High in the Streets
Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their process for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Matthew Binder writes about High in the Streets from Roundfire Books.
Four years ago, I was in the middle of a twelve-hour drive across the desert between Albuquerque and San Diego. Two weeks prior, I quit the rock ’n’ roll band I’d spent the previous three years playing in. I was terribly depressed. The only prospect on the horizon was a new project management job I was slated to begin the following week. As my new boss had explained, I was expected to arrive each morning by eight a.m., attend various meetings, answer emails, make the requisite phone calls, and perform a host of other duties requiring me to be tethered to a cubicle for the majority of the day. In exchange, I would be paid a handsome salary. The prospect weighed heavily on me. My years of carefree living playing music and freelancing were over.
My best pal, down with the flu, sat shotgun on the drive. He insisted there be absolute silence so he could sleep. Even the gentle hush of Ira Glass’s voice on This American Life was too much for him in his delicate state. With my pal asleep and no music or talk radio to distract me, I spent the twelve-hour trip across the southwest plotting a novel. By the time we crossed the border into California, the whole narrative had taken shape in my mind. Despite never having written a single word of fiction in my life, not even a short story, it was clear what I had to do. The next morning, instead of reporting to work, I phoned my new employer, informing him I was quitting. “But you haven’t even started yet,” he said. “I’ve received a better offer,” I replied.
Without the burden of steady employment to hamper my efforts, I took the next logical step: I went to the liquor store and bought a dozen bottles of wine of various regions and styles. Back at home, I popped my first bottle, turned on the computer, and went to work. Eight hours and two-and-a-half bottles later, I’d written the first three thousand words of a novel. For six weeks, I daily repeated this drinking and writing regimen, and by the end of this torrent of writing, I’d managed to complete a first draft.
Certain I’d written the most brilliant novel of the early twenty-first century, I sent the draft to the sharpest, most astute critic I knew: another friend, Mr. Ryan Morse. Ryan read the novel over the course of a few days, and then said I could come pick up his notes. I was shocked to find he’d roundly blasted the novel for its incoherence, its sentimentality, and its overall lousiness. Determined not to be defeated, I set myself back to work. Over the next 18 months, I “required” Ryan to read at least six more drafts of the manuscript. Each slightly less shitty than the one preceding it.
It was then time to begin the masochistic process of submitting the novel to agents and publishers. To my great dismay, the book missed the mark with the establishment, and was universally rejected. My options were to begin anew with a second novel or suicide myself. After much consideration, I opted for the former. However, I had no idea where to begin. A second novel is nothing like a first novel. With a first novel, if one has lived an interesting and worthwhile life, all a writer must do is sit down and type. The chapters spew forth from your fingers and onto the page. It’s as easy as breathing. As natural as fucking.
However, as I understand it, a second novel requires something entirely different. A second novel calls for serious consideration, a keen focus on craft, and months of deliberation on central themes and narrative choices. The stakes are simply too high to leave it up to chance.
Unsurprisingly, I decided to buck convention, sitting down one “Wet Wednesday” with just a single abiding concept floating around in my head: What would happen to a person like me if I were to stumble into great success? Having never actually accomplished anything greater than tiny, trivial successes in all my life, I had no personal experience to draw from. This freed me to explore any obscure notions that came to me, no matter how far-reaching or unlikely. I worked with absolutely no roadmap or outline.
Most often, all my best ideas come to mind during my morning shower. It was not uncommon for me to spend upwards of twenty minutes lathering a single kneecap or elbow with soap as I’d make plans for the day’s writing. The conflict I continually found myself returning to was the tension between the obligations and allegiances that come along with success, stability and relationships, versus the desire for freedom. Despite his fantastic achievements, High in the Streets’ protagonist/anti-hero’s natural instincts stand in direct opposition to what society has conditioned him to believe is virtuous. His attempts to overcome and assimilate have left him riddled with self-doubt and guilt. Everywhere he turns, he’s reminded that the freedom he values above all else is immoral and wicked. Even the best friend whom he holds in the highest esteem, an ex-ballplayer seeking redemption after losing his son because of his own bad behavior, tries to convince him that true happiness only comes from duty to others.
Perhaps unaware of it during the initial writing of the book, in retrospect it’s clear that my goal was to objectively investigate this crisis, that is, the implications of the so-called American Dream, and what impediments you might face, what rewards you might receive should you pursue something entirely different. What ended up on the page, depending on the reader, will either be viewed as a tremendous achievement in human triumph and salvation, or a horrific failure in morality.