Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their process for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Tasha Coryell writes about Hungry People from Split Lip Press.
When I was an undergraduate at Knox College, I had a job working in the Public Relations office reading newspapers for ten hours a week. I got the job because I wrote, “I love filing things!” on my application. This sounds like a made-up job in 2018. It sounds like the type of job that a fancy writer would talk about in an interview once they’d become rich and famous and were living on an estate in Connecticut. I’m not rich or famous and I live in a house in Alabama. I feel very lucky to live in a house. I drop the word “house” in conversation as much as I can because owning a house once seemed like an impossible dream much like having a book and now I have both. I got the offer of publication for my book, Hungry People, the day after I closed on my house and in this way, they are linked.
At my job in the Knox College Public Relations office, it was my duty to scan newspapers to see if they mentioned the college. When I found an article that mentioned the school, I was to cut it out and put it in a folder. I’m not sure what happened to the articles after that. While looking for the word “Knox,” I would often end up reading articles about other things. I became fairly obsessed with a Kansas woman whose skin grafted to the toilet after she spent years sitting on it and the woman whose face and hands were ripped off by her friend’s pet chimpanzee. My sophomore year of college, I wrote about the woman on the toilet and was certain I would be ridiculed in workshop and was pleasantly surprised to receive a myriad of compliments. I’ve been writing stories that heavily involve toilets ever since. I’ve never written about the woman that had her face and hands ripped off. There are some stories, no matter how much I change or fictionalize them, that should never belong to me.
Two of the stories in Hungry People were heavily based off of newspaper articles, “Love Like Cheeto Residue That Never Comes Off The Fingers” and “Eventually They All Get Sick.”
“Love Like Cheeto Residue That Never Comes Off The Fingers” was born out of this article by Lindy West titled, “Woman Discovers Creepy Ex-Boyfriend Living in Her Attic: A Journey in Gifs.” The title is essentially a summary of the events. A woman hears mysterious noises coming from her attic and when she goes to explore, she discovers that her ex-boyfriend was living in the crawl space and had been watching her from above since he had been released from prison two weeks earlier. I laughed when I read the gif version of the story, though I knew it wasn’t funny. It was the kind of laughter that comes with being profoundly uncomfortable. The story is a complete disruption of any kind of safety and security that comes from one’s living space, to have a man above your room defecating and urinating and watching you. I played Destiny’s Child “Say My Name” on repeat while I was writing. The thing that Destiny’s Child does best is portray relationships where the woman is successful and in charge of her own life and the man exists as a chaos-factor. He can’t support himself, he can’t be loyal, he’s untruthful. That’s how I imagined this relationship to be before, you know, the man hid in the woman’s attic years after they broke up. I don’t think there’s a song for that.
“Eventually They All Get Sick” was very loosely based off the story of Malachi Love-Robinson, a teenager that pretended to be a doctor. The original article I read about the situation didn’t provide many details, so I didn’t know that he had pretended to be an OBGYN and instead I imagined it to be a more childlike pretending. Medical doctors are granted a certain power and authority that other people aren’t and I think it would be nice to reside in such a position, if only for a little while. When I was a young teenager, I was often mistaken for someone older and more knowledgeable (I think for girls this actually means being mistaken for someone older and more sexual) and I wanted to write a character that accidentally walked into the role of medical doctor and then stayed there because it was comforting in a way that his real life wasn’t. The actual news article isn’t like this. In the actual news article, Love-Robinson pretended to be an OBGYN as a teenager and was then caught. He later pretended to be a homeopathic doctor and stole large sums of money from one of his clients and has since been sentenced to prison. Both of these acts are malicious in a way that the protagonist in my story isn’t. I think that’s the nice thing about fiction though. In fiction, you can tell the story the way that you wish it was instead of the way that it actually is. I’ve never written fan-fiction, at least not in the traditional sense, but this feels similar to fan-fiction. It’s a story that branches off from an original and becomes something new.