Sometimes there are too many literary events to go to, and you have to let some slide in the interest of staying sane. I have to admit: I wasn’t in the mood to attend the latest reading in Spokane, featuring Ben Fountain and Jess Walter, but I did, and it turned out to be one of those happy coincidences that makes you feel like you found a $20 bill in an old jacket pocket. Not only was it a good reading, but the discussion and Q&A were particularly relevant to a topic many of us deal with often: the relationship between research and writing.
Ben Fountain, a 2012 National Book Award finalist, was in Spokane to speak at Gonzaga University, reading from his widely acclaimed novel, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. He shared the stage with Spokane native and award-winning author Jess Walter, who is following up the success of his novel Beautiful Ruins—a book that Kirkus Reviews called “brilliant”—with a collection of short stories, We Live in Water. The event itself was a mixture of reading and conversation; a format that echoed Walter’s reading last year with Colson Whitehead as part of the 2012 Get Lit! Festival. Walter read part of a short story from the new collection, warmed up the crowd with his sense of humor, offered some well-timed jokes, and graciously let the visiting writer Fountain take the stage.
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk centers on 19-year-old American soldier Billy Lynn, deployed to Iraq but returned to the US with his squad for a two-week “Victory Tour,” organized by government PR experts to drum up support for the war. The anti-war novel has been widely praised, was a finalist for the National Book Award, and has been mentioned more than once in conversations about potential Pulitzer nominees. However, the most interesting part of the evening for me, having not read the novel yet, was the Q&A.
Now, Q&As are often nightmarish. Let’s be honest. And the first question asked by an audience member was terrible. But one of the questions that Jess Walter asked of Ben Fountain was related to the subject matter of the book. As Walter pointed out, Billy Lynn came out at the same time as two other books about the war in Iraq- and both happened to be written by veterans, whereas Fountain has never served in the military. Fountain was asked whether that made him nervous, which led to an interesting discussion about whether artists have the “right” to tell stories from the point of view of someone completely unlike them or whose experience it might be difficult to accurately convey (which most would agree is a crucial element of art– but that’s tempered by the reality that there are respectful/appropriate ways to go about it, and then there are ways like The Help.) “I’m still not satisfied I earned the right,” Fountain said. “Any time blood is involved, there’s something sacred there.”
Fountain also spoke about immersing himself in research for the novel, because, as he said in a slight Southern drawl, “I was trying to tell the damn truth. Trying to do right by the men and women who fought in it.” He spoke about how he felt driven not only to get the details exactly right, but also to achieve emotional authenticity with the book.
That particular part of the discussion was perfectly timed because of something else I’d read earlier that day– a contributors note that fellow Barker Leyna Krow wrote for Hayden’s Ferry Review– a cool, short piece you can read here. I often find contributor notes less interesting than the piece that was published, which is why this particular short essay is great, because it rises above that. The reader gets insight into that particular story, but we also get to be part of a discussion about achieving authenticity on the page.
I have this feeling that if I can get the place and the clothes and the food and the indigenous plant species just right, then readers will buy in to the fake problems of all the fake people I want to tell them about. They will care about my fake people and empathize with all their fake emotions because once, in a real grocery store, they saw that one brand of toothpaste I mentioned. But as a reader, I know it’s actually totally the other way around. It’s when the people and their problems and their emotions are compelling that all the other stuff – place and plants and toothpaste – becomes believable, whether it’s actually real or not.
This question of how much to rely on trying to make a story “realistic” while also trying to make it reflect Truth is an interesting one, and intersected nicely with the Fountain and Walter Q&A. Walter talked about his process writing Beautiful Ruins, and pointed out that he’d sometimes run into a wall when he hadn’t done enough research. Something as simple as trying to describe an Italian man eating soup would throw him out of his writing stride, because he’d have to pause to consider what kind of soup and how to describe it. My mind went one step further, thinking about how then all of a sudden you’re doing research on what kind of soup this man in a particular part of Italy might be eating, for what will ultimately be two sentences involving soup. Which isn’t to say that it’s not worth it to get those details right, but it does mean that you stop writing in order to find the answer.
The questions about research (how much, how often, how deeply did you immerse yourself, how did you pull away from the research to actually live your life, etc.) were interesting to me, as I’ve been sifting through a fair amount of research for a project I’ve been obsessing about. I’ve been carrying articles printed off from JSTOR and a highlighter pretty much wherever I go– to that very reading, in fact– not to mention poring over maps and first person accounts and using Google earth to zoom in on a city to see what the hillsides adjacent to the town are like. I have a giant stack of articles to read, one book to reread and a complete history of a country on my bedside table- and I haven’t even been to the library yet.
However, the project I’m considering– which I’m resisting going into detail about– might be someone else’s story, and not one that I have a right to explore. The research is pretty heavy, and I will need to be careful about pulling back from it at intervals, not to mention falling into the trap of researching forever and ever, gobbling up more and more research until so much has been accumulated that there’s no way for a person to write what they want to write.
The most valuable answer of the night (for me personally) was a surprise, in that it came from a pretty standard question: what do you do when you get stuck? Fountain’s answer, of course, was to write. But as for how to keep going when balancing the research and the actual writing, he described a cycle in which it was all about “researching your way into a corner and becoming completely disoriented and confused, and then writing your way out of it.”
I plan on enjoying the research stage and taking some notes until I have a clearer idea of the direction I want to go. How do you handle balancing research and your writing?