Research Notes · 07/19/2013

The Weight of a Human Heart

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their research for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Ryan O’Neill writes about The Weight of a Human Heart (St. Martin’s Press).

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I spent most of my twenties researching for my short story collection, The Weight of a Human Heart without realising it. During that time I spent several years teaching English as a foreign language in Lithuania, Rwanda and China. Back then I had no idea many of my experiences would end up in, transformed to a greater or lesser degree, in short stories. While many writers, such as Graham Greene for example, have travelled in order to seek out material for their work, I travelled simply to teach. For a long time, I thought I would only ever write stories set in Scotland, and had no intention of writing a story set in Lithuania, or Africa. It was only after settling in Australia that I began to write stories set in some of the countries where I had lived.

In my collection there is one story set in Lithuania, one in China, and four stories set in Africa, and this number probably reflects the impact each place had on me. China and Lithuania were exciting, interesting places, but Rwanda was something else entirely. The Africa stories are a mixture of personal experience, such as my having malaria, and events I had heard about from others, including experiences in the Rwandan genocide. When writing the story set during the genocide, called ‘The Cockroach,’ I based the physical locations that the main character passes through on the small village I lived in for two and a half years. The character’s experiences in the genocide were mainly based on those recorded in non-fiction books such as Philip Gourevitch’s excellent, and chilling ‘We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families.’ In another of the Africa stories, ‘The Saved,’ set several years after the genocide, I used the physical location of a neighbouring school, and experiences that had happened to several different friends of mine, at different times, and at different places in Rwanda. Out of this mosaic came the story. If I hadn’t lived in Africa, I don’t think I would ever have set a story there. I don’t have the imagination to create a world from scratch, which is why I could never write fantasy or science-fiction.

Several other stories in my collection owe their existence to the ease of researching on the internet. For instance, for ‘July the Firsts’ I had to find out all the important historical events, births and deaths which took place on that date. I had had this idea while living in Rwanda, when I didn’t have access to a computer, or even any reference books, and so the story had to wait. A few years later, in Australia, I went online and was able to find the information I needed in ten minutes. Similarly, in ‘Seventeen Rules for Writing a Short Story,’ in which the story is based around writing rules, I spent several hours online trawling quotation websites in order to find writing tips I could use, as was also the case for the story, ‘Last Words,’ which features the last words of famous people. Another piece, ‘A Story in Writing,’ is structured around literary terms both well-known and obscure, such as protagonist and epizeuxis, and I owe Wikipedia a debt of gratitude for providing me with all the information I needed. Were it not for the internet, I doubt these stories would have been written. They would probably have remained in a notebook, awaiting research trips to the library that I would never have had the time to make.

‘Figures in a Marriage,’ while being the shortest story in the collection, required the most work, as it had the most unusual form, being told almost entirely through visual means such as graphs, charts and diagrams. Again, this involved hours of online research in which I listed every conceivable way to present information, before narrowing the methods down to those used in the story. But then I spent more hours than I care to think about on MS Word and Excel attempting to render various graphs and charts and fixing the formatting when it inevitably went haywire. At several points, when fixing a decimal point in a table, I considered abandoning the story. ‘Is this even writing?’ I thought. But I decided to press on, and was delighted to see the finished result in the collection, especially as the book designer had transformed my painstaking, but crude diagrams and tables into something much more pleasing to the eye. At least writing this story taught me all I’ll ever need to know about creating a graph in Excel, a skill I now include on my resume.

The research for most of the other stories came from memory. For example, in the comic book themed story, ‘A Speeding Bullet,’ I just had to think back to my teenage years, and the thousands of comics I had read. All of the superheroes mentioned in that story leapt exuberantly from my memory, though I admit I did have to check the spelling of Mr Mxyzptlk. And after seven years of English language teaching it was easy to come up with the grammar and vocabulary exercises that are interspersed throughout the story, ‘English as a Foreign Language.’ Some of them I had even used in class. Finally, my favourite story in the collection, ‘The Eunuch in the Harem,’ was the result of decades of reading book reviews. For many years I had wanted to write a story told through book reviews, but it was a long time before I could come up with a plot to justify the form. When I did the story almost told itself, and I had a great time thinking back to some awful books I had read, and doing a hatchet job on them. The harsh judgement of The Life of Pi made by my fictional reviewer exactly mirrors my own, though I think in retrospect I might have been a bit hard on Daphne Du Maurier.

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Ryan O’Neill was born in Glasgow in 1975. He lived in Africa, Europe and Asia before settling in Newcastle, Australia, with his wife and two daughters. His fiction has appeared in The Best Australian Stories, The Sleepers Almanac, Meanjin, New Australian Stories, Wet Ink, Etchings and Westerly. His work has won the Hal Porter and Roland Robinson awards. The Weight of a Human Heart has been shortlisted for the 2012 Queensland Literary Prize—Steele Rudd Award. He teaches at the University of Newcastle.