The New York Stories/Upstate
Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their process for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Ben Tanzer writes about The New York Stories from CCLaP Publishing. In September 2020, a new edition was published by Tortoise Books with the title Upstate.
How do you approach doing research for stories that are inspired by your hometown – much less what it might be like to not only grow-up there, but stay there, and try to build a life that is somehow separate from who you were – when you haven’t lived there for decades?
I haven’t even visited my hometown all that much since my mother sold the house I grew-up in several years ago, and when I have been home since then, I can’t always remember exactly how to get to the places I used to go, nor can I remember every place I ever ate dinner as a kid like I once could.
And yet, I certainly remember the wallpaper in my kitchen growing-up, and all of its glorious multi-colored polka dots. I also remember the babysitter who made fun of my brother’s lisp and stole a ring from my mom. And the time I kissed Linda S. at midnight on her birthday. How electric it was, even though we had barely ever spoken prior to that moment and may never have again after that.
Further, I remember when Pudgie’s Pizza came to my neighborhood, and how we waited on line at the grand opening. How for 99 cents you could buy two slices and a soda, and that it was the first place I ever played PAC-Man.
There are also the bars we later drank in – Thirsty’s, the Casa Linda and the Pine Lounge – and both the V and Airport Drive-ins, where we really did sneak people in to see the movies hidden in the trunk of our car, and where sitting in the back seat of another car I once had the great shock of seeing a pair of white panties set against a pair of tan legs, and have never quite shaken the image since.
And there is Sharkey’s, where we ate City Chicken, The Little Venice, which probably has the best Manicotti on the continent, and the Park Diner where we went for breakfast after the prom and ate Veal Parmigiana.
Plus, there is South Mountain where I lived and where we partied on weekends out in the woods up by the electric tower, the Susquehanna River, which loosely bisected the center of town, South and North on one side, East and West on the other, not that this quite makes sense now that I think about it, the Broome County Arena where we saw everyone from The Harlem Globetrotters to Molly Hatchet, as well as, the fights, the girls, the affairs, the parents moving out and back in and out again, the loss, the joy and the fights.
All of which is to say, that the research for a collection like this takes place in my head, and it’s all about memory, what I remember, and what I trust to be true, and finding which stories fit together, even if no one else sees them fitting together quite like I do.
It’s also about wondering about how things work, or might have worked. Why certain decisions get made, why someone punched someone in the face or broke-up with someone when they did? When people choose to communicate, and when they just pause, stumbling over their words and actions, more focused on trying not to fuck-up what’s happening right before them, then on taking a chance to see what might happen if they just took a chance.
This research is about possibility, and looking to the future even as I look back, or a kind of future anyway, a parallel one, where people both real and make believe, grow-up, move on, get lost, and sometimes get found again.
I’m worried now that I sound like I’m marketing something to you, a monorail, or some cool new designer drug. Like I have a product that I want you to understand so that you will buy it, and love it.
I am of course doing that, but in doing so, I guess what I’m really worried about, is that I’m not doing what you need, or want, me to do, peeling back layers, and digging into the story, or in this case, the story about the story.
But I’m trying not to do that either.
What I’m trying to do is talk about what we talk about when we talk about writing stories, and I’m doing so out loud, and in front of you, here, now, free-associating and sharing my stream of conscious thinking about all of the stuff in my head and how I access, and what it means to me, because that is a kind of research too, understanding how we, I, think about story.
How there is a kernel of an idea, a moment, or a feeling, a place, a shred of dialogue, and how even as I unwrap the story that is the logical outcome of that kernel, I also try to build something, pulling from memories, snatches of interactions and impressions.
And if anything, this is what I hope I did here when writing The New York Stories. Extricated some memories, and some kind of truth, from a place I once lived and imagine living in. I also hope that I discovered some lost people, lost to me anyway, and then built something new. A whole world of intertwining stories, rife with rich details, and characters who over time come to know one another and one another’s lives, even if they don’t quite know themselves, who they are, or what’s to come.