The Lost Episodes of Revie Bryson
Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their research for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Bryan Furuness writes about The Lost Episodes of Revie Bryson from Black Lawrence Press.
Behind the Book: More Books
“The ugly fact,” says Cormac McCarthy, “is that books are made out of books. The novel depends for its life on the novels that have been written.”
I agree with McCarthy, though I don’t find the fact so ugly. Are scientists so reluctant to recognize that they’re standing on the shoulders of the researchers who came before them?
While I didn’t do much research in the traditional sense for my first novel, my work was deeply informed by other books, other writers. And rather than talk about it like it’s organ harvesting, I’ll gladly take the chance to talk about these books and how they directly influenced my work.
I love Lewis Nordan. Love, love, love him. I’ve read everything he’s ever written, I’ve sent him fan mail, and his death last year affected me more than the death of any public figure since my boyhood idol, Walter Payton.
Sugar Among the Freaks is one of his story collections. My favorite piece in here is “The Sears and Roebucks Catalog Game,” a story about a mother with a big imagination who flips through the catalog with her son and makes up wild stories about the models. Her voice is loopy and seductive, and you find yourself getting sucked into her world, just like her son who can’t get enough of her stories.
This story really got to me. I read it again and again. I typed it out. Then one day, when I was driving home from work, a woman’s voice came into my head. I heard her say, “Growing up, Jesus and Lucifer were best friends. They went to the same school, where they both ran track. They made mostly B’s. Lucifer could wing a ball so fast only Jesus could catch it. Their mustaches came in looking good, not all feathery and wispy like the other boys. They had that brooding look down cold. People called them two peas in a pod, brothers separated at birth, you know.”
I whipped the car off the interstate to write those lines down on the back of a receipt. That became the voice of Rosalyn Bryson, a mother who makes up Bible stories to tell her son at bedtime. Though those lines didn’t make it into the final version of the book, that was the start of The Lost Episodes of Revie Bryson.
Side note: This picture is my lap desk, where I write in the morning before my family is awake.
In my novel, the mother runs off to Hollywood and then, in the end — spoiler alert — something brings her back home. That was the hard part for me. I could figure out how to send someone away from a family, but how do you bring them back?
Girl Talk, by Julianna Baggott, features a father who runs off and comes back, and I studied her moves. Like I tell my writing students: if you steal material, it’s called plagiarism and everyone’s angry; if you steal techniques, it’s called learning, and everyone’s happy. Except for Cormac McCarthy.
Side note: Once you can carry this paperback around in public as a middle-aged guy in Indiana, nothing can ever make you feel self-conscious again.
I’ve got a two-fer here. With Among the Missing, Dan Chaon taught me about eighteen different moves for a retrospective narrator, including how to modulate narrative distance, and ways to incorporate backstory. I typed out several of the stories in this book, too, including the incredible title story. Typing stuff out helps me catch a writer’s rhythm, to feel and follow the moves he’s making.
Right next to Chaon is Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bible! This book is full of reimagined Bible stories, and Jonathan Goldstein puts the smart in smartass. My novel features a few of Rosalyn’s made-up Bible stories, and for a while I felt weird about them. I thought I had finally written the one thing that everyone would hate: people who like the Bible might not like the liberties I was taking, and people who like fiction might run for the hills at the first mention of Jesus. Goldstein’s book gave me a kind of permission to fool around with Bible stories, and the fact that it was published suggested that Penguin, at least, didn’t think everyone would hate this kind of thing.
That’s one of my favorite parts of reading: the moment I feel my head open up, and I think, “Oh, you can do that?”
Civilwarland in Bad Decline gave me that moment, again and again. I remember being stunned by the fact that the characters in the book sounded like guys I had grown up with in Chicagoland. It was the first thing I’d ever read that sounded like the voice in my head, and I remember thinking, with each new story, You’re allowed to write like this?
Civilwarland’s neighbor on the shelf is Walter Kirn’s Thumbsucker, which is the same kind of book that my book wants to be: an episodic, coming-of-age comedy. It’s sharp and funny in a serious way, and deserves a wide audience. And it taught me how to weave in a secondary character who appears once in each section. The ugly fact is that my Pastor Mike is made out of Thumbsucker’s Perry Lyman, dentist.
Jesus, that sounds creepy. I mean figuratively. Not, like, in a Silence of the Lambs kind of way.
Side note: I’m pretty sure that this is the only bookshelf in the world that has Elmore Leonard snuggled up with The Lutheran Handbook. And what’s that next to the Bible at the end of the shelf? Why, it’s Davy Rothbart’s My Heart is an Idiot. Naturally.
Side note II: God, those time stamps are dorky. My camera is an idiot.
Side note III: No, it’s not. I’m sorry, camera, for blaming you. Those time stamps are my own fault.
Okay, last one. If books are made out of other books, then maybe writers are made out of other writers. Several years ago, I heard Porter Shreve talk about his first book, The Obituary Writer. He said that a bunch of writers have a first book in a drawer, but he was determined that wouldn’t happen to him, so he wrote draft after draft (after draft…) of The Obituary Writer. He mentioned some number that sounded ridiculous at the time. The number seventeen pops into my head now. So in the end, he said, he probably used as much time and energy on that one book as he would have if he’d ditched it and written a second book — but he did end up seeing it through to publication.
I followed this model. I wrote something like eighteen or twenty complete drafts over the course of ten years. There were points where I thought What the hell am I doing? and If this book was going to work, it would have come together by now, and I might have scuttled it entirely if I hadn’t known Porter’s story. I followed his path. I hung on. I prayed that I wouldn’t come to the end of a decade of work and have nothing to show for it, but most importantly, I kept working.
Side note: The Obituary Writer is propped in my upstairs reading nook. Yes, that couch is just as soft and floofy as it looks. Yes, it’s the best spot in the house. And yes, that yellow blur in the lower corner is my attempt to photoshop out the time stamp, because a picture of a book, a soft couch, and snow light should feel timeless.