor had scared me senseless in my second year by telling me I might not be good enough to graduate from the program, in fact I have never heard of anyone failing to do so except by sheer force of will. Still, when my committee asked me what sort of research I had done, I immediately answered, “Not enough.”

And this is still my answer. There will never be enough time. I will never feel half an expert on my own time and place, let alone anyone else’s. I only hope my errors were humane — that what is wrong with the book is not also what is wrong with my heart.

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III.

In the time since that thesis defense, the book’s publisher and I have fact-checked it as best we could and repaired every error we found. The book is out in the world now. I worry often about what will happen to it there.

The things you take for granted in your own life are what will get you into trouble as a writer of historical fiction. There were several references to correction fluid in Fat Man and Little Boy until practically the last minute, at which point I suddenly remembered that the stuff hadn’t been invented yet. (Thank goodness for all of those inspirational stories about how even secretaries can have good ideas and invent things.) Lori Shine, my copy editor, had to break the news to me that most of the fanciful flavored liquors one central character enjoyed in the original manuscript would have been impossible to find at the time. My wife pointed out to me early on that my characters should not probably have avocadoes. I had to move the book’s climax several years later than I had originally planned just to make a scene involving sunblock almost plausible. Honestly, that last one’s still a stretch. But the scene needed sunblock.

On several occasions since the text was locked and the book sent to the printer, I have done a panicked fact-check on some minor point, terrified that I misremembered some key detail, that I have outed myself prematurely as a fraud. So far everything has turned out well: so far, the book is right. At some point, though, someone is going to find the thing I missed.

There was only one stress-free chapter in the entire book, in terms of the required research. I will be a little bit coy and say that I needed to know what was sold at retail in 1950s America. Bless their hearts: the Sears catalog and its archivists provided everything I could ask for and more. I felt untold joy reading those lists of mingled gewgaws and necessities. Finally something was easy! I often fantasize about producing similar catalogs of the past for other writers to use in their own research: exhaustive lists of the things one might buy in a given city in a given year and how much they would cost, preferably accompanied by photos or drawings. Descriptions of how these products were used, how they worked, and whether their owners were usually satisfied or disappointed by their performance. I want a subscription to a Consumer Reports for the Japan of 1945.

So I’m not worried about that chapter. But the rest keep me up at night. At some point, you have to write the book. At some point, you have to accept the risk of making mistakes. You do your best. If you’ve done your job, then there is beauty and generosity enough in the book to compensate for your ignorance. And if there isn’t, then the issue is moot: no amount of research can save you.

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Mike Meginnis has published stories in Best American Short Stories 2012, The Collagist, PANK, and many others. He contributes regularly to HTML Giant and Kill Screen, and plays collaborative text adventures at Exits Are. Meginnis earned his MFA at New Mexico State University, where he served as a managing editor of Puerto del Sol for two years. He now lives and works in Iowa City, where he operates Uncanny Valley Press with his wife, Tracy Rae Bowling. He has never seen the ocean.