On the big shelf I reserve for my favorite books, there is no small number of novels with main characters who are writers. They teach writing (Francine Prose's Blue Angel), they worry about not writing (Michael Chabon's Wonder Boys), and they suffer all sorts of obsessions and jealousies (Graham Greene's The End of the Affair). It's no surprise that so many great novels cover this writerly territory, since we, as authors, are well trained to write what we know. In The Best of Animals (Persea Books, 2002), the collection of stories I wrote while I was in and just out of graduate school, I describe the lives of the New Yorkers I knew best: marginally employed photographers, part-time secretaries, dissertation writers like myself and my friends. The characters I endowed with actual careers rarely appeared on the job, since I wasn't very interested in professional life--and therefore didn't know how to write about it. A character in one of the stories was a tax lawyer, so I gave him two secretaries and a nice town house. Ta-da, here's your lawyer! What happened at the office was no interest of mine.
But ten years later, while I was writing my second novel, A Friend of the Family, I found myself newly captivated by work and working lives. In the decade since I'd written The Best of Animals, I'd become a professional myself, as had most of my friends; a group once composed of students and struggling artists now included an HIV specialist, a classics professor, a director of development, and an executive in New York City government. I'd witnessed them on the job, heard them talk about their work, and grown fascinated by not just what they did but by how what they did defined who they'd become.
Describing professional lives now seemed a way to get at the heart of my characters as effectively and efficiently as describing their accents, their houses, or their mothers. A tax lawyer was no longer someone who simply employed two secretaries; he was a person with a specific way of thinking about the world, a specialized lingo, and a portfolio of unique problems. And a doctor, like the narrator of A Friend of the Family, was no longer just a man with a fancy title. His doctoring had to take place onstage, since doctors are inhabited by what they do, and their professional lives infiltrate each hour of the day.
Pete Dizinoff, the doctor-narrator I created for A Friend of the Family, diagnosed people on the street almost unconsciously. He spoke matter of factly about transient ischemic attacks and went to sleep at night thinking about illnesses he couldn't cure. On weekends he got calls from desperate patients, or bumped into them at car dealerships and the Jewish Community Center. This is how suburban internists with thriving practices experience their work. I knew that, and I wanted to describe it.
My only problem was that the entirety of my medical training came from late-night hypochondriacal visits to WebMD.
So I did what writers should do: research. First I talked to all the doctors who would talk to me--friends, acquaintances, family members, my own physicians--and steeled myself to ask intrusive questions, not only about the diseases they encountered but also about their billing systems and their relationships with their nurses. I took detailed notes about their rounds schedules and the best parts of their days. Since Dr. Dizinoff was fifty-three in my novel, I had to interview people who went to medical school in the late seventies to ground myself in his training. And because I was curious about the internecine culture of a suburban hospital, I had to learn what the dermatologist thinks of the pediatrician, what the obstetrician thinks of the surgeon, and what everyone thinks about the hospital CEO.
After that, I taught myself the tiniest bit of medicine. I stole a few copies of JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association from my medical-student brother and forced my way through articles about lymphoma and epilepsy. Although I didn't understand much of what I read, I used an online medical dictionary to help unpack confusing terminology (turns out "epistaxis" just means "nosebleed"). Eventually, I gleaned enough to sketch out a few cases Dr. Dizinoff would encounter in his practice, and wrote those scenes with confidence.
Next, I had to approximate the way doctors talk to one another about themselves and their patients, that particular mix of science and slang, that overriding sense of possibility tinged with occasional defeat. The only way to do this was to pay special attention to the way doctors communicate, so I eavesdropped on my doctor-friends when they spoke about treatment protocols for various diseases and carefully noted the terminology physicians used when they were interviewed in newspapers and magazines. (Later, after the novel was published, I received a little criticism that seemed to prove that this method worked: A reader who wrote an online review of my novel mentioned that it seemed like I had something against people with diabetes. I realized that the frustration, or the resignation, that some doctors feel about their diabetic patients had come through in Dr. Dizinoff's inner monologue, and although I didn't want anyone thinking I don't like diabetics, I was glad to see that I'd captured the attitude of some real-life physicians.)
