Are you an engraver or a sculptor?
"The ideal entry is...to ingress without causing a ripple. The best way to contribute to a brand-new environment is not by trying to prove what a wonderful addition you are. It's trying to have a neutral impact, to observe and learn from those who are already there..." -- from Chris Hadfield, An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth
That’s the point when we write anything really - learn from those who came before and leave something new for those who will come after.
Autant, began as a novel about why bees were disappearing, especially in Northern Alberta. I learned about bee keeping and kept a journal to store the experiential knowledge given to me by my uncle and maternal grandfather who were both beekeepers. I transformed that journal into “a found item” in the novel. Then I researched, everything.
I began by pouring through books about bee keeping, the communication between members of the same species, how bees see, their specialised chemical sense and language, different breeds of bees from all over the world, the magic of honey plus countless web searches that dealt with everything and anything bee related – medicine, mythology, random bee art, jewellery. You name a rabbit hole (or a bee hive) and I went there.
As the novel morphed yet again, I broadened my sphere of esoteric knowledge. I read books about angels, compared religious iconography, mythology of angels throughout history, symbolism, healing practices Western and Eastern and arcane. I went through scripts for different catholic masses (as ritual, as rites of passage, pomp ceremonies and feast days) deconstruct what it mean(t) (s) to be a priest, nun, saint, martyr. I even tried to understand what Creator was and where he was amidst all this ritual.
I booked an appointment with my doctor to talk about heart murmurs, blood loss, migraines, falling from heights, fractures, trauma resulting from fright, knife wounds, sexual trauma, and a very specific blood disorder caused by deficiency of von Willebrand factor, a protein the blood needs for clotting. When I arrived, Declan started the session with, “Is all this real for you or about you?” He was kind enough to give me his private email and a password to a doctors’ app for obscure and familiar medical episodes. Saved us all a bunch of time. Great guy my doctor!
Along the way, I quizzed friends on everything from the high they get from running to how to fix a toilet (personal necessity, but might come in handy). I ask one question, and most people don’t mind talking about what they do – then they will reveal why they love it, or not. (ps. if someone ever tells you what they do is too complicated for you to understand, they don’t understand what it is they do.)
Kim Echlin, for example, gave me the following anecdote when I asked her about the importance of research for two of her wonderful books.
"Elephant Winter: I spent some time with elephants at the African Lion safari which is near here. I visited Katy Payne near Cornell who described to me her discovery of elephant infrasound which she intuited have spent time studying whale communication with her husband but also because she had stood near the organ as a girl in a church choir and learned to perceive the pressure on the ears of very low frequencies. There is an "Elephant Managers' Association" which I called and found a few people, in circuses and zoos, who were willing to talk with me. Ironically, AFTER the book was out, people wanted to talk more.
The Disappeared: I had amazing luck with the research because I hadn't intended to write about Cambodia and had few contacts there. One day I was struggling with a trip between Phnom Penh and Ang Tasom, which I'd not done. In desperation I sent an email to an overland tourist bike company and asked if they ever travelled in that direction, would they snap a few pictures. I had no response, but a month later, I opened a huge file of photos and comments of the whole trip, down to plants and mountain ranges and markets. It was an extraordinary gift.
Well, there are a couple of stories--the research is intriguing."
…and I would add, the research is necessary, because an engraver is to a sculptor what a writer is to an author. An engraver scratches the surface, a sculptor reveals. A writer scratches words onto paper, an author uncovers the image that was there all along, struggling under the weight of your own ignorance. Ignorance can be removed, with research.
Because her parents “made it to a hospital on time,” Paulette Dubé was born in Westlock, Alberta. Growing up in the French village of Legal, she watched her third sister being born on the kitchen table and was hooked on “magic,” as her dad called it. Today, she relies heavily on the good fortune of living in Jasper National Park with her family for her daily dose of magic realism.
Talon, her first novel, made the shortlists for the 1999 Canadian Literary Awards, the Alberta Writers’ Guild Best Novel Award (2003) and the Starburst Award (2003). Her poetry garnered a number of rewards including the Milton Acorn Memorial People’s Poetry Award (1994), the CBC Alberta Anthology (1998) and the CBC Literary Awards (2005). Her most recent book is the poetry collection, Gaits (Thistledown, 2010).