Saul Bellow, The Bellarosa Connection
Not everyone agrees with the narrator’s contention. Indeed, Bellow’s last novel, Ravelstein, was published when the author was eighty-five. I decided, however, to follow the narrator’s advice. I have been writing fiction for twelve years now, the last four full-time. I don’t consider myself retired. I merely have switched professions. My accountant begs to differ.
Nothing in my previous professional life prepared me. Indeed, to contend that novel writing differs from scientific writing understates the obvious: styles of the two are diametrically opposed. It is difficult to conceive of a worse preparation for an aspiring novelist than to spend forty years collecting and writing up scientific research.
Nevertheless, similarities exist. Both scientist and novelist make things up. They hypothesize. As a scientist, I would ask questions such as “Do nonmusical factors such as attractiveness, dress, and stage behavior affect evaluations of musical performance?” As a novelist, my questions so far are these:
To what extremes will a person go to save another’s life?
Is a dating website for suicidal people a good idea?
Is life worth living?
It is curious that in both disciplines there are no immediate answers. One scientific study by itself proves nothing, and the same is true for one novel.
A scientist of course cannot make up answers. She designs an experiment, runs it, and reports what was found. The successful writer of fiction, on the other hand, creates a compelling narrative consistent with human behavior. Given what we know about individual differences, the imperative to be consistent is hardly a limitation; rather, it provides more opportunities than the novelist can possibly exploit.
Research in fiction
“Writing out of one’s ass” is the phrase that the literary world reserves to describe fiction contrived without regard to the way things really are. One does not employ this phrase admiringly. Its application indicates that the writer has not done her homework, and it assumes that the resulting product is inferior to what it would have been the case had background research been carried out with diligence.
One might question this assumption. Though it is clear that the historical novelist must be accurate, the need for other novelists to adhere to reality is less obvious. One writer, Jim Crace, has gone out of his way to make up imaginary places, plants, trees, and objects in his novels. Few people mind:
Jim Crace is a liar. His novels are peppered with invented detail cunningly disguised as fact: Tarbony trees, Boulevard Liqueur, manac beans, Panache automobiles, swag flies, a wise old poet named Mondazy. A careless reader will mistake the make-believe for realist detail—which is all part of the plan. (Begley, 2003)
In most cases, however, reality checks are necessary. Novelistic research corrects inaccurate impressions. A few pages in my first novel, The View North from Liberal Cemetery (2014), are set in the Liberal High School library, circa 1940. I knew from online research that the population of Liberal, Kansas back then was approximately 5,000. Surely its high school, built in 1913, had to be small; In my imagination, its library was no larger than a large closet.
I visited Liberal in 2007. The old high school, boarded up by then, surprised me. It was a massive brick building. Thanks to a 1949 high school yearbook I found in the Liberal Town Library, I learned that the school had twenty-six classrooms. A photo of its library showed that it was a large airy room, and the yearbook informed me that it contained seventeen hundred volumes. Here is how I described it:
At 11:15 a.m.on Wednesday, November 20th, 1940, I entered the Liberal High School library. Other than the boy’s gymnasium and the auditorium, the library was the largest room in the school. A double-door archway entrance contributed to its grandness, and the sixteen windows on your right as you walked in, arranged in four two-by-two squares and all well above eye level, made it the brightest room in the school. One thousand seven hundred books occupied oak bookcases lining its walls, and fourteen rectangular tables, each with four standard-issue wooden chairs assigned to it, took up every inch of floor space.
I suppose I could have perversely kept my original conception of Liberal High School as a one-room log cabin standing all by its lonesome in the middle of a Kansas prairie. The image is dramatic, but there are people still alive who know better.
Let me correct a misconception at this point. It is commonly believed that people read novels for pleasure, and for insights into human behavior. I believe that they also read them for information. A novel that teaches the reader nothing about the real world, be it how a whaling ship operates, how gloves are cut to measure, or what bizarre American roadside attractions could have been visited in the 1950s, is a novel doomed to fail. These days, many readers want to learn about the externals as well as the internals of lives.
