Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their process for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Jeremy P. Bushnell writes about The Insides from Melville House.
My first novel, The Weirdness, was about the supernatural underbelly of the New York City literary world. As I approached the daunting prospect of beginning a follow-up novel, I knew I needed to strike out for new territory, to break new ground. But how? After a suitable interval of brooding, I finally had my answer. “Aha,” I thought, “I have it — I’ll write a novel about the supernatural underbelly of the New York City culinary world!”
To give you some idea of how well-considered this idea was in its early stages, I will share with you that the earliest germ of The Insides was simply the phrase “evil food truck.” The perfection of this notion is stupefying in its obviousness, and it is with a heavy heart that I report to you that no evil food truck appears in the completed work — as it turns out, I was not equipped to write the novel that the device so urgently demands.
One might well ask, in fact, whether I was equipped to write any novel set in the culinary world at all. It wasn’t a world I knew first-hand. My time in the food service industry had never gotten beyond working the concession stand of the local movie theater, slinging popcorn, ladling melted cheese over trays of admittedly delicious soft pretzel bites. But I knew that when you can’t learn from experience, you can learn from reading, so I scooped up a bunch of memoirs about working in a kitchen and set myself down to reading. Some of these were quite good (Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential and Gabrielle Hamilton’s Blood, Bones, and Butter both stand out as memorable); all of them were useful.
But it wasn’t enough. My research had to go deeper. I read food Tumblrs for ideas about weird desserts. I read homesteading blogs for information about how to slaughter and butcher a pig. Eventually the homesteading blogs started to lead me into weird survivalist pockets of the Internet, which any sensible person would take as a sign to maybe close the browser, but I just kept on reading: The Insides is also a book full of knives and guns and people with reprehensible political beliefs, so reading the survivalist forums served as pretty useful research in its own right.
Now, I said earlier that my intention for the novel wasn’t just for it to be about the culinary world, but about the supernatural underbelly of the culinary world. And yes, even though the completed work contains no malevolent food truck, it does in fact contain its fair share of supernatural shit: people do spells, weird monsters emerge from other dimensions, all that fun stuff. People think that it’s easy to write fantastical stuff because you don’t need to do any research, you just get to make it all up. And here’s the thing: they’re not wrong!
But here’s the other thing. The Insides isn’t really “about” the supernatural stuff. The supernatural stuff is just a way to get at something else, something true. This has the ring of something I tell myself to get to sleep at night, but at least I can help the process along by brandishing this advance review from Publishers Weekly which says “this book is not about magic. It is about people coming to terms with their histories.” This is a nice thing to say, especially to someone who might be a little bit anxious about having written two books of genre fiction, and I believe (or hope) that it’s accurate. My only slight amendment to it, were I given the opportunity to make one, would be to replace the phrase their histories with the word loss. “It is about people coming to terms with loss.” Maybe that’s the same thing, when you get right down to it.
But let’s just say it. The characters in The Insides, major and minor ones alike, are coming to terms with loss. They all begin the book with their personalities warped a little bit by the gravity of it, each of them deformed by it, in their own unique way. One character works to cope with her loss by trying to remember, another character works to cope with her own similar loss by trying to forget.
You can’t really research this, can you? I mean — you could, I guess. If you wanted to research loss you could read Cynan Jones’ The Dig or Maggie Nelson’s The Red Parts or Helen Macdonald’s H Is for Hawk. You could watch Yorgos Lanthimos’ film Alps or Shane Carruth’s film Upstream Color. These are some of my favorite texts about loss, and I undeniably learned something from each of them — Macdonald’s book provided one of the epigraphs for the novel — but it’d be weird to say that they made me, or that they could make anyone, a sort of expert on loss. Because losing someone isn’t like working in a kitchen. It’s not really something you can understand just from reading. It’s something you can only understand by experiencing. And in that way I did the research. In that way I think we’ve all done the research.