Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their research for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Jonathan Gibbs writes about Randall from Galley Beggar Press.
Research was always going to be a tricky proposition for Randall, my novel about the Young British Artists, the art movement that exploded into an unsuspecting London in the 1990s and featured the likes of Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, Sarah Lucas and Steve McQueen.
Plenty of these people are well known as ‘characters’ in the UK cultural scene, but it was my absolute intention that Randall would not be a roman-a-clef, and so I didn’t want to get too knowledgeable about the actual people involved, what they got up to and when. I didn’t want to be recreating familiar anecdotes, or matching personal characteristics, but at the same time I did want to follow the rough trajectory of the group as whole, with analogues for the particular peaks and spikes in their composite biography.
I plotted a rough timeline for my own ‘circle’ of artists, which at certain points mapped onto the prominent achievements of the YBAs: the seminal Hirst-curated Freeze exhibition of 1988 became the fictitious Everywhere I Look I See Death, Death in Everything I See; the Sensation show of 1997, showcasing the best of Charles Saatchi’s extensive collection, became A Bigger Splash, in 1998, which I presented as part of a national cultural jamboree, The Great Day of Art, incorporating some of the self-congratulatory flag-waving of the Government-sponsored Millennium Dome exhibition from the year 2000.
I certainly did read a few books that ‘told the story’ of the YBAs, prominent among them Gregor Muir’s Lucky Kunst, Matthew Collings’ Blimey! and On The Way To Work, the book of interviews with Damien Hirst by the late, great Gordon Burn. (Burn, by the way, is the writer who should have written the great BritArt novel, but he died in 2009. His debut, Alma Cogan, is, now I think of it, another unacknowledged influence on Randall.)
I read those books, but I read them as it were with eyes unfocused, to pick up gist rather than detail. 1 I didn’t really want anyone who read the book to feel that they had learned anything about the people involved. What I did want them to feel, as they read it, was that they’d had their sense of what art means interrogated: what it means, or what we choose to make it mean. So a fair bit of the research for the book involved me going to art galleries, and sitting looking at the art, and looking at the people looking at the art, and wondering: what am I doing here? What are they doing here? What, for that matter, is the art doing here?
While I had no qualms about misrepresenting the facts pertaining to the history of the YBA movement, I did want to make sure that I had understood the workings of the art world, and art market: what a dealer does, or an art adviser, how the pecking order operates. Don Thompson’s The $12 Million Stuffed Shark and Sarah Thornton’s Seven Days in the Art World were key books here, though precisely what I got out of them now I couldn’t rightly say.
Perhaps research-for-a-novel reading is reading of a particular kind, that absorbs and processes information, but erases the original material as it goes, so you don’t feel beholden to it. There’s a lovely quote from WG Sebald that applies here:
I can only encourage you to steal as much as you can. No one will ever notice. You should keep a notebook of tidbits, but don’t write down the attributions, and then after a couple of years you can come back to the notebook and treat the stuff as your own without guilt. 2
The final element of research that went into the book was the fact-checking part of the editing process. As I was working as much from my own personal memory of a moment in British cultural history as anything, I naturally found that I’d got things wrong. We always allow memories to drift backwards in time. Things happened more recently than we think. The pop music celebrities I had grooving at art launches in 1991 (Justine Frischmann, Jarvis Cocker) wouldn’t have been there then, or wouldn’t have been celebrities. I had to change them to Dave Stewart and Siobhan Fahey. Mobile phones, and flat screen TVs, always became common currency later than you think, just as while everyone was listening to Nirvana in 1991, no one really started dressing like them till a year or two, or three, after. We listened to Nirvana looking more or less like someone in Ferris Bueller. We should really aspire to the rigour of Nicholson Baker in U&I, in which he writes about John Updike without recourse to the books. If I’d had the guts I’d have got the times wrong, in Randall, as wrong as they truly are in my memory.
(A final side-thought: there’s a certain amount of discussion of the difficulty for writers (of a certain age) of successfully incorporating aspects of digital life — text messages, the net — into their novels and stories, but soon we’ll have the reverse problem: native digital writers struggling to evoke a realistic pre-digital world in their period pieces set in a pre-digital world they never really knew.)
1. I just looked up ‘gist’ in the Shorter OED, as I wasn’t sure it would be familiar to US readers, and was delighted to find it comes from the Old French, gésir, meaning to lie, as in to ‘take place’, with the same word giving the contemporary French word gîte, the kind of rural and noble lodging house that is central to the French tourist industry. ‘Gist’, in the modern sense, means the substance, essence, or main part of a thing. This diversionary etymological excursion is the kind of research I like!
2 This is included in ‘The Collected Maxims’, a selection of his remarks during his last semester leading a Creative Writing workshop at the University of East Anglia, where I later studied. You can find the whole thing at Five Dials.