Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their process for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Joan Wilking writes about Mycology from Curbside Splendor.
The Wrong Mushroom
Everything I write starts as an image; a vintage hand-colored etching of a deadly mushroom hanging on a clothesline along the Seine, an impossibly handsome young man spilling his guts in a writing workshop in Provincetown, photographs of a famous choreographer in a striped jersey in a bookstore in Manhattan, a handful of miniatures used for scale by architectural model makers in an art supply store in Boston, a grand castle built by a plumbing magnate, perched on the hill across the bay from where I live on the North Shore of Massachusetts. So many images, compiled over the years until they coalesce into a story. Mycology was inspired in part by that etching of a mushroom I watched waving in the breeze in Paris. There was a long row of them. The one I was most drawn to was the pale, elegant Amanita Virosa, tasty but so deadly it will liquefy your internal organs.
The images piled up and I wrote a book, researching the many settings based on places I had visited over the years and Googled to find the stucco tipi motel cottages and painted doorway in California, the history of the Crane Castle and the Audubon Sanctuary in Ipswich. The décor of a friend’s apartment in The Dakota on Manhattan’s upper Westside became the locale where a lot of the last third of the book takes place. Because the book spans a timeline that starts in 1955 and ends in the late 1980s, I didn’t want to have to tag the chapters with dates. Instead I researched the music and current events that corresponded with scenes and wove them into the dialogue and narrative. All that research was done online.
Mushroom hunting was something I knew very little about when I went to the Audubon Sanctuary depicted in the book to walk the trails with the resident ecologist who explained how mushrooms propagate, their lifecycle, the effect of the changing environment on them, how they enter into symbiotic relationships with other plants and animals in the forest. He pointed out a dizzying array of fungi, naming them and describing their component parts. The one thing I didn’t discuss with him was Amanita Virosa. Mushrooms seemed to be of secondary interest to him. He veered into unrelated tales of the happenings in the surrounding marsh and woodlands. I got so wrapped up in his stories of the origins of fallen trees, which looked like they’d just gone over, but had been down since a storm uprooted them in 1938 that I didn’t think to ask about my star. And I didn’t think I needed to because I assumed the internet would provide me with more than I’d ever need to know about death by mushroom at the hands of Amanita Virosa.
The book came together in pieces. I knew I wanted an unconventional structure that shifted POVs from an anthropomorphic view of the natural world to multiple characters with a focus on the arts, gay culture, and the effect of AIDS on them at the height of the epidemic — a lot to cram into a novella. I wrote and rewrote and put the book on the shelf and rewrote it again and entered it into a novella prize competition and it won. Over a period of several months the book was fine-tuned. I revisited my research that pertained to the characters. Wrote and researched new vignettes that involved the wind, the role that fire plays in the regeneration of forests, a bar named Tosca in San Francisco and the signature drink served there, and on and on. The only thing I didn’t research with specificity was Amanita Virosa.
The book went back and forth from my editor. She had a sharp eye for Chicago Manual of Style stuff and made some editorial suggestions. Because mushrooms like the Amanita species always fruit in proximity to dead trees I wanted to check to find out what species of tree would be most hospitable. Oak is favored by many, but I wasn’t sure if it was my mushroom’s choice.
And then the bombshell, Amanita Virosa doesn’t grow in the Northeastern United States. It doesn’t grow in the United States at all. It’s a foreigner, a European. That bit of research spawned more research. For a minute I had a heart stopping fear that no terminally lethal mushrooms grew in the Northeast. Luckily for me, but not for anyone who ingests one, there is an even nastier mushroom that grows here, Amanita Phalloides, not nearly as pretty as Virosa but even more deadly.
I was embarrassed to have to tell my editor that I was rewriting portions of the book to accommodate a different mushroom. She admitted it was something she never would have thought to question. I tweaked all of the passages where the Phalloides appears, changing the delicate white Virosa into a stockier butter colored button, grateful to my eleventh hour research for saving me from mushroom enthusiasts emailing me, complaining that I have the wrong mushroom.