Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their research for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Holly LeCraw writes about The Half-Brother from Doubleday Books.
Research. This is one of those topics where I don’t entirely trust myself. There are novelists out there who do copious amounts of research, for years. I am not one of them. However, whenever I don’t want to do something, I usually assume that means that I should. I suppose this is because I was raised a southern Presbyterian.
I once heard Stewart O’Nan (this was at Sewanee, years and years ago) say that for him, research was like pushing the boulder up the hill: once it was at the top, you could just let go, and ride that momentum. We should probably listen to him, because he’s published fifteen novels. For me, though, research feels more like reading the manual when I get a new computer or phone: I don’t want to stop and learn the shortcuts and the handy-dandy features; I’d rather learn just enough to turn the thing on and keep going. In the end, this approach probably wastes more time than it saves, but for a while I get to keep the illusion of my own sort of momentum.
When I was young, in elementary school — the apex, in a way, of my reading life; the time when I lived in books almost constantly — I read a lot of biographies and historical fiction, things that must have required research. Now I don’t read to learn about other cultures or times, or not fiction, anyway. I’m always afraid that the imperative to immerse us in 1841 San Francisco or thirteenth-century France will overcome the story and I will feel dragooned into learning. It’s possible, though, that this attitude, too, involves a certain degree of self-protection. Maybe, as a writer, I secretly want to do that kind of thing, but worry I couldn’t pull it off.
All this defensiveness, I’m sure, means there is a book set in the Qing dynasty or Viking-era Newfoundland somewhere in my authorial future.
Michael Ondaatje, in one of my favorite interviews, with Colum McCann, admits that he wrote Coming Through Slaughter, a novel about the turn-of-the-century jazz musician Buddy Bolden, having only spent a few days in New Orleans, and The Collected Works of Billy the Kid without going to New Mexico at all. I love that. I love the idea of taking a few little facts or feelings or impressions and extrapolating. Sometimes I think it’s lazy, but mostly I think it’s the writing equivalent of method acting — it’s just imagining. It’s what writers do.
My new book is about a teacher, and a few of the most pivotal scenes take place in a classroom. That was hard. You can’t transcribe a whole hour’s worth of teaching, but you have to give the feeling of an hour, of things being said that aren’t on the page. I also wanted Charlie, my protagonist, to feel like a real teacher, and also a good teacher, even a beloved one. I had two tiny bits of experience of my own to draw on: first, when I was twenty-five I taught one semester of freshman comp, during an abortive attempt to become an academic, and I was terrible, for several reasons, one of which was that I was miserable. I never even read my teacher evaluations — I left grad school as soon as my master’s was done.
The second bit came years later, when I found myself teaching Sunday school to a bunch of sullen twelve-year-olds. My daughter was one of them, and I was part of an attempt to save a sinking class. Some of us parents had agreed that our kids knew nothing about the Bible (by now I was an Episcopalian) and that we needed to do something about it. What we had in mind was the concrete. Touch the Bible, open it up, read it aloud. “We’re not just going to talk about Moses in the bulrushes without knowing what the Old Testament is,” we said.
“Why are we reading this Jewish stuff?” they said.
When I was twenty-five, a class of eighteen-year-olds had been terrifying. I’d had no business being there, and I knew it. Now, in my forties, twelve-year-olds were not exactly a piece of cake, but I knew who was boss. The boys were mouthy, but I took no guff and I think secretly they appreciated it. I explained that Christianity grew out of Judaism. I told them that “Go Down, Moses,” was the story of the Exodus, and then we listened to Louis Armstrong sing it. I told them how David was an adulterer, a complete mess, really. We read parts of the Song of Solomon aloud, including the word “breast.”
Once I had their attention, I said, “Listen to your gut.” I said, “You are a created being, and because of that you have instincts that you can trust. Ask questions. God wants you to use your mind.” No person ever said those things to me when I was twelve, but I read it in books.
Some weeks the class was still a near-disaster, but one Sunday I was standing up, talking, walking around to keep them awake, and I realized that they were following my movements — that I could feel it. That focus. For just a few seconds, I had them. Small though it was, eventually I took that moment, and gave it to Charlie.