Finally, and perhaps most important, I had to fact-check. Usually, when I'm done with a draft, I send it to a group of writer-friends I trust, but this time, I sent it to the doctors. After all, I knew that a single mistake in my representation of Dr. Dizinoff's career could ruin the credibility of the entire book, so I needed that doctorly stamp of approval. My physician-friends called me out on misused terminology ("ulcerative colitis" is not at all what I thought it was) and misrepresented hospital culture. "Why would an orthopedic surgeon be familiar with the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit?" one of them asked. Their expertise gave me the courage I needed to write a first-person internist without ever having made it through organic chemistry myself.
Research into jobs that are very specific--and therefore underrepresented in contemporary literature--has paid off for a number of authors whose recent books feature hardworking characters. In his novel Last Night at the Lobster (Viking, 2007), Stewart O'Nan told the story of a Red Lobster manager named Manny who, after years of faithful service, was charged with shutting down the restaurant. "How many millions of people work at chain restaurants? Yet I'd never read anything that took their work lives seriously," says O'Nan. "It seemed like a big story that was hiding in plain sight, and a great opportunity to show the reader a part of America that I think is important."
To write Manny, O'Nan became a kind of private detective of the chain-restaurant industry. "I did legwork, going to different Lobsters around the country and taking pictures, taking notes on the menus, the bar, the decor, the layout," he says. "Having worked in a kitchen, I knew a lot of the lingo already, but in talking with managers and greeters and servers and bartenders, I added a lot more. I also folded in some of the corporate mottoes, like Every Little Bite Counts, from the Web site for Darden Restaurants, Red Lobster's parent company."
Manny aches at the thought of closing his restaurant, and the main reason O'Nan's novel is so effective is that Manny's relationship to his work feels so true. His connection to his job strikes a deep chord with readers. After all, how many of us look to our jobs to ground us? Why shouldn't our characters behave similarly? Although much contemporary literature explores our intimate relationships with one another--Alice Munro's luminous stories, for instance, or Junot Diaz's high-octane fiction--it's frequently our relationship to our work that takes up the greater part of our lives. To create believable characters, we must make this crucial relationship believable too, and O'Nan felt that pressure on every page.
"Manny put his heart into his job ... because it's his nature to follow the rules and believe in the promises of authority," he says. "Once I started writing about him, it made me think harder about how we as Americans often conflate who we are with what we do. I knew I had to understand what Manny has to do--specifically--so that I could deliver him to the reader."
In Kelly Braffet's novel, Last Seen Leaving (Houghton Mifflin, 2006), the characters are haunted by the disappearance of a helicopter pilot, Nick, from a rogue Latin American expedition in the 1980s. Braffet's own father had been a helicopter pilot during the Reagan years, but she'd never really interrogated him about his former job before. She found the experience illuminating. "All the best aviation details came from him: the crash envelope with the code name inside, calling Allegheny County Airport 'Agony County,' the way Nick always flew with Hershey bars in case he crashed," Braffet says.
A large part of creating Nick--beyond capturing the particulars of his very unique job--was nailing his dialect. Here, especially, Braffet paid attention to her father, recording not just what he said but also how he said it. "The people he's worked with--all pilots, most former marines--seem to have a certain way of talking to one another, very straightforward and formal but also sort of twisted and funny, when there's room to be. There's a very specific way that pilots in the air talk to the control tower, certain words that they use. Even now, when I hear tape recordings of pilots talking to the tower, it sounds like the way I heard my dad talking to the tower when he was flying."
Braffet found that recording her father's experiences as a pilot came with an unexpected benefit: the opportunity to use her own work to grow closer to him. "Talking to my dad about the situations and the details in the book, listening to his stories--that was one of the best times my father and I have ever had together."
