Dani Shapiro
January 23, 2009

On Research

Earlier this week, I was invited to visit a residential theraputic school down the road from my house. The director had read Family History, and wanted to show me his school, which was quite different from the one I invented in my novel. As we toured the school–which struck me as a unique and special place where the kids do therapy with the animals, and a non-denominational chapel is being built in a hayloft, the bracing scent of fresh hay wafting in–we got into a discussion about research. How did I know so much about these theraputic communities? Surely I had spent time in one? Or at least I had done a huge amount of legwork? It was gratifying to hear that these people, who spent their careers working in such a place, felt I had gotten it right. But they couldn’t understand how I had gotten it right, and in truth, I didn’t quite understand either.

While I was writing Family History, occasionally I went on websites for wilderness programs or boarding schools for troubled kids. But only once in a while–and usually to confirm that a detail I had already come up with was accurate. Early in my writing life, I was teaching with E.L. Doctorow, and I had dinner with him one night just after he had published a novel set in New York in the decade following the Civil War. I asked him about research. Surely it must have been intense, exhausting. I pictured Doctorow poring over old texts in the New York Public Library. No, he said. He hadn’t done any research, other than after the fact–again, to make sure that his imagination had gotten it right.

Yesterday, Michael reminded me of a conversation he had with T.C. Boyle one evening when we were all together at a literary festival in Wales. Michael had read and admired Water Music, a novel of Tom’s that was set in Africa. As someone who knows Africa well, Michael felt Tom had captured the atmosphere beautifully, and asked him how much time he had spent there.

None, Tom replied. He hadn’t done research.

How does this happen? Fiction writers know it happens all the time–but how? It’s as if a whiff of something allows all the rest to fall into place. The process of imagination filling in around one small kernel, one fleeting image or bit of information, is a forensic process. The imagination has its own coherence, and left to its own devices, can come up with scenes and stories and characters that feel–not only very close to the truth, but often somehow truer. I had a hard time explaining this to the director and his colleague. I told them bits and pieces of my own history that would explain my affinity for the subject matter — but that wasn’t the real explanation. Just one tiny piece of it.

I’ll leave off today with this perfect bit of wisdom from a sign that I saw in one of the facility’s classrooms, because it seems like a great plan, not only for troubled kids but for us all:


* Put head down on desk
* Ask for a time in
* Ask for a hug
* Take a deep breath