Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Houellebecq And I Research The Same Way

I am currently reading Michel Houellebecq's Atomised, which I will tell you reminds me of Antonia Byatt's Babel Tower series crossed with, maybe, Gunter Grass's Local Anaesthetic. Possibly the similarities I see are only superficial: something about the way Grass shows the inner life of his protagonist, and Byatt's interest in and use of biosciences and the way she'll slip long passages about the biology of snails (for example) into her narratives. Other readers will of course make connections between Atomised and authors other than Byatt and Grass, and it would be easy for me to sort of digress into a discussion of how what we've already read informs what we are currently reading, but I'll leave that for the literary theorists who believe in reader-response theory (take it away, boys...).

Where? Oh, Houellebecq. So I'm reading this book and you can see that the author has done a lot of research, on biology and physics, on the history of science and scientific writing, on the life of Aldous Huxley and his family, on the sociopolitical changes in Europe during the 60s and 70s, et cetera. Houellebecq takes on some pretty big themes here and has clearly spent a lot of time reading and thinking about these things.

But I wonder if that's how he began this book. At the heart of the novel is the story of two half brothers, Michel and Bruno, who are externally very different but deep down very much the same. Each of them is an aspect of a sort of 20th-century Everyman living in an "atomised" or isolated society, looking for love but unable to go about it in anything but destructive, meaningless ways. I think that Houellebecq began with these two brothers (one an artist, one a brilliant scientist), started to research and stumbled across the larger ideas he's incorporated into the novel. I get the feeling that he, like Antonia Byatt, lets his reading take him where it will, and he reads to find out, to see what he can see, to learn what's there to be learned and to be able to write what he doesn't know, because writing about what we don't know is always more interesting than writing about what we do know.

Now, it's entirely possible that I assume this about Houellebecq because that's how I go about my own research for novels, and I like to generalize from my own behavior because I've got this massive ego and so everyone must be, at root, just like me because I am the very measure of normality. Likely I'm wrong, and not just about the way some French guy researched a book in the late 1990s.

But, as I say, that's how I research: I begin with vague ideas for my characters and then I try to learn about what sort of daily lives they'd have. That reading always leads down surprising paths and ideas begin to present themselves for inclusion in the book. For example, I am currently researching stuff for my next project, Nowhere But North. This book is the story of an expedition to Antarctica in 1914, based very loosely on the expedition of that year by Ernest Shackleton aboard the HMS Endurance. So I've got a stack of books about that expedition because I want to know what it's like to live on a sailing ship that's trapped in the ice off the Antarctic coast in 1914-15. I also want to know about the expedition leader, because my book has an expedition leader (who is only partially modeled on Shackleton).

I have three other main characters: my protagonist (who is the quartermaster of the expedition, and works in an office at New York Harbor before he joins the ship's crew); Lilly, the expedition leader's daughter (Lilly is bright, educated and in love with the protagonist); and a guy named Fitzgerald (I think) who is the second-in-command on the expedition. Fitzgerald is the villain in the piece.

So I am reading books about New York City in 1900-1914 because 1/3 of the narrative takes place there. I am reading about Greenwich Village in 1914 because that's where my protagonist lives. I picked The Village because I've been there, and because I stumbled across some interesting books about it when I was shopping for books about old New York. Reading about Greenwich Village in that period led me to a bunch of women activists of the era which has told me a lot about who Lilly is, and has given me an idea for one of the big themes of the book: the social activism of women in 1914 versus the self-aggrandizing vainglory of men at the end of the Age of Exploration. That theme found me, as did a bunch of other stuff I'll work into the book.

And I'm nowhere near done with my research yet, and I have no idea what other ideas are sitting around out there waiting for me to see them and decide they'll work in this narrative.

My book Killing Hamlet prominently features the astrologer Tycho Brahe because it occurred to me one day that Brahe died the same year Shakespeare wrote "Hamlet" and I thought I could connect them. It was never a part of my original idea. My book Cocke & Bull has a hurricane because I was researching Norfolk, VA and I stumbled upon the fact that the big sand bar at the mouth of the river was dredged up by a hurricane in October of 1749, so I shifted a few things around so that I could use the hurricane and the date because a hurricane is a really cool thing to have in Act Three of your novel. The second half of the book's middle is set in the Great Dismal Swamp along the Virginia/North Carolina border because I saw the name on a map and who can resist that? As I say, I sort of let my research treat me like the ball in a pinball machine: I go where it sends me and I stay open to whatever cool ideas I'm knocked against.

