Research Notes · 01/06/2012

Code For Failure

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their research for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Ryan Bradley reflects on combining autobiography with imagination in his novel Code For Failure, which is available for preorder now from Black Coffee Press. And in the meantime, why not listen to the opening chapters.

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Code for Fiction

I was running a children’s bookstore when I started writing Code for Failure. I wrote most of the book there at work, in emails to myself during slow moments in the store. Not exactly the backdrop one would expect. But fitting I suppose, considering the book is about working another job, one I’d had four years earlier.

I don’t have a hard time admitting I was kicked out of college after my sophomore year, like many of the stupid things I’ve done it ended up being a great learning experience. The details of that are for another, much longer essay, but it resulted in me pumping gas and I guess you could say my research for this book was life itself. What better to inform a novel than the truth?

Working at a gas station isn’t a glamorous job by any means, but I am still surprised by the events that happened while working there, from violent interactions with customers to the opposite. I pumped gas for nine months before I quit and was re-admitted to the university I’d unceremoniously and prematurely departed. One of the first things I did after moving into my dorm room was to clean out my wallet. There must have been twenty slips of paper with phone numbers. Never in my life have so many women handed me their numbers as did during my stint as a pump jockey.

It doesn’t make sense, but I’ve found the truth rarely does.

So, when I started writing Code for Failure it was with very little directive other than to write about that period of my life, and in some instances to write as if I had done some things I hadn’t. Said yes in places where I said no, no where I said yes. I’ve guesstimated at least 60% of the book is nonfiction. There are chapters that are as true as could be remembered, dialogue included. There are chapters that have no truth to them. Most of the chapters have some sort of hybrid, true dialogue/fictitious setting. Vice versa.

At first I wanted to be as faithful to the time period as possible. Tell the real stories as I related them to friends after returning to college. When you’re telling friends a story over a few drinks it becomes fiction, no matter how true it is. That’s what my goal was, to write a book of those experiences as if I were telling it to friends at a bar.

However, as the stories progressed and began piling up I had to expand my reach, and rather than go straight to pure fiction I used other time periods as a transition. I adopted stories that were as true as the gas station ones but had happened earlier or later in my life, tied them into my characters and the setting. The more I did this the more comfortable I became with stepping away from the “real” of my gas pumping experiences. Without this shift the book could never have come together. As fun as all those true stories are to tell in snippets, when put together and capped off by the simple story of quitting and going back to school they didn’t add up to an interesting whole.

While I hadn’t set out to write a novel, per se, I did have some base understanding that the narrative was meant for a more cohesive form than a story collection. And when I realized I was writing a novel and that it wasn’t going to end disappointingly at ten thousand words (I hadn’t written anything longer than five thousand words in years), the more I knew I would have to fabricate the direction of the last third of the book.

Though the last third is the most pure fiction of the novel, even it is informed by some reality. As I started writing Code I had been married for just over a year (after three months of being together), had a ten year old stepson and a baby only a few months old. How I had gotten to such life milestones in so short a time still felt like a mystery to me, especially as I looked backward.

It clicked then, only because of how different my life had become, that my motivation for quitting the gas station and going back to school, while a completely sound reason in real life was not going to cut it in fiction. Not wanting to pump gas, missing the college experience, these are not things that make for a good summation of a novel. The mystery of stepping away from the easy path to take the unknown path, however, is what has fueled novels for ages. And probably the reason I later recognized the kinship the book shared with the novels of writers like Jack Kerouac.

I haven’t written anything as biographical as Code since, but when I think of the book I never think of it as anything but fiction. As I edited the book, or when I read a snippet of it in passing (checking a proof, or looking back on an excerpt) I am consistently surprised by the reality of it. My reality. From where I am now looking back on the time of Code for Failure already feels like surveying fiction, as if I have memory fragments of a film I half-watched. A novel, then, is only fitting.