Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their research for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Sharon Erby writes about Parallel from Harvard Square Editions.
Change is a curious thing. As much as we humans may acknowledge the need for substantive change in our lives, so too do we often rationalize away the action necessary to realize it. Of course, legitimate barriers may also block the way. Regardless, the result is the same: we’re left frustrated with our inability to get or go or be something or somewhere or someone different, better. These notions are at the core of my linked story collection, Parallel, and the sieve through which all this strains is a female garbage collector named Brenda.
A few years after my family relocated to the mountains of south-central Pennsylvania, I was traveling over Timmons Mountain (toward what a graffiti-arrow appropriately identifies as ‘civilization’) when I saw a woman hurling bags of trash into the back of a garbage truck. I was struck by her ferocity. Back then I was in the midst of changing careers yet-again (this time into education), and I was also enrolled in an MFA program. I’d been stewing around the idea of writing some stories about the natural beauty of the region and the tenacity of the often stalemated working class neighbors who had come to “accept” us. That young woman who was literally in front of me turned out to be a catalyst.
My mind started going. What happened next was a tremendous education that involved mostly observation and conversation. My mind may have been going, but was it going in the right direction? Now I must say that although (as a mother of four children) I have indeed removed tremendous amounts of trash across time, I knew nothing about the particulars of real garbage collection and disposal.
As luck would have it, not long after my encounter with “Brenda,” I read in the local paper that one of the region’s biggest trash collection companies was holding an open house at their landfill. I dragged my youngest daughter with me to the event — that was complete with a robot who ‘talked trash’ and real garbage trucks folks could try out for size. They even had free food. Yes, eating on top of a landfill initially seemed pretty unappetizing, but we learned it was all homemade, and it turned out to be absolutely delicious. Trash collectors were there, too; no females, unfortunately, but I was able to get a lot of useful and useable information about how the collectors do their jobs. The employees were very conscious of the public’s perceptions of them, too. And that made me a little sad.
After that event, I logged more road miles than I care to admit. Collection routes in these outlying areas were lengthy. As I traveled to try out a few, I imagined the tedium, the perpetual physical exertion, and the inevitable pain the work would cause. But that was only part of the picture. How would one reconcile all this, and the mess and the smell, and…
I indulged my fascination with mysticism. I brought out the Evelyn Underhill books I’d read years before (along with Teresa of Avila’s Interior Castle and Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses) and combined information from these with research on ‘thin’ atmospheres believed by some to facilitate mystical experience. One such point existed in nearby Berks County. Why couldn’t such a place exist at the top of the Timmons, the mountain that oversees the region where all the main characters live? Why couldn’t it offer a transport to transcendence?
The cast of characters (intended to properly represent the real folks who populate the region) was eventually rounded out to include more working class folks, Amish, and a few “high rollers,” since these upwardly-aiming professionals had started to infiltrate the area. I found myself in a enviable writer’s position: I could view the region’s quirks from dueling perspectives — both as an “insider” and an “outsider.” The ensuing interactions with locals, especially the Amish, gained me tremendous (and useful) insights on their views about the nature of work, medical doctors, and greed.
Since several of the characters were veterans of years-apart conflicts, I then needed to become mired in the machinations of war. From the way-back Vietnam era to the more current Desert Storm engagement I went, hoping to show again that as much as we aim to change, the inverse is often more likely.
Rounding out the research included educating myself on strategies used by clinical psychologists (with a sidetrack to Carl Jung’s Synchronicity), and the importance of “The Amish Study: I. Affective Disorders among the Amish.” If I planned to have interactions between a professional and an Amish woman who had a sister with mental health issues, I figured I’d best better sound like I knew what I was writing about.
One of the greatest challenges proved to be ordering the stories. My original goal of positioning them to appropriately parallel each other proved cumbersome and left the links between the stories virtually inaccessible to most readers. So, to achieve the greater goal of a ‘satisfying reader experience’, I opted to order the stories more chronologically and make the links more apparent.
The resulting collection lays out the suspense of the day-to-day struggle that defines the lives of folks who live their lives parallel to the broader society. Can they change? Will they change?
Meanwhile, my husband and I often wonder if we will be able to manage our pastoral existence as we age and our children move on, and think maybe we should get out while we can. But then how could we grow all those vegetables and fruits that need sprawl space? Who would feed the itinerant cats?