Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Butchertown Chronicles: How a Writer Reads

I’m unable to find the exact quote, but I recall John Updike once saying that one of the problems with being a prolific, practicing book writer—paid or not, I’ll add—is the little time it leaves for pleasure reading.

I'm learning this well. With my Prohibition gangland saga Butchertown well under way, my own pleasure reading is a mere half-hour or so before bed, or during flights of insomnia.  Ramsey Campbell's Creatures of the Pool (really fine so far) won’t be finished for several weeks, and I likely won’t close Vladimir Nabokov’s The Enchanter (an early run at Lolita) until October. Other books purr from the shelves, waving their paws like needy kittens as I pass by. Apologies to John le Carre, Michael Innes, Georges Simenon, and The Skylark, an early version of A Dark Matter by Peter Straub. The hard galloping and brightly blazing gunfire of Luke Short's and Loren Estleman's frontier tales remain in our garage in their 21st-century storage containers (until, maybe, an upcoming vacation in Colorado).

With a sigh, I pass by the novels of Ron Hansen and Martin Cruz Smith on bookstore shelves. And gosh, those undoubtedly absorbing histories of the Crimean War, the Comanche wars of the American Southwest, and the scintillating, winking Holes by Nicholson Baker sure look swell (or swell-ing in the case of Mr. Baker) . . .  but with the exception of Nabokov-related material, a question floats by with every book I encounter: Will this help Butchertown be a better book?

As for the books I'm employing in my task, they number about a dozen so far, mostly lined up on my desk, all orbiting, at various distances, around one topic—Prohibition in 1920s California. In my imagination, though, they make a rickety, raggedly built tower. It's clear, from gazing up at its ramparts, old reading habits won't do here. At my usual pace, poring over every page of that stack would take me, at ballpark estimate, two years. That kind of time I don’t care to take.

Normally, I read like an anxious Boy Scout as my Inner Scoutmaster glares balefully over my shoulder. (“Yes, but are you reading EVERY COMMA!? Recite the fourth paragraph in the Ulysses in Night Town chapter! NOW NOW NOW!” While perhaps useful for the weaving poetic narrative of The Gift, this really is an inefficient method for most other books, especially nonfiction. No matter how hard I try, the memory-sponge can only hold so much information before it becomes saturated and anything useful leaks away.

And so I must take the shortcuts, teach myself to scan and skip, with notebook and sticky flags handy. I've already spent hours with old newspapers and will spend more. Information is what I need: bits, blocks, and strands of detail, to tuck and weave into my tale, and the world through which it winds. That and nothing else. Even with genuinely good books—some of which I'll write about in coming months—pleasure must trail behind business. First homework. Then I can go out and roam alone through Liverpudlian sewers.

And what about the Internet, that sticky repository that stretches like pi (you know . . .  infinitely) Where All Knowledge Shimmers Under My Fingertips. Aside from a few sites, I've found little so far, and I have an ominous sense I won’t find much more (except links to more books). The Internet may be as wide as the ocean, but when it comes to the depth of research that's required, at least for Butchertown's time and place, the tops of my shoes remain dry.

For depth, coherence, and focus, books and paper still rule. During a two-hour visit to the California Historical Society in downtown San Francisco the other day,  I scanned a section—just a section—of The Prohibition Movement in California–1848 to 1933 by Gilman M. Ostrander, which, in turn, pointed me to a forgotten novel by Prohibitionist Upton Sinclair, The Wet Parade. That may well be a bad book, but it would be a good idea to get my eyes in it, somehow, at least for a few pages.

I learned more from those two hours than I have from a dozen hours of web surfing.

Copyright 2011 by Thomas Burchfield

(Re-edited 9/19/11)

Photo by Author.

Thomas Burchfield has recently completed his 1920s gangster thriller Butchertown. He can be friended on Facebook, followed on Twitter, and read at Goodreads. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.

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