So now to you: what's a surprising thing you stumbled upon that you've used in a book/story, something that was not part of the original idea but pushed the story into a cool new place you never would have thought of on your own?


  1. Is it boring of me to say, "No, I don't think that's ever happened"?

    Neither my research nor my writing method really lend themselves to that sort of thing.

    Suddenly, I feel dull.


  2. I wrote a mystery novel set in 1921 Seattle -- the original notion had to do with the labor movement. During my research, though, I ran across some interesting stuff about police corruption here at that same time, and also about rum-running, both of which wound up in the book. It also made me change the villain of the piece.

    Scott of the Antarctic: You might check out Jules Verne's novel "The Adventures of Captain Hatteras" -- it's Arctic, but has some good obsessiveness in it (skim, though -- plenty of boring bits).

  3. After learning about the Wardenclyffe Tower from my television, I decided to add something similar into a story. And while that story is likely years away, I know precisely the role the "tower" will play in the demise of the antagonist(s).

    Now you've unintentionally convinced me to read a lot about Nikola Tesla today. You will be hearing from my supervisor.

  4. I'd never heard of Atomised, but then, I ain't no Houellebecq girl. (In fact I'm not a girl at all.)

    But I do research in much the same way. I start with maybe a one-paragraph version of my story and a general idea of what I want to do, and then I start researching and let it guide my details of plot, character, etc. Which is why I have Joseph Henry and Mormon missionaries running around in my story of Reconstruction-era Appalachia.

  5. I was writing a scene about the murder of someone who volunteered to be the victim. In my research I learned that, when the time came, the victim was surprised by how much it hurt to be killed. That definitely had to go into the story, and I think it moved the scene in a cool way.

    I really liked the swamp and the hurricane in Cocke & Bull. Those two elements are some of the most memorable in the book!

  6. Davin, every time you mention that story, I die a little more. It hurts.

  7. Justus, I suggest you invest in some horcruxes. I recommend several, as I plan to bring up my cannibal story many many times.

  8. Last one to become a novelist is a rotten egg!

  9. Nevets: I don't know what that means. But I do know that my methods are not universal, which is probably a good thing.

    Alex: Yeah, that's what I mean. The real world pushes the story into new and surprising places. I think that when we writers are surprised, it carries over to the reader and adds dimensions to the narrative.

    I read "Captain Hatteras" when I was a wee sprig!

    Just-Man: Yeah, I'd like to see Tesla influences in the dragon saga! They could have a whole technology based around Tesla coils!

    Jabez: See my comment to Mizmak; the surprises of real history can, if we let them, deepen our fictions and truth is always weirder than our imaginations. I'm always looking for ways to push the story away from the central idea (push without breaking it, that is). In my experience (for what that's worth) the things that happen in real life can be more magical and strange that "magic realism."

    Big D: I know you had a lot of trouble and trauma writing that scene, but I really love it. I can't imagine it being any different. I'm also surprised your book didn't give me nightmares, but I'm all cool like that so of course it didn't.

  10. Scott, I do this all the time. This is why I leave my outlines pretty loose and based mostly on character more than plot. I like to let things grow as organically as possible, and I have taken stories in a different direction because of research. This writing thing is too much fun. :)

  11. Scott,

    What I mean is that, most of the time when I write the story is full-envisioned enough that it's not really subject to that kind of change from research.

    Too, I typically conceive of stories after the bulk of the research has been completed, because I'm just a research geek. So most of the research that's done while writing is minor enough that it doesn't have the opportunity to create storms of change.

    And, yeah, it's both natural and wonderful that writers approach their craft differently. It would be a boring literary world if we did things the same.

    But, that said, when I hear stories like yours I do sort of think I'm missing out on something. :)

  12. I am all about the research-madness. Most of my fiction ideas came to me when I was reading non-fiction. Sometimes this remains painfully obvious even in the final story.


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