Research Notes · 11/16/2018

The Place You’re Supposed to Laugh

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their process for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Jenn Stroud Rossmann writes about The Place You’re Supposed to Laugh from 7.13 Books.

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When I was in grad school at Berkeley near the end of the last century, one of my labmates was side hustling as a daytrader. We were all ostensibly there to become more expert in computational fluid dynamics, writing our code in Fortran or C++ and then calculating everything from cardiovascular flow to the swirling red spot of Jupiter to the formation of stars. One of the beautiful things about fluid dynamics is the same basic equations applied on all these different scales in different contexts. Anyway, while this one guy’s simulations were running, he was making a small fortune on the unstoppable fizzy lifting drink of the first dot com bubble.

(To be fair, I had a side thing too: I was also taking classes across campus in literature and creative writing, and meeting each week with my writing group to critique each others’ manuscripts. Mine was just less lucrative, by a few orders of magnitude. In fact, if I added up the postage for submissions and all those self-addressed stamped envelopes, even with rare, treasured “contributor copies” coming in, I was in the red.)

I had chosen to go to grad school after earning my mechanical engineering degree for a variety of reasons, and I tried hard to remind myself of those reasons as my friends who’d pursued less practical majors prospered among the first employees at playfully named new Silicon Valley companies. Like my daytrading labmate, they were richly rewarded. You want to teach, I reminded myself. You wanted to understand the whys and hows of science. I repeated these mantras as the Nasdaq rose vertiginously up.

I started writing The Place You’re Supposed to Laugh later, after the bubble had burst, and I remembered this feeling of effervescence, of invincibility. I remembered what it felt like to be less buoyant than one’s neighbor. To my own sense-memory of what it felt like to be left out, I added some curdling resentment, and I gave this to my character Ray Loudermilk.

Ray lives next door to a dot-com titan, a guy whose grass stays green even during drought and water-rationing. A guy who’s adding onto his house even as half the neighborhood is up for sale. A guy whose industry seems like make-believe to Ray: nobody’s good with their hands anymore. And Ray’s jealousy is one of the novel’s engines.

Another character, Diana, is a physics professor at Stanford. She’s a theoretician in a Valley that has gone all in on apps — it’s application, not theory, that resonates with her students, at least until they drop out to start companies of their own. Diana’s area of expertise is my own, kind of: she focuses on fluid dynamics. An idea that excites her, while she’s having breakfast with her daughter, is a real phenomenon: “the Cheerios effect” first investigated by Dominc Vella and L. Mahadevan. (You can check it out here) But even Diana hasn’t persuaded her students that this is more compelling than what the VCs are offering.


Image by I. Peterson, at The Mathematical Tourist

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Part of the novel that was less familiar to me was what it might have felt like to be Ray’s 14-year-old son Chad Loudermilk. Chad is black, and his parents are white, and they live in white-and-Asian Palo Alto. That 14-year-old sense that you don’t belong, and you’ve got to figure out who you are in a world that doesn’t quite understand you? That’s something I still have acute sense-memory of. But the particulars of Chad’s situation were not my own. This took a different kind of research and imagination than it took to recreate the Silicon Valley of the early aughts. And, having so much less lived authority, I had work to do.

Rebecca Makkai has spoken of the responsibility she felt to get things right “on several levels,” in her wonderful novel The Great Believers – which revolves around the AIDS crisis and its effect on a community of gay men in the 1980s. She has described the tension around whom stories “belong” to, especially when writing across difference.

I have felt that tension acutely. The voice that had reminded me to stick with grad school now taunted, Who do you think you are? But I love this character, Chad Loudermilk, so much that I worked hard to get things right for him, to the best of my ability. I knew a lot about where he lived, from my own experience and from friends who grew up in Palo Alto, and I had some kind of half-rhyme experience and information — diverse friends and family, including those whose mixed-race or other identity concerns resonated with Chad’s; friends who adopted children or who were adoptees — and I did plenty of reading, too.

One thing you’ll notice if you look for memoirs or other books about transracial adoption is that the focus is much more often on what it’s like to be the parent of a child whose race differs from yours. (This gap in the literature is just one of the reasons I’m very much looking forward to Nicole Chung’s memoir this fall!) I would love to cluck my tongue at that pervasive bias in who these stories “belong” to, and who gets to tell them — but in my first several drafts of The Place You’re Supposed to Laugh, I had paid much more attention to Chad’s adoptive dad Ray than to Chad, myself.

Realizing that it was actually Chad’s story — that he was the beating heart at the center of a complicated Silicon Valley family that is both made and chosen — allowed me to rewrite a much better book. It was a harder book to write, and a less familiar story, as it looked at a place we think we understand from a different angle.

The Place You’re Supposed to Laugh is not about the ambitious techbros you might’ve seen on HBO, but they live next door.

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Jenn Stroud Rossmann writes the essay series “An Engineer Reads a Novel” for Public Books. Her stories have appeared in Hobart, Literary Orphans, Jellyfish Review, Tahoma Literary Review, failbetter, and other magazines. Her work has been a finalist for honors including the BOA Editions Short Fiction Prize, the Disquiet Literary Prize, and Sarabande Books’ Mary McCarthy Prize. She earned her BS and PhD at the University of California, Berkeley, and is a professor of mechanical engineering at Lafayette College. She throws right, bats left.