Research Notes · 07/13/2012

This Bright River

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their research for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Patrick Somerville writes about This Bright River (Reagan Arthur Books).

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16 Data Points: A List of Some Things About This Bright River

  1. To prepare, I played Zork again. A lot.
  2. I loved it a long time ago, when I was five years old.
  3. I learned how to write playing King’s Quest, the computer game. Not just type, but write. That was in 1984 or 1985, I think.
  4. I have never done heroin. There used to be much more in the book about it, but then I realized I was just full of shit.
  5. I drink far more than I did five years ago.
  6. Sometimes, I see fiction as a way to explore possible bad futures, and learn about them, and avoid them, or maybe just as a way to explore futures.
  7. Sometimes I don’t actually believe that.
  8. For a long time — up until about twelve months ago — this book was called Good Sense.
  9. When I told him the name, one friend responded by telling me that it made the book sound like it was not a book, but instead a box of Metamucil crackers. I had to admit, he had a point.
  10. But I liked how quiet a title it was, even though I know quiet titles often sound like cracker names.
  11. I also liked that old boring title because it stated exactly what I think the book is about.
  12. Virtually no one liked that title.
  13. In the first draft it was Wayne who had the psychotic break.
  14. For a long time, a guitar played a role. It was a clue. I deleted that storyline.
  15. Musical readers can “play” this novel as a song. There are 16 measures, one for each chapter. 4/4 time. Chapters narrated by Ben alone: I. Chapters narrated by Lauren alone: IV. Chapters narrated by both Ben and Lauren: V. The Will chapter is a vi. Don’t play the prologue or the epilogue. And I need to say a couple of things about this, as I know it’s grotesquely cute and I apologize for that, I do. I didn’t make it this way as a little trick or a game, I promise, even though Ben appreciates such things. The truth is that a time came when the book had gotten so big and unruly that I felt I needed a new way to organize the form. I have always appreciated the clarity, accessibility, and duplicitous complexity of the American folk tradition, and anyone who enjoys playing songs from that glorious catalogue (or the blues, or rock, or country, I know, but for me it’s folk and roots) will see these four chords as pretty common. I like the feeling of an unexpected minor turn, I like the way we can build toward an ultimate resolution by developing surprise with the IV and the V. So thinking about songs assisted me with that. I wanted the book to make sense, on an emotional level, in the way that a Carter Family song makes sense. Not word sense but music sense, which is a kind of gut sense or heart sense. So now the fact that the book can be “played” in this manner is just a leftover of the scaffolding I used. Still, maybe fun for people who play. Tom Piazza did something similar to this with his first book, Blues and Trouble (Tom Piazza is fantastic and a fantastic writer and a fantastic musician, by the way), and I am not going to pretend that I’ve made up something new or special by doing this, I bet there are more books that are put together in terms of music. It’s not a new thing. It is what it is, I’m just telling you that this was a part of my research. And also, even though Wayne’s poem can’t be decoded, and even though it’s effectively nonsense, if you were to sing that nonsense over the top of the chord progression I just told you about, you will not get some kind of amazing Goonies miracle, and no cone of light will appear, but you will be doing exactly the thing I was doing on the night of October 29th, 2010, in the middle of the New Hampshire woods.
  16. The song is called “Good Sense.”

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Patrick Somerville grew up in Green Bay, Wisconsin, went to college at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and later earned his MFA from Cornell University. He has taught creative writing and English at Cornell and Auburn State Correctional Facility, and currently teaches in the MFA programs for Northwestern and Warren Wilson. His books include two collections of stories — Trouble (2006) and The Universe in Miniature in Miniature _ (2010) — and two novels, _The Cradle (2009) and This Bright River (2012).