The necessity for interpretation
Writers of scientific studies strive to summarize findings clearly and accurately. The fiction writer does the opposite. She doesn’t aim for obfuscation and inaccuracy. Rather, she filters the data so that it reads as if written fresh, even like poetry in some cases, on the page.
In my second novel, Let’s Go Out on a Date, there is a scene in which the sleep-deprived protagonist, Julian Hershtik, hangs on for dear life to Beatrice Tracquinelle as she blasts her Harley-Davidson down several miles of the FDR Drive. Before writing the scene, I watched these two YouTube videos:
In both videos, all is peaceful. The sun shines, and traffic is surprisingly light. In the novel, however, Julian and Beatrice believe they are fleeing from the police. Julian’s state of mind is markedly different from mine as I watched the videos, so my task was to capture what he is feeling—fun for me, though not for my character. I chose details from the videos and altered the pacing, and I granted the reader access to Julian’s thinking:
Oh I was so tired! Fear kept me awake, but instead of focusing on “the long view,” as driver education instructors advocate, I absorbed random snippets from an avalanche of stimulation. I couldn’t filter. I’ve heard it said that people facing imminent death replay the totality of their lives in their heads. Life experiences flash before them in a few seconds, as if viewing a rapid series of photographs. Not me. Too tired to construct such images, I absorbed my environment without discrimination. We passed under a building. Multiple pillars on our left broke up the light, creating shadow stripes. My life was on the line and I was thinking, Holy shit, those stripes are cool. A diamond-shaped sign in yellow appeared to our left before we reached the first of several underpasses. Written in black was 12’ 3”. Wonderful. Say you’re a truck driver. Two hundred yards separate your thirteen-foot-high truck from the underpass, so you realize that in a few seconds, kaboom, instant vehicular crewcut. What to do, stop on a dime? Then what?
Random stimuli assaulted me. I registered signs titled E. 34 St. Ferry Landing, NYU Medical Center, Geraldine H. Coles Laboratories, Alexandria Center in big white block letters, Weight Limit 8000 Pounds(prompting me to recall one of my favorite films from when I was a kid, Destination Moon), No Fee Apts, and Litter Removal Next 1 Mile Ibex adopt-a-highway.Kids off to our right played basketball in cages. A slobbering Labrador retriever’s head hung out of a VW Golf driven by a guy wearing sunglasses. His car blasted mindless misogynistic rap (“Hey babe, give it to me now, ’cause I’m the king and you’re the thing”) at a volume loud enough to blow out both his and the dog’s eardrums. Instead of wondering how to cushion myself from a fall, or how best to deflect a collision with a Yaris driven by a texting teenager to our right, I observed the unimportant things with a clarity I rarely experience in unthreatening situations. I imagined what Geraldine H. Coles looked like. I got as far as coiffured hair, wrinkled face, and dressed out of the pages of Vogue before I was distracted by the magnificent Williamsburg Bridge, popping up in front of us like a silvery Godzilla sleeping on its side. Beatrice darted us two lanes to the right and accelerated up the Exit 5 ramp onto Houston Street. She drove us a block west, stopped at a red light, and I exhaled.
The Williamsburg Bridge looked not so much like a sleeping Godzilla as a sleeping Godzilla’s backbone. No matter at this point in the narrative, because Julian is so tired and stressed that to him, anything can look like almost anything else.
In Let’s Go Out on a Date, both Julian and his novelist conduct research. To decide whether to set up his dating website for suicidal people, Julian learns all he can about suicide: its history, how it is viewed within current Western society, populations at risk for it, and how it might be prevented. He determines whether such a site already exists, and if it likely would be profitable. What skills would he need to run it? How much would it cost, and how would it be staffed? It also behooves Julian to anticipate unintended consequences. Several such events occur in the novel, including one that he finds particularly upsetting—some of the site’s members join Let’s Go Out on a Date not to establish relationships, but to die together.
