I’m a librarian, and so it’s probably no surprise that research plays a major role in my writing process. Unlike scholarly articles, works of fiction don’t typically contain citations to sources. I would, however, like to recognize some works that helped me to imagine my way into these fictional worlds.
The idea for this story came from the article “Beekeepers Hit Hard by Thefts of Hives” in National Geographic, with text by Rene Ebersole and photographs by Lucas Foglia. Foglia’s photo of almond growers Gurcharan and Daljit Rakkar, for example, served as the inspiration for Erjot Singh and his father in the story. I also drew from “Colony Collapse Disorder Is Not What You Think” by Willy Blackmore in TakePart.
The description of Taylor and Andrea’s house was informed by “Traditions and Change in Nineteenth-Century Iowa Farmhouses” by Fred W. Peterson, published in The Annals of Iowa.
For help thinking about Guy and Taylor, queer people of different generations, both seeking to make lives for themselves in the rural Midwest, I consulted oral histories gathered by projects like StoryCorps’ Stonewall OutLoud, The Country Queers Podcast, and lgbt Oral Histories of Central Iowa. I also drew specifically from an interview with the activist Hector Black reported by Ari Shapiro on npr’s All Things Considered (“90-Year-Old Gay Man Recalls Long Struggle With His Sexuality”). Mr. Black led a remarkable life; he died in 2020 at the age of ninety-five.
I consulted a number of sources about bees and beekeeping. I relied especially on The Beekeeper’s Handbook by Diana Sammataro and Alphonse Avitabile, and The Backyard Beekeeper, 4th Edition: An Absolute Beginner’s Guide to Keeping Bees in Your Yard and Garden by Kim Flottum. Beekeeper Gretchen Woelke reviewed the final draft and offered comments on all things bee-related.
There is a moment in the story in which Guy considers Taylor’s gender in relation his own feelings of identification and desire. My thinking about what is happening in that scene was influenced by engagement with drag performances by Alana Kumbier (among others), queer spaces curated by producers such as Aliza Shapiro, and scholarly work by gender theorists—especially Jack Halberstam’s Female Masculinities.
Guy’s reflections on his bees at the story’s conclusion were inspired by passages from Hector St. John de Crèvecœur’s Letters from an American Farmer, published in 1782.
I drew on a number of sources to try to understand the experience of being a drone pilot. My key sources included Predator: the Remote-Control Air War over Iraq and Afghanistan: a Pilot’s Story by Major Matt J. Martin and the journalist Charles W. Sasser, “Confessions of a Drone Warrior” in GQ with text by Matthew Power and photographs by Ethan Levitas, and Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control by Medea Benjamin.
Other sources included “With Shift to Drones, War is Often Waged from Home” by Brian Bennet in the LA Times (July 29, 2012), “The Air Force Men Who Fly Drones in Afghanistan by Remote Control” by Rob Blackhurst in The Telegraph, “Combat by Camera: Anatomy of an Afghan War Tragedy” by David S. Cloud in the LA Times (April 10, 2011), “Remote Warriors: How Drone Pilots Wage War” by Marc Pitzke and “Interview with a Drone Pilot: ‘It Is Not a Video Game’” (Interview with US Major Bryan Callahan) in Der Spiegel, “Two Worlds of a Drone Pilot” by Megan McCloskey in Stars and Stripes (October 27, 2009), “Drone Strikes: A Candid, Chilling Conversation with Top U.S. Drone Pilot” by David Wood in The Huffington Post, “A Day Job Waiting for a Kill Shot a World Away” by Elisabeth Bumiller in The New York Times, “Spartans Carry Out Biometric Operations” by Specialist Erik-James Estrada in Air Force Print News Today, and “Army’s Mission in Khost Province Tedious but Critical” by Carmen Genille in USA Today (June 25, 2012).
The scenes of everyday life during the ied attack were inspired by W. H. Auden’s poem Musée des Beaux Arts and Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, believed to be a copy of a painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder.
I also consulted a number of studies of strip-club culture. Of these, G-Strings and Sympathy: Strip Club Regulars and Male Desire by Katherine Frank helped me the most to understand the dynamics in the scene between the protagonist and “Frankie.”
I say more about all this in “From the Library to Las Vegas: Research in the Writing Process,” originally published in Tishman Review.
