When history changes the story: using research to revise narrative and character in literary fiction
When I wrote my new Lethe Press novel The Butcher’s Sons, a book about three brothers living in their father’s butcher shop in the gritty world of 1930’s Hell’s Kitchen, I spent two weeks in Ireland researching their great-grandfather’s back story. I obsessed over the three brothers’ lives, and the journey of these young men catapulted me forward, a feverish vision. Walking Irelands rocky burren, standing atop the cliffs of moor, and speaking to the locals about the fiercesome Irish pride, I was able to begin to build a history and life for the three brothers’ great-grandfather, Cahal. I wrote the novel in 18 months without stopping.
Such is not the case with my current novel-in-progress, The River Runs Red. Set in my hometown of St. Louis in 1890, the central storyline of my sixth book is based on historical fact: the building of the nation’s first skyscraper, the Wainwright Building (which my grandfather worked on as an engineer). I am writing the book in first person point-of-view from four characters, separated by class and their dreams.
Halfway through the writing, I read a biography of Lewis Sullivan, the architect of the Wainwright building and the inspiration for my character Clement Cartwright. I discovered a great deal of inherent drama in truth, in the facts of Sullivan’s life and even more importantly, his incredible dedication to his art and the level of his success during his early life. Sullivan referred to himself as a poet, an artist, and an architect. He wrote a wild mixture of poetry and biography in his book The Kindergardten Chats, and he worked tirelelessly through his life to meld form with function.
My discoveries led me to more reading on St. Louis’ history, specifically the fate of the Lemp Brewery which had great success in the late 1800s before the family experienced a good deal of misfortune, including the patriarch’s hanging himself.
The rich truths that I could not ignore halted my progress. So I did something I have never done. I started over.
I have always been a stream of consciousness, ‘hear the muse singing’ writer. I am grateful for that. I have always written straight through on to completion before stepping back and revising. So putting the brakes on The River Runs Red, rethinking an entire character, and starting over was jarring! For the character of Calhoun, who is the earthy heart of the novel, it was when I discovered the existence of the famed Orphan Trains which carried children to adoptive homes throughout the country from the mid-nineteenth century to the depression. I also began to shape the journey of Calhoun. While originally he was a prostitute and had a darker edge, I evolved him into a young man with a dream to go West, and instead of prostitution I gave him a talent at winning at poker. His throughline further evolved as I, midway into the novel, created the villain of Snopes, this influenced by the story of the St. Louis Lemp Brewery. All of the varied research began to merge and mix, guiding me to a richer fuller story.
Now a few months into it, I am grateful that I took the leap, shook my process up, and dug deeply into rewriting, revising. It feels as if I threw all of the words up in the air, months of work, page after page, and let them scatter, refining what works, discarding huge chunks. As I developed the journey of Calhoun, in relation to the creation of my villain Snopes (who I decided is a cocaine addict and sadist with a very black history) I began to decide when and how to reveal certain aspects of the story. Bits I had revealed early on (“Cut”section below), I decided to parcel out more slowly.
One other bit of –not so much revision as reconsideration: I had some feedback that using first person narrative from multiple points of view may not be the best choice. Instead of rejecting this flat out, I began to read novels that took this approach, from As I Lay Dying to The Girl on the Train. I found power in this form and it gave me the confidence to carry on.
Also, in the 12 months between writing The Butcher’s Sons and The River Runs Red, I wrote the novel Skyscraper (which will also be published by Lethe Press).
I had started The River Runs Red but became overwhelmed by its time period so I began writing a story about an architect set in current day New York City (where I live). In essence, the writing of Skyscraper, that research on the life of an architect, was actually the beginning of my deeper work on The River Runs Red.
The character of Calhoun, written November 2014
River at night, mean but never quiet. Can’t doze so close to all them churning, dark waves. Wanting to tear something up, bust a fist, sitting on the riverbank waiting for Fat Frank, then all the sudden, over the hard roll of all that thick brown water, something soft comes round, a sweet sound, a cool night calling outa that mighty Mississippi. It’s a lady singing on the passing River Queen. Some actress lady entertaining the fancies her voice a call through the blackness.
The boat moves by in the distance, and I think: any man can see what a fine riverboat that River Queen is. She’s a beauty. White washed clean and painted bright, shouting her name in big red letters stretching from bow to stern. I’d like to jump on that boat right this very second, take to the Mississippi River, make my fortune, find that soft feathery lady and kiss her cheek. But not yet. Gotta talk to Fat Frank, can’t jump too soon.
I see as the boat dredges past, there in the distance, a man standing on the deck. Looks like a thin stick of black and white but even from here I see he’s got a top hat. Looks like a far away groom on a wedding cake, thin and stiff. The boat crawls and I wait for Fat Frank, sweating since there’s no breeze tonight. Just heat and that sad moon. And that lady singer’s dark song coming at me.
Laying back on the cobblestones, my skinny back grooving into the curved hotness, I stare at the sky. Midnight moon slashing through the clouds spilling over the mud-stink river. Mighty Mississippi River. I know for a fact that that there’s lots of money in that river. Gambling, working, moving on to places better. It can suck a man in deep. Don’t get eaten up too soon. That’s what Fat Frank says and he knows since he ran hard on that river, worked those boats for years before he settled here in St. Louis with Bessie, the old tar queen. Crazy creole witch.
