Research Notes · 10/04/2019

Watershed

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their process for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Mark Barr writes about Watershed from Hub City Press.

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In August 2002, I telephoned the Mansfield Dam in Austin, Texas, and asked if I could get a tour of the structure. 9-11 had happened just eleven months before, and the worker on the phone was pointedly suspicious. “Why would you want a tour of the dam?” he asked, and I suddenly saw my request in the new light. The Mansfield wasn’t exactly Hoover Dam, but if it failed, the results would be devastating for thousands of Austinites downstream. I gave him my best pitch for the novel and tried to be reassuring.

I’d been working on the idea of a novel about rural electrification for a couple years at that point but had only recently fully committed to the project. My story imagined the construction of a federal hydroelectric dam in Tennessee in the late 1930s, but that was a long way from my then central Texas home. Luckily, a little Googling revealed that the local dam on the Colorado river, the Mansfield Dam, had been built in the same year as the one whose construction my story hoped to tell.

The worker on the telephone must have believed me, because I was told to come by the following week. On the appointed day, I drove across town on my lunch hour. The employee parking lot was set against the base of the downriver side of the dam. The dam stood enormous above me as I parked. A road I frequently drove crossed atop the dam – I’d passed across its back a dozen times in the past year – but I had never properly appreciated its massiveness. The bulk of the structure loomed 285 feet above me, a wall of concrete made up of different shadings, each marking another strata of cement. And as tall as the dam was, it was nearly just as thick at the base. I contemplated the feat it was accomplishing, the acres of water it held back. Were I to teleport to the opposite side from where I now stood, there would be only darkness and cold; the depths of Lake Travis. On this side, I stood on a basin of sun-baked cement.

Keith must have seen me through the window, because I was barely out of my car and there he was. He took me inside the control room. A computer monitor showed graphic representation of the water levels at each of the five highland lakes strung along the length of the Colorado river. The dams were integrated, and computerized control allowed for a coordination that meant floods, once a plague along the Colorado, had become a rarity.

I wasn’t let down by all the modern technology that dominated the dam controls, but it wasn’t quite what I was looking for, either. I was trying to capture a dam built in 1937, but this was all completely modern. I think I had been imagining something old and primitive: chains and pulleys, hand-operated spillway gates, but this was Star Wars. I still hadn’t quite put a name to the disappointment I was experiencing, when Keith led me outside to to tour the dam proper and it all changed. Outdoors, Keith told me story after story about the dam, both tales he’d heard around the control room, but also remembrances that he’d picked up from a previous visitor, a retired engineer who had worked on the dam’s construction back in 1937. My visit suddenly became rich with anecdotes and bits of dam trivia, many of which found their way into my novel.

I’d wavered when considering whether to take the project seriously enough — to take myself seriously enough, I realized — to make it worth pestering someone with a request for a tour, but once Keith got started on his stories, I knew I had made the right choice. It’s taken me nearly two decades to write the book, but next week, I have plans to call up Mansfield Dam and find out if Keith still works there. If I can track him down, I’m going to thank him again.

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Mark Barr has been awarded fellowships from Blue Mountain Center, I-Park Artists Enclave, Jentel Arts, Kimmel Harding Nelson Center, Millay Colony, and Yaddo, and holds an M.F.A. from Texas State University. He lives with his wife and sons in Arkansas, where he develops software and bakes bread.