All at Sea
This story began as an experiment in style. I love Lorrie Moore’s 2nd-person narrators in her collection Self-Help, and wanted to see if I could write a story using this point of view. As I got deeper into the story, I realized that the 2nd person was also functioning to compel the reader into an intimate relation with the speaker, a mentally ill and hiv-positive woman, who they might otherwise resist connecting with. I also did a nontrivial amount of research about fairy penguins, very little of which made it into the final draft.
The style was also influenced by the work of poets performing as part of the Boston Poetry Slam, particularly that of Melissa Newman Evans.
The narrator’s consideration of the terms pharmakeus and pharmākos are drawn from Jacques Derrida’s essay “Plato’s Pharmacy” from Disseminations, trans. Barabara Johnson.
The experience of living and dating as an hiv-positive woman were drawn from many conversations with my dear friend, the artist Abi Rupp. Abi gave me permission to share some of these experiences in fictional form and reviewed an early draft of the story. She took her own life in October of 2015 and is sorely missed by all who knew her.
I went down something of a research rabbit hole with this one. There was the desire to present fracking and its consequences as truthfully as possible without overwhelming the reader with technical details; the need to develop a character accustomed to thinking in geological deep time who is nevertheless grounded in the everyday life of a rural, Midwestern community; and another character who could present antinatalist ideas in a way that might make it possible for readers to give them some consideration rather than dismiss them out-of-hand.
Fracking and the Oil and Gas Industry
For information related to oil and gas drilling in general and fracking in particular, I turned to the following sources: Oil and Gas Production Handbook: An Introduction to Oil and Gas Production, Transport, Refining and Petrochemical Industry by Havard Devold; The Oil & Gas Industry: A Nontechnical Guide by Joseph Hilyard; Nontechnical Guide to Petroleum Geology, Exploration, Drilling, and Production, 3rd edition by Norman Hyne; Oil & Gas Production in Nontechnical Language by Martin Raymond and William L. Leffler; Hydrofracking: What Everyone Needs to Know by Alex Prud’homme; and Shale Oil & Gas Handbook: Theory, Technologies, and Challenges by Sohrab Zendehboudi and Alireza Bahadori.
For local and personal accounts of the impact of fracking, I consulted Pedaling the Sacrifice Zone: Teaching, Writing, and Living above the Marcellus Shale by Jimmy Guignard; The End of Country: Dispatches from the Frack Zone by Seamus McGraw; A Field Philosopher’s Guide to Fracking: How One Texas Town Stood up to Big Oil and Gas by Adam Briggle.
To get a sense of the larger political and economic context of fracking, I reviewed Frackopoly: the Battle for the Future of Energy and the Environment by Wenonah Hauter; Slick Water: Fracking and One Insider’s Stand against the World’s Most Powerful Industry by Andrew Nikiforuk; The Green and the Black: the Complete Story of the Shale Revolution, the Fight over Fracking, and the Future of Energy by Gary Sernovitz; and The Frackers: the Outrageous Inside Story of the New Billionaire Wildcatters by Gregory Zuckerman.
I also benefitted from the fictional treatment of fracking in Jennifer Haigh’s novel Heat and Light.
As I began thinking about the world of the story, I drew from some legal documents related to a decision by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in 2016 to auction leases to almost 700 acres of land in Wayne National Forest to oil and gas companies and the challenge to those leases by a coalition of environmental groups. In the world of my story, I imagine legal challenges have failed to prevent fracking in the Wayne.
The reality, however, is more complicated. The last time I checked, back in 2021, a federal judge had “blocked new oil and gas leasing and fracking” in the Wayne, a decision that federal agencies were seeking to overturn.
The town in the story is based loosely on Marietta, Ohio, which is located near the Wayne National Forest. I visited the region for a research trip in the summer of 2017. I consulted Mark J. Camp’s Roadside Geology of Ohio to gain a basic understanding of the geological processes that have shaped the region and the kinds of features that might be visible and inspire reflection for the geologist narrator.
I’m also grateful to environmental activists Ted Auch and C.D. Travenor for talking with me about hydraulic fracturing in Ohio.
