Research Notes · 08/07/2015

Into The Valley

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their process for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Ruth Galm writes about Into The Valley from Soho Press.

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People ask me how I came up with the premise of my debut novel Into the Valley, about a woman in 1967 known as B. who is plagued by a constant anxiety she calls “the carsickness” and who, when she discovers that passing forged checks in banks brings relief, goes on a spree in California’s Central Valley. I don’t know what to tell them. It remains a mystery to me. I see the novel all knit together now, character, conflict, plotline, setting, and I marvel that I dreamed such an exact and odd dream. But none of it was exact until I wrote myself into it, over and over; none of it made sense until all the disparate elements together were the only story that made sense.

The beginning was pure collage. It started with an image. It started with a rhythm. A fascination with an era. Seeing yellow; seeing flat. An aversion to a previous novel attempt that had been first person and claustrophobic. An obsession with spareness, with blankness, with driving. (I have always loved to drive, alone and far. I can no longer separate what part of this is me, what part of this is Californian, what part of this is me self-consciously trying to be Californian). A fixation with the Central Valley, mesmerizing to me in its otherness, the lean beauty of this vast foreign landscape that we coastal dwellers drive through to get to the Sierras.

A love for my mother’s Ford Mustang, here circa 1968:

Among the primal building blocks of the collage, two exercises from a list of Ben Marcus prompts that circulated in graduate school (paraphrased): describe a photograph as the world and present entire, without ever mentioning it as a photograph; write in a genre you know nothing about. I cheated on the former and pretended an image in my mind—a derelict house on a street off a freeway exit, clear and static to me—was a photo. On the latter, I wanted to write about crime and felt no authority to do so; I used a memory of the story of a bad seed ex-boyfriend of my mother’s who went to jail for kiting checks; I googled and made logical for myself the basics, then began imagining.

All these collage pieces I kept pursuing absent any overarching plan. And so anything that was “research” to the beginning of the novel I now understand as me following my personal sirens. I chased these obsessions by keeping B. on the move. (The use of “B.”, a perfect example: it started early on as a placeholder because I could not imagine this character with a name, until I realized this blankness was the point, something vaguely existential, another siren.) In the beginning I unwittingly wrote B. into the same scene with different surfaces again and again. Gradually I made her bump up against people. Gradually I caused her actions to be propelled by a tortuous anxiety that took up more and more space in the narrative; I’m not sure how I saw this or when. And in general I protected myself from the lunatic impossibility and masochism of beginning a novel by persisting in thinking of and calling all this assemblage “a longer piece.”

It wasn’t until I got to drafts that a need for more bona-fide research emerged. Once I had enough scenes strung together to show friends, their feedback exposed the places I needed to drum at, differentiate, linger in the details. All things sensory would get me to B.’s point of view, to the point of the story.

Then I drove with purpose. I drove to gather her loose route, not holding myself to exactitude but also not wanting to break the dream by getting things wrong. I drove to get the temperature, taste, air, smell of a road like this:

I had to go back and drive again. Even in late drafts I had B. walking through strawberry fields (she ends up in fields and orchards often in the book), until I somehow realized there are no strawberry fields in the part of the valley she travels; I had fallen for the fruit stand signs. So I went back and understood that strawberries were in fact tomatoes and sunflowers, and the haunting qualities and seeming disarray of these fields (see below) in the end strengthened the former-strawberry-walking scenes.

The other places to mine the sensory details were in the compulsion and unraveling of B.’s ladylikeness, the feel of 1967, and most importantly, the banks. I never wanted to scream out any markers, especially in a period as well-trodden as the sixties, so my research trick was to look at photos and read websites, but never for long. Quick searches for whether tampons and sugar packets existed in 1967, brief viewings of popular handbags or lipstick shades, a few headlines, what played on the radio. Enough to get colors and lines and mood right but never to lean on these images and facts too long.

The banks became everything. My mentor and friend Mary Gordon generously read an early draft of the book and used one word that exploded the narrative and arc open: “libidinal.” B. had to lust after the banks, to be physically, reflexively compelled to them like an addict, desperate to get her hands and nose and body and lungs into them. I searched for local and vintage bank photos online. I imagined insides from outsides. I walked into banks that might pass for 1967 or earlier and caressed counters, studied angles, fingered deposit slips, sat on furniture. I remembered the banks I had been in as a child, when banking was still more formal. I thought a lot about tellers:

Ultimately, nothing brought me to this eventual novel more than the preoccupations I had cultivated unconsciously all along. My biggest hope for my writing is that I always allow for that uncertainness in story-building. That I remain in the collaging and personal-siren phase as long as I need before worrying too much about research and drafts.

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Ruth Galm was born and raised in San Jose, California, earned an MFA from Columbia University, and has been in San Francisco ever since. Her short fiction is forthcoming from Kenyon Review Online and has appeared in Indiana Review and on Joyland: a hub for short fiction. She is a past resident of the Ucross Foundation in Wyoming. Into the Valley is her first novel.