I see I’m going to have to recant a little. Maybe I do a little bit of research. The kind of research I imagine I don’t like but believe to be virtuous, the kind I picture other writers doing, involves months in libraries with dusty documents, immersing oneself in the art of metallurgy or philately or soybean farming, or the mores of eighteenth-century Moravian immigrants; but the kind that is maybe lazy but also pretty effective and that I do in fact sometimes undertake is the surgical-strike kind. Get in, get out, then extrapolate. Three days in New Orleans.
Sometimes, also, when I have reached that point where I know that the idea isn’t going to vanish, when I know for a fact that the momentum will ebb and flow, and when I realize that my brain is in need of nourishment, a little rain, a little crop rotation, maybe something besides just words for a little while, then I do some research. For the book I just published, realizing that a few Sunday school classes were probably not sufficient to round out Charlie’s sense of vocation, I sat for a few days with my husband’s high school English teacher, a legendary man now in his seventies who is still going strong. I needed to see how teenagers acted in a class — even though I had once been one, and in fact had some of my own at the time, I needed to remind myself of that ecosystem, with an adult who wasn’t a parent, kids trying to impress him and each other, weighed down by outside stresses, the kid casting furtive glances at the girl he just broke up with, the girl pretending not to notice.
I had forgotten that kids always sit in the same seat. Even on the first day I was there, when I had no idea where their usual seats were, I could tell by the way they beelined, with a sort of resigned expectation. I’d forgotten that kids take on roles — class clown, contrarian — just like in a family, and are then stuck with them. That there is usually at least one kid who is her own worst enemy, who is as bright or brighter than the rest but always forgets her book or skips the reading homework but tries to charm her way out of it, which works, until it doesn’t. And the class waits, every day, for these performances.
After class, the teacher and I had coffee, and he talked about love. “You love them,” he said. “You can’t help it. Some more than others, of course. Some of them are pains in the ass. But you don’t forget them. Some of them you’re close to for the rest of your life.” We talked about the sexual charge that sometimes surfaces. “Of course that happens,” he said. “You’re in each other’s brains. That’s exciting stuff. It’s easy to let it get out of hand. So you don’t. Don’t confuse the different kinds of love.”
Years ago, in grad school, I was unhappy. I hadn’t been ready to love those freshmen — I wished I was still one myself. But maybe in that Sunday School class, with children the ages of my own daughter, my heart had been more open. And after all, it was church.
There is one kind of research I force myself into. For some reason, even though I am a complete non-athlete, I find myself writing scenes involving sports. These scenes also always involve men. This is when I solve my research problems quick and dirty, with appeals to people who know what they’re talking about.
In my first novel, there is a pivotal tennis match between my protagonist, Jed, and an older man, Anthony Atkinson. I used to watch tennis with my parents, who loved it back in its heyday, with Chrissie and Martina and Bjorn and Jimmy, and I played tennis in camp when I was ten; this turned out not to be enough to go on. I wanted the match to be a power of wills, a contest between youth and age, and also have intimations of the complicated dynamic between Jed and Anthony, who is the ex-husband of the woman Jed is now secretly involved with, and who also, as it happens, was cuckolded by Jed’s father.
I was worried at first mainly about scoring, but my husband fixed that up for me. Then I sent the book to my agent, who asked, rather delicately, “So, do you play tennis?”
The jig was up. But luckily he played a lot of tennis, and could do exactly what I needed: give me the tiny things that only readers who were tennis players would notice — or, rather, hopefully would not notice. Nothing should break them out of the fictional dream, as John Gardner called it. So Henry told me about the etiquette of taking the sunny side, of winning the toss, of how they’d hit a little beforehand. What it meant to break a serve (I really knew very, very little about tennis). He told me how the older man might call it good shooting, how a ball could be not just on the line but could kiss the corner.
Later on, at a reading, after the book was published, someone referred in passing to my being a tennis player, and I just smiled, and silently thanked Henry.
In my latest book, my son corrected my lacrosse flubs (I had the score too low; I had someone yelling “Foul!” when it should have been “Slashing!”). In a football game — another contest of wills — a character needed to be smart and quick like a quarterback but also huge, and he needed to be able to score, and my husband said, “Tight end.” Sorted.
The piece of sports research that tickled me the most was also a contribution from my husband, who read a draft of my first novel and then asked when it was that two characters were watching a baseball game. (The book takes place over a summer, and timing is precise — a week since July 4th, etc.) “Why?” I asked. “Just make sure it’s not during the All-Star Break,” he said. I loved that. I loved that I was not going to interrupt the fictional dream of some baseball fan who happened to be reading my book.
