Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their process for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, George McCormick writes about Inland Empire from Queen’s Ferry Press.
When I think about the research I did while writing my short novel Inland Empire the first thing that strikes me is how little I did. I say this because the failed novel I wrote before it was the product of a ton of research, especially at the front end. But the problem with doing too much research, especially early on, is that it — like complicated outlines — can overdetermine and suffocate the writing. What I discovered in writing Inland Empire was that I needed a method that allowed for the dailiness of writing. I needed a method that allowed for improvisation and spontaneity. There is so much that happens to you on a day-to-day basis that ends up being in the book, or at least in my book, that I needed to give the writing the space to include that. So what I did I was this: I began the novel on page 1, and I wrote page 1 over and over and over and over until I had an idea of where to go on page 2, and I moved that way, slowly, sequentially, until eventually, somewhere around page 50 a structure began to emerge. I could have never planned that structure in an outline, it had to evolve from the sentences. I forced myself, once on page 50, to not worry about what would be on page 100, only what was going to be on page 51. My research then followed suit: as I was writing I did the research I needed to do along the way. Whatever helped get the next block of sentences written is what I was after. At first, when I decided that I would be writing about a photographer, I thought, “Oh man, I’ll buy a camera and take some classes and teach myself how to take photos and I’ll take hundreds of rolls.” It turned out I did none of that — in fact I can barely turn on my wife’s camera to take a picture of the baby — and it made my book better because I didn’t have that expertise. By not having the technical expertise, it forced to me talk about photography in more theoretical ways, which lead to longer passages on aesthetics — which in turn individualized the voice. It is also why I withheld any actual photographs from the book itself — I was, in the end, more interested in subjectivity than objectivity. So the research I did along the way was fairly simple: if I was writing about taking pictures of freeways I tracked down books with photographs of freeways. I should say here that a particular research librarian here at the Cameron University (where I teach) — Belinda Ferguson — helped me out tremendously. She runs the interlibrary loan service, and she tracked down every obscure art and photography book I asked for. Every single one. Now remember, many of these books are oversize, and expensive as hell, so buying them was out of the question. But Belinda got me everything I wanted. In fact I remember when a book would come in the first thing I’d do is check the title page to see where it had come from; often it would be from a library at a big research university, like OU or Texas, but sometimes it would be from some small, obscure institution out on the prairie somewhere. There were books from seminaries and public libraries and tribal colleges. I loved this idea of so many libraries, spread across Oklahoma and beyond. I remember one book coming from Rhema Bible College and because I am who I am, this sounded exotic to me. Belinda is a relentless librarian, and much of the research I did for the book is indebted to her. The other debt I owe is to the photographer and writer Frank Gohlke, whose book Measure of Emptiness: Grain Elevators in the American Landscape had immeasurable influence on Inland Empire. The particular aesthetic that the narrator/photographer has in the novel comes from my interpretation of Gohlke’s photographs. It seems appropriate then, in talking about research and libraries, to disclose that the novel got started one evening, way back in 2008, in a library. At the time I was working the midnight shift at the front desk in Leyburn Library at Washington & Lee University. A beautiful library, and most nights I had it all to myself. It would be three in the morning and I’d be wandering around, drinking coffee from a thermos, scanning spines of books. It was pure solitude. One evening I had a stack of returned books that I needed to organize on the shelving cart, and as I was doing so I came across Gohlke’s book. Remember, this was before I moved to Oklahoma, or knew that I was moving to Oklahoma, and here’s this beautiful book of photographs whose subject is, essentially, the great plains. I immediately saw what Gohlke saw, but later, when I showed the book to a campus security guard, and then later still to other student-workers, they didn’t see the big deal in his images of worn, cracked, grain elevators. Instead of feeling like I was crazy, I suddenly felt like I held a secret with Gohlke, and if I could explain that secret I might have the voice for a story. Later, when I moved to Oklahoma, that book taught me how to see the landscape. Therein lies the seed of the novel. I was lucky.