Rebekah Frumkin, Author of THE COMEDOWN, on Incorporating Research into Fiction (Interview Part 1 of 3)
At AWP 2018 in Tampa, I was honored to meet novelist Rebekah Frumkin. Her debut, The Comedown, was published by Henry Holt in April, and is available for purchase wherever books are sold.
After our first meeting, I was further honored to sit down and have an in-depth craft conversation with Frumkin. We had a lot to discuss, so our conversation will be split into three posts.
The first section, which follows, features Rebekah's advice on incorporating research and personal interests into plot and characters in fictional works. You can check out sections two and three here and here.
Jessica Hatch (JH): Okay, so let’s talk about The Comedown. I wanted to speak with you specifically because of how well-researched the characters and the settings within your novel are. My first question was, when it comes to your personal experience versus your novel research, how much of the specialized knowledge presented by the characters and narrators in The Comedown is each? How much is personal experience and how much is research?
Rebekah Frumkin (RF): Yeah, that’s a great question. And even before I launch in, I want to go on record as saying that my goal is to write a book so that someone would approach me with questions of this caliber.
JH: Wow, thank you.
RF: So, practically speaking, I did a blend of personal experience and then topics that have always piqued my interest. I didn’t endeavor to write about anything that I don’t care about. Everything in The Comedown is something that I’m either invested in or I’m invested in by virtue of the character’s investment in it.
I’d say, like Caleb [a character who is a chess prodigy], I played a lot of chess [growing up]. I wasn’t on a team or anything, but I enjoyed chess when I was younger, and that interest was fostered by my father, so that was something that I brought to the book.
I was a philosophy major, so [character] Maria Timpano’s interests were something I was really able to weigh in on myself.
Regarding Natasha [a character fascinated by Moby Dick], I’m not a Melville expert by any means, but I am a fan of Moby Dick and intrigued by [Melville’s] obsession with Nathaniel Hawthorne. That became a pleasant research experience but something I didn’t want to push to the limit or tax myself with largely because, again, I don’t have that expertise. So, to answer your question, I’d say it was a blend of things I was curious to learn more about and things that I could bring some degree of expertise to.
"It’s almost as if the characters were created around the obsessions."
JH: As you’re giving that answer, it’s interesting to me that the subject areas you’re most familiar with play a role in the characters’ lives, like the fact that Caleb is this chess prodigy, it moves his story forward; Maria’s [philosophy] degree is such a big part of her life; and Natasha obviously, well, I suppose you could argue that Melville does become this big turning point in her life, but it begins as something that she does in the little downtime that she has. I think it’s interesting that it takes those forms: those deeper interests that you had and then the one that you’re just sort of like, “Okay, I’m really interested in Melville, but not in like this very scholarly way.”
Just an observation.
RF: Yeah. I’m trying to think of another example [from the novel]. Well, I guess drugs are a fine example. I’m someone who, sure, I’ve taken a decent amount recreationally, but not like super-intensely, you know what I mean? My privilege shields me from having to do that [i.e., take drugs to cope] in a lot of ways, but that area of knowledge is something that I’m curious about by virtue of my characters’ curiosity about it.
So, I’m going to learn just enough about [drugs] to give my characters’ obsession the multidimensional quality that I want them to have. But again, it’s not exhaustive.
JH: Okay, awesome.
JH: Good, good. (Laughter) So, in general, what are your research methods? Do they change, depending on the sort of genre you’re presenting them in? For instance, a novel versus a short story versus an essay? Or do they stay largely the same?
RF: I have a friend who I respect beyond all belief, he’s just an incredible writer. He’s of the opinion that when you’re researching a topic, you really should only read books about it. You really shouldn’t be going online about it. I think that shows in his work, I think there is a more linear quality to his fiction. There’s a more circumspect quality, where he learned what he learned from the book and now he’s putting that on the page. Whereas, if you’re reading a book, but you’re also researching online, there’s more of a scattershot [quality] to it. Then, everyone’s like, “Oh, you know that? Maybe you should know these five things.”
Neither method [print research vs. online research] is comprehensive, but I think I’m more of a multimedia researcher. I will of course go and read the book, but then I’ll read, like, five chapters, and then I’ll do a big amount of research online, and then I’ll interview five people. I have training in journalistic methods of interviewing. So, if I can read a book, or read some of a book, go online, read some of what there is to offer there, and then interview five or six people, I’m assembling a patchwork of information that works for me.
