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A New Kind of Research
J. Robert Lennon on the origins of his new novel Subdivision
Hey there Complete Worketeers, this week we have the great J. Robert Lennon as our guest writer, talking about the origins of his latest novel and how they impacted—or perhaps invented—his research process. Lennon is the author of twelve books of fiction, including the novels Broken River and Subdivision and the story collections Pieces for the Left Hand and Let Me Think. They’re all delightful, sui generis books that span a wide variety of genres and modes. If I may be so bold as to include a plug in this intro, you can also hear me interview Lennon about his writing process for my podcast Working here. That episode is mostly about revision… this piece today is mostly about generation and research. Hope you enjoy!—Isaac.
A New Kind of Research
J. Robert Lennon
I’m fairly industrious when it comes to writing, but fundamentally lazy about research; I avoid fiction ideas that might eventually result in my having to open a book, and only turn to the library when to do otherwise would mark me as a fraud. My most heavily researched material is usually the result of having written myself into a corner.
I got the idea for my novel Subdivision while staying in a bed and breakfast run by two amiable retired women; the dining room was dominated by a large puzzle, which I was encouraged to work on during my stay. I wrote the book’s opening chapter soon after this visit, and without thinking much about it afflicted the unnamed narrator with amnesia and a crying jag. I made a crow flicker in and out of existence, figuring maybe this world was somehow magical. Then I put the chapter away and didn’t touch it again for a year. I had no idea what it was supposed to be.
Around this time, the notes app on my phone was updated to sync with the notes app on my computer. This meant that any idea I had while walking around could be recorded and made to appear automatically when I sat down to write. Of course a simple pen and notebook could accomplish this, but I realized that many of the things that caught my attention were on the internet, or out in the world, waiting to be photographed. So my ideas note began to fill up with images and links.
The note that would eventually become the Subdivision repository contained a lot of material that didn’t seem to be connected. There were photos of buildings in conflict with their surroundings, like a lighthouse that had been subsumed by urban development, and a rural cottage surrounded by high rises. Another photo depicted a tornado warning that had been slipped under my door in a hotel in Kansas; another, a child’s crib mobile, made out of yarn. There were links to the Roden Crater, a photoessay about an abandoned mall that had never opened, and a Google image search for dazzle camouflage. Text notes included one about the day I spent transcribing text for Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, one about polarized glass, one about the bags given out as favors at birthday parties. I’d taken note of several of my children’s strange inventions and experiences, like Negative One, a fantastical black school bus, and the time my daughter and I puzzled over a hovering kite at the beach with no apparent string or flyer. There were notes about a child who rarely speaks and a man who always cries.
Writing Subdivision ended up consisting of waking up every day and trying to cross off one of these notes. Some of them took the form of scenes or characters; others an image or a turn of phrase. At some point I realized that I needed to know what this world actually was, and what had brought my narrator there, and this forced me to do actual research, in actual books at an actual library, about the psychological phenomenon that was driving the novel’s action.
One of the fears I have about researching fiction is that I will lazily extract the information from the source text, reshape it, and insert it into my own text. I’ve read many books where this is obviously what took place, and I don’t like this kind of book. So, I took copious notes on the five or so books I read, then returned the books and deleted the notes. I wrote some back story based on this material, but I left it out. I didn’t want the past to appear in Subdivision, only its shadow. I didn’t want the research, only a hint of some possible truth.
Looking back on my Subdivision note now, it’s clear to me that I didn’t know what I was doing. At the time, the notes didn’t seem connected. Now it’s obvious that they always were. Maybe that’s why the book was such a pleasure to write, and why it came to me so easily—I was writing what I didn’t know I already knew. The process was so pleasurable that I’ve been trying to do it again, with a new book. It’s not going too well. I’m beginning to suspect that Subdivision isn’t the product of those two years of notes and research, but rather of fifteen years of being alive, and that some distant part of myself was quietly working on it, or at least on its themes and preoccupations, for all that time. What felt like inspiration in the drafting was really just a spontaneous outpouring of the subconscious work of the past—my own back story that I’d left out.