Research Notes · 12/20/2013

The Heart of June

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their research for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Mason Radkoff writes about The Heart of June from Braddock Avenue Books.

+

RESEARCH FROM WITHIN

In an instant, I just had him. Walking alone by the Atlantic Ocean, having been thinking of nothing, I was suddenly filled with the understanding of a man. I knew that he was a big, gentle guy, one who moved slowly because he felt no need to hurry for anything. He’d always been fairly content, with “happy” being too dynamic a word. I pictured him working physically, quietly performing some menial task. But what I really knew, what mattered, was that he was in the midst of a profound sadness. A sadness that was part loss and part regret, but most of all, a terrible emptiness. The bottom had dropped out, and it was nothing he’d ever known.

What I — the guy left reeling on the beach — knew right then and there was that I understood this man’s emotion more than he did himself, and that I was going to write his story.

My mission for what was to become The Heart of June was this: someone, somewhere, when reading the book, would experience, even for one fleeting moment, the same feeling I had when I first understood this man.

And while that’s powerful stuff to start with, an emotion does not a book make. Story-wise, I had nothing. But I had my man and I had a purpose, and those two things along with $4.00 bought me a sno-cone. And then they occupied the next four years of my life. I had an obligation to this guy; I was not going to let him down.

And so the work began. 

Who was this man?
Why was he feeling this way?
What the hell had happened?

Research for The Heart of June was largely a matter of sorting through my own flow of madness, finding truths amidst the flood of possibilities. It was research from within.

As fuzziness came into focus, I understood that Walt — he had a name now — along with being normally content, was also funny and wry. How did I know this? It doesn’t matter — I just did. I also knew that he had little use for the rat race, that he was amused by it all. This would be an emotional and funny book. I kept writing things down, and he kept giving me more.

Then, lines blurred. Answers and understanding continued to arrive from a mystical somewhere, but more came consciously from me. Decision-making began in earnest. A puzzle had emerged that required fabricated pieces. The more I understood about Walt, the more I could choose his experience and have him do things as a result. I created the people he would know, people who would show us who he was.

Of course, there was the conventional seeking of facts as well.

Perfunctory research, at its best, leads to unexpected discovery, and so it often was as I figured out ’June. I had initially set the novel in my hometown of Pittsburgh simply for its lack of needing to be anyplace else, but the city quickly asserted itself into the story and I knew that real research was in order. The Pennsylvania room at the main branch of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh offered yellowed maps depicting once freshly carved parcels of land that now host streets I’ve known all my life. Where farms once lay now are dense urban neighborhoods. Light-starved copies of The Social Register told of debutante balls and sly indication of social standing among young ladies. In the shadows of the area’s factories, poor immigrants survived at the mercy of the rich. All of this unexpectedly led me to the full telling of my tale. Sometimes the mundane leads to the fabulous. But sometimes the mundane is merely mundane.

And sometimes, it’s inconvenient.

I sought facts to support what I’d concocted and, largely, they did. When they didn’t, I said to hell with them. The St. Patrick’s Day flood of ’36 didn’t reach the hands of the Kaufmann’s Department Store clock, you say? Too bad — in my world, it did. This street doesn’t really intersect with that one? Mind your own business — I need it to. What good are God-like powers without using them?

Some facts, though, I did adhere to, if only so that when all was said and done, things would feel right in my gut. I’d started the story with Walt living in a Pittsburgh neighborhood called Schenley Heights — chosen because it straddles the line between a university region and the economically challenged Hill District, a perfect fit for much of the book’s thematic feel. But as the story developed and had Walt living in his ex-wife’s garage behind the house she shares with her new husband, I knew I wanted them to live in the neighborhood called Friendship — what writer wouldn’t? — and so I rewrote some geography to make that detail work. Would readers notice? Probably not, but instinct told me to make the change. A writer must proceed on an intuitive basis, be it toward caution or recklessness, and to ignore intuition is to do so at his own peril.

Much of the novel is framed by Walt’s relationship with his unlikely — and yet somehow natural — counterpart in life, Miss June Bonwell Creighton, “an octogenarian who, with bird-like wrists and teeny shoulders, was a force less deniable than any he’d known.” I’ve known plenty of difficult people, but what do I know about brittle, scolding, entitled old women? Nothing, really. But I knew who I needed her to be. Writers are nothing if not sponges, and stemming from somewhere, Miss June’s patrician, patter-like dialogue nearly wrote itself. I consider that aspect of the story to have been research done preemptively: a lifetime of keeping my ears open, of absorbing what life offers, and calling upon it at just the right time. As for who Miss June once was and who she’d grown up to be, that stemmed from my sense of the disparity between the rich and the poor in 1930s western Pennsylvania, with Miss June being a product of her surroundings. Nature mixes with nurture, joining, in this case, snobbery, self-sacrifice, and discipline. And for the author, research mixes with instinct, joining, in my case, leaps of faith and the risk of foolishness.

Throughout this research from within, for all of the unexpected turns that resulted, care was taken to remain fundamentally on task, to never forget my reason for writing the book. A notecard pinned to the wall opposite my writing chair reminded me not to stray. Wild discovery took me — and the eventual book — to emotional and storyline destinations I hadn’t anticipated, which is just what I like my writing process to do. From Gene’s dumpy bar and its motley collection of stalwarts, to Walt’s nearly clandestine time spent with his remarried ex-wife, to his long days spent trading verbal barbs with Miss June in her grand, faded manse, The Heart of June recounts the imagined history of many different things. But in the end, my tale delivered what I wanted it to, and I can recall that ocean-side feeling to this day.

+++

First-time novelist Mason Radkoff arrives on the literary scene with a captivating new voice. Shortlisted for the 2012 William Faulkner-William Wisdom Competition, Radkoff’s heartfelt and often wry novel features emotion and maturity seldom seen in debut work. As a carpenter restoring homes both modest and grand, Radkoff bore witness to the subtle drama residing within the walls that contain our lives. Now he shares this wisdom in a compelling tale filled with honesty, humor, and love.