Later, I had to cut that scene, but I like to think the ghost of that care is still present.
Then there is place. Place is the easiest research of all. Difficult if it requires actual travel, planning, inconvenience, but easy because it’s not about facts as much as intuition and immersion. After days, months, years, of sweating over sentences, of moving pieces of your book around and still not having them fit together, of killing darlings until the ink runs on the floor, going to a place and soaking it in is so lovely and non-verbal.
I am one of those people who believes a place holds spirits, or memories, or chi, or the imprint of the collective unconscious — whatever you want to call it. They hold stories. There are streets in my own town you couldn’t pay me to live on; there are towns I drive into once and could live in forever after. My latest book is set in central Massachusetts, a place where I have spent minimal time, but my husband and I once spent a weekend in Northfield, up near the Vermont border, and that town dug into me and stayed. I knew about it even though I didn’t. I knew enough to write about it. (Three days in New Orleans. In and out. Done.)
But there came a point where it had been several years since that weekend and I was deep in the book and needed to feel that place again, to wrap it around myself. However, I only had part of a day, not enough to get to Northfield and back. I looked at a topographical map, because I needed mountains: not tall ones, not the Berkshires, but mountains, because Charlie’s house looks out on mountains, and the view keeps him sane, and hopeful — and decided to go to Groton, Massachusetts. I could look in at the Groton School, too. I had never been there. Seeing a boarding school (my book is set at a boarding school) would be helpful. Just to stand there a while.
I got to Groton in an hour and a half, and soon found a view that reminded me of Charlie’s, in my mind. I stopped the car and stared at it, and even took a few pictures, until I was afraid the people in the house attached to the view would notice. Then I went to a piece of conservation land — Charlie’s house abuts conservation land — and drove up a winding unpaved road up to a hill overlooking mown fields. It was the first day of October, caught in between, neither summer nor fall, neither cloudy nor sunny. I could feel the world poised to go dark, though, hurtling toward midwinter: the light was lower than it had been just days before.
Then I headed to the Groton School proper. I didn’t go to boarding school myself, and I hadn’t done a lot of boarding school research either, probably because I didn’t realize I was writing a “boarding school book” at all. I was writing a book about Charlie, who was a teacher, and I thought he should teach at a boarding school because a boarding school is more intense, more insular, more unreal and set apart — the sort of place my boy Charlie would hide for a decade or so, for all the reasons he needed to hide.
I found the entrance and drove onto campus — the gates not so prepossessing; I liked that — and parked, trying to look like I belonged, and walked toward where I sensed the main quad might be.
In my book, there is a Gothic chapel, a touch absurd, standing apart, separate from the rest of the red-brick and white-clapboard architecture. At Groton, there was a Gothic chapel, standing apart, a little absurd, but proud, separate from the rest of the red-brick and white-clapboard architecture.
Low mountains in the distance, still green.
I am a person who believes that places have spirits, and I also believe in synchronicity and signs.
That day was some good research.
For my new book, despite my best intentions, I think I will have to do some research. I have instincts I can trust, but I will also have to use my mind. I will ask questions. In this book there will be whole peoples and countries and, especially, religions that I can’t screw up. Ideas have presented themselves to me and are beginning to work their way into a pattern, and if I try to ignore them and write something I think I know better, that will not require research, I will get bored and sad and feel like a fake, which is what I will be.
Here is my greatest fear about research: that we confuse verisimilitude with truth. Some books are stuffed so full of facts and color and detailed instructions for obsolete crafts that there is no room left to learn something less concrete, learn something not with the brain but the soul. Of course (I tell myself) there are also plenty of books like that that are also masterpieces: think Hilary Mantel, think Paul Harding describing how to build a bird’s nest in Tinkers. It’s not impossible.
This new book terrifies me. Apparently that’s the way it’s supposed to be. Whatever research I do I will have to imbibe, and the results cannot be just clothing I dress my characters in, but instead the scents clinging to their skin, the earliest impressions that dug the pathways in their consciousness. I will need to research as a matter not of verisimilitude, but responsibility. Perhaps that’s how I will find it possible. They say to write what you know, but that can mean many things. Sometimes the main thing you know is what you need to find out.