Sometimes, however, it's impossible to scout out locations, visit company Web sites, or interview the guy sitting across from you at the dinner table. Some professions don't exist anymore, or have changed so radically over the years that to describe the way someone performed a job a decade ago is to describe an entirely different practice from that which is currently performed.
Oystering, for instance. Although it is still part of the Louisiana economy, the industry was transformed in the second half of the twentieth century by oil companies that wreaked havoc on traditional oyster grounds. (British Petroleum is the most famous example, but hardly the first.) In order to re-create the 1950s oystering culture of Plaquemines Parish for his novel Oyster (Ecco, 2002), John Biguenet relied on old-fashioned library research, rounded out by interviews with old oystermen. During the process he got a visceral sense of what the loss of the fishing grounds meant for an entire way of life. He was then able to weave it through the narrative of his novel to provide much-needed context, as in the following passage:
One by one, the others had lost their own beds over the years and were forced to crew other men's boats or, when the catch dwindled, to endure the humiliation of working the slime line of a shucking house. Some had even moved upriver to New Orleans for city work. Their sons had signed on with the oil companies, hoisting fifty-pound drill bits as roughnecks on the big rigs scattered off the coast. So now they only had to look ... to know the fields, the boat, the last of everything was in jeopardy.
Biguenet, a New Orleans native with a long family history in the city, felt the tug of the oyster grounds when he was writing this, his first novel. "Growing up in the region and knowing the marshes between New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico gave me some authority, but I supplemented that with a great deal of research on the history of the period and on marsh ecology. Neither books nor photographs, though, offer as vivid and persuasive material as can be gained from a Sunday afternoon spent on a front porch drinking beers with an old relative who dredged oysters fifty years ago," Biguenet says. "On the verge of calling the coast guard to ask how I could blow up an oyster boat without leaving any trace of the cause, for example, I instead posed the question to an old oysterman in the family. 'Nothing to it,' he explained. 'First, get the crew drunk.'"
"But then," Biguenet remembers, "he corrected himself. 'On second thought, don't worry about that. It was so damn boring out there circling a reef, everybody was drunk all the time.'"
The common thread connecting the research into disparate professions conducted by O'Nan, Braffet, Biguenet, and myself is the willingness and the ability to interview the right people. Libraries are good, the Internet might be better, and photo archives can really bring a work environment alive, but when you're trying to write characters who perform specific jobs you've never done before, nothing can replace careful interviews with the people who do those jobs every day.
If you've never held the job you want to write about, and you don't know anyone who does, how do you locate the right person? First, ask everyone you know who might know someone worth talking to. Look up academics in university directories, e-mail musicians through their Web sites, see if the flight attendant will talk to you for a few minutes during a dull stretch in your next flight. Leave your postal worker a note with his holiday tip asking if you could possibly talk to him for a few minutes one day. Swallow your anxiety. You'll be surprised how accommodating most people will be.
Next, do your research. Learn as much as you can about the profession from other sources before your interview so you ask informed and respectful questions, and so you receive information you'll find useful as you work on your draft.
Third, prepare your notebook or your tape recorder. Make sure to listen for dialect, work-specific vocabulary, and the exact tone in which the flight attendant talks about the pilot or the housekeeper speaks about the homeowner.
Finally, remind yourself that this is one small way in which the solitary act of writing can encompass the rest of the world. "For the most part, I find that people really enjoy helping out with my research," Braffet says. "People like to be helpful, and they like to talk about themselves, and they like to see things that they've told you in books and their names in the acknowledgments. They like to feel like their knowledge and experience is valuable. And of course, it is valuable. Everybody's experience is valuable, and I think that part of my job as a writer is to show readers the value they might have missed in people they might not have noticed."
LAUREN GRODSTEIN is the author, most recently, of the novel A Friend of the Family (Algonquin Books, 2009). She directs the MFA program at Rutgers University in Camden, New Jersey.