Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Research? I drive a Ford

Share |

“I hate for things to get finally pinned down, for possibilities to be narrowed by the shabby impingement of facts…. when the facts are made clear, I can’t bear it, and run away as fast as I can … (etc)”
The Sportswriter by Richard Ford

Research: how here’s word that covers pretty-well anything, so much so that it is a byword for mischief in our house. I don’t do ‘research,’ I do ‘stuff.’ As I mentioned, I have no interest in details about techie aspects of a story. It may sound like a Hail Mary because it is a Hail Mary: preoccupation with tech detail is the opposite of story. Detail for me means how a person says something, or sits, or gazes at something – long slow panning cinema is my weakness, not hyperkinetic action flicks. Harrumph.

Naturally enough, such cavalier arrogance can open serious trapdoors. One was a problem for a woman in Graz, a very astute and helpful woman who helped me with details on a story set in Austria ‘Poacher’s Road’ (Wildererwegg’) Jutta was prompt with returning email inquiries, and, as with so many Austrians, her English is fluent. I had indistinct recall of what was then the HQ of the provincial police force in Styria, in Graz, so I emailed a request for her to send some pics of same. This she did, along with an account of how she was (almost) arrested for her activity in taking those pictures.

In that same Austrian story, I had a poor enough grasp of some of the idiom of that part of Austria too, especially the cursing. To keep it vernacular and to respect the idiom – things I live for, and which has the inevitable result of annoying editors – I needed help. Who did I turn to? My mother-in-law, a refined matron from that part of the world … who so happened to know pretty well every ditty, curse and insult uttered in that part of the world.

My long-suffering brother in Dublin receives a steady stream of inquiries, and usually replies on-the-hoof from his phone, picture and even video clip attached. A more memorable reach was his stalwart effort to take time-release photos of a drive into the Wicklow Mountains that I (thought!) I needed for a story. This he did, and a DVD of 800 images ensued – all with the bonnet (i.e. hood) of his car at the bottom of each image, and the same dead flies smeared on the windscreen (i.e. windshield) in exactly the same position through each and every image. Heroic stuff – epic really.

But the fruits of research are uncertain, often unknown, and just as often unexpected. This came home to me when I was cleaning the interior of our car.
Cleaning the car is a rare event. It usually means

a) You’re getting ready to sell it
b) You have lost something very small, and very valuable
c) An elderly relative will be sitting in it, and he/she is fastidious to the point of being obsessed (all fights are off when it comes to seniors)

It was b) that had me scrambling and wiggling in a very undignified manner Wednesday, all for an item that remains lost – a small metal catch for a digital device. As Murphy’s Law dictates, I found things that I neither expected nor wanted. It also offered up a topic for this blog and a considerable laugh into the bargain. This is the story.

Late summer, and Child Two is just finishing up a bout of gainful employment. He is a quiet boy, now a man, and careful about many things. That said, we do go on adventures he and I, he to humour me, and I to pursue my agenda to show him a world outside his hi-tech city life. Even as a small child he came along on our caravanserais. He remembers our couchette nights on Eurail trains, learning Irish in a Dublin primary school, clambering with cousins he never met and couldn’t understand (Austrian German = Dublin English) into Alpine valleys, crossing the Mohave.

Teen years intervened, and the pressing conformity of those years that carry on into young adulthood kept him amongst his own. But lately, the adult thing has insinuated itself more. The kid is no longer a kid, and the parent is no longer in any lawgiver role. The gods are down from the altars, the congregation can disperse.

This end-of-summer gig was to be a road trip. He was half-keen to see what the attractions of Dixie might be that they so often came up in conversation and music and jokes in the household. That meant Appalachia, a good immersion in the Virginias, and getting to a few of the Civil War battlefields and memorials. The trip turned out to have been under the guidance of Loki: everywhere we went, disaster followed us. A walkabout in Washington was interrupted by … an earthquake. A stopover in Virginia Beach was cut short by the imminent arrival of a hurricane.

Our long, meandering drive back to Canada along the banks of the fabled Susquehanna came only days before those towns that we passed through were inundated by the river in full flood. We could not even breathe easy in Canada. Our first stop off after the Niagara Falls crossing, in St. Catherine’s, saw us at a red traffic light… watching as the driver of a smaller SUV misjudged a curb in a sharp intersection and rolled his vehicle on its roof about thirty feet off our hood . There was a surreal quality to it all, and we though we laughed all the way, there was unease. We still shake our heads over the trip.

