“I just love looking at old pictures of people who are now dead.”

My thanks to Gwenda Bond for the tip about the fascinating interview with author John Crowley in the current issue of The Believer magazine.

John Crowley has been a major influence on so many writers (including my husband, Matt Ruff), and he’s written nearly a dozen novels, including The Translator, the four-book Ægypt cycle, and Little, Big, one of Matt’s favorite books, which he described as  “a sprawling family chronicle that William Faulkner might have written, if he’d written about fairies.”

Here are some of John’s comments on research from the interview:

BLVR: So many of your books have a strong research element to them, whether it’s written into them with characters who are themselves researchers, like Pierce Moffett, the main character of Ægypt, who scours the world finding materials for his own book, or simply because the novels themselves are obviously the result of meticulous, extensive research. What’s the relationship, if any, between research you do for your novels and doing research for documentaries? Do they feed off one another in any way?

JC: Maybe I just have a taste for research. Most of the films that I have worked on and enjoyed doing have been based on archival footage. And I’ve found that I just love looking at old footage. I just love looking at old pictures of people who are now dead. There’s something intensely attractive and gripping in looking at these pictures of people who are gone…

I don’t know whether this research actually combines with my writing, but I do know that there is a real thrill to it. I’ve completed a book [Four Freedoms] set in the 1940s about people who are building a bomber in a war production plant, and the research I’ve done for that offers the same kind of fascination with the lives of ordinary people. You can find lots of memoirs of people who worked in these factories, especially women, how they felt about it, what they did every day, how their husbands viewed it, how scared they were to go to work, how they learned to do things they thought they never would. It’s enormously touching.

BLVR: Did you dig through even older materials for the Ægypt quartet? Did you look at old manuscripts? Was there any tactile element to your research?

JC: [Laughs] Not really. I did handle a few old books but I never went into it to that degree. There was never the kind of experience that I ascribe to some of the characters in those books, where they actually go in and palpate old books and turn old dusty leaves and things like that. Most of that, I have to say, I constructed for them to experience. Most of my research for those books came out of secondary sources; a lot of the books I read are full of printed reproductions of old imagery and texts, and I enjoyed looking at those. But I never did the kind of deep manuscript research that might have given me that kind of a thrill. Somehow I felt I was doing enough just creating all the universe around them!

John has more to say on research, genre, his books, and other subjects, so read the whole interview.

By the way, John has a blog, and his new novel, Four Freedoms, will be published at the end of this month. Matt and I heard John read from the manuscript when he came to Seattle last year, so we are very excited about reading the book.

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