Given that I was writing a novel rather than an essay, I had to figure out a way to present this information in a way that would intrigue the reader. I began by researching the topic—not exhaustively, because that would have been impossible, but selectively. I read three books (Alvarez, 1990; Critchley, 2001; Hecht, 2013), as well as the Wikipedia article on suicide. I studied websites such as Lost All Hope and Speaking of Suicide, and examined dating websites in order to determine if some of them intersected with suicide. None did, though some centered on depressed people (Depression Dating) and people with mental illness (No Longer Lonely).
I included a few weird factoids, such as the following one, from Al Alvarez’s The Savage God:
Even in the civilized Athens of Plato, the suicide was buried outside the city and away from other graves; his self-murdering hand was cut off and buried apart.
Here is how I incorporated that information in the novel. The passage, as is the entire book, is in Julian’s voice:
It was common practice back then to slice off the hand that administered the coup de grâce. It would be buried far from the body, so as not to taint the corpse with sin. One might therefore wonder: where did all the hand graveyards go? Surely at least one of them must have survived. What great tourist attractions they would have made. Imagine a typical tombstone inscription: Roland Finch’s Left Hand, 1218-1246. As for Roland Finch’s corpse proper, the inscription on its tombstone might have concluded with Rest in Pieces.
The passage can be omitted from the novel, as it is not necessary to the plot. I kept it because it gives some insight into Julian’s character. He has a sarcastic side, and in the middle of researching a dark topic, he is able to make a joke. I felt that the reader would find the joke funny. Who knows, I may be wrong.
I had Julian report on the suicide videos that he (and I) viewed. He locates The Bridge online. It is a one-hour documentary, and it mainly consists of interviews with friends and family members of people who suicided by jumping from the Golden State Bridge. The film’s director, Eric Steel, hired a crew to film the bridge continuously throughout all of 2004. Twenty-three of the twenty-four people who jumped that year were captured on film. Though the jumps themselves occupy a tiny fraction of the documentary, I viewed enough for Julian to describe them thusly:
Because the movie’s suicides are shown from afar rather than close up, the viewer’s reactions are muted. The moment of death itself gets airbrushed out by the opacity of San Francisco Bay. Someone has just died, yet the violence perpetuated on his or her body seems almost an aesthetic occurrence rather than a gut-wrenching one. The videos I watched afterward, however, left little to the imagination.
Once again, Julian doesn’t simply describe the jumps; he adds how they affected him, thus livening (I hope) the narrative. The descriptions also were designed to disturb the reader. Murders and suicides are reported in our society so frequently that many of us have become inured to both their violence and their significance. We forget that someone has lost a life.
Julian watches individual suicides viewable on the internet. I’ll spare the links; suffice it to say that they were as upsetting as one might imagine. But how to present them in the novel to maximize their impact?
I used a technique that might be called accelerando. The first two suicides were described extensively. Here is the first one. Its description is based on fact, and was reported in the New York Times (Dewan, 2004). Julian’s interpretation does not wander far from the New York Times article:
Paris Lane was a young black man who grew up disadvantaged. His parents died of AIDS. He lived in a rough Bronx neighborhood, hung out with gangs, committed petty crimes, and struggled in school. Nevertheless, he had potential. His foster mom supported and loved him, he had a lively outgoing personality, and he rapped like a hair-trigger Gatling gun—fast, sharp, bursting with energy. Then his girlfriend broke up with him.
The pair stand in a foyer of a Bronx apartment building, by an elevator. She gives him a last hug. It’s an empathic attempt—not at all dismissive, but tender, as if rather than breaking up she is saying au revoir to a lover who is about to fight in a faraway war.
The elevator door opens. She gets in, the door shuts. Paris stares at the closed door as he removes a handgun from his right coat pocket. He opens his mouth, positions the gun inside it, fires. His head jerks back just an inch, and he falls straight down.
