Research Notes · 11/08/2013

Isle of Youth

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their research for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Laura van den Berg writes about her novel Isle of Youth from FSG.

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When it comes to place, The Isle of Youth is a mix of autobiography, invention, and research. Three of the seven stories are set in Florida, where I grew up; the other four are set in Patagonia, Paris, Antarctica, and Galesburg, IL. I have been to Paris several times and I have driven through Galesburg, but I have never set foot in Patagonia or Antarctica. The foreignness of Antarctica in particular was compelling to me from the start, though writing about such a place seemed a bit like writing a story set on Mars. The rules of living would be different out there. In order to get a sense of those rules, research would be required.

When I need to research a place, the first — and often only — thing I do is buy a travel guide, preferably Lonely Planet. I can remember rooting around in the travel section of Politics & Prose for a guide on Antarctica. Finally I asked a bookseller if they had one in stock. “Wow,” the woman said. “Are you going there?” I shook my head. I didn’t know how to explain that I was looking for fact to aid the creation of fiction, that I prepare to write about an unfamiliar place by pretending I’m going away on very long trip. What will I need to know? What will I want to do? What are the wonders and the dangers?

The bookseller found a Lonely Planet Antarctica. If you looked at the travel books in my office, you would think I have been to every corner of the globe.

As I read the Antarctica guide, I noted both the practical details (i.e. weather) and the deliciously strange details that took root in my imagination, that suggested a larger human story. From the Lonely Planet guide, I learned the cold and darkness of Antarctic winters can impact short-term memory. I learned that in order to stave off the boredom that can set in during winter, some stations will: “indulge in a kind of collective cultism, in which a certain song or movie is played over and over, with station members memorizing the entire dialogue and playing particular roles.” I mean, how weird and interesting is that? Very, or at least it is to me. I learned that no single country rules Antarctica. I learned about balaclavas and whiteouts. Many of these details didn’t make it into the finished story, titled (what else?) “Antarctica,” but they did affirm for me that this was the right setting for the sorry I wanted to tell — the place became more mysterious after research, not less.

Fiction often derives energy from contradictory impulses. With “Antarctica,” the present thread is set in Antarctica, but there’s also a past thread set in Cambridge, MA, a place that is intimately familiar to me. As I drafted, that conflict between the radically foreign and the very familiar was a tension that kept me interested. A reader might (not unreasonably) assume that the landscapes of the Florida stories are also intimately familiar, but they take place in South Florida, while I was raised in Central Florida, in Orlando. As a child, Miami and its environs held a certain allure; it was that vision of South Florida I returned to in those stories. Central Florida I know too well to write about. If my mind becomes crowded with fact, I’m limited in my ability to create fiction. Taken collectively, the settings in The Isle of Youth present their own kind of contradiction: nearly half the stories are set in Florida; wouldn’t it have made sense to set all the stories there? Why go to these other places? While I did want this book to inhabit Florida, to be of Florida, it was equally important that some stories break away from Florida, that they get as far away from Florida as they can.

Another contradiction: I have heard myself say that one of the greatest joys of fiction is getting to travel to a million different places, to lead a million different lives, without ever leaving my desk. A true statement, but not one that tells the whole story. I do love the imaginative exploration fiction requires, but I love real life exploration too. I love to travel, I love interact, to be in the mix. For a lot of writers, solitude is the preferred state, but it is not really in my nature to be solitary. The artist-in-the-garret way is not for me. Yet I rarely travel for research. For that I turn to Lonely Planet and YouTube videos of Antarctic ice and then to whatever my imagination brings. In my real life, I travel not for my writing, but for me, though of course, to certain degree, “writing” and “me” are probably one in the same.

Sometimes I fall so terribly in love with an idea of a place. The atmosphere, or what I imagine the atmosphere to be. The poetry of a name. Ant-arc-tic-a. I get my Lonely Planet and read it cover-to-cover. Unsatisfied, I get another guide; I log hours watching videos of this place on YouTube, or looking at maps and photos. I do all this only to realize that the place is not a place I’m capable of writing about at this particular time. I just can’t see it. Despite the research, the facts have not given way to fiction; that are only facts. Something about the place remains outside the grasp of my imagination. Or I may have realized the place simply doesn’t serve the characters, the story I want to tell. It can be frustrating to face up to what’s beyond you at a given time, but the unpredictability of the process is one of my favorite things about it. In the case of “Antarctica,” fact did give way to fiction, the extreme isolation of the landscape did seem like the right correspondent for the wall of secrecy the narrator has constructed around herself.

Another contradiction: I tried twice before to write a story set in Antarctica. Twice before I researched this place and twice before I abandoned Antarctica. By the time I started “Antarctica,” I had forgotten what I’d gleaned from my previous research or even how I had gone about researching (though I don’t think I was using travel guides yet); I only remembered that I had failed. What changed on the third try? I don’t really know, but the chemistry had finally shifted. When we heard the word “research,” it can be easy to imagine a set methodology that produces a set of reliable results, but when I begin I never know what the result is going to be.

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Laura van den Berg is the author of What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us. A Florida native, she now lives in the Boston area and is at work on a novel.