The research on this book was a strange process, relative to most of the others I have put out. When I wrote it, I was coming off the submission process of two very research-heavy novels (one involved researching saints and the rotting processes of human bodies; the other centered on celebrity/reality television culture in the early 2000’s), which both came out early this year. For me at least, computer research inevitably gives way to constantly checking your Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Wordpress, getting sucked into YouTube rabbit-holes and so on. Basically, I was sick of looking at the endless images on my computer screen. I wanted to write something without much research, that would feel fast and strange and free while I was working on it, which is basically what led to the writing of IRL. Of course, there would end up being more to it than I anticipated.
I was somewhat of a late-comer to the Internet. I got my first e-mail address in 2001, when I started my undergraduate studies at College of Charleston. I didn’t have an Internet connection in my apartment and I strictly used the computer I owned for word processing. Mark Zuckerberg wouldn’t create the early version of Facebook for three years and it would be another four or five before I knew what it was like to become hooked on the WWW. The idea of IRL standing for In Real Life would have been silly to me because real life was the only life I knew existed at that point. I had not yet entered the matrix.
By the time I set out to write IRL, I was spending most of my time at home on the Internet, I had many e-mail address, too many passwords, profile pictures, and it even felt like too many “friends” sometimes. I needed a break and I noticed that a lot of other people that seemed to live on my Facebook feed were having — and posting about, of course — similar feelings of exhaustion and nostalgia for a time when we were better at entertaining ourselves without a keyboard or touch screen. This idea of a “vacation from the Internet” became fascinating to me since we rarely talk about taking vacations from any other type of technology. I wanted to give it a shot and I decided that writing about being off of the Internet would be my next project. Initially I didn’t even conceive of the book as a work of fiction necessarily. The original title of the book was The Month Off, which was not a good title for a number of reasons. I just wanted to take a month off the Web and write about it. See what happens. See how it makes me feel. See if I could even pull it off.
I couldn’t. I was back on the Internet within days and I was only off of Facebook for a little more than a week. I could easily give the excuse that my five jobs (I teach at two schools, give guided tours for two organizations, and write freelance) did not allow me to disconnect and there would be some truth in that, but in some place deep inside I also knew that I couldn’t stay off even if I was unemployed, which is what led my main character to becoming an unemployed former non-profit worker who focused on homelessness.
Homelessness in Baltimore was not something that required very much research in terms of online reading or whatever. There is a fairly large population of homeless people in our town and many residents get to know them well. Baltimore is a city of hundreds of small, distinct neighborhoods (folks often call it “Smalltimore” because everyone knows everyone) and most people live in rowhomes, which keeps us all in close proximity. If you don’t know the names of a couple handfuls of people who are either permanently or temporarily living without housing, you are someone who is going out of their way not to know people in that situation. So, research about the homeless community was mostly getting out of my apartment and talking to folks, which was nice seeing as I was writing in the summer with no A/C. Plus, I love talking to people in my hometown. Baltimore and Baltimoreans are rich with material for a writer.
There ended up being some ideas in the book that did seem to require a fair amount of formal research. For one thing, I obviously wasn’t going to really abstain from the web for the duration of the writing so I thought I needed to read a bunch of articles and blog post by people who had taken vacations from the Internet. It turns out, they weren’t very helpful. We all react to freedom from technology differently. I would have to use my imagination more than anything.
I couldn’t really use my imagination when the burial mound began worming its way into the novel. I didn’t know very much about ancient burial mounds — at least no more than the next guy, I think — so I would need to read up on the mounds and barrows of the UK as well as native burial grounds here in the United States. It was not so much the construction techniques that I was worried about but more the shape and the dirt-load required to pack one in. This is something I have researched doing myself as a form of pocket park, so a lot of that research just bled over into my novel. I already knew some of the places where one had to go to get free dirt in this town.
As far as picking the vacant lot out, I walked around a lot in the area in which it takes place until I found the perfect lot on which to base the space in the novel. The lot I found no longer exists however. It has since been redeveloped and turned into new housing.