Research Notes · 06/22/2012

Understories

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their research for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Tim Horvath shows us the things he dragged home to be part of his collection Understories (Bellevue Literary Press).

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TRIPS TO THE SALVAGE SHOP

I love research, which I like to define broadly, yet with nano-sharp technical precision, as going places and doing stuff. I suppose that given this definition, pretty much anything counts as research, and I have to admit that I embrace that notion. There is, thus, that research that you do semiconsciously in the background of your life, like people who have their computers chipping into the search for intelligent alien life (now that I’ve written this, how do I actually do this?). Then there is spot research, where a story reveals its gaps, its structural unsoundness or, if you’re lucky, the places where things are merely leaking, and you dash out to the salvage shops of the world in search of something either to stop the gap or to prop up the contraption. And, since salvage shops sell serendipity above all, more often than not the research yields heretofore unplanned things: you never expected to drag home that clawfoot tub or rocking cow or art nouveau doorframe that you’ll pat yourself on the back for every time you walk through it if you can only find a place for it.

It’s easier to sneak up on and ambush the senses than the mind, so one of the most important aspects of research is observing first-hand.  So much of what I love about fiction is psychological nuance, but it starts with perception: the set-designer and the stagehand for that nuance. Bluntly put, I want to know what things look like and how they feel, and rather than sending the imagination packing, I think first-hand experience actually feeds it. Off the top of my head, here are some of the things I was compelled to explore in drafting Understories and my graduate thesis:

  • What are the oddest things that happen with shadows? Where do they do unexpected things, and what do they look like as they are growing, shrinking, rotating?
  • What’s it like to play Schoenberg lovingly and with primal feeling, even if on a plastic keyboard from China in which the clicks of the keys themselves threaten to drown out any semblance of musical notes?
  • How are pianos made?
  • How does a film look like from the projectionist’s standpoint up in the booth?
  • What would Greenland look like if you made a model of it out of salt?
  • How does food taste different if you are a critic (who happens to be starving) and thinking about communication and taste and survival all at once?
  • What do caves smell like?
  • What’s it like to be the parent of a bully?
  • What does the world look like after a hurricane if you’ve already lost most of what you care about?

Some of these were easy. I used the food critic one as an excuse to eat out, and I simply wouldn’t eat beforehand, my usual habit anyway. I noted shadows wherever I went and tracked down shadow theater productions on DVD — sometimes second-hand has to do. I couldn’t rent a bully and hadn’t seen a hurricane’s aftermath first hand, but found footage and spent a couple of years with my daughter on various playgrounds — let a thousand bullies bloom (and then there’s knowing when to intervene but that’s another topic entirely). The salvage shop is labyrinthine, and some of the rooms are more accessible, while others take some searching — you must press past the display of vintage doorknobs to get to the room of Tom Waits instruments in the back.

Sometimes I’ve told myself this: Because you don’t know when exactly you will be in need of research you must put yourself in the path of it as often and alertly as possible. You must learn the precise similarities and differences between olives and nostrils. You must both burn and tan. You should wear your hair long and short and go mustachioed, even if fleetingly. You should gorge on ghost peppers late at night and suffer the morning’s nostalgia for mere nightmares.

This can be a fun way to live, but there’s a flip side. The writing game, customarily construed as Show and Tell, is equally Truth or Dare, and whether you choose many truths before your first dare or vice-versa is immaterial, a matter of personal taste. In other words, tell the truth about cave-smell as you envision it (enhale it?), and then do a cave search. This way the imagination gets its due. Anyway, telling the truth as one sees it is itself a sort of dare. Kathryn Harrison wrote The Seal Wife, which takes place in early twentieth century Anchorage, without ever having been to Anchorage, much less in that time period.

And after the story is done? For some people, the mere writing seems to quell the thirst, sates the appetite for learning about the particular subject or phenomenon. I’m pretty sure I remember Susan Orlean saying something along these lines, that she plunges herself utterly into her orchids and tone deaf garage bands while writing about them, but once she’s done she moves on to the next thing. Much as I sometimes wish this could be the case, my storywriting only seems to whet my appetite. So writing “The Discipline of Shadows” got me hooked on shadows, and now they jump out at me from everywhere, unbidden and endlessly seductive. Similarly, I know that anytime I hear anything about caves, I will prick up my ears, wannabe spelunker for life. Other things I became obsessed with while writing Understories were trees and tree-climbing, maps, endangered languages, string theory, Gauguin, addiction and mania, Greenland and Montana. I’m better at dragging things home from the salvage shop than at dropping them off. And come on, is it really possible to own too many clawfoot tubs, especially when you can turn them into a massive, Waits-like orchestra?

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Tim Horvath is an associate editor for Camera Obscura and teaches creative writing at the New Hampshire Institute of Art and Boston’s Grub Street writing center. He also works part-time as a counselor in a psychiatric hospital, primarily with autistic children and adolescents. Understories, his first full-length collection, was published by Bellevue Literary Press in May 2012. His stories have also appeared in Conjunctions, Fiction, Alimentum, Puerto del Sol, and elsewhere, and Circulation was originally published by sunnyoutside press. For more information visit www.timhorvath.com.