During our brief tenancy on this planet, human beings have wrought environmental transformations at a scale that rivals the primordial forces of plate tectonics, glacial movement, volcanic eruptions, and massive meteor impacts. This has led scientists and other observers to suggest that we no longer live in the Holocene—an epoch of relative environmental stability encompassing all of recorded human history—that we have, in fact, entered into an entirely new geological epoch, the Anthropocene.
As Jeremy Davies, author of The Birth of the Anthropocene, explains, “The Anthropocene gets its name from humans, the anthropos, because its distinguishing characteristic (for now) is the dramatic influence that human societies are having on the physical world.” More than just a synonym for “climate change” or “global warming,” the Anthropocene lays claim to a broader range of events and processes, from erosion and ocean acidification to the extinction (or near-extinction) of plant and animal species. In addition to this shift in scope, the Anthropocene also indicates a change in the extent of time at stake, pointing to impacts well beyond the present and the immediate future of homo sapiens—“the effect of these events are superhistorical, affecting the Earth on a geological timescale.” I gained my earliest understanding of the concept of the Anthropocene from Davies’s book.
From Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, I learned more about the impacts of ocean acidification on calcifers, organisms that rely on chemical reactions to build shells or other structures, something that made it’s way into Kenzie’s arguments and the final, future vision at the end of the story of “reefless seas” and “acidic seas” devouring “the fragile shells of oysters.” Other aspects of that vision are drawn from The Earth after Us: What Legacy Will Humans Leave in The Rocks? by Jan Zalasieqicz and Kim Freedman.
My idea for this story, told from the point of view of a geologist capable of shifting their perspective from geologic to human time and back again, was inspired by my reading of Anthropocene Fictions: The Novel in a Time of Climate Change by Adam Trexler, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable by Amitav Ghosh, and Timefulness: How Thinking Like a Geologist Can Help Save the World by Marcia Bjornerud.
Kenzie’s notion that although new lives are not worth starting, actually existing lives may still be worth living (i.e., the assymetry argument); her arguments about the tendency of humans to overestimate the pleasures of life and underestimate its hardships (i.e., the quality of life argument); her belief in the fundamental immorality of bringing new people into existence, and her “pro-death” stance on abortion are all derived from ideas articulated in David Benatar’s Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence and in Debating Procreation: Is It Wrong To Reproduce? (David Benatar and David T. Wasserman). Kenzie’s views are based on my notes on those books, and so are filtered first through my understanding of the arguments and then again through the consciousness of a brilliant, idealistic, and very unhappy teenage girl.
The Death of Elpenor
For this story, I drew from several translations of and commentaries on The Odyssey, Ezra Pound’s “Canto I,” and reference works about ancient Greece held in Harvard’s Widener Library Reading Room (I forget which ones, exactly). I also drew from works concerned with Greek notions of fate (moira) and from Jonathan Shay’s Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character.
The initial idea for the story was prompted by the philosopher John Stuart Mill’s famous statement in Utilitarianism:
It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question.
The standard critique of this argument is that human beings also “only know their own side of the question,” and, having no special access to the phenomenal experience of pigs, are in no position to evaluate their pleasures or compare them to those of human beings. My idea was to consider the question from the point of view of a character who had experienced both forms of embodiment and was in a position to describe the difference: a member of Odysseus’s crew who had been turned into a pig and then returned to his human form.
Elpenor’s comment that animals are not aware of their own finitude, that they “learn about death from dying” comes from a statement by Arthur Schopenhauer in The World as Will and Representation (I):
[Animals] live in the present alone; [a human being] lives at the same time in the future and the past […] The animal learns to know death only when he dies, but man consciously draws every hour nearer his death.
This notion has a long history before Schopenhauer (in Epictetus, for example), but WW&R(I) was what I hand in mind at the time.
The relationship between Elpenor and Eurylochus (Eury) was inspired in part by character pairs in the plays of Samuel Beckett such as Vladimir (Didi) and Estragon (Gogo) in Waiting for Godot and Hamm and Clov in Endgame.
The Master of Sleep
This story, at its core, is a retelling of Franz Kafka’s “The Hunger Artist,” as will no doubt be obvious to anyone familiar with that tale.
The village in which the story takes place began as a place that lived only in my imagination. I then discovered the Tuscan town of Castiglione di Garfagnana which corresponded in many ways to the place I had imagined. The Easter celebrations described in the story were inspired by processions held in that town.
