Research Notes · 03/23/2012

We Bury The Landscape

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their research for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Kristine Ong Muslim leads us through the gallery that inspired her book We Bury The Landscape (which we reviewed here).

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While writing We Bury the Landscape, I followed a very simple system. First, I located a painting (or a photograph) that I liked. Second, as much as possible, I picked from disparate time periods. Third, the story or prose poem needed to be less than 1,000 words.

My work ethics was to recreate in prose form what Edward Hirsch did in the masterpiece “Edward Hopper and the House by the Railroad.” These are what I saw in Hirsch’s poem:

  1. to imply only what needed to be implied
  2. to describe only when necessary
  3. to supplement the painting and not to evoke it

More than half of the flash fiction in the book was written around the same time period, specifically during a writing-frenzy that stretched over a six-month period.

My working title was Imagine. Erin Knowles McKnight of Queen’s Ferry Press was wise to re-title it to something that is more representative of the constituent stories.

To locate the art, I searched online. I looked at thumbnail images in online galleries and the cover art of magazines that I liked. To find the one that merited a story was a time-consuming process. I had to get a “spark” just by looking at the image. A spark, meaning a first line, a last line, or an operative word. Oh, I enjoyed every minute of it. We Bury the Landscape was a book that forced itself to be completed.

Here’s the link to all the artworks that inspired each piece in the book.

My favorite artists had the most number of invented back-stories about their paintings.

The obsessive-compulsive heaven that is an exquisite Julie Heffernan painting drove me to write nine short tales. My favorite among them was “Everything that Rises,” which appeared in the first issue of Barge Journal. This is the artwork. In less than 500 words, I wrote a mini-story about a cathedral that had to be rebuilt a number of times because destructive birds repetitively razed it down.

And when the birds from hell burned down the cathedral that day, they understandably started with the chandelier. Nothing we did was good enough. No water in the world could douse the flames…

Max Ernst was another staple. For me, the grotesquerie alone in Max Ernst’s spectacular body of work can sustain the writing of two books: one for Ernst’s Loplop alter-ego and another for the sex metaphors.

Odilon Redon’s work is an insight into the human condition. I had to include something by him. There are three Redon-based tales in We Bury the Landscape. One of them is based on “The Crying Spider”:href=“http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Redon_crying-spider.jpg. This was the first line of “The Spider” as it appeared in the book: Your own family betrayed you the day they mistook you for a spider. I remembered writing that sentence upon seeing the charcoal painting. The rest of the story wrote itself after that.

Many of the odds-and-ends artwork I discovered in the pages of literary journals. That’s how I encountered Don Stewart’s drawing of a hiking boot, which gave birth to “For the One Who Got Away.” The drawing of a forlorn hiking boot became the thoughts of a mountaineer who survived an accident in a cliff.

From an issue of Weber: The Contemporary West, I read a feature on the artist named Monte Dolack. I fell in love with his Midnight All A Glimmer. The Lindenwood Review published the early version of “What the Boatman Sees,” the piece inspired by the Dolack acrylic painting. The sentence that jumped right off that painting was this: The slight curve of evening is shaped like a giant axe.

From the cover of The Blotter Magazine, I discovered a reproduction of Wendy Detrick Worsham’s painting which became the basis for “Cow No. 7,” a tale of a sentient cow that acted dumb to fit in among the other normal poker-faced, grass-munching cows.

I can’t remember how I found Carel Wilink’s Townscape, but I’m glad I did. Here’s an excerpt from the little story coaxed out from me by that painting:

At the edge of town, the church bells sometimes tolled. Perhaps, it was the wind. Perhaps, it was something else, something that survived and replaced us.

I intentionally omitted many famous paintings like The Scream, The Persistence of Memory, American Gothic, the Mona Lisa, and anything by van Gogh. I felt that they were too familiar, and it was difficult to bleed anything off them. But I’m not going to pass up a chance for a back-story about the iconic The Village of the Mermaids by Paul Delvaux. When I was a kid, my parents bought complete volumes of three types of encyclopedia. I really loved trivia when I was young, except anything that had to do with sports (I’ve never been interested in any type of sports). I even memorized the names, the eating behavior, and the appearance of the dinosaurs long before Spielberg made Jurassic Park. And I knew by heart the titles of the art pieces featured on almost every volume. That Delvaux painting figured prominently. It was part of my childhood, and writing about it was deeply nostalgic. Back then, those sad women were literally mermaids to me, and they were sad because they lost their tails. Twenty years later, my story version had evolved. There’s a teaser of that tiny tale in Mixer Publishing.

I am drawn to Vladimir Kush, Dariusz Zawadzki, and Jacek Yerka because of their sf leanings. Take for example this amazing comic rendition of the Yerka-inspired piece, “The City is Landing,” at Schlock Magazine.

Jean-Marie Poumeyrol is my favorite artist. I loved the fact that even his sunny landscapes had an air of violence about them. If I had to write a book of made-up stories about paintings, then he better be in it.

Mark Young wrote two incredible volumes of poems based on Rene Magritte’s paintings. The Series Magritte books are available from Moria Books. I read the books with the pdf and a browser side by side on the computer screen. To follow Young’s train of thought, I looked at the painting that matched each poem. Mark Young had an eye for the uncanny. I “discovered” Magritte because of Mark Young. That’s how the Magritte-based tales in We Bury the Landscape came to be. Thanks to the amazing work of Mark Young. In fact, my second most favorite piece in the book was based on Magritte’s The Key to the Fields. It’s the book’s final flash fiction piece, “End of the World.” It tells of the worst kind of apocalypse (for me): a time when children become so uncaring that they enjoy watching people die:

On the street across, the children are full of bulbous things to slide around. They laugh at Justin when they realize he is dying. They laugh at almost everything.