King of the Gypsies
Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their process for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Lenore Myka writes about King of the Gypsies from BkMk Press.
My short story collection, King of the Gypsies, was inspired by my experiences as a Peace Corps volunteer living in Romania in the mid-nineties, the operative word here being “inspired.” Since I began work on the stories a good decade after I had left the country, initially I was preoccupied by what my friends in Romania might think about my representation of their country; I also found myself wondering how it might have changed in the years that had passed since I’d been gone. Romanians at the time (and perhaps still) didn’t like the bad press they were getting internationally — primarily about the orphanages, but also about the ousting and execution of Nicolae Ceauşescu, and the political corruption that seemed to plague the young democracy. I knew from my own experiences that while these issues were significant pieces of the country’s recent history, they did not tell the whole story of the place and its people.
Still, I was writing fiction. I had chosen fiction for the freedom it was supposed to provide its author. And the truth was that whenever I sat down to write, it was the street kids and the complications associated with international adoption, the cross-cultural conflict and the xenophobia towards the Roma population that kept asserting themselves in my stories. My creative process was mysterious to me; I hardly knew where the stories were going when I started, and they continually took dark and disturbing turns. When I tried to control the narratives, they became journalistic, trite and flat, frequently sentimental or worse, preachy. In short, I did not like my work when I tried to be kind and generous; I was bored and knew my readers would be too. My creative self was at odds with the loyal Peace Corps volunteer and friend in me. Eventually, I realized that in order to move forward, I was going to have to choose one over the other. In the end, I chose art.
Once I gave myself permission to write creatively, the process was one of un-learning, un-researching. Though I read current events, I found that too much time spent with newspapers and books about Romania, doing searches on the Internet, interfered with my creative process. I found a similar experience when I spent too much time with the journals I had written while in Romania. Those journals were written by a person much younger and different than the person who was trying to write a book. In the end I immersed myself in things that elicited visceral and emotional responses. I listened to music from that time — traditional Romanian folk music and also the mixed cassette tapes I’d had mailed to me by friends and family members. I cooked some of my favorite Romanian dishes, and looked at old photos. And then I put everything away, never to look at it again, and sat down to write.
As a result, the Romania of my book is a product of my imagination much more than my real life experience. The characters in my stories are not based on anyone I knew there, not even the characters who might look a lot like me. While I name actual places and events, the rest is truly imaginative, which I believe even the most detailed historical fiction is borne from.