Research Notes · 10/18/2013

Zinsky The Obscure

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their research for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Ilan Mochari reveals how his high school yearbook quote and a “failed” first novel were the taproot for his debut novel, Zinsky the Obscure from Fomite Press.

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My high school yearbook quote, in all its nerdy glory, came from Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles:

It was unexpended youth, surging up anew after its temporary check, and bringing with it hope, and the invincible instinct towards self-delight.

It was a quote that changed my life, an astoundingly eloquent summation of optimism as the by-product of sex drive and naïveté. When first I read it, in the summer after eleventh grade, I was confused. Was all the hope I felt only a function of youth? If Thomas Hardy wrote it about the dairymaid Tess, did it have to be true for me?

Regardless, the quote stayed with me. It birthed a passion for 19th-century fiction that buoyed me through the formative heartbreaks and reversals of my late teens and early twenties. It was during these years that I began dreaming of writing my own novel. Inevitably, the first part of these dream sequences was the title. And usually the title was high-flown, a reference only an English major or literature fanatic could appreciate. (Something like Drawn to the Loadstone Rock, which is a chapter in A Tale of Two Cities.)

I finished my first novel — called The Invincible Instinct — in 2001, when I was 26. It deservedly remains unpublished. But it wasn’t all bad: I liked the characters. One of them was a 25-year-old fundraiser named Harper Pratt. Here’s how the narrator of The Invincible Instinct meets her:

I saw her browsing a box of used records and asked her for the time. “Five to one,” she responded, her eyes on a record. I thanked her and left.

“Five to one,” meant that my lunch break was almost over. I hustled back to the section of the market where I worked, a corner devoted to purses, knapsacks, wallets and other accessories. Around me, for the next few hours, customers clamored to learn the prices of various items, or to ask whether the wallets were made of “real leather.” When the throng cleared there was Harper again, examining the compartments of a knapsack. “How much?”

“Ten.”

As she backed away, I added, “Is there something I could say that would turn this into a conversation?”

She stopped. I can’t remember whether I was more stunned that she stopped, or that I’d said what I just said. Then Harper, softly, said this: “I hope you’re not always so graceless.”

Though “graceless” is not a complex word, it’s not one you hear everyday. That Harper would use it when first meeting a guy is one reason she stayed with me, even after I gave up on Instinct.

When I began drafting Zinsky in 2003, I found myself thinking about Harper. Where would she be? What had her life amounted to?

Eventually, Harper became a minor character in Zinsky. But her roommate, a business-school student named Diana Kennedy, became Zinsky’s second-most important character (aside from the narrator, the Zinsky of the title). And I doubt Diana would’ve emerged so fully — both in my initial sketches and during the drafting process — had I not given so much thought to Harper, all those years earlier.

Is there a lesson here? I’m not sure. Instinct and Zinsky are my first two novels, so it’s hard to know which parts of their creation are anomalous, and which ones are endemic to novel-writing.

Here’s what I do know: Diana began with Harper, and Harper began with my yearbook quote. So my advice, all told, is quite straightforward: Even if you’ve “killed” a story or a book-length project, make sure — to paraphrase Miracle Max from The Princess Bride — that it’s only mostly dead. While the project as a whole may have come to an end, it may possess kernels — phrases, descriptions, characters — that are slightly alive.

And you’re only one project away from resurrecting them.

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Ilan Mochari’s novel, Zinsky the Obscure (Fomite Press), is now available. It has earned rave reviews from Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, and Booklist. Ilan’s short stories have appeared in Keyhole, Stymie, Ruthie’s Club, and Oysters & Chocolate. He is Chief Writer for The Build Network and a contributor to Cognoscenti, the online magazine for Boston’s NPR News Station. (Listen to his radio interview. Or read his interview in DigBoston.) He has a B.A. in English from Yale University. He used it to wait tables for nine years in the Boston area.