And what does this have to do with research?
Well for one, many of the travels that I go on are worthy of inclusion in tax returns. This applies to travel in Ireland and Austria particularly. There are books to substantiate the need for detailed research there. Less so the US, but there are sketches of stories mapped out as a result of some trips.
Less obviously, travel provides a mood and sights, and a desire to share what is seen and thought. I’m not talking slide shows: I’m talking ‘making things up to do with that place.’ This can spoil a holiday if it gets out of hand, but there is no way to switch off observing, or imagining. The questions are always insistent: what if..? and isn’t this town ideal for a ..? that person in the bar there, have they got a …?

But it turns out that this trip has a long reach, and I discovered so by finding two items under a mat that was itself wedged under the driver’s seat. These were two spent 9mm rounds, their shiny casings well dug-in by the rail that the seat assembly slides back and forth on. Our blithe ignorance of same is what let us cross the border home with confidence and the open faces of law-abiding Canucks with nothing to hide.

Spouse: ‘What the hell are those things there?’

Spouse is eyeing the two items brought up from the car and placed by the computer. Spouse is Canadian born and bred, with a reflexive suspicion and nervousness about guns.

Spouse: ‘Are they what I think they are?’

Child Two had related to his mother that on our trip we had spent some happy hours in an indoor range in Virginia Beach. This item she passed over in silence. A more detailed account might have informed her that we tried out a wide variety of hand guns and rifles. And why not? The staff there were amiable colourful, sharp-eyed and heavily armed. But we chatted about everything and anything.

It is just not true that you mustn’t talk about politics and religion away from home. We talked and argued about politics and history, and why the owner will never visit Canada – gun-laws would prevent him from ‘carrying’ and we are ‘socialists.’ All very congenial, and with a fine streak of humour, give-and-take and understanding. (An added pleasure for me was in loosing some serious jokes and commentary that Child two was sure would rile rednecks. I believe I even heard him roll his eyes behind me when I got talking about Manassas. I chide him yet over being too ‘appropriate,’ but only when I’m paying for the beer.)

All staff carried large-calibre pistols in quick-release holsters. Much like the notorious episode in Trailer Park boys where the hapless Ricky can’t stop staring at a character’s gut, I tried hard not to eye a phenomenal belly on the owner of the range, and how he had devised an apparatus to allow his pistol to sit snugly on the side of this spell-binding anatomical feature.
They were very much at ease in showing us the workings of over a dozen guns, pistols and long guns alike. Shortcomings, likes, foibles, if-onlies rolled out.

There was talk about music – Waylon had it, Dolly usually has it, Garth is not the real deal – and Ireland, where they have fond and fictitious accounts of distant (imagined?) ancestors of whom they were extremely, improbably proud. We went about our business firing off boxes of shells at paper targets, and then took a break to listen and chat some more.

This wasn’t just a gun range in a nondescript industrial mall. It was social centre. Other visitors came in, mostly old men, often with big-bore hunting rifles that went off like thunder and left my fillings vibrating a little three stall over. More chat, some coffee, a not inconsiderable amount of BS. We were almost forgetting slave-owning, and segregation, fundamentalism, strip mining, anti-intellectualism … and so forth. Guns and prayer books – the phrase that Obama and his high-minded supporters now mutter under their breaths.

We used up a lot of ammunition. True Canadians that we are, we picked up the ejected shells after our time. I slipped some in my pocket. When I went to retrieve them later, found none. Hence, five months later, their second ejection to the floor of an unkempt car.

Spouse: ‘You going to leave them there like that?”

I tried to riff on recherché du temps perdu, but a raised eyebrow put a stop to that. So, these brass forget-me-nots reside in the undiscovered continent that is the middle drawer of an heirloom writing bureau. They keep company with other useless treasures - TTC tickets from the 1980s, a couple of floppy diskettes, a postcard from an extraordinarily eccentric relative who crossed the Hidden Quarter much as Sir Wilfrid Thesiger did (related also, hilariously by Eric Newby) …

If I hadn’t found these items on the floor of the car, I would not have remembered to call what I was doing that day last summer ‘research.’

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Related item from our archives

John Brady

John Brady is the author of the acclaimed Matt Minogue mystery novels. His first Matt Minogue mystery novel, A Stone of the Heart, won the Arthur Ellis Best First Novel Award, and his novels Unholy Ground, Kaddish In Dublin, All Souls and The Good Life have all been shortlisted for the Arthur Ellis Award for Best Novel. The sixth novel in the series, Islandbridge, was shortlisted for the Dashiell Hammett prize and his most recent, The Coast Road, was named a Globe & Mail Top 100 book for 2010.

Go to John Brady’s Author Page