Research Notes · 11/09/2018

Perfect Conditions

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their process for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Vanessa Blakeslee writes about Perfect Conditions from Curbside Splendor.

+

Just how did I come to write speculative fiction?

“The aliens were here again last night,” the woman beside me at the dinner party proclaimed. Others murmured in agreement; the mysterious lights had been sighted over Costa Rica’s Central Valley and reported in the paper. “Down here, the aliens visit us a lot, have been for years,” she said to me. “When I was a young woman, I had a bizarre experience with them.”

“Really?” I said, and set down my wine glass. “I’d love to hear it, if you’d like to share.”

“Absolutely,” she said, and learned in. “But I warn you, you may find it difficult to believe.” The rest of the dinner conversation faded away as she lowered her voice and rendered, in uncanny concrete detail, an unusual medical clinic she had been sent to while as a teenager in Guatemala, where the doctors had performed a procedure without surgical instruments, using high-pitched sounds. She was told to undertake light activity for months afterward, but that the problem she had been having with her ovary was cured. When she asked about the unconventional methods used, she was told that the clinic had been given knowledge and techniques from extraterrestrial beings who had visited their people long ago, and helped many of the most impoverished this way, in remote locations throughout the world.

Her story gave me goosebumps, and I shared it with my boyfriend on the car ride home, both of us marveling at her telling details that struck us as authentic. But somehow, I quickly forgot her testimony after the dinner party. Not until a year later, back in the United States, did I have an early morning dream where her tale came rushing back, along with an overwhelming urge to write it down. Within a day or two, I had five thousand words. I couldn’t recall the precise details she had given; all the better, for that enabled me to invent my own as I spun the premise into a haunting fiction.

You might say this first step in breaking through was a gift, perhaps otherworldly — a story at a dinner party of expats, a vivid dream. But a breakthrough it was, for my fiction up until this point centered on slice-of-life explorations that were very much grounded in reality — or what we generally agree upon is reality. Even as a grade school bookworm, I read fantastical books such as The Wizard of Oz and A Wrinkle in Time, but more often preferred what I deemed to be “real”: The Little House on the Prairie series, Island of the Blue Dolphins, Heidi. My tastes as an adult bibliophile followed suit. This story, which I dubbed, “Clinica Tikal,” having decided to set the clinic near the Mayan ruins, provided my would-be collection with fresh lifeblood.

Most surprisingly, an early draft of the story won a speculative literature fellowship to a writer’s colony — an encouraging sign that this path had promise. After this, I very much wanted to pursue writing more speculative fiction but felt lost as to how. This story had fallen across my lap; otherwise, my brain didn’t seem to work that way. Besides, I was enmeshed in writing my first novel of serious literary realism — wasn’t that the kind of writer I was meant to be?

Outside intervention struck again — this time in the form of a writing prompt, given during a workshop at the Atlantic Center for the Arts under the leadership of Victoria Redel. She had us focus on language, writing a page in nothing but fragments. What I tapped into was a foreboding scene of an older man in a warehouse painting a young woman who was posing nude for him. There was tension between them, but the greater danger was the world they found themselves in — one that was a version of my city, Orlando, but not. A possible future.

Where had the story come from? This premise arrived seemingly out of nowhere. The prompt was like a drill into a subterranean aquifer — my subconscious — and an entire world bubbled forth. I didn’t have to go hunting; the story found me. Like a spelunker, maybe one just needs the right headlamps and tools to unearth a speculative story. And, most crucially, a sense of adventure. I called my first dystopian tale “Exalted Warrior.” For my next stories, I would go looking.

+

The Art of the Day Trip

The black sand warmed my thighs, and the surfers glided down the waves, high overhead. In 2008, I was living in Costa Rica with my then-boyfriend, and today we’d come to bask on a windswept Pacific beach. When I waded out, ankle-deep, the cold undertow tore the sand from beneath me with such force that I wobbled and nearly lost my balance; in seconds, I was inches deeper in muck. A young woman plopped down near my blanket, said she was from California and a seasoned surfer, but the ocean here was so powerful that she couldn’t paddle out.

“How are those guys making it, then?” I asked and nodded to the surfers catching the barreling break.

