Research Notes · 05/27/2016

Man and Wife

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their process for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Katie Chase writes about Man and Wife from A Strange Object.

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The stories that make up Man and Wife were written over a period of ten years. Two were originally part of an earlier collection that hadn’t quickly sold and was put on hold in favor of embarking on what was next: novels were (and are) known to sweeten the deal. Two more stories arrived just before I pulled up anchor. The final half were written fairly quickly three years later, when I jumped ship. In a way, that novel served as research into the question of how deep was my devotion to short stories. Was I willing, for instance — if it meant some could be saved — to stop writing them?

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The oldest story — perhaps my first truly “good” story, the one that made all of the others in the collection possible, creatively — is also the title story. “Man and Wife,” in which the parents of a nine-and-a-half-year-old Mary Ellen arrange her marriage to a much older man, takes place in an otherwise seemingly “normal,” contemporary America. I could never have conceived of such a story had my reading habits not led me in two specific, not entirely divergent, directions.

Around the dawn of this century, storytelling seemed to be experiencing something of a renaissance. From film to television to literature, writers were mining territory that had been all but relegated to so-called genre, all while remaining deeply grounded in character. On the big screen, Charlie Kaufman was creating off-kilter, emotionally resonant worlds, and on the small, The Wire was probing for the social forces behind crime. Over the course of my education I, like many, had read and admired Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.” But here, now, were young writers such as George Saunders, Kevin Brockmeier, Judy Budnitz, who were injecting new life into stories of the everyday — not by granting their characters a dirty-realist escape (via alcohol and affairs, typically), but by skewing those very realities. The possibilities excited me.

At the same time, I was wandering a desultory path through what was considered the canon, attempting to fill in what my compressed years as a last-minute English major had left out. Much of the writing by women — as befitting their longstanding historical status — concerned marriage. From Austen up through the “chick lit” that in those days filled the front tables of bookstores, this, the female, was the tradition that I belonged to, whether I liked or not. And I am not sure, now, that back then I did. But it was when reading Wharton’s House of Mirth that I began to feel a strange twinge of envy. Narrow constraints naturally put pressure on a character and suggested a plot. I realized that for mine to find herself within some, even some that were similar, she need not be of Wharton’s world; she could live in mine. This in itself would not make the story untrue.

For the second oldest story, based on the factual resurgence of the “custom” of bride kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan and told through a male point of view, I turned to the Internet for articles on the phenomenon and enough details on the country to bring it passably to the page. But by the time the third and fourth stories came, I was deeply interested in creating worlds unapologetically female, worlds that hovered somewhere between the real and the hyper-real, the heightened or imagined. I considered my own experience of growing up, how strange it seemed as compared to how common it actually was or wasn’t. I headed further down the paths of my two main reading interests, lingering where they converged, in texts like Virginia Woolf’s Orlando and Toni Morrison’s Beloved. I read Shirley Jackson’s perfect novel We Have Always Lived in the Castle, which takes us inside the house of hermit spinsters and reveals its horrors to be all we (as virtual villagers) feared. I wondered why my own novel wasn’t turning out more like this one — more shapely, more “perfect.” The first of the flood of new stories I started writing after setting it aside was titled “Old Maid.” My final research for the collection consisted of taking a virtual online tour of a modern-day refugee camp and flipping through a book of Dust Bowl-era photography.

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On the bulletin board above my desk, dismantled every time a temporary living situation dissolved, reassembled after every new move-in:

This aphorism:

  • The perfect is the enemy of the good

These images:

  • A postcard of two girls, one black and one white, standing before a graffitied wall, mid-dance, or perhaps, mid-hand clapping rhyme
  • A photocopy of two aerial shots of Detroit set side-by-side, one from 1950 and one from 1990, revealing how a grid once densely laid and inhabited has been slashed through and slain in favor of wider streets and freeways

These quotes:

  • “Female freedom still generally comes at a price. We write the stories we both wish for and fear.” — Stacey D’Erasmo
  • “If there is no moral question, there is no reason to write.” — James Baldwin
  • “The function of the overwhelming majority of your artwork is simply to teach you how to make the small fraction of your artwork that soars.” — from Art & Fear, by David Bayles and Ted Orland

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Katie Chase is the author of Man and Wife, a short story collection from A Strange Object. Her fiction has appeared in such publications as the Missouri Review, Narrative, ZYZZYVA, Prairie Schooner, Mississippi Review, and the Best American Short Stories and Pushcart Prize anthologies. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she was the recipient of a Teaching-Writing Fellowship, a Provost’s Postgraduate Writing Fellowship, and a Michener-Copernicus Award. She has also been a fellow of the MacDowell Colony and the Center for Steinbeck Studies at San José State University. Born and raised outside Detroit, Michigan, she lives currently in Portland, Oregon.