I devoted slightly less space to the suicide of Ricardo Lopez, the would-be murderer of the Icelandic singer Björk, then launched into a series of thirteen additional suicides, all presented briefly:
Marcus Jannes, a Swedish twenty-one-year-old kid wearing a red t-shirt on which is written, “JUST DO IT,” hangs himself using a window cord. An anonymous guy dressed in a freshly ironed white shirt douses his head and shirt with gasoline, lights a piece of paper with a match, applies the flame to his body, and shrieks in pain. A man, naked except for his black underwear, cuts his neck repeatedly using a razor. He’s lying in a bloodstained tub. After a few minutes, his head tilts to one side and stays there. A nineteen-year-old woman live-streams her own death up to the moment before she throws herself in front of a train. A thousand people watch on Periscope, a video-oriented social media site. A guy in a store shoots himself in the chest because his ex-wife won’t reconcile with him. He remains standing for twenty-five seconds, then falls to the floor. A Japanese girl, nineteen years old, is found hanging in her house. She cannot be cut down until the police arrive. One man narrates, others talk in the background, and a woman, perhaps the girl’s mother, wails. A pretty Syrian university student, fashionably dressed in a maroon top and dark jeans, hangs herself in her apartment. A young Mumbai man jumps in front of an oncoming train. He doesn’t die, but is cut in half. People on the crowded platform turn away. Eugene Sprague spends an hour and a half on Golden Gate bridge. He’s got tattoos all over his face, his long hair flows with the breeze. He’s wearing a sharp black leather coat, and he looks pensive rather than despondent. Suddenly he climbs onto the railing and lets himself fall backward.
Another young man points a handgun at his right temple and fires. A girl, this one wearing a heavy red wool sweater, places her head in a noose and fastens the rope to a ceiling fixture. She hangs herself by kicking away the wooden platform on which she had been standing. A woman jumps off a bridge. An elderly man with cancer swallows poison.
In a literary workshop, I was criticized for ‘overkill.’ Fair enough, had it not been that I wanted to create a cumulative effect great enough to motivate Julian to leave his room, walk to the beach, and stand before the ocean for a good fifteen minutes before deciding not to attempt suicide a second time.
Here is another example: Julian listens to Sonya Grankovich, a woman he is smitten with for reasons that I won’t go into here, play a fragment of a Rachmaninoff Prelude:
“What, that I play the piano?”
“That you play it so beautifully,” I said, pretending to ignore the staggering effect of her appearance on my person.
“I was playing at half speed. At tempo it’s nothing more than a trifle, but when it’s played slower than the composer intended, you cover it in gold leaf. It gleams. It’s a prayer, spoken softly in the midst of a Siberian pine forest, and it’s sincere and it’s beautiful, and its tones bloom, as if dozens of white roses were floating in the air. The music weaves such beguilement that all the animals in the forest, from the tiger on down to the chipmunk, become at peace with each other. Women as well.”
“What about men?”
“There are no men in this story.”
No question about it: if you write about music in fiction, you have to take the referential path. A chapter later, Julian Sonya plays a complete performance, plus an elaboration:
What strange music. It flickered between a dance and a thought, stopping and starting unexpectedly as if alternating between doubt and certainty of its place in the universe. Yes, no, maybe. A gentle bumpity-bump melody, then a pause. An infectious tune stops dead in its tracks, allowing two eighteenth-century dancers dressed in frilly garments and elegant sandals to bow to each other with exaggerated courtesy. This Prelude is a lost world. It’s beautiful, but fragile.
“It doesn’t know where it’s going. I could reorder some of its measures and it would sound just as good.”
Sonya began the Prelude again, but immediately morphed it into something different. She added rumbling repeated patterns with her left hand, and multiplied what had been the spare sound of two bells by a factor of four or five. Her fingers flashed up and down the keyboard like laser beams. Although she had begun quietly, within the second minute of her improvisation the piano sounded like an orchestra. She filled the house with a succession of tones, chords, runs, and melodies expressing joy and suffering simultaneously.
