19 November 2009 0 Comments

Researching the novel

Novelists aren’t journalists. Research for a novel isn’t the same as researching a journalistic article.

I’d have thought that was too obvious to need stating. But then I became a published novelist, and I realized that people thought the two things were rather the same.

I was a journalist for almost 20 years before my first novel was published. THE COLLABORATOR OF BETHLEHEM is a crime novel set in Bethlehem during the intifada, and I’d spent over a decade covering the Palestinians by the time the book came out in 2007. No need for new research there.

Much of the next two books, A GRAVE IN GAZA and THE SAMARITAN’S SECRET, were based on stories I had covered as a journalist. Though I returned to the places many times before I wrote the books, these visits were mainly to record details of place, smell and weather. It wasn’t to interview people, as a journalist must.

That’s because I wanted the books to have their basis less in the political moment at which I had covered those stories, and more in the emotional response I had observed in other people and in myself as those events unfolded.

Things were different when I came to research my new novel, THE FOURTH ASSASSIN, which will be published in February.

THE FOURTH ASSASSIN is set in Brooklyn, New York, where there’s a growing community of Palestinian immigrants. I lived in New York in the 1990s, when I covered Wall Street for some US newspapers and magazines. I was a Greenwich Village type, with forays to Soho, Tribeca and the Lower East Side. I used to go months without leaving Manhattan. Brooklyn wasn’t exactly one of my regular haunts. So last year I went out to Bay Ridge, where most Palestinians live, and met a couple of people. I toured the neighborhood with a kid in his late teens and learned about the gang culture.

I specifically didn’t want to do what a journalist does. I didn’t want to sit down and pull out my notepad, though I can see why novelists may feel the urge to do so. I wanted to walk the streets as my detective Omar Yussef would – a little alienated, not knowing quite where I was, out of place. I know Omar Yussef – the real man and his fictional manifestation – well enough to make my way through Bay Ridge as though he were with me.

During my visit to New York, I stopped in at the home of some friends who had been correspondents for a US newspaper in Jerusalem. One of them said: “So who’re you talking to in Brooklyn?”

It was a journalist’s question—who you’re talking to will determine the depth of information you garner and therefore will signal the worth of your article. I felt a stab of defensiveness. It was as though she had accused me of not doing my job. Of course, I wasn’t doing my job, because I no longer had a job. Journalism was my job. Now I’m a novelist. Most definitely not a job.

But the twinge I felt at her query alerted me to the difference in my new “métier” (let’s see how many ways I can find to avoid referring to my writing as a “job”).

I recently finished writing the manuscript of a novel about Mozart. When I began it, various friends suggested I talk to “experts” on the subject. I didn’t. Because they weren’t experts on what I was writing about. They were experts on the known facts about Mozart. Well, I can read as well as they can.

What I needed were musicians, who could tell me how they get inside a Mozart piece, how they plot out their performance emotionally. I needed friends in Vienna who could take me to little-known places that would give me the atmosphere of the eighteenth century in that city. I needed to learn to play the piano, to feel the extent of Mozart’s genius and to be moved with (rather than just “by”) his music.

A journalist collates the impressions and assertions of others. As a novelist, I’m focused on my own impressions. If there’s anything to be asserted in my books, it ought not to be a digest of someone else’s thoughts.

I’m starting this process again. The novel I’m researching now will be set in Italy in 1600 and will be about an artist. I’m off to Rome in a few weeks, and already friends are asking me which experts I’m intending to interview. I may talk to some art historians, but they won’t be the most important factor in my research. That’ll come when I put some oil on canvas.

I don’t expect to show anyone the results of my daubings (just as I don’t want anyone except my two-year-old son to listen to my rotten piano playing). But the sensation of working with paint is going to be much more important than hearing someone’s assessment of how it was for someone else long dead to muck about with oils.

(I posted this earlier today on the International Crime Authors Reality Check blog, which I write along with Christopher G. Moore, Barbara Nadel and Colin Cotterill. Check it out.)

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