–Mary Byers

You build on so many interesting and intricate details about many areas of life – rural, urban, small town, academic, even circuses. I wonder how you accumulate your knowledge and if you’ve ever been tempted to resort to a team of research assistants as someone like James Michener did. Could you address this using astrology, which is so integral to The Second Magician’s Tale, as a particular example?

—Mary Byers, Minneapolis, Minnesota

To start right in with the Michener question, Mary, like most writers, I couldn’t afford a research staff even if I wanted one. I did use some of my NEA fellowship money to hire a few people to help with very specific tasks on Suite Harmonic. I was lucky enough to stumble on Lucy Jayne Kamau, a cultural anthropologist who was doing work on New Harmony. We traded information, but I did pay her a bit for her time hunting for some things in her research. I did most of my own archival research in Civil War pension and service records but, at one point, I hired the mysteriously named Hartslog Society to track down a few files for me. And a wonderful genealogist in Chicago, Peggy Tuck Sinko, was a great help, and I also found a genealogist in Dublin who unearthed the list of inhabitants in Drumboarty in Drimarone. Many, many people helped out, but it was mostly for free. I shared information with people when I could, but the vast amount of the research was my own.

I guess the question is whether I wish I’d had a team of paid researchers. I’ve never thought about it before, but I really don’t think so. Hard as the research sometimes was, I didn’t really know what I was looking for in most cases until I found it myself. The quest was part of putting that particular book together. I feel as if I had to have a sort of intimate contact with the written sources in order to understand what they were telling me. As the writer, I’m the only one who knows what will strike me as important. If other people had originated the research, the book would probably have had a very different emphasis, perhaps felt less centered on the story I was telling.

When it comes to the settings for my work, while I don’t have any direct knowledge of circuses, I have lived in lots of different places, different milieus, I guess, and I think I’ve always kept my eyes and ears open. I’m just interested in what people are doing and how they live and their work lives. You mention the academic world as one of the places in my work and that brought me up a bit short because, to tell the truth, I’m not usually a fan of fiction set in academia. Maybe I’ve spent too much time in that setting for it to interest me strongly. I like learning about things that stretch what I know. But you are right. “The Beautiful Ships” puts Clare McHenry in graduate school at the University of Michigan. However, that’s really almost back story in Clare, Loving. It’s really just incidental to the heart of that story.

In terms of how I accumulate knowledge, some of it is lived. When we owned a home and four acres in the country, I learned about broken fences and cattle getting out and floods and what it was like having a herd of deer in a cornfield by the house or the land all around staked out with an army of hunters in orange. Of all my work, probably the stories in In the Land of the Dinosaur draw most on an accumulated store of knowledge, mostly about the land. They were also written at a time when life felt particularly vivid. My children were young and growing; everything felt in the process of being or becoming.

I do think you’re savvy to point this question toward The Second Magician’s Tale and astrology because that’s probably the most illustrative of what the writing process can entail for fiction writers.  I’ll be blunt. In this particular area, I am close to being a fraud. If I had actual knowledge of astrology at the time I first wrote it into The Second Magician’s Tale, I don’t have it now. And it certainly wasn’t an accumulation of knowledge but rather a crash, do-it-yourself course that allowed me to incorporate astrology into Nell’s story.

I’ll give you the deepest background here. I have tackled a lot of things in my life that have required me to be in over my head. I’ve upholstered furniture. I’ve made coats. I once made a Beef Wellington. I’ve raised chickens and, at the same time, a single Black Angus. I’ve also figured out a way to fit a half bath and a laundry area into a space the size of my desk by using sub-standard two-inch stud walls. I’ve peeled chestnuts and cut my own hair. There’s actually a much longer list of things I’ve done sometimes adequately but not at all like a pro. Writing about astrology in The Second Magician’s Tale, part of it on the basis of charts I constructed myself, is one of them. I say all this with apologies to the people who are professionals in all these areas, including astrology. I think doing anything at a level of real excellence requires a lot of knowledge, a lot of skill, a lot of practice.

But in writing fiction, often what’s required is a certain ability—and a willingness—to more or less fake it when it comes, not to facts, but to knowledge. You have to know a lot about the different characters you create, but you’d pretty much have to be a large committee, even a city, to know everything they know in terms of the skills needed in their many different occupations. There’s not even remotely enough time to learn all of it and probably less motivation. And it’s not really necessary. You really do two things: you acquaint yourself with the essential terms of the vocabulary of a field, and then you focus and essentially cherry pick facts you can use or search for things that you need.

There’s a bit from “The Temple of Amun” in Watching Oksana that’s relevant here. Elliott is covertly amused at Elena’s comments, which he knows she’s researched for his benefit, on engineering projects such as the Grand Coulee Dam and, in that case, the inventiveness of the engineers in stopping “the creeping plastic clay by freezing the leading edge with brine circulating in the toe of the mass.” The story continues with this: “Elena is always right, careful as she is to exclude the context beyond what she can say with certainty.” I think a lot of fiction writers are like Elena. Some may stick very close to things they know intimately, but some of the rest of us often write about things outside our experience. The key is to include enough information we’re certain about in order to create the verisimilitude we need. But you’d be making a mistake to give most of us Jeopardy questions on the subjects. In fact, I often find I forget the facts I’ve pulled together for a story, much the way a student forgets what gets crammed for an exam. 

I do want to stress this: I think stories can rise or fall over the accuracy of the detail. Few writers are going to get everything right all the time, but I think most try. I certainly know that I knocked myself out attempting to make everything in Suite Harmonic real. Yet I had the insulating factor of a hundred and fifty years in my favor. Nobody living has actually experienced the events I wrote about. They’re secondhand for everyone.

This is a long buildup to talking more specifically about The Second Magician’s Tale and astrology, but I think it’s useful background. The fact is I spent a lot of time trying to understand the amateur astrology guides I picked up. I also carefully followed what amounted to instructions for making astrology charts. Again, I started by trying to get a basic command of some of the vocabulary—and every field has its own. A lay person can sound reasonably knowledgeable about even medicine or plumbing with a degree of familiarity with the most common terminology and a basic ability to think logically. And since writers like to work with language, that’s not really an issue but an interesting challenge.

I also have to say it was really fun seeing what I would come up with when I set out to make Julian’s birth and death charts, which I wanted Nell to create in The Second Magician’s Tale. I didn’t fudge on those. I started with the facts I had established as Julian’s story and followed them as if they were essential ingredients in a recipe. I don’t know how accurate my interpretation of the charts was or how reliably drawn the charts themselves were. If I were to try surgery by following a textbook, all I would really know would be whether the patient lived or died.

But as luck would have it, Julian’s charts really fit him and the story, which was fascinating to me. In fact, it startled me. It’s possible my preconceptions influenced the interpretation. I don’t know. I did feel a little like Nell when she says, “Here’s the math: sticking with the fives as the percentage allowance for superstition, when I’d finished my calculations and interpreted the aspects in Julian’s horoscope, I was five percent amazed at the coincidences and five percent scared to death.” In my case, I wasn’t frightened. But I was genuinely surprised. And as the writer of the story, I was also pleased. The charts not only bolstered the story line, but they helped to push it forward on a path I could follow. It was also one that thoroughly intrigued me. And learning everything I did—even if I forgot most of it—helped me to shape the story in a way that reflected me as a writer, particularly in the angst-ridden years of its genesis!


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