–Peter Hessler

As a nonfiction writer, I’m interested in how a novelist goes about research, and the decisions one makes about how to use such material. Do you have to limit or control the ways in which you use research-generated material, and is there ever a risk of that material coming across as too academic?                                     

—Peter Hessler, Cairo, Egypt

Pete, I’m going to cheat a little and start with a quote from Shelby Foote, the wonderful chronicler of the Civil War, who also wrote fiction. He’s talking about the difference between writing history and writing fiction, but the parallel to what you ask is close: “The novelist and the historian are seeking the same thing: the truth–not a different truth: the same truth–only they reach it, or try to reach it, by different routes. Whether the event took place in a world now gone to dust, preserved by documents and evaluated by scholarship, or in the imagination, preserved by memory and distilled by the creative process, they both want to tell us how it was: to re-create it, by their separate methods, and make it live again in the world around them.”

To reduce this, all writers of stories want to convey experience accurately, whether it’s real or imagined. So if they’re after something that has a core similarity, perhaps it’s really only their methods that are intrinsically different. But even that is hardly the case. No writer, regardless of the degree of research he or she does, uses everything the research yields. You always have to impose yourself on the material. Yet that doesn’t mean the rest of the research is useless. There’s a Vanessa Redgrave anecdote I love that’s maybe relevant here. I think she was advising one of her daughters on a stage performance. A scene, anyway. There was a trunk as part of the props, but it was never opened. They discussed the character and various aspects of the performance and then Vanessa Redgrave said, “Of course, you know what’s in the trunk.”

For a fiction writer—and I suspect a non-fiction writer as well—all the research that doesn’t land visibly in the story is what’s in the trunk. The knowledge of it informs the tone of a story, a character’s reactions, what things a writer decides to include.

In terms of the more specific issue of whether I include actual quotes, the answer is sometimes, though sparingly. Actually, I would only characterize Suite Harmonic of my work as actual historical fiction, and it holds a different place in the quote category, particularly since it is based so closely on the letters John Given wrote primarily during the Civil War. There are quotes in some of the chapter epigraphs. I start one chapter with an entire letter of John’s and quote parts of others. What may be more pertinent here is how I used details and paraphrases from his letters, which I did fairly often. If those things slid neatly into what I was writing, I was pretty thrilled. It made me feel that I had captured John’s voice and was able to make it the solid underpinning of his story. I felt I was writing fiction but with an eerie verisimilitude. 

Since voice and tone are often linked, at times even the same thing, I’ll move quickly here to your concern about whether or not researched material in a story can come across as too academic. It can.You don’t want the reader to be pushed out of the story by exposition that feels like maybe a widget inserted into it. Plunk. So it’s necessary to work and work to find the right diction level and to cut everything that feels extraneous. And it’s maybe one of the places in work where you can feel the thing is never quite finished.

Peter Hessler is a writer for the New Yorker .


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