A good writing buddy of mine once said to me, “Research is how you do writer’s block.” At that time, I was working on performance pieces based in history and I was getting distracted by the temptation to get it absolutely right by reading one more article. The same whispering demon of “one more footnote” assails graduate students writing their dissertations.
I joke that the unspoken subtitle of every single one of my plays is “It’s Not My Doctoral Dissertation,” because of course it is. I probably could pass a doctoral-level examination on any number of topics in literature, history, and history of technology. When playwright Tony Kushner got an honorary doctorate from the University of Minnesota some years ago, I thought that they should have given him a whole pile of them, approximately one per play, because I know some amount of the territory he’s writing, and there’s a whole lot of stuff lurking under there. Playwrights’ research and beta process makes the underwater part of an iceberg look relatively skimpy: it’s more like 99%, or 99.9% below the surface, rather than a mere 90%.
My Brain Sister and my buddy Devin Harnois have been conspiring (independently and in parallel) to help me get caught up on my reading in Pulp Studies, so among other things I’ve been handed Stephen King’s On Writing, which is one of the most useful books I’ve ever read, not least because it’s confirmed my own process on a number of points, and set my mind to ease on others:
Mr. King’s take on research is that a writer writes the story first, and does the research by way of touch-up.
There’s a reverse to this, of course, is that research can be a muse.
Non-fiction obsessions can be a rich source of stories. My current work in progress, The Lost Pissarro, is the most non-fictional piece of fiction I’ve ever written, in spite of its fantastical setting in a New York City where unicorns roam Central Park and tourists feed the undines in the fountain at Rockefeller Center. My central character is a painter who’s been hired as an art forger, and I’m using a staggering amount of nonfictional lore about the materials of impressionist painting, the history of chemistry, and biographical facts about several figures from the nineteenth-century Paris art scene, including Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro, and Victorine Meurent (Manet’s model for the Olympia, who was also a painter in her own right). The bibliography for this story runs to a full page.
On a somewhat grimmer note, my 2009 NaNo novel, The Reincarnations of Miss Anne, sprang from several decades of reading about scientific racism and sexism (a good part of it undertaken in self-defense), American contributions to the theory and practice of genocide, memoirs and biographies of survivors of slavery. The principal inspirations were Ally & Heim’s Architects of Annihilation, which was loaned to me by the playwright Ellena Schoop, (as inspiration for her short play Hitler’s Mandela), Edwin Black’s IBM and the Holocaust and his more recent work War Against the Weak, and William Still’s Underground Railroad, a stationmaster’s miscellany including ‘exit interviews’ from ex-slaves. Characters who jumped off the page into my story included a recent female PhD in anthropology doing research on ‘inferior populations’ in Nazi-occupied Poland (from Ally and Heim); the young women collecting interviews and other data for the Eugenics Research Office (from Black’s War Against the Weak); the indignant slave-owner writing a letter to an escaped slave, full of accusations of rank ingratitude (from William Still). Those characters put a face to my own mordant thoughts about female middle management through the ages, and the effect of 400 years of chattel slavery on American notions about work and dignity. The place where history meets fiction is rich, generative and deeply scary. I think the reason that novel’s yet unfinished is that I realized that it was the real thing.
Another obsession of mine is utopias and dystopias. I collect utopias, and a number of them found their way into that novel (including More, Fourier, Campanella, and more recent writers). Another influence is the Russian Firebird folk tale, which seems to have infiltrated a number of my recent novels. (Favilla Vogel, the Citizen of Utopia in Miss Anne, stands in for the Firebird, and one of the several Miss Annes is Anne-Marie Bessmertny, a self-aggrandizing functionary who’s a female avatar of Koschei Bessmertny. In the Shape-shifter’s Tale, little Max is a lineal descendant of a conjectured love affair between Baba Yaga and Koschei Bessmertny.)
What nonfiction reading has inspired your fiction writing?