I think if I were to say, “Hey, I’m going to read the definitive book on this topic,” well, first who’s to say it’s definitive, right? That’s going to become an intersectional issue. But also -- at least in my case -- I would walk away with some blind spots that I think multimedia researching doesn’t allow for. I think, you know what you want to know, so you’re finding x amount of sources that’ll help you learn those things. If you’re not sure what you want to know and then you rely on one type of source only, then your method of knowledge acquisition is [skewed] in such a way that it might not be otherwise.
That’s a roundabout way of saying I take that a multimedia approach when I’m researching, especially for my novel. Novels versus essays… (Pauses) I do not write poetry because I cannot write it. But novels versus essays, I think essays are way more about lived experience and heavy interviewing. So, one of those two is happening. Either it’s memoiristic or I interviewed these eight people and then I fact-checked their interviews.
Whereas with the novel I think you have to build a lot. I at least am more inclined to supplement my personal experience and supplement my interviewing with other sources and other forms of experience.
JH: Okay, that’s awesome. Um, I can’t write poetry either. (Laughs)
RF: (Laughs) It’s really hard!
JH: So, my next question: how did you decide what specialized knowledge each character in The Comedown would have? Some specialized knowledge has a bearing on how the plot turns out. (Without giving too much away, Caleb’s role as a chess player, for instance.) Other knowledge, such as Maria’s interest in existential philosophy, helps to round characters out. I hope that’s the right branch of philosophy, I’m not a philosophy student.
RF: It’s actually sort of interesting. It’s almost as if the characters were created around the obsessions. A conscious decision was never made to have a chess prodigy in the novel and then build a character around that, but I was aware that -- I mean, these characters are hodgepodges of everything and everyone I’ve ever known and experienced -- so I was aware that I’d have a character who would suffer from severe anxiety and who would be a young black man and who would be having a hard time in school but also be very, very, very brilliant and who would have a girlfriend.
So, these are some things, he’s coming together, right? And then, you know, what can I bring to [the table to] flesh that character out? What knowledge do I have? Well, I have chess. And you know, the chess complements him very well because he’s a systematic thinker and he is also a competitive person, so the chess fits him well there.
Maria Timpano, she’s a tough customer because she’s supposed to be several standard deviations of IQ above me. Boy, when you’re writing close third, how do you pull that off? You’ve got to reveal her thoughts! (Laughs.) So, I’m thinking that a good vehicle through which Maria can wrestle with her surroundings and her world would probably be metaphysical philosophy.
An ex of mine, again, someone whom I really respect, was really wrapped up in metaphysics and proof of an external world. I remember he went to extremes to write an undergraduate thesis proving the veracity of reality and the external world. When we graduated, he had to make three or four trips to the library because he had over three hundred books in his room.
"I watch the clay spread and begin to form itself, and I think, ‘Now here would be a fine direction for that piece of clay to go in.'"
Very cerebral guy. Very intelligent guy. And so, I’m thinking, “This guy isn’t someone [like Maria] who has a magical brain disorder that results in his hyperintelligence, but he is quite intelligent. Maybe I could import that interest into Maria and see how she could use it.”
Natasha, that originally came from a criticism I received, which is I had a reader -- Tony Tulathimutte, take his class if you live in Brooklyn -- tell me I had really been focusing on race too much. Like, over-indicating people’s race.
And he said, “Natasha has this whole scholarly background and she’s barely thinking about Melville, except in a cursory way. [Meanwhile] you’re over-focusing on ideas about race.”
I was like, “Oh, god, of course!” Of course she’d be concerned with this, and of course her identity would express itself in the way all of our identities express themselves, according to, you know, systems of oppression and so forth.
So having her interest in Melville come out in a more developed way actually informed her character. It turned out to be very productive.
But yeah, that’s to say that a lot of the characters’ obsessions and interests came about in varied ways. I can’t really point to one path from a certain research interest to a fully developed character.
JH: It’s almost like you had this lump of clay and you breathed some life into it and personalized it and boom! Now you have a character rather than a laundry list of attributes.
RF: Well, it’s also sort of like, there’s a lump of clay and the lump of clay has a quality to it that is emergent or autonomous like it can move and it’s spreading out. And I watch the clay spread and begin to form itself, and I think, ‘Now here would be a fine direction for that piece of clay to go in, here’s a fine shape for that piece of clay to take.’