Staring ahead, the Californian hugged her knees. “Maybe they have magical powers or something.”

My brain clicked. The surfers struck me as defying the laws of physics, all but superhuman. What if conditions were so extreme, someone surfing them would defy belief — but who? Jesus, returned to earth, only this time to perform miracles more quietly, to instill awe and peace? Whether the figure really was Jesus, or the townspeople believed him to be, would be central to the story.

I had brought my notebook to the beach — I always did — and wrote down, “What if Jesus returned as a surfer on a remote beach in Costa Rica?”

When I arrived back to our rental house outside San Jose, I hunted down the story I recalled might prove a fitting model — “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings,” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Years before, I’d read the story in both English and Spanish literature classes, and the tone struck me as one I was striving for in “Jesus Surfs.” As a student I hadn’t really enjoyed magical realism — too literal-minded, in my youth, to believe such far-fetched tales — and so I’d never attempted to write fiction in that vein. But now, I realized after my first draft, the thread and tone of such a story was entirely dependent upon place. That if we hadn’t spent that day on the beach, in a location unfamiliar, my senses and imagination wouldn’t have been jogged so fiercely — not just in subject matter, but in capturing a story so stylistically different from the gritty realism I’d been wrestling with for almost a decade.

Fiction writers ask, “what if?” all the time. But often, we’re asking this as we go about our daily routines; nothing wrong with that. Too often, and without realizing it, we can find ourselves exploring the same material and themes over again; this may often become a comfortable rut. But a writer doesn’t have to go to Costa Rica or another exotic locale to “shake up” one’s senses. How many of us barely even get to know our own backyards?

Sometimes the best writing prompt is to pack a picnic lunch, sunscreen, and hiking boots, and take off to someplace you’ve never been (and perhaps always wanted to go), within two hours’ drive. You may find your imagination jogged; you may not. An image, mood, or person you met may pop up later. Relax and let the unexpected happen; research and fill in the gaps of what you don’t know later. My partner is a composer of jazz and classical music; we take a day trip at least once a month. Sometimes a “What if” doesn’t happen for me but does for him. He has written a handful of new songs as a result. I have a notebook page full of fresh images and premises to explore.

And my “Jesus Surfs” story? It was runner-up in a contest, collected in an anthology, and is now part of my third book, Perfect Conditions: stories, just published this year.

+

Return, unpack, research

My most recent speculative tale was born with restriction, a prompt of sorts, as a commissioned story. A colleague asked me to contribute to a new fiction podcast he intended to launch. The story had to be in first person and be set in a post-Trump America — whatever that meant to the writer. What emerged was, “Traps,” another story I never would have sat down to write on my own, told by a young woman who had left the city to live with her survivalist prepper uncle in the mountains, following a nuclear detonation that remains in the backdrop. The premise required that I read up on what procedures to take following a nuclear disaster; government websites provide ample, if sobering, information. Who shows up in the end provides a surprising turn. Approaching the speculative, I find, often requires the writer to become more of a journalist, if one cares about capturing the most realistic, yet unforeseen, scenarios, and not far-fetched Hollywood tropes.

Maybe the speculative, in that way, is about surprise — for the writer first, and then the reader. Being open to or burrowing into the unexpected, to what lurks in the margins of our agreed-upon reality. All four stories ended up in my most recent collection, Perfect Conditions. Writing and revising into the unfamiliar paved the way for me to embark upon a speculative project for my second novel, about the fate of Florida following a superstorm and economic collapse. With extreme weather and temperature records breaking worldwide, it’s a premise that, with research, is quickly shifting from the speculative to that stark realism of which I’ve been ever fond. Maybe this new project will be the perfect tunnel between both worlds.

+++

Vanessa Blakeslee’s most recent book is Perfect Conditions: stories (Curbside Splendor, July 2018). Her writing has appeared in The Southern Review, Green Mountains Review, The Paris Review Daily, Kenyon Review Online, and elsewhere. Her novel Juventud won the 2015 IPPY Bronze Medal in Literary Fiction, was a finalist for Foreword Review’s Book of the Year, and a runner-up for the Eric Hoffer Award. Her debut story collection Train Shots won the 2014 IPPY Gold Medal in Short Fiction. Find her online at www.vanessablakeslee.com.