Research Notes · 12/09/2016

The Great American Songbook

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their process for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Sam Allingham writes about The Great American Songbook from A Strange Object.

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Research is fun, and also fun to ignore. When I was working on my collection The Great American Songbook, I was always looking for the sweet spot between reality and invention. When writing the story “Stockholm Syndrome,” for example — which concerns a woman who finds herself equating relationships with captivity and abuse — I wanted to thread together real examples of the psychological condition with made-up incidents; I wanted to combine (sometimes on the same page) real accounts of serial murderers with entirely fictional biographies of mentally disturbed lyric poets. (I also took particular delight in making up Swedish idioms.) It was important to me that research give me some handle on reality, so that I could make up incidents that seemed real enough to stand next to actual events. The boundary between fiction and life should be permeable, I think — but you have to know where the boundary lies.

This was most true when writing the title story of the collection, which occurs in the voice of Artie Shaw, the famous jazz clarinetist and bandleader. I read a biography of Shaw, just to find my feet, but by the time I was finished the character I invented didn’t have much to do with the content of that biography. What seemed important to me were the small telling details of his life, the ones that helped me get a sense of Shaw’s emotional existence: the fact that he was obsessed with intellectuals, particularly philosophers, particularly Schopenhauer; that he was full of disdain for commercial jazz, including his own music; that Antisemitic kids threw rocks at him when he was growing up in New Haven; that he always saw himself as inferior to classical musicians and composers, his ideal of “real music”; the fact that he took a break from his career during the height of his fame to move to rural Pennsylvania and write a book. But I gave myself free reign to amplify and modify these details as I saw fit. The rural house became a shack. The kids who threw rocks became the whole city of New Haven, united in Antisemitic disdain. The book became a philosophical treatise on Schopenhauer.

There were no shortage of colorful characters in Shaw’s life, and I borrowed a few: Lana Turner, who he married when she was still a teenager, and with whom he had a tumultuous and public divorce; Billie Holiday, who he wanted as the singer for his big band but who was chased out by racist booking agents and disdainful, prejudiced audiences. But that doesn’t mean that the characters I wrote had anything to do, really, with those people; they exist mostly as shadows in Shaw’s mind, excuses to visit particular corners of his consciousness. And since that consciousness is totally an invention, it can’t really be said to have much to do with Shaw, either. So much for research and veracity! Really, writing about a real person is about figuring out the version of that purpose that excites you, and then dramatizing it with enough detail that no one accuses you of irresponsibly exploiting that person’s existence — and lucky for me, Shaw was such an irascible malcontent that I doubt anyone is going to accuse me of rendering him as too much of a grouch.

But there was one piece of research that ended up being transmitted to the story more or less wholesale. In the course of writing “The Great American Songbook,” I listened to countless Artie Shaw songs, and I picked six that ended up in the final story. I might not have been faithful to Shaw’s life or his mind, but I do think I tried my best to transfer the free-wheeling, searching energy of his clarinet into the story. Unfortunately for me, the aspect of Shaw’s life that most fascinated me was the one most difficult to drop into fiction. I wrote many pages of “descriptive” language around the sound of Shaw’s clarinet, but most of it was unusable; it’s remarkable how badly you can end up writing when you try to write metaphors (especially visual metaphors) about music. Trembling vines, glowing embers, three-tiered fountains, that sort of thing.

The only way that I was able to present Shaw’s musical energy was by transforming it into linguistic energy. In this, the first person perspective was helpful; instead of being an impressive soloist, my Shaw is a champion ranter. (I was reading a lot of Thomas Bernhard at the time, which was a help.) The penultimate scene in the story, where Shaw confronts an audience of rural Pennsylvanians in a backwoods cafe, contains a rant that I think does a fairly good job crossing a wild jazz improvisation with the howl of a disappointed, bitter man — but if it reads like a screed (and was written like one, in one quick burst) it was actually the end result of a year spent getting to know Shaw’s life and music. Research can be like that; the work is really a working through, to a place where the research falls away, and you speak in the voice of a character that is neither historical nor totally fictional: a new consciousness, defining its own reality.

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Sam Allingham grew up in rural New Jersey and Philadelphia. After graduating from Oberlin College, he worked for many years as a music teacher for adults and small(ish) children, before receiving an MFA from Temple University in 2013. His work has appeared in One Story, American Short Fiction, Epoch, n+1, The Millions, and Full Stop, among other publications. He currently lives in West Philadelphia and teaches at Temple University.