Research Notes · 12/02/2016

Love Give Us One Death

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their process for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Jeff P. Jones writes about Love Give Us One Death: Bonnie and Clyde in the Last Days from Texas Review Press.

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The Word Trap and the Novel

This novel was born out of a desire to reanimate the speech of my ancestors. Once and sometimes twice a year when I was growing up, my father would drive us the nine hundred miles from our suburban home in Denver to his boyhood home in east Texas. As we left the open flats around Dallas and entered the Piney Woods, the air itself changed into a damp resiny film that clung to the skin. The two-lane highway began snaking through towering hallways of trees, and everything became altered and, how to say it? — filled with newness.

They spoke differently down there, too, a speech studded with strangeness, words and short phrases — y’all, fixin’ to, here in a bit, yes m’am, no sir — whose mellifluous sounds made of everyday exchanges things of art. Something as ordinary as a call to the dinner table — “Y’all come sit down now” — when spoken by my Aunt Leta suddenly burgeoned with personality and music. Then there were the phrases that had to be mulled over for their meaning — don’t job nobody with that stick or you’ll like to get snatched baldheaded. These strange phrasings shocked and intrigued and stayed with me for years.

In a letter that I keep in a small red wicker box, my great grandmother writes to her daughter, my grandmother Lillian, on November 28, 1920, that Mirtle “was right sick,” and that, shortly after, “then the baby taken it,” and “it taken all of us to give medicine” to the child. “We are aiming to move next week if it is pretty weather,” she writes elsewhere, and “Miller Hughes eat dinner with us today,” and “Lillian if you can spare ten or fifteen dollars I wish you would lend it to your papa to pay Judd on the mule that he let Jack have.” It’s a sudden immersion: the voices in this and the other family letters in the red box instantly rewind the calendar to a time when no one knows how the neighbors, with no money for warm clothes, will make it through the winter, when the family’s only horse is found tangled up in barbed wire and then dies a few days later, when an uncle’s gift of a mattress on my grandparents’ wedding day is returned to him because otherwise he himself will have nothing on which to sleep.

Imagine my pleasure, then, sitting in the Dallas Public Library archives in 2011, holding the notebook in which was kept, in a looping hand reminiscent of my great grandmother’s, the record of a phone-tap on the Barrow family from April, 1934, and discovering gems like these:

“Billie said we are going on a weeney roast Sat. nite”

“Mrs. B. called Nell at Barber Shop asked her what she was doing. She said Fixing my face.”

“This is Mr. Leforce. Ruth said you had 2 pigs to sell. She said ‘oh yes.’ We have 2 little pigs we bought during the last stock show we want to sell. He said have they been around any sick hogs? She said no. He said Why do you want to sell them? She said We have no place for them when it rains.”

Despite the nearly eight decades of separation, I could hear on that crackling phone line the brimming rise-and-drop in the “oh yes” that conveyed just how eager Clyde Barrow’s mother was to receive the man’s inquiry, and that soggy lilt in “rains” that caused the word to sag until it broke into two syllables — “ray-ens” — and broke again into raindrops making a slop of the yard.

The speech of Bonnie and Clyde’s time and place was speech I knew, if not in my daily life in Denver, then somewhere deeper. Like my grandparents, who were the outlaw couple’s age-mates, Bonnie and Clyde started their lives in rural Texas among failing cotton farms and boll weevils. Telling their story was a way, I now understand, of steeping myself in a language rich with familial connections.

At the same time, though, memory and family letters didn’t hold enough little word seeds to sprinkle through an entire novel. I needed a whole crop from which to draw when building scenes. In The Writer’s Portable Mentor, Priscilla Long claims that if writers don’t do lexical practice, we’re “pretty much stuck with television words, newspaper words, cereal-box words.” She advocates creating a personalized lexicon with this rule: “put in only the good words, the juicy words, the hot words.” And for each piece of writing, Long recommends creating what she calls a word trap:

First simply make a list of twenty-five or even a hundred words and phrases, not necessarily big words or new words, but simply vocabulary associated with that time and place and character and activity. Just making the list will help you sink deeper into the subject matter.

My word trap for this novel was a red three-ring binder into which I inserted loose pages as necessary. I kept its categories separate, with tabs for justice, violence, prison, weather, guns, clothing, furniture, technology, medicine. What I did was scan relevant dictionaries, websites, word lists, books on clothing, linguistics, geography, geology, and flora and fauna, other novels from the time, the Sears, Roebuck Catalog I bought on eBay, and in these places find terms and then list these terms and sometimes riff on them right there in my notes.

Under “Cars” I find: flivver, foot feed, trigger-pin acceleration, headlamps, rear vision mirror, horsehair upholstery, twist of the key, flathead V8. A car can be turned turtle, which means flipped, or cracked up in a wreck, then junked or sold to a hockshop. Motor smoke coils. You can goose a car down the road and light a shuck out of town. With its muffler off, a car sounds like a thresher. Creek bottoms are a mess of chuckholes. The highway in sunlight is a hot slick of black. The barrow pit — the ditch on either side of the road — struck me for its resonance with Clyde’s last name.

Most of these terms didn’t make it into the novel’s final version, but during its drafting, they were vital. I needed this word trap because it was power. It stood as a storehouse of authenticity behind the work. When it came time to pull from the word trap, of course, the terms still had to earn their keep in terms of evocation and authenticity, but I also felt the assurance that by building this personalized lexicon, no one else could replicate with precisely the same language the story that I was telling.

And on good days, doing my word work, everything hummed. Every scrap of language I came across buzzed with connective electricity, wanting to be plugged in. In 1837, Ralph Waldo Emerson told a group of budding scholars, “When the mind is braced by labor and invention, the page of whatever book we read becomes luminous with manifold allusion.” Fueled by the fires of a project, the world itself lights up with meaning. We trap what portion we can.

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Jeff P. Jones was born and raised in Denver, Colorado. His paternal ancestors were sharecroppers in East Texas. He’s a MacDowell Fellow, and his fiction has won several awards, including the A. David Schwartz, Hackney, Wabash, and Meridian Editors’ prizes. He lives on the Palouse in northern Idaho. This is his first book.