Research Notes · 01/10/2020

Notes on Jackson and His Dead

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their process for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Hugh Fulham-McQuillan writes about Notes on Jackson and His Dead from Dalkey Archive Press.

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I have built many sandcastles in my life. An essential component has always been water. It is best to catch a bucketful in the breaking tide to mould first the base structure, then the trickier, more playful parts of that medieval architecture; the sandy turrets, windows, and arches. Why children, when faced with the endless variation of sand, try to build structures designed to last centuries, to be impregnable, I don’t know, but writing a draft of fiction often reminds me of those times when, cradling an ambitious, if unsure, arch with one hand, I reached with the other for a handful of water to find the bucket empty. Those few seconds were despairing ones. There are times when an early draft can feel as foolhardy as trying to build a sandcastle when the tide is out of sight. The words refuse to find form.

Giallo, the assassins of Caesar and Lincoln, the date of Dostoevsky’s death, Caravaggio’s black studio, the Mayan word for sinkhole (dzonot), Simone Weil, Emile Bayard’s depiction of Hawaiian surfers in 1874*

These are some of the words I remember using to search for pieces of history, philosophy, art and speculation while writing these stories. These searches might have been a way of adding a few extra drops of water to my constructions, a way of curtailing the choices to be made. (When you consider the amount of choices to be made in the writing of just one sentence, writer’s block could be said to be a manifestation of existential anxiety.) These searches often inspired my writing, became incorporated into it, and at times became offshoots which grew into other stories.

In interviews, writers, in response to the inevitable question about the beginnings of their fiction, will usually say that it is an image, a character, a setting, an idea that lights their way, and that this is how it has always been. This assuredness has always struck me as slightly fictional. I find it hard to believe that writing can be so fixed.

Donald Winnicott believed that creativity begins when the infant begins to distance from their mother, or main carer, and adopts a transitional object such as a blanket or teddy bear to fill their absence. At this point the infant learns that they exist apart from the world, they begin to perceive an inner and an outer reality. It is from this intermediate space that Winnicott believed creativity springs. It is between my desire to write, and my attempts to act on it that my writing emerges. Ideas, characters, settings follow. In saying this, I am beginning to think that ideas may play the largest role in those early stages. In saying this, I realise that this statement is not without its fiction.

I have created a narrative around how I write, and narratives are tricky things, curations of events which, in this case, I believe to be a true reflection of reality as I experienced it, but which, may or may not be an accurate. We use narrative to shape the chaos of our experience. Memory, being limited, is the foremost writer of fiction. It is a frame we place over events, cutting off the seemingly unimportant. Julio Cortazar’s short story, “Blow Up,” perfectly illustrates the blind spots inherent in this unavoidable practice. A photographer takes a photo of what appears to be a woman seducing a boy in a park. It is only when he blows up the print, and examines the details, that he discovers the reality beyond the story.

In writing many of these stories I wanted to discover the line between the amorphous concepts that are fiction and reality, particularly in relation to identity. Or, at least, this line was something that preoccupied me during the years when I wrote these stories and so seeped into their construction. It continues to preoccupy me. I believe that the writer’s relationship with reality ultimately accounts for the type of writing they produce, or the writing tradition they lean toward. A broad continuum exists, with realism on the one side and the avant garde or experimentalism on the other. These accord with those two paths Zadie Smith wrote about. They also map neatly onto the history of scientific research. Susan Sontag puts her finger on this distinction when, in her diary, she suggested two ways for the writer:

One is either an outside (Homer, Tolstoy) or an inside (Kafka) writer. The world or madness. Homer + Tolstoy like figurative painting—try to represent a world with sublime charity, beyond judgment. Or—uncork one’s madness. The first is far greater. I will only be the second kind of writer.

(I should note that I read Sontag’s “madness” as a particularly florid replacement for “subjectivity”). The Tolstoy model, i.e. literary realism, is most closely related to positivism. This was the dominant scientific paradigm for much of the history of science as it is known. It is the belief that an objective reality exists, and that this can be discovered through the right means. If this aligns with your view, then the world exists to be written.

In the scientific world this paradigm was mostly supplanted by postpositivism in about the 1950s. Postpositivism is essentially the belief that while an objective reality exists, we can never truly perceive this, but can only work toward it, while doing all that is possible to safeguard against bias. The main competing paradigm to postpositivism is constructionism whereby there is no one objective reality, but multiple realities, each as valid as the other, and each one constructed by an individual person. This maps closest to Sontag’s inside writer. You could add Proust to this category:

Through art, instead of seeing one world, our own, we see it multiplied and as many original artists as there are, so many worlds are offered up to us, each differing as widely from the next…

I have never been faithful to one philosophy, and I don’t think many people, when they really think about it, are. In my research in psychology I tend toward pragmatism, believing that some parts of reality are constructed, particularly the individual experience of reality, and that others exist objectively, if beyond our reach. Those writers further to the avant garde/ experimental side of the continuum are likely to be more wary of their perceptions of reality and I believe that this comes across in their fiction: style, the writer’s imprint on the world, becomes paramount while the world itself fades into the background.

In my writing, my interest in merging history and philosophy with fiction reflects this pragmatic tendency, however I am most drawn to the Kafkas, Lispectors and Prousts. It was for this reason that the stories in Notes on Jackson and His Dead are told in the first person. The one story to deviate is the last which is set entirely within a large, ornate building in which the story’s characters are trapped. This is written in the third person, a mysterious person that might be the building, which the voice mostly describes. The characters are mostly the narrators of the previous stories, including those who never got to tell their story—all artists in one way or another. This third person believes it holds the key to their inspiration. In this way, the voice is that of art, or rather, it is the voice of narrative.

*In reality, my keywords were more hesitant, less readable. They are also mostly lost to that reality.

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Hugh Fulham-McQuillan is an Irish writer from Dublin. His short story collection Notes on Jackson and His Dead is published with Dalkey Archive Press in the US and UK. It is forthcoming in Ireland. His fiction and essays have been published in Ambit, gorse, 3:AM and The Stinging Fly, among other places. He is currently working on a novel, and a book about writing and mental health.