Research Notes · 04/15/2016

Natural Wonders

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their process for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Angela Woodward writes about Natural Wonders from Fiction Collective 2.

+

Natural Wonders is a collage as much as a novel. It’s squeezed out of an enormous amount of research on earth science, geology, archaeology, the history of vegetarianism, odd bits of linguistics, as well as feminist critiques of these sciences and science in general. It also houses a slew of interpolated popular novels including The Island of Doctor Moreau and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I read about shamanism and cave art, medical experimentation on animals, the domestication of horses, and consumed memoirs by anthropologists, archaeologists, and early 20th century travelers. At first, I hoped to put all this source material in the book, through about seven different narrative strands. After creating a monstrous first draft, which bore the working title “The Disasters,” I condensed it down to the form it holds now, which is a novel in the form of a series of lectures on the earth and its prehistory. The guiding structure is that each chapter is a lecture that Jonathan, recently deceased husband of Jenny, would have given to his vast undergraduate class. It’s the kind of class business majors take when they need a science credit, and there’s a breadth and entertainment value to the material. Jenny recreates Jonathan’s lectures out of his partial and chaotic notes, and adds in material of her own, some of it about their marriage, some of it the other stories she brings in. I used erotica from Anais Nïn, a bit loosely based on a novel by Penelope Fitzgerald, a Jack the Ripper thriller, part of an episode of the old TV show Chiller Theater. There’s very little pure invention in it, except for Jenny and Jonathan’s relationship. Writing this book was something like conducting an orchestra. While all the words are mine, without question, so much is based on other writings that the source material had a life of its own, as might the viola and the trombone. I was trying to get all the pieces into a harmonic structure with each other. My job as a writer seemed to be to splice together and let speak these many disparate voices, always aware of the power of the raw material.

I would like readers to understand that the science in Natural Wonders is all “true.” Certain facts or theories are outdated, such as the belief that the world was created on October 26, 4004 B.C., at 9 in the morning. I could never make up anything as wonderful as that excruciatingly specific “fact.” That date of creation is someone’s published and well-argued assertion, and as such was considered true in its own era. But that “fact” could easily be read as my own fairy tale, it seems so outlandish for the world we live in today. Several scientists recur as characters or motifs, including the Serbian mathematician Milutin Milankovich. He extrapolated the precise amount of solar radiation that had hit the earth at any time in its long history, and then did the same thing for Venus and Mars. He scoffed at anyone who doubted him, calling his detractors imbeciles who couldn’t understand elementary mathematics. I had no need to invent Milankovich. He was already a brilliant concoction.

I put Milankovich’s first entrance in the book beside a quick glide through a schoolgirl porn story. Books like this were often published in the 1950s as exposé, a peek behind the curtains of actual schoolgirls or suburban wives or runaways. These books masqueraded as educational, and kept up a veil of being sober truth. These books would have been marketed and sold as soft porn, but part of the genre was a stern tone, as if the narrator is forced into an unpleasant situation where unruly girls reveal their underlying natures. It matters to us that narratives seem true, even when we know they’re not. I’m trying to highlight all the way through Natural Wonders this need to believe in something true and enduring. The only thing we really know is that nothing is as it seems, and nothing endures.

I did shade or ornament as needed, changed names, and sometimes provided dubious dates or numbers, as long as they would have been considered correct at the time they were expounded. The first time I read any of Natural Wonders in public, there happened to be two scientists in the audience. When they came up to me afterwards and identified themselves as recent graduates of a fancy college, I was terrified. I thought my unmasking had come. Instead, they asked me if I had taken the course of the famous geologist at their school. I had not, but apparently I got the part about diatoms right. That was really gratifying.

+++

Angela Woodward won the Catherine Doctorow Innovative Fiction Prize for her novel Natural Wonders. She is the author of the collections The Human Mind and Origins and Other Stories, and the novel End of the Fire Cult. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin.