Living the Lives // Rebecca Fisseha
As part of our guest edited month exploring publishing and the emotionality of sharing writing, Rebecca Fisseha writes about the complexities of researching for a book.
One recurring piece of reader feedback regarding Daughters of Silence is how well it depicted the life of a flight attendant. That’s nice to hear, considering that my ‘insights’ came from reading books and blogs, staring at them and taking notes (15 hour journeys to Ethiopia very handy for that), and sending one actual flight attendant too many questions by email. Still, I feel that I fell short—but if readers want to compliment, I’ll take it, privately chuckling at the irony of how I spent so much more time researching body repatriations and the rose farming industry, which barely made it to the final manuscript.
So, one would think that when work on book #2 is underway, I would know not to sweat the details too much, especially since my trepidation about approaching total strangers to ask about their work has not lessened post-publication. My preferred mode of gathering intel is still spying. Although I have made progress from relying strictly on spying plus ‘academic’ research: I have gotten more brazen about probing strangers, acquaintances, friends and family. The latter can’t avoid me. Of the formers, so far two have ghosted me (it seems). One has been beyond forthcoming. Not bad stats, for a rookie. Main lesson learned: keep it short and focused, and hit them with the questions right away. Screw ‘when is a good time for you?’
Getting back on track (pun forthcoming), yes I should be more relaxed about nailing research by now, but my version of the ‘inner critic,’ which is the ‘inner accuracy police’ (future readers with magnifying glasses to catch what I get wrong about a day in the life of, say, a Shakespearean actor, or an elite runner, or an international concert promoter) makes me go above and beyond, to actually trying on that particular life. Go all ‘method’: nearly destroying my knees by starting to train for a half-marathon, based on zero experience of running, no access to a gym (thank you ‘Rona), and no trainer (thank you artist’s budget). I like to say I pulled myself back at about mile nine, but really my body just quit.
Another danger of research on steroids, besides damage to the writer’s body, is damage to the work-in-progress when research begins to dictate the story, hijacking the characters into becoming mannequins for modelling how much I have found out about, say, the steps to getting divorced in Ontario. This eventually leads to a misdiagnosis of ‘writer’s block’ which imho is really just, ‘Your character called, they want their story back.’
Best case scenario, a particular detail that can only be found through either experiencing something first hand, or talking to an insider, or hitting on the perfect link online, suggests a much more compelling direction for the story (truth being stranger than fiction and all). Then, you know you’re on to something because everyone—inner critic and inner accuracy police—suddenly go quiet.
Rebecca Fisseha is author of the novel Daughters of Silence (Goose Lane Editions). Her short stories, personal essays, and articles appear in Selamta, Room Magazine, The Maple Tree Literary Supplement, The Rusty Toque, Joyland, Lithub, Medium, and Addis Ababa Noir. Look for her upcoming work in Room Magazine Issue 44.1 (March 2021) and in Tongues: On Longing and Belonging through Language, an anthology of creative nonfiction essays (Book*hug Press, Fall 2021).