One of the Andaman locations in my new novel.

Ross Island, India circa 1936, another setting in the new novel.

Reflections on a life among words

OUT TAKES ...bits and pieces of story, research, and process

Research Rapture

October 2, 2009

Tags: research, oakley hall, india, xinjiang, cloud mountain, flash house, china


A couple of years ago I heard Oakley Hall, writer and director of the Squaw Valley Writers' Conference, talk about "research rapture," that great black hole that looms over the writing process and too often swallows both writer and work. I knew precisely what he meant. Just beginning work on Cloud Mountain, I already had felt myself teetering on the abyss. How to negotiate that edge between enough background information... and infinity?

For better and for worse, my way through has been to research as I write. In many ways this is singularly unsatisfying. Whether writing about Chinese revolutionaries in Japan, or the San Francisco Earthquake, or politics in the first Chinese Republic, or now, prostitutes and nautch girls in Delhi and dak routes over the Karakoram and trade and uprisings in Xinjiang, I never feel that I have sufficient expertise to do my subject justice. I never know enough about terms -- devadasi -- or names -- Gobind vs. Lakshmi -- or places -- Kashgar vs. Srinigar – to feel them trip off my tongue. I have to check and double-check every bit of information used. Just how many days did it take to trek over the mountains from Leh to Kashgar, and through which passes? And I always have the feeling that if I just dug a little deeper into my sources, if I just read one more book (or reread Freedom at Midnight for the third time) or spent another afternoon cruising the Web, I'd hit the jewel that would bring my whole story into focus. The Indian trader in real life, for example, who (like my character) married a Khirgiz tribeswoman and fought in the underground movement against the Nationalist Chinese, only to be killed in the uprising so that his brother felt free to claim the orphaned daughter and sell her into prostitution. This unbelievable set-up really is the juggernaut of my plot, but it would be delicious to have a real life story to base it on. Yes, if I just dug a wee bit deeper into the lore of trade between India and Sinkiang...

On the other hand, based on the flimsy bit of research I've done, I'm convinced this scenario, however farfetched it may seem, is perfectly plausible. I could be wrong. And I could doubtless gain a lot by spending the next three months reading Teddy White and Barbara Tuchman and the State Department briefing sheets from the 40s -- all materials I collected but never quite read while working on Cloud Mountain. But there is also the possibility of being plowed under, of being led down so many intriguing hutungs that my already complicated story will end up in knots.
Bottom line, this is fiction. I don't have to footnote my references, and I don't have to argue through facts for every point. It's not history but a reflection of history, not social science but a mirror of life. Every character, every deed, every consequence is by definition a refraction. There is no danger in knowing too much, but there is a very real danger in finding out too much. The difference is critical, because knowledge can recede and underscore, can deepen the words on the page, while findings tend to rise to the top like cream. They float through, obvious and often heavy, perilously obscuring the substance of the story.

So I waver, find out just enough to enrich but not enough to overpower. It keeps me curious and a little unsatisfied, but this also forces me back into my own story. Ultimately, the satisfaction needs to come from the words I write, not the ones I read. And these words need to be informed but not didactic. Nor can they take information for granted. The reader, after all, knows even less about the Karakorams than I do (although there will always be the experts waiting to sweep down and tear the work to pieces for being underresearched -- as I say, it's a fine line). So I must show them the glacial plains, the sheer chasms to rushing brooks, the icy shafts of wind blowing through the passes. I must reach back into my ultimate resource -- childhood memories of my own excursions in the Karakorams, and bring the place to life. And let everything I've read in books stretch arms to hold and support these memories, but never to replace them.
For here is the crux of the matter. Somewhere, somehow, the story has to be one's own. And research rapture, however intense, can never substitute for live faces, live travel, living smells and sounds and emotions felt. Yes, my plot device is fabulous, quite possibly over the edge, but the woman who owns it is real. The children who scampered across the mountains were real, too. No matter how many books I read, no matter how much I think I've learned, the core of writing has to be personal and immediate and true. For others it may be different, but for me the research must always be secondary to experience. And that experience not only resides in the past but in the act of writing itself.

below for more about Aimee's books & work.

Anthologies of fiction and nonfiction that Aimee has edited or contributed to.
a suspenseful novel of rescue and redemption set in Central Asia at the start of the Cold War, featuring two unforgettable heroines whose fates are irrevocably intertwined.
The unforgettable tale of star-crossed love that spans four decades and two continents.
A young photographer wrestles with her repressed past and identity as an Amerasian in New York's Chinatown. Now back in print after more than a decade, FACE is Aimee's first novel.
Work on Eating Disorders
While there are numerous memoirs available chronicling individual women’s struggles with anorexia, bulimia, and other eating disorders, this is the first book to bring together many people’s stories to create a complete and candid picture of the recovery process. Aimee Liu has skillfully brought together firsthand accounts of recovery to create a realistic roadmap for the journey. This book also includes informational sidebars, written by professionals in the field, on topics including treatment options, choosing the right therapist, the pros and cons of medication, how parents and spouses can help, and much more.
How do anorexia and bulimia impact life AFTER recovery? GAINING is one of the first books about eating disorders to connect the latest scientific insights to the personal truth of life before, during, and especially after anorexia and bulimia.
America's first memoir of anorexia, and one of the earliest books about eating disorders, originally published in 1979
Craft & Criticism
Resources and suggestions for students and fellow writers
Aimee's latest book reviews