Research Notes · 11/27/2020

The Dark Heart of Every Wild Thing

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their process for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Joseph Fasano writes about The Dark Heart of Every Wild Thing from Platypus Press.

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In the late winter of 2016, the partial manuscript of my novel, The Dark Heart of Every Wild Thing, lay strewn across a dark road in upstate New York. The deer had stepped out into the headlights, and the car — I suppose I’d jerked the wheel — had veered off the road, struck a utility pole, twisted into a tree, flipped several times, and landed on its roof. I remember a feeling of weightlessness, of being suspended in space and in time, and I remember knowing it was going to hurt.

When I stopped tumbling, I was upside down, cradled in darkness. The human body is a miraculous thing. It does not wait to be asked how to survive. With an ancient, unthinking precision, it tells.

I thrust my shoulder against the door, but nothing moved. I unbuckled the seatbelt and spilled myself against the roof of the car. I crawled to the other door, tried it. Nothing moved. Then I heard a voice saying, You are alive. I heard it say that three times before I recognized the voice as my own.

The paramedics later told me I’d most likely kicked out what was left of the rear window and climbed out. That sounds right. My boots had glass in them. I remember standing alone on the road at 2 AM. I remember seeing the blood on my clothes, feeling about as alone as the dark side of the moon. I remember walking down the road as though I had somewhere else to be. After a few moments, I stopped, turned around, and returned to the wreck. Then I waited for someone to come.

We use the word survival a lot. We survive our childhoods, our relationships, ourselves. We survive betrayals and heartaches, our sins and our forgiveness, and we stand on a dark road in winter and hear ourselves saying, slowly, What are you going to do? What will you do with the ruin that was entrusted to you?

The Dark Heart of Every Wild Thing had begun, unexpectedly, in the autumn of 2015. I’d just stepped out of a hospital stay — that is another story — and I sat at my writing desk, thinking the words that were coming to me were, thank grace, those of another poem. It took me a few days to realize I was writing a story.

Narrative is tricky. I’ve always been suspicious of it. Why try to put the world together into a form that seems not at all inherent in the chaos of dailiness, the unbridgeable gaps between one experience and another? Why? Because the story was there. The ancient stories were in us, once, to guide us. And they still are.

I followed that story for years, returning each day to my writing desk to step into this world that was taking shape. It was a world of snowy mountains and dark pines, of rivers singing with thaw, of the distant breathing of a hunted thing. It felt and smelled and tasted a lot like the mountains in Alaska I’ve come to love, a lot like nights I’ve spent in the woods, a lot like home. Most importantly, it sounded like the voices of characters who had asked me, at last, to sit down and hear them speak.

I think “alchemy” is the right word for what a writer does. Whatever our experiences are — and we are always wrong when we think we know what they are — we transform them, reshape them, find the shape in them we did not know was there. We imagine other lives, and we try to find and caress both the commonness and the difference between our lives and those lives. And in that way — and probably in that way alone — writing is like love.

The Dark Heart of Every Wild Thing is, I’ve been told, a novel about survival. My research for the novel, then, was the research of a life. Has each one of us been alone on a snowy mountain, asking to outlast the night? No. Yes. Has each one of us been twisted by a wild thirst for vengeance? No. Yes. Has each one of us looked up into the stars and said, Please, let them come back? No. Yes. Has each one of us looked up into the wild stars and said, Please, Please, although we couldn’t have said what we were asking for, although we couldn’t begin to have known?

I don’t want to get in a reader’s way. I hope a reader learns something from the book, as I did. Something about the way a mountain lion moves, about the sudden shifts of weather in the mountains, about the improbable connection between a ballet dancer’s studied grace and the survival of someone trekking home through deep, unappeasable snow. I say a reader, but I mean all of us; I mean you. I hope you make it. I hope you do something with the ruins. I hope you give the ancient things a chance. Most of all, I hope you find a self and a story that, without you, I couldn’t have begun to know.

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Joseph Fasano is the author of the novel The Dark Heart of Every Wild Thing (Platypus Press, 2020) and four books of poetry: Fugue for Other Hands (2013), Inheritance (2014), Vincent (2015), and The Crossing (2018). His honors include the Cider Press Review Book Award, the Rattle Poetry Prize, and a nomination for the Poets’ Prize, “awarded annually for the best book of verse published by a living American poet two years prior to the award year.” His writing has appeared in The Times Literary Supplement, The Yale Review, The Southern Review, The Missouri Review, The PEN Poetry Series, American Poets, Verse Daily, the Academy of American Poets’ poem-a-day program, and various anthologies, including Poem-A-Day: 365 Poems for Any Occasion (Abrams, 2016). He is the Founder of the Poem for You Series, which can be found online.