Research Notes · 10/05/2012

Among The Wonderful

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their research for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Stacy Carlson leads us through the curiosities of her novel Among The Wonderful, now in paperback from Steerforth Press.

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My research for Among the Wonderful was a kaleidoscopic funhouse ride through antebellum America. This ride lurched into motion during a lightning storm in the Black Hills of South Dakota, when, lying in my tent, I lit upon the idea to write a book about the rise and fall of Phineas T. Barnum’s wondrous American Museum, as told by museum employees.

There was something magical about the evolution of Among the Wonderful. Maybe it was because the idea was born during a solo road trip, exactly at the halfway mark between Seattle and my destination, New York. After days ruminating on my own, inspired by the passing landscapes, I was ready to let in a big, new project. Or maybe it was because of the book’s subject matter: a huge museum packed with art, science, deception, and a host of extraordinary people. Maybe I was just due for some synchronicity. Whatever the reason, during the almost eight years that followed that lightning storm, the ideas, characters, and underlying themes of the book never seemed to stay still. Instead, they swirled and multiplied. When I thought about the specific museum exhibits I wanted to be in the book, like the Egyptian mummy, the cabinet of American Indian artifacts, or the aviary, each idea popped open like a jack-in-the-box, revealing some unexpected new layer. I had trouble keeping up with the possibilities.

The story I wanted to tell was crowded on so many levels: Barnum’s American Museum itself was a public labyrinth and also functioned as a Pandora’s Box whose purpose was to ignite the imaginations of its patrons. I wanted to give voice to a myriad of people: Custodians, ushers, an advertising man, museum patrons, performers including acrobats, conjoined twins, and of course my heroes, a giantess and the museum taxidermist. I never envisioned Barnum himself as a main character because his real, historical life was so breathtakingly surreal that I couldn’t justify colonizing his mind with my fictional gaze. So I decided to make him a good, old-fashioned trickster figure in the lineage of Raven and Coyote, with a sinister dash of John Goodman’s character in O Brother Where Art Thou? For the first few drafts I wrestled with how, exactly, to fit all of this and more into a book that I could actually write.

In New York, I had the great good fortune to land an internship at the American Museum of Natural History. I worked in the museum library, cataloging their mind-boggling film collection (some of which was spontaneously combusting — that’s a whole other story). During those months, I wandered around in the museum’s cluttered back rooms, where old exhibits went to die. A sled once taken to the far north by a museum expedition leaned against an old taxidermy leopard, which itself had a folded suit of samurai armor on its back. The breakdown of taxonomy in those rooms influenced my book tremendously. I looked through notebooks that documented the museum’s inner workings. I saw photographs of museum glass blowers making models of jellyfish, diorama painters at work, and the construction equipment they used to raise the museum’s life-size model of a blue whale. In the library stacks I found a taxidermy manual from the 1830s, which gave me the tools to go as deep as I needed to into my character’s obsessive working life. During my lunch break I walked the museum’s public halls, first absorbing the exhibits and then watching the people around me. This research gave my book its lifeblood.

In order to conjure a believable 1840s New York, and in search of a kind of texture for its everyday life, I went straight for the newspapers of the time. Once I opened these boxes of microfilm, the voices burst off the screen in a chorus of tiny bullhorns: Grisly murders, cults of celebrity, natural and manmade disasters, and oh, the advertisements! They were everywhere. Sound familiar? I realized that Among the Wonderful’s themes of edu-tainment, showmanship, advertising, spectacle, and the blurry role of “science” in popular culture were viscerally connected to the present American moment. Barnum himself, it occurred to me, is a quintessentially modern, even postmodern figure. All of this went into the book.

Much of the book chronicles the lives of Barnum’s Representatives of the Wonderful — extraordinary people whose professional lives made them spectacles. Barnum employed a whole repertoire of human anomalies, plus many people whose ethnicities made them exciting for the late-nineteenth-century crowd to behold. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there are remarkably few documents written by these people that reveal their personal lives. During my early research I’d read several books about “freaks” from vaudeville and even earlier, but nothing that struck my imagination. These are figures already secure in our collective imagination. My work was to dislodge the familiar archetypes and create soulful, many-faceted characters that capture my readers’ hearts. I didn’t need research for that.

True enough, but one day I stumbled into the Somers Early Circus Museum in New York hoping to see some of Barnum’s early advertising posters. Instead I found myself upstairs in their archives, a small room full of unlabelled cardboard boxes and filing cabinets. When I saw the general disarray, I got excited. The museum archives were so dusty and infrequently visited that I felt I was onto something if not new, then at least unusual. It is the stuff that keeps a novelist (at least this novelist) going, especially when she is struggling somewhere in the third quarter of her novel.

In those boxes I found a “True Life History” apparently authored by a professional giantess in the 1870s. It was a souvenir that her audience could purchase. Inside, I read an account of the giantess’ early life, an exotic tale that must have been fabricated. The True Life History contained Biblical quotes, the giantess’ dress size, and an account of giants throughout history. This gem became a touchstone for my own giantess character, and in fact her own True Life History is an important part of Among the Wonderful. The questions of authorship, self-mythology, professional women of the time, and the consequences of commercializing one’s life soon took deep root in my work.

During the spring of 2010 I finished the book and my funhouse ride glided to a stop. I leapt out and walked away, looking ahead toward publication. It wasn’t until much later that I paused to consider the ride as a whole: the momentum, the blind turns, the darkness and the sudden, startling apparitions — this dance between writing and research that characterizes my creative impulse. All I could do was shake my head. And start again.

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Stacy Carlson’s novel, Among the Wonderful, was published in 2011 by Steerforth Press. Her work has appeared in Tin House, Post Road, In Pieces: An Anthology of Fragmentary Writing, and Inkwell. She received a 2010 artist residency at Djerassi Resident Artist Program and won the 2003 Dana Portfolio Award, given for three book-length manuscripts. She grew up in Seattle and now lives in Oakland, California. her website is www.amongthewonderful.com.