Fat Frank did fine on that river, but since he quit, even though he ain’t rich (he spent everything he had saved first on drinking then on Bessie), he is a free man, never working again for nobody he says, always opening up the day whatever damn way he sees fit. I wish he didn’t stink like wet leaves and tobacco, but he does and that’s fine since he’s the smartest man I know. And he’s my best friend, my only friend I guess, but he’d likely smack me if I said that to him. He says he’s nobody’s friend, don’t owe nothing to no man.
The character of Calhoun, written August 2015
Mississippi River at night, mean and never quiet. Trying to doze on the cobblestone shore, close to all them churning, dark waves. Muddy water laps over and over, lulls me, pulls me back to my midnight remembering, the half dream that won’t die. I can still see the grave-shallow eyes of the smallest ones. The dirty faces pressed close and tired. I can still hear the soft hum of train wheels moving fast over moon-oiled tracks, all of us huddled and stinky, shoulder to shoulder, hungry cargo from New York heading to Missouri or Illinois or Ohio on the Orphan Train.
That was three years ago. I was 13, making out just fine in the dark corners of New York when the damned do-gooders shucked me up, forced me on that train. They told us kids that Mr. Charles Brace was gonna save us all. Beak-nosed lady in black got us in line, said the Children’s Aid Society was gonna cure the orphan epidemic; clean the streets of the dirty left-overs that the churches and the orphanages had no room for. Save the wild ones. Orphans, urchins, all of us.
A few hundred got shipped off at a time to a better life, a real home the lady told us. First night on that train, an old drunk snuck on for a free ride, sat upright in a corner guzzling flame fuel, spooking us kids, singing in a crazy voice: “Orphan train running, running. Ain’t no getting off. Better not shut your eyes, gonna lose ya in the dark.”
Mean old cuss with bright eyes, bright red face staring at me like I was supper. They threw him off next stop, but the little ones kept crying and his liquor stink, his slow dying, and that song stuck on me. I’d been told that farmers were gonna reach in and check my teeth like a horse. See if I could stand long hours of work, live on little food.
“Ain’t nobody shoving a fist in my mouth,” I told the scrawny boy next to me who was gray faced with the whooping cough.
I decided then and there I’d get off that train, get away, and I did. I hopped off next morning and ran fast, got away from that ragged litter, thinking I’d find Chicago. But this river took me over, drew me close and I ended up in St. Louis.
It ain’t been so bad. First week ratting around half starved I met Fat Frank, the best damn friend a fella could ask for. He taught me night fishing, card playing and how to survive on the river’s edge, in the black shadow of life. He’s the one thing I’m gonna miss but I’m nearly 16 and it’s high time I got on with life. I had enough of this city’s mud and grime, seen my fill of its bloody underbelly. I cheated a few too many times at poker, wandered too many sad back alleys, worked too many midnight shifts at the Snopes brewery. I’m heading West, to Utah or Wyoming. Out where a man can see sky and stars and not stink of factory smoke and river water. I wish Fat Frank would go with me, but he’s old and ain’t never leaving this city. Plus he got his lady, the love of his life, crazy Bessie.
I got twelve of the twenty five dollars toward my ticket on the transcontinental railroad. I’m hoping to head out before summers end if I could just find a way to make some good money fast. Real money. But I gotta talk to Fat Frank first. He knows me better then anybody in this world. And he’s saved my life more than once.
CUT FROM DRAFT
I found a friend right off, Fat Frank and then got to know his lady Bessie. I learned to win a bit at poker and make some money in the city’s midnight back alleys where dark desires got met. I mighta been all right. If only I hadn’t taken on night shifts at Snopes Brewery. If Fat Frank was here he’d say ain’t no good regretting. Can’t undo what’s done. Get on with life. Which is what I intend to do.
My gut told me that first night loading the beer wagons at Snopes that something weren’t right. They ran me down to the cave, down to that cool under-place that stretches for five blocks below the factory all the way to the shipping yards by the river. It was quiet, dark and damp. I thought I was alone. Then I heard something scarping across the stone floor, like claws on metal. Something was prowling around and I thought it was a possum or river rat. But the scraping got louder, slow and steady, and I saw a figure in the distance carrying a lamp, mean fingers of shadow cutting ahead of him, spider like, as if the shadows themselves could reach out and grab me by the throat. He crept by surrounded by a blinding web of dazzling light and shadow, his store bought shoes scratching the stones, his black oiled hair and pitch black suit cutting through the lamp glow. I couldn’t see his face. He scraped past without a word, and I felt the dead chill of him, and I knew that night I best quit and never look back. But I stayed on and never told nobody what I seen that night, figuring they’d call me crazy. I worked hard, hoisting barrels of lager, loading the beer wagons, avoiding the caves if I could. I almost forgot that night, but then I seen something even more terrible that nobody knows I saw. Not even Fat Frank. And now I gotta get out of this city. Gotta go West. Gotta get away.
ABOUT SCOTT ALEXANDER HESS
Scott Alexander Hess earned his MFA in creative writing from The New School. He blogs for The Huffington Post and his writing has appeared in Genre Magazine, The Fix, and elsewhere. Hess co-wrote Tom in America, an award winning short film starring Sally Kirkland and Burt Young. The Butcher’s Sons is his third novel. Originally from St. Louis, Missouri, Hess now lives in Manhattan, New York.