Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their process for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Bradley Bazzle writes about Trash Mountain from Red Hen Press.
At the end of the first reading I did from Trash Mountain, at Avid Bookshop in Athens, Georgia, a young woman came up to me with the copy she had just bought, and as I signed it for her, she told me she was an undergraduate and worked with a friend of mine at the UGA Office of Sustainability. She said she came to the reading because she was interested in trash. More specifically, she was interested in the effects that landfills have on nearby communities. I nodded as she told me all this, thinking yeah, the book is about that, but if she’s really interested in that topic, and has done some actual research on it, she isn’t going to learn a goddamn thing from this book.
I hope she read Trash Mountain and enjoyed it, and that she doesn’t hold it against me that so little research on trash went into the book. Not even Wikipedia research. And I hope she doesn’t interpret the lack of such research as a sign of laziness. With more time, I might have explained to her that I like to answer my own questions, and by doing so to dig deeper and deeper into a quasi-realistic phantasmagoria based on my own experience. Which isn’t to say I have any great experience of trash or mountains. Far from it. What I mean by experience is something a little different.
Years ago, an editor called my writing an “alchemical mixture of realism and complete bullshit,” and I hope that remains true. But what I’ve come to understand, since that time, is that the “complete bullshit” side of the equation (the more important side, let’s be honest) isn’t completely bullshit. For instance, in the short story that was the source of that editor’s comments, the title character, a tyrannical Ferdinand Magellan obsessed with his own penis, didn’t spring fully formed from my imagination. Nor did he emerge from research on the actual Ferdinand Magellan. He was inspired by a flamboyant performance given by a friend in a play written by another friend. In the same play, I played Ponce de León, who may have been the only character neither murdered nor sodomized by Magellan. So the “bullshit,” really, is my own life, but it just so happens that my life was affected more powerfully by weird plays than by growing up next to a dump.
Now, what does this have to do with Trash Mountain? Bear with me.
At another reading, during a Q and A session, a person asked me about a recurring character named Rick Zorn. In case you haven’t read Trash Mountain, know that Rick Zorn doesn’t actually appear in the novel; he’s a movie star, and the protagonist, Ben, is fond of recounting the plots of Zorn’s trashy action movies in order to pump himself up for various adventures. Before Ben sneaks into the dump, for instance, he thinks about Blood Bank, in which Rick Zorn “breaks into a bank just to show them how bad their security is so they’ll hire him as a security expert, only he’s secretly an undercover agent with Interpol and it’s a trick to catch the bankers doing cover-ups.” In the final scene, “Rick Zorn is running around a skyscraper with guys shooting at him until he finds the main bad guy banker standing in front of a plate-glass window, holding a grenade with the pin pulled. The banker guy laughs real crazy and says ‘I guess you think you caught me, huh?’ and Zorn says ‘red handed,’ then shoots the guy’s hand off. The grenade flies bloody through the plate-glass window, shattering it, and explodes in the distance near a helicopter with some other bad bankers inside who catch fire and fall screaming to their deaths.”
Any fan of Steven Seagal will know that the title Blood Bank is an homage to Hard to Kill, in which Seagal mutters the famous line: “I’m gonna take you to the bank, Senator Trent. To the blood bank.” I should admit that I’m a Steven Seagal fan, or as much of a fan as any American can be now that Seagal has been appointed Special Envoy to the U.S. by Vladimir Putin. But the true inspiration for Rick Zorn wasn’t Steven Seagal; it was John Phillips, a friend I used to perform with in the dank, dungeon-like comedy theaters of New York City. John wrote a sketch we called “Renegade Cop” in which he played the eponymous cop and I played his befuddled, cigar-chomping chief. You can probably imagine the entire sketch based on the title. Judging by his costume (shades, muscle shirt, Axl Rose jeans), my guess is that John’s performance was inspired by Cobra- era Sylvester Stallone, not early- or middle-period Seagal, and yet somehow, over time, in the cauldron of my memory and imagination, John’s live performance combined with Steven Seagal’s many taped performances into a chimera with Steven Seagal’s big lethal body and John’s then-youthful, stubbly face. And the voice I hear issuing from that creature, the voice Ben hears saying “red handed” in Trash Mountain, belongs less to Seagal than to a guy I happened to perform with for a few formative years.
And so I’m faced with this disquieting thought: the only research that informs my writing is what might be called memory work, which sounds important, like something Alice Munro probably does, except that the only memories I seem to be working with are memories of writing and performing with other people. What a limited palette! Then again, red, yellow and blue seem pretty limited, but if you mix them together all sorts of browns can be achieved. What I wonder, though, is what will happen years from now, when I don’t have any new memories of performing and my memories of writing consist entirely of me sitting alone at my desk, typing and muttering. Will the memories be as inspiring when the voices in my head are all my own?