Research Notes · 10/02/2015

The Lower Quarter

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their process for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Elise Blackwell writes about The Lower Quarter from Unbridled Books.

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I once jokingly tweeted to the NSA that my sketchy browsing history could be explained by the fact that I am a fiction writer. Recently we’ve seen a wave of people, only some of them writers, pleading “Research!” after their Ashley Madison-associated emails were leaked by Impact Team. Without commenting on the merits of any of those individual claims, I will concur that one of the pleasures of being a writer is having good cause to follow whims and interests, to look around, to poke into things, to snoop.

Across my childhood, as I moved from trying out the viola to a particularly unfortunately stint on the oboe, and from avid reading about Olduvai Gorge to a fascination with Machu Picchu, my mother warned me I would wind up a dilettante if I wasn’t careful. I was only offended until I looked up the word, at which point I knew my vocation was true. One of the reasons I read and write — not just including fiction but especially fiction — is to learn about people and how they live in the world. For various books, I’ve followed my curiosity to learn about botany, the siege of Leningrad, the Victorian literary marketplace, fluid mechanics, classical music, deafness, and levee policy. This research has taken many forms, from extended travel, forgoing food for several days, and deep reading to the most superficial of internet searches.

I think about research for my novels in two ways, though the two sometimes blur or overlap. The first is the exploratory gathering of material — the slow aggregation of stuff that accretes by a combination of accident and intention to become a book. This is a much broader endeavor than grabbing a few facts online to add historical or geographical color to a novel. It’s a way of living in the world; it’s living life as an ongoing collecting trip. This counts as experience, but more in the way Aldous Huxley described it than the kind of experience certain writers have abandoned good work chasing. “Experience,” Huxley wrote, “is not a matter of having actually swum the Hellespont, or danced with the dervishes, or slept in a doss-house. It is a matter of sensibility and intuition, of seeing and hearing the significant things, or paying attention to the right moments, of understanding and coordinating. Experience is not what happens to a man; it is what a man does with what happens to him.”

There are people who sell their research services to writers, and I’ve had students ask to serve as research assistants. Even if I wanted to pass off this work onto someone else, I couldn’t. Only I can recognize the “significant things” and “right moments” for my work. Of course, I don’t want to delegate this work, which is one of writing’s great pleasures.

The Lower Quarter started in earnest with a morning run on a Biloxi beach — a beach on which a clear line divided the stretch nearest a large casino (where the sand had been returned to white sugar) and the rest of it (which was still festooned with debris from small to whole toilet-sized). Some days later, I found myself sitting on a hotel bed in, yes, the lower end of the French Quarter, talking on an old black phone that I had no inkling would be a key object in a book I was only just conceiving. This work is messy if you think of it strictly as research; luckily, it’s also called life.

The second category of research is the more pointed collection of information needed to write parts of the book after I have a sense of the project as a whole. Often this is indistinguishable from procrastination, but sometimes it really matters. For The Lower Quarter I needed to know the name of a certain type of artist’s paper, how linseed oil smells, the kinds of water damage a painting can sustain, the date of the post-Katrina reopening of Audubon Zoo, some of the ins and outs of “adult niche services,” the chronology of Puerto Rican nationalism, the work of Eugeen Van Mieghem, and how it feels to get a tattoo across your shoulder blades. These are all things I’m glad to know.

When Carlos Fuentes once said, “Bad books are about things the writer already knew before he wrote them,” he was criticizing fiction based on factual experience at the expense of imagination. But I think the quote works out of context just as well. I don’t want to write a book that requires me to conduct no research, and I doubt anyone wants to read such a book.

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Elise Blackwell is the author of four previous novels: Hunger, The Unnatural History of Cypress Parish, Grub, and An Unfinished Score. Her short stories and essays have been widely published, and her work has been named to various best-of-the-year lists, translated into several languages, and adapted for the stage as well as a song by The Decemberists. She teaches at the University of South Carolina, where she is also organizer and host of The Open Book.