Research Notes · 01/01/2016

Kinda Sorta American Dream

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their process for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Steve Karas writes about Kinda Sorta American Dream from Tailwinds Press.

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If we’re going to dig deep, the research for this collection began decades ago, when I was a young Greek-American boy raised by a family assimilating into the American culture, watching The American Dream unfold firsthand. I had relatives who didn’t speak a lick of English (and still don’t), who got together with countrymen for picnics in forest preserves because it reminded them of village life, who roasted whole lambs on the spit in front driveways amidst gawking neighbors. Growing up, my America wasn’t one of hotdogs and jukeboxes and baseball games, but even from the periphery I knew there was something special about this place and these uniquely American things. My relatives left their homeland, left family members and familiarity, for something greater. And each time we went back to visit, our suitcases were stuffed with Member’s Only jackets and Levi’s jeans, because we were the lucky ones who’d escaped, who were flourishing in the land of opportunity.

The seeds for this collection were planted after reading articles in newspapers and magazines about America’s supposed demise that made me wonder, like many, if the American Dream is still alive. Stories about job loss and Detroit’s decay, about an entitled generation, about hate crimes and terrorism from within. There were other articles or stories I came across that spoke to American’s enduring freedom, to the fact that, despite these hardships and atrocities, we live in a country where we’re still free to dream, to do whatever it is we want. Santa Claus schools, snuggle houses, billionaires who made their money by posting toy videos on YouTube. Only in America! So that’s how most of these stories began. Little seeds that grew into questions. When there’s an economic downturn and joblessness, what happens to a young generation not accustomed to working tirelessly to have a comfortable life? Can today’s immigrants avoid having to climb the ladder from the bottom up and instead jump straight to the top rung? How has social media changed our perception of how good our lives are — whether or not we’re living the dream?

If I was going to assemble a collection titled Kinda Sorta American Dream, I obviously couldn’t (nor did I want to) include stories about all white middle-class dudes living in my hometown, Chicago. To the extent possible, I wanted it to be from the perspective of a wide range of characters from different corners of the country. So there was a good deal of research I had to do. I tapped into a variety of sources — interviews, news journals, blogs, video blogs — to try to get into the heads of those I was unfamiliar with, like an African-American police officer and a mother who lost her Marine son. I’d like to think my day job as a psychologist also helped me empathize with my characters and bring them to life. A good handful of the characters are in crisis, suffer from mental illnesses — things I’m accustomed to seeing routinely — so, yes, the experience gained through my career was definitely beneficial.

With stories like “To Abdo, With Love” (about an Army Colonel’s daughter and her Syrian pen pal) I was able to meld research on the civil war in Syria with my own personal experience at Fort Campbell Army base in Kentucky. I had spent a week there during undergrad doing research with a professor and had scribbled down notes thinking one day I’d write a story that took place there. Fifteen-plus years later I was able to dust them off and finally use them to flesh out the backdrop for “To, Abdo.” While writing the stories in the collection, my family and I were also able to take some trips, including a couple to Florida, which helped me fill in the settings for “Sculpting Sand” and “It Takes a Village.” Even things as simple as the décor of little ice-cream shops or the way seagulls pick at leftover cigarette butts or the coconut lotion and Heineken beer beach smell. I think, when possible, without getting too stuck on being faithful to reality, there’s value in being able to inhabit a character’s space for a while, to imagine seeing things from his or her perspective.

One of the cool things about doing research for me is learning stuff I didn’t know much, if anything, about. One of my favorite stories to research was “Savior,” about a budding survivalist preparing for the Mayan apocalypse. By the time I was done, I was intent on assembling a doomsday survival kit. Nitrogen-packed freeze-dried foods, chlorine-dioxide water purification tablets, a crossbow. I was ready to remodel our house with solar panels. I’ve never been too handy but I felt MacGyveresque, learning that even something as simple as a paperclip can be used as an emergency fish hook, a splint for minor toe and finger injuries, or a makeshift antenna for small electronics. But then the next story came along and swept me up.

When you do enough research, the stories sometimes become pretty personal. “The Uncounted” is about the mother of a lost Marine, and it’s one of my favorites of the collection. I read so much about the effects of military service on families and the impact of losing family members during and after war that it was impossible not to feel invested in the protagonist, like I knew her, because I knew there were people just like her really out there, suffering, trying to survive, rebuild.

As I’m sure is the case with lots of writers, I read and researched a bunch of info I never used. But I think it helped me get a better feel for my characters and, hopefully, add believability to the worlds they occupy.

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Steve Karas lives in Chicago with his wife and two kids. He is the author of Kinda Sorta American Dream (Tailwinds Press, 2015). His stories have also appeared in the short-fiction anthologies Friend.Follow.Text. #storiesFromLivingOnline (Enfield & Wizenty, 2013) and Bully (KY Story, 2015), as well as literary journals like Necessary Fiction, jmww, Hobart, WhiskeyPaper, and Little Fiction. He can be found online at steve-karas.com.