Lies, Memories and Other Research
“What was I like as a baby?”
“Why did you make me wear those terrible glasses?”
“Do all accountants work so late?”
“Can you get decent dim sum in Cleveland?”
Everyone does research.
As a child, I researched the world around me, because so much of it was a mystery. I researched language, because nobody else on the playground used the kind of words I did. (This is not surprising. Who would shout “Odds bodkins” as they jumped off the monkey bars and yelled “You knave” at Jimmy Moore, the handsomest boy in Baker Hill Elementary School and also the most knavish). I loved 19th century fiction—the big story, the comings and goings, the unexpected heroics, the necessary tragedies. When I was not Sydney Carton, saving those saintly French aristocrats, I was every plucky orphan that ever lived and, occasionally, when no one was home, I was the Scarlet Pimpernel (my disguise, clearly, was not a ruffled cuff and plumed hat; it was my even more impenetrable and concealing pink harlequin glasses and matching cardigan.) I read every book I could find that might explain me to myself (The Child From 8 to 10; Little Women) or explain adults (Polly Adler’s Memoir of a New York Madam; all copies of my father’s Playboy, which suggested both that I would be morphing into an astonishing creature very soon and that adult men were simultaneously very powerful and very weak, an idea I was to encounter in much of my other reading) or explain the larger world (all newspapers, especially the front page and the comics, the yellow pages of any phone book and A Child’s History of the World, which was very popular in the 1930s; very white, sophisticatedly Christian (there is a God but he approves of evolution), Eurocentric and nevertheless charming).
I discovered that people in pain often lashed out at other, weaker people, unless they couldn’t bring themselves to hurt others, and then they hurt themselves; I concluded that there did not seem to be a God or alien life forms; I decided that treating others as I wished to be treated was a good idea. But there were still a million other things to find out: how were shoes made, before people had machines (how was anything made before we had machines? Silverware, cathedrals, saddles, doorknobs…I wanted more than anything to be a time traveler and visit every century, although in my daydreams, I had toothpaste, anti-antiperspirant, a transistor radio and a lighter.)
My father wrote for almost every magazine ever printed (In one month, he appeared in both the Ladies’ Home Journal and Playboy, which accounted for the archives in our garage). He was a big fan of the odd fact. While I was doing my homework on the floor (before the Cold War of my adolescence), he would toss tidbits out from behind the newspaper: ”You know, honey, there are only six farriers left in all of Pennsylvania.” “You know, honey, Nellie Bly went around the world and they didn’t make a movie about her.” “You know, honey, there was this great story—about a Russian woman who tried to walk back to Russia. What kind of nut would want to go back?”
And I thought, why would you want to go back? If it wasn’t for money, to occupy or annex a country, for power or gain of some kind, why go? It could only be for love, I thought, and that thought was the beginning of my writing Away and it sat inside me for almost forty years.
As an adult, I was as interested in the how and the why as I had been as a child. I did research, of a kind, every day I went to work. I became a clinical social worker and treated both the very ill and the worried well. I spent my professional life exploring the gap between what people said and how they said it, what they did and how they explained their actions to me and to themselves, the chasm between what they felt and what they said they felt. When I began to write, everything that had interested me, still did and now I looked for the right word and the right sentence and inflection, to make it interesting to a reader. Writing about people who change their gender led to one kind of research; writing about a woman who made her way from Belorussia to America and chose to go back, via the Bering Strait, was another.
All of my research, really just passionate curiosity and frequent uncertainty, has taken me through great gardens of information. The gardens for my essays on gender were scientific texts, first person accounts and hundreds of hours of taped interviews. Although I had to choose which stories to keep and which to drop, the people I interviewed also had choices about what to tell, what to conceal and what to lie about. I knew people could be hurt by the facts I chose and when it was possible—which it wasn’t, always—I chose the more appealing truths from these intimate and quirky—and even prickly—gardens. With the research for Away, I owed only my characters and the entire Western world in the 1920s was my garden. I could take the approach of some fiction writers, which is to reshape the world, from the number of bones in the human body, to the number of suns that rise and set or I could be a stickler the kind of wood used in the high-heeled clogs of Venetian courtesans. I chose the middle ground, for both my Dickensian desires and my father’s instructions; I stuck to the facts when they served my story and I changed small details of geography and chronology, when they didn’t. I didn’t alter the way the world worked and when, for example, I was exploring the “colored” community of Seattle in the 1920s and came upon a 1927 issue of Seattle’s great African-American weekly, The Northwest Enterprise (A Newspaper the People Read, Love and Respect), I knew that only a fool would try to improve on fact.
I think the point of every sentence, every detail, factual or imagined, and every line of dialogue is to illuminate character and advance the story. Research has been, for me, a reassuring and intriguing line of luminarias.