Here, Sonya loses some of her inhibitions, which was necessary in the novel not to get close to Julian, but to confess a terrible incident from her past.
I researched and wrote the novel concurrently. Sometimes I paused the writing to read a book or to search out some tidbit of information. At other times, I wrote and hoped that forthcoming research would not force me to modify my work. Often it did. On the other hand, I have found that completion of the research component before starting the novel is impossible. Many but not all novelists have an idea concerning where their plot with take them. Some, like me, don’t.
Both music researchers and novelists may on occasion fail to distinguish between collection and utilization. It is possible, for example, for a literature review to be too comprehensive. Such completeness may cause the review’s argumentative flow to slow to a trickle, like a clogged shower drain.
The same issue may arise in novel writing. A novelist might spend hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars gathering background information for her work. That does not mean that she should include as much background information in the novel as possible.
Many fiction writers undertake research not just because they must do so in order to write a good book, but for two additional reasons. First, they enjoy it. They travel to restaurants, hotels, and cities they otherwise never would have visited. They interview interesting people, read history and background information, search out locales on Google Earth, and use YouTube to travel down highways, learn about illnesses, and watch instructive videos. What fun!
Second, research operates as an artistic constraint. As the style of a musical composition limits what is acceptable, so does the real world limit what the writer can make up. The scientist and the novelist both operate in restricted spaces. No scientist would ask, “Is music good for people?” The question is so general that an answer is not possible. As Madsen & Madsen demonstrate early in Experimental research in music (1970), testable questions must be highly specific. Similarly, the novelist is not free to go, to paraphrase the Star Trek television series, where no one has gone before. The writing of fiction is restricted by setting, timing, character, likelihood, and, for the most part, the laws of physics.
Restrictions are necessities in all of the arts. Some are imposed from without, as for example the budget set aside for the production of a movie, or the size of a stage for a musical. Others are self-imposed. A photographer eliminates all colors except grays, a poet completes a work in fourteen lines, a composer writes a short piece for solo violin. In novel writing, restrictions often change throughout the writing process. A work becomes longer or shorter from draft to draft as plot elements get elaborated upon or eliminated. A subplot that seemed necessary early on now appears false. A character or two vanish; the description of a house party becomes more detailed.
For the novelist, words, sentences, paragraphs, chapters, and even whole sections of a manuscript are moving targets. Unfortunately, so is the novelist’s mind. What appears good one day seems trite the next. It is for this reason that most writers revise unceasingly, but that is a topic for another day.
Alvarez, A. (1990). The savage god: a study of suicide. New York City: Norton & Co.
Begley, A. (2003). Jim Crace, the Art of Fiction. no. 179. The Paris Review, 167.
Critchley, S. (2001). Notes on suicide. London: Fitzcarraldo Editions.
Dewan, S. (2004). “Video of suicide in Bronx appears on shock web site.” New York Times, April 1.
Hecht, J. (2013). Stay: a history of suicide and the philosophies against it. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Madsen, C. K. and Madsen, C. H. (1970). Experimental research in music. Englewood, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
Wapnick, J. (2014). The view north from Liberal Cemetery. Montreal: Wapiti Press.
Wapnick, J. (2019). Let’s Go Out on a Date. Unpublished manuscript.
This argument is relevant to literature centered in the real world. Many genres in fiction writing these days are speculative in nature, allowing authors to violate everything, even the basic laws of physics, with impunity.
I neglected to mention before that a novelist, or one of her characters, may be unreliable. That is, instead of teaching us how the world is, we (perhaps) infer the truth from lies given to the reader instead.
Only a few jumps appear in the film. The filmmakers saved six lives, as they had a direct phone line to police working on the bridge and would phone in whenever they spotted someone who seemed likely to jump. Most of the jumpers completed their acts too quickly to have been prevented, however.
Overkill? What I wrote is nothing compared to Roberto Bolano’s presentation, one after the other of about a hundred murders of women in his incredible novel, 2666.