Research Notes · 06/14/2013

Why We Never Talk About Sugar

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their research for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Aubrey Hirsch writes about Why We Never Talk About Sugar (Braddock Street Books).

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A Brief Guide to Research in Why We Never Talk About Sugar: Four Stories

“Hydrogen Event in a Bubble Chamber”

To write a story like this you’re going to need to know a lot about physics. There’s no way around it, I’m sorry to say, you just have to put in the hours. It’s helpful to be scrawny and not at all athletic. Compete in Academic Challenge instead of volleyball. Get your boobs really late. Play a lot of Starcraft (the boys at your high school don’t want to kiss you anyway, but, trust me, the boys at college will eat that up). Discover that there’s a whole big physics section at Half Price Books. Read all of Stephen Hawking. Then Brian Greene. Then F. David Peat. It helps if your college boyfriend thinks watching The Elegant Universe on DVD is an acceptable date night. Get stoned and postulate theories on dark matter and energy conservation in an expanding universe. Accept that you will never have a deep, intuitive grasp of cohomology. That’s okay, you’re getting better-looking these days. Read Fabric of the Cosmos on your back porch and try to kill invading flies with a jet-stream of Orange-Glo. Explain conceptual time travel to your grad school boyfriend. If he thinks it’s sexy when you say, “quantum faxing” and “virtual particles,” it might not be a bad idea to marry him.

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“Advice for Dealing with the Loss of a Beloved Pet”

The research here is tougher. You won’t have to actually have cancer (thank god), but you will need to undergo a course of radiation therapy and have your childhood dog put down. To these ends, it helps to have a sick father, who can predispose you to an autoimmune disorder, and a cocker spaniel, which are prone to tumors. You can do half of the research for this story on Wikipedia, petcancerawareness.org, and petmd.com. The other half you’ll have to do at your local hospital, while balled up on your couch, and hovering over the toilet in your perpetually dirty bathroom. If there are gaps in your memory, you can fill them with the copy of Thyroid for Dummies your mother put in your Easter basket the year you were diagnosed with Graves’ disease. But it’s a good idea to start writing the story even as you’re undergoing treatment. While you lie still under the mechanical eye of the nuclear scanner, your head thrown back at an unnatural angle, compose the first few paragraphs over and over again. This will take your mind off your stiff neck, your racing heart, the bottles of Tapazole and beta blockers on your nightstand, and the nagging fear in your mind that the worst is yet to come.

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“Certainty”

You can complete a fair portion of the research for “Certainty” simply by falling in love, which you’ve done a number of times. That’s the fun part. Of course, in order to do it more than once you’ll have to fall back out. That’s less fun, but it’s research you can use in other stories. You’re also going to want to take a few pregnancy tests. The more suspense you can build around them the better, so a bit of risky sex is in order. The story also needs a good dose of heartbreak. You’re already doing lots of research on infertility for your novel, so why not dip into that a bit here? Spend some time on thebump.com and BabyCenter scrolling through the infertility forums. You’re not married yet and definitely not thinking of a family, but it’s okay to wonder if reading these message boards for story fodder is totally fucking your karma. As you write sad dialogue between your two main characters, who desperately want a baby, you can almost feel your ovaries withering. Still, you press on. It’s true there’s tension sometimes between being a good person and a good writer, and you’re pretty sure you can hang fairly close to the line on this one.

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“Paradise Hardware”

You’ll need to start researching for this one early. Get an after-school job at a local flower shop when you’re fourteen. While you’re cleaning out the cooler, learn the names of all the flowers inside. Watch Barbara, your boss, twist broad lengths of ribbon into giant bows. You can practice at home with leftover Christmas ribbon, but don’t fret if you never get it exactly right. When your father sends you a newspaper article about a man who inherits an abandoned hardware store, spend a couple of hours looking at old tools on the Internet. If you have a grandfather who’s nice to you, he can help. He’ll tell you about tin plates and the nickel handwarmer he used when he was a paperboy. All of it goes into the first draft and survives the second. You cut most of it by the third. Your grandfather lives long enough to see the story published and to hear about your book deal, but not to actually hold the book in his hands, flip through the pages, move his fingers over the words he contributed. That’s okay. The pain is useful. You can sock those tears away for later. It’s research, you whisper to yourself when it hurts. Everything is research.

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Aubrey Hirsch is a proud native of Cleveland, Ohio. Her work has appeared in American Short Fiction, Third Coast, Hobart, The Rumpus and elsewhere. She teaches fiction writing in Pittsburgh, where she lives with her husband, writer Devan Goldstein, and their son.