The Proverb Zoo
Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their process for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Armel Dagorn writes about The Proverb Zoo from The Penny Dreadful.
I have a shelf reserved for short story collections, above the (much bigger) one for toddler’s toys and the (much smaller) one that houses the magazines that have published my stories over the years. When in want of a story to read, I browse the dozens of spines, the books I last opened the previous week or two years earlier. When times are hard, I push out the books and have a look at the reserve, that second line kept in behind, and some lucky volumes get promoted, while others rejoin the unseen in the dark.
I hear some people read collections from beginning to end, revel in their unity. I don’t get that. I read stories to enter a little world the author has created, and too often reading two stories from a collection I find myself getting back into a world I know, one I’ve already gone through, a world, in the worst-case scenario, that just doesn’t surprise me.
The question of unity versus variety is something that was on my mind while putting together The Proverb Zoo. Could a collection of clearly dissimilar stories work? Some of the most common praise for a story collection seems to be how coherent it is, how connected, how, in short, “almost like a novel”. You see publishers avoiding the dreaded word “stories”, reviewers glowing because they managed to trick themselves into thinking they were reading a novel.
The collections that I don’t pick from my shelf, though, are more often than not those that could try to pass for something else, those that line up story after story written in a similar voice, settled in similar digs, hosting the same folks, having same-ish issues. (Not that I’m against linked collections, or stories set in one particular place, but I just wish the publishing world didn’t take these as the benchmark for a good collection.)
Surveying the table of contents of The Proverb Zoo, I’m almost surprised to see the geographical ground covered. These fifteen stories move through eight different countries, if my count is right. Some of those are just glanced at, others may not be easily identified, but still.
Having lived between two countries in the past ten years, the span of time those stories were written in, and having travelled around some more in the loose gaps between periods of settlement, I didn’t, don’t, have one specific location to write about, no default setting. My first stories, the ones that weren’t published, weren’t sent, nor read by anyone, thank goodness, often took place in some sort of limbo, some Dostoevskyianly hellish office. (Yeah.)
So it was quite a real break-through when I learnt, and I guess authorised myself, to write about place. Places, plurial. I am not, I’m afraid, a great postcard writer and those I send I often write out of a sense of duty, and struggle to move beyond dull retellings of mundane events. I guess I keep the interesting places for my stories.
And yes, here, reader, comes the long-awaited research angle. Kind of. Let’s take research to mean the material the made-up stuff comes to upholster. Like most writers, I’ve put a lot of props from my life in these stories. There’s a house I lived in, an old job, places I roamed, drove through, sat in, frolicked around.
It’s a bit of a mystery, where these elements come from. Or rather why they come together to form a story. There’s Lourdes, for instance, that home of Sainte Bernadette, hub of Catholic knick-knackery, that I went through with my parents when I was 10 or so. There must have been something about the place, the boxes full of tiny icons, the intersection of the divine, the faith, and the down-to-earth mercantilism, because it came back some twenty years later to give me a small, plastic miracle to toy with.
There’s the bookish kind of inspiration too, with for example that Penguin History of Latin America that sat on my shelf for years after I’d finished reading it, a paper sticking out with notes on interesting pages.
The main thing that kept me from letting the book sink into back-shelf oblivion was the story, told in a couple of lines, of Mexican General Antonio López de Santa Anna having his leg amputated following a battle field injury, and later having it re-intered with honours when he became President. When I looked more into the facts, I found that the story that had formed in my head all that time didn’t want to be crammed into the frame of the historical facts, so I changed the General-President’s name, and let the time and place hang a little loose. Santa Anna’s leg got two lines in the Penguin History; I ended up writing fifteen pages on the men tasked with retrieving the leg.
I guess if I kept these seeds of stories so long with me, in a corner of my brain or shelf, it was above all that they had confounded my expectations of how the world is supposed to work. And so choosing stories for the collection, I didn’t only look at quality and my own personal preferences, but at where these stories came from, what tales they told. Because I didn’t want to bring out into the world a book that trailed the same streets over and over, listened to the same people, any more than I would, like some dull relative, send you a postcard every year from the same sleepy touristy town, telling you of the weather, of how the kids enjoy the pool.