Research Notes · 03/06/2015

The Last Days of Video

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their research for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Jeremy Hawkins writes about The Last Days of Video from Soft Skull Books.

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I worked on this novel for over six years before finding a publisher, and for a significant portion of that time I was convinced that the book lacked… something. Something innovative, something literary, something weighty, something dramatic, something dangerous. Something. I had no idea what it was, only that I was ashamed of its absence, of my inability to capture that ineffable whatever. The book just had to be about something more than three quirky characters and their trivial (as I saw it) mission to save Star Video, the beloved shop where they work. The novel wasn’t deep enough. I wasn’t good enough. Until I figured out what that something was, the book would be a failure.

So, like many bewildered novelists, I began exploring myriad creative avenues at the end of which I hoped might reside this innovative/literary/dangerous something. I added characters. I killed characters off. I wrote graphic sex scenes. I grafted on wild formal structures, all of them lame gimmicks: scenes written in screenplay format, chapters organized like sitcoms. I arranged celebrity cameos, Christopher Walken being my favorite, because his eyes and hair were so much fun to describe. I caused power outages and floods. I set a hurricane spinning. I burned Star Video to the ground, demolished it with a wrecking ball.

And, in a moment of particular stupidity, I devised an intricate serial killer subplot. I shit you not: I was convinced that a serial killer was the answer to my novel’s flatness. Specifically I envisioned a series of murders in my sleepy college town that would be recreations of murders in Alfred Hitchcock films. The killer, you see, would be a film nut… a cinephile just like my other main characters. My valiant protagonists would employ their extensive film knowledge to reveal the psychopath, and in doing so, somehow, they would save Star Video. And I would win the Pulitzer Prize. It was perfect!

It was terrible. Obviously. Everyone told me so. The book didn’t need a serial killer. Readers wouldn’t believe it. I was undermining the rest of the book. What the hell was I thinking? But no, I was completely consumed; that the idea was absurd actually excited me, when of course I should have fled immediately down some other avenue. Maybe I was just sick of all those avenues. Or maybe certain bad ideas are simply blinding — and their unique badness is what makes them so attractive.

Anyway, I decided that if I was going to pull off this Hitchcock/serial killer thing, then I’d better watch and study Hitchcock in great depth. So that’s what I did. I embarked on a research project of reading everything about Hitchcock and watching every Hitchcock movie I could get my hands on. Fortunately, this was in 2009, and my beloved VisArt Video was still open in Carrboro, NC, and the store had an amazing classics section, and I had worked there for ten years, so I got all those Hitchcock movies for free.

This is what I remember: Hitchcock blazing on the television in my small duplex. There I sit, drinking beer, staying up past midnight to finish yet another movie. I witness a beautiful blond butchered in a motel shower… a strangled corpse secreted in a wooden chest… an innocent raped and murdered and stuffed in a bag of potatoes, her fingers broken to remove a telltale tie pin. I take copious notes. I rewatch scenes to immerse myself in the carnage. Beside me lies my girlfriend, asleep, snoring lightly, her head on my lap, always the first to pass out, rarely making it to the end of movies. I can picture everything about the cluttered living room where I conducted my “research,” and where I composed a good chunk of the book’s deeply flawed first draft. Most nights, for months, it was Hitchcock, and the following mornings, my novel.

Of course the serial killer subplot died on the vine, and it was Clyde Edgerton, my friend and mentor, who finally convinced me, after years of polite prodding, to ditch it. And it was simple in the end. A single afternoon of cutting all mention to the murders, then writing some interstitial stuff to tie off loose threads, and Voila!… the book was immediately better. It only took a few hours. I’ve never looked back.

For me, for this specific book, simpler turned out to be better, and I realized that the book’s core — goodhearted movie nerds craving but struggling with human tenderness — that was all it needed. I didn’t need fireworks or serial killers to give the book life. And I didn’t need to travel down any more avenues; I’d basically been home all along.

The Hitchcock research lives on, incidentally, though in a much abridged, much mutated form: mainly in the character of a hallucinating Hollywood director who constantly sees Hitch’s ghost. That character is, in many ways, a reflection of my own temporary obsession. It was a blast watching all those movies. But the core of the book remains the same, and nothing of the murders, thankfully, is preserved.

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Jeremy Hawkins earned an MFA in Fiction from the University of North Carolina, Wilmington. He is the founder and lead editor of The Distillery, a web-based editing service. He is also an independent bookseller at Flyleaf Books and teaches creative writing at the Carrboro ArtsCenter. And of course, he worked for almost ten years at VisArt Video, a family-owned chain of video stores in Chapel Hill/Durham, NC.