A Hungry Ghost
“A Hungry Ghost” was partly inspired by a classic story by Russell Banks, “Sarah Cole: A Kind of Love Story,” about an extremely handsome, privileged man who takes up with a very ugly, working-class woman. The crux of the story is about how the man, who narrates the tale, is either blind to or simply unwilling to acknowledge the differences in power between him and his lover.
I also had in mind Charles Baxter’s “The Disappeared,” in which a Swedish man in Detroit has an erotic encounter with a woman that takes on a magical character, and Denis Johnson’s amazing collection Jesus’ Son, in which the protagonist (the same throughout the eleven stories) is a drug-addicted outsider prone to visions of the sublime.
The summaries of the lives of Tibetan Buddhist saints I took from memory. I was first exposed to these stories many years ago via the The Life of Milarepa by Tsangnyön Heruka, translated by Lobsang P. Lhalungpa and The Life of Marpa the Translator: Seeing Accomplishes All, also by Tsangnyön Heruka, translated by the Nālandā Translation Committee under the direction of Chögyam Trungpa.
The passage describing Misty as a dakini, or sky-dancer was informed by my reading of Dakini’s Warm Breath: The Feminine Principle in Tibetan Buddhism by Judith Simmer-Brown. Simmer-Brown describes them this way:
Dakinis were [originally] demonic inhabitors of cemeteries and charnel grounds, delighting in the taste of human flesh and blood and dancing with ornaments fashioned from the bones of decaying corpses … They were wrath personified, joining the slaughter on the battlefield, intoxicated from thirstily sucking the blood of their victims.
At least that’s how they were originally understood in India before the seventh century C.E. Later, these terrifying embodiments of feminine power become something else entirely within the context of Tibetan Buddhism. In that tradition, a dakini (khandroma in Tibetan) can be a creature of great wisdom and spiritual achievement:
The wisdom dakini is fully awakened and acts to awaken others. She is the essence of enlightened mind beyond any concept of gender, the preeminent symbol of the nature of mind itself, in female form … she is the supreme protector of the teachings, a tantric guru, a female buddha with her glorious retinue. The yeshe khandro [wisdom sky-dancer] is the manifestation of wisdom par excellence, the unblinking penetrating gaze that sees phenomena just as they are.
For those interested in writing by contemporary Tibetan writers, I recommend Old Demons, New Deities: Twenty-One Short Stories from Tibet, compiled by Tenzin Dickie.
The story depicts New Orleans as I knew it in roughly 1999–2001 when I lived first in the Lower Garden District and then in the Bywater. The bar depicted is the Hi-Ho Lounge which, at the time, was the favored bar of a group of young circus performers. I frequented the bar and knew some of these people, but was by no means an insider. The idea for this story came from a desire to depict that place and that scene through the eyes of someone on the margins of both and also to work through my feelings of sadness related to the catastrophe of Katrina without writing a “Katrina story.” My solution was to show the city through the eyes of a character who, for his own reasons, is grappling with grief and loss.
Ethan Clark, author of the memoir Leaning with Intent to Fall, agreed to let me use an anecdote about a bicyclist charging two stray dogs. The photographs on Geneva’s walls are based on images by Phil Hollenbeck in Freaks and Fire: The Underground Reinvention of Circus by J. Dee Hill.
To supplement my memories of New Orleans’ traditions of bike modification, I consulted the photos collected in New Orleans Bicycles by Nicholas Costarides and Mary Richardson.
Most of my stories begin with something I find intriguing but don’t know much about, and for these, I typically end up doing a lot of research.
My process for this story was different, though. I was between projects and going through my notebooks, the place where I jot down odd experiences, snatches of conversations overheard, family lore, anecdotes shared by people at dive bars—some of the best places I know of for exchanging stories with strangers.
“The Watchman” draws from all of these sources, but also from the light in certain photographs by Gregory Crewdson, the ending of the short film La Jetée, and the stripped-down prose style in Jess Walter’s story “Anything Helps.” I remember one reader at Iowa said that she thought this story felt “haunted by hope.” I like this description, would like to believe that the story is ultimately hopeful about the possibility of healing and human connection while still remaining clear-eyed about the difficulties of experiencing isolation, overcoming addiction, facing up to past mistakes, and, well, just being a person in the world.