Why Not Go Nuts? On Research

Lily Meyer

In our Craft Capsules series, authors reveal the personal and particular ways they approach the art of writing. This is no. 195.

Years ago I heard the novelist Marlon James speak during an event that was part of the tour for his novel Black Leopard, Red Wolf (Riverhead Books, 2019). I recall him saying that he researches his novels while drafting them, not beforehand. Yes, he said, this strategy leads to some doubling back and rewriting, but it also lets him run with the inspiration research so often brings. At the time I took this as validation of the process in which I was embroiled. In 2013 I began researching and writing a novel about Operation Condor, the covert, CIA-backed collaboration among six of South America’s repressive right-wing regimes during the Cold War. By 2018, when I heard James read from Black Leopard, I’d accepted that my novel wasn’t going to take on all of Operation Condor and had narrowed my scope to U.S support of the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, who deposed Salvador Allende in a military coup in 1973. That novel, Short War, will be published tomorrow by Deep Vellum. Why, you might ask, did it take so long? In part, the answer is that I was twenty-two in 2013, and I had no idea how to write a novel or do much else. Also, constructing the book’s puzzle-box plot took a lot of trial and error. But really Short War took a decade because I researched while I wrote, and I did way, way too much research.

I became interested in Condor as a high-school exchange student in Chile. In college I spent a semester studying history at Uruguay’s Universidad de la República, where I took a class comparing the dictatorships Condor supported. When I began my research in earnest, I returned to Uruguay to talk to my old professors, visit the national library, copy documents, and shop for books unavailable in the United States. I went wild buying retired Cold Warriors’ memoirs on eBay. I spent a terrifying amount of money on academic books about Chile, since most American scholarship on the subject is so new that I couldn’t get secondhand copies. I nosed around online archives, reading staggering—and often staggeringly awful—volumes of declassified government correspondence about Salvador Allende and the coup. My best friend’s mother, the daughter of a California academic, happened to spend the year of the coup in Santiago while her dad was on sabbatical. I interviewed her, all her family members, and a handful of their generous friends. I talked to journalists, academics, acquaintances with insight into the CIA. (I live in Washington, D.C., so this last bit was easier than you might imagine.) I did so much work.

But I was never exclusively researching. I was always writing, too—always trying to jam my research into my novel. I knew so much! It was so horrifying! I wanted, somehow, to convey the crushing scope of Operation Condor, in all its blandly voiced governmental evil, while also expressing—or at least paying proper tribute to—the hopes and missions of the leftist groups and governments that the Condor regimes crushed. I thought it was my responsibility to do both and to do so completely. So my novel sagged and groaned under the weight of fact after fact, political program after political program. I couldn’t decide if it was my duty to include or not include the horrors that took place in clandestine prisons and torture centers. In what way should I write about the disappeared? Could I, somehow, build in just a little bit of Argentine or Uruguayan history, even though I’d sworn to myself I would limit the novel to Chile? My research snowballed. At some point I had to admit to myself that I was telling a story that had stopped making sense.

What saved me was stripping things back. I narrowed my novel to three parts, which are, really, three moments in a narrative that spans generations. I got rid of paragraphs of historical and political context. I subjected all the facts in the novel to the same test: Is this here because I want people to know it, or because I want people to know it and it illuminates something about my characters? Plenty of moments passed the test. In one scene early in Short War, for example, protagonist Gabriel notes that his friend Andrés, the son of a militant who’s gone into hiding, misses getting free milk at school every day from a program Allende started. His government gave milk to kids up to age sixteen, the age Gabriel and Andrés are at the start of the novel. Putting that in the book let me show both Allende’s priorities and a gap between two characters’ daily experiences: Andrés, whose father is physically absent and who has little access to black-market food, is hungrier than Gabriel, an American in Chile whose parents can purchase just about anything. 

Of course, not all my research-integration worked so well. I cut massive chunks of my draft. Eventually I cut too much and had to thoughtfully build political background back in. Doing so was easy. I didn’t have to consult my notes. By that point I’d read, written, and deleted so much that the history I’d learned had become part of my intellectual landscape. It was there to be drawn on, but didn’t surge frantically to the front of my mind. I was able to tell an informed story instead of scrambling to build a story out of information.

I’m beginning another research-based novel now, this one set in the 1940s and 1950s, and this time I’m approaching the process differently. I’m still researching while I write, like Marlon James, but I am no longer taking what I learn directly to my draft. In fact, I have forbidden myself to consult my notes while I write. I read. I metabolize. I let what I’ve learned float around my brain, trusting that it will enter my draft when I need it to. One thing has not changed, though: I’m still reading too much, still hunting down out-of-print books on eBay, still going to archives and casting wildly around for people I might interview. Overkill? Maybe. But I’m curious. I’m a novelist. I have the great good fortune of spending some of my time and earning some of my income turning my interests into fiction. I get to do research. Why not go nuts?


Lily Meyer is a translator, critic, and the author of the novel Short War (Deep Vellum, 2024). A contributing writer at the Atlantic, she has translated Claudia Ulloa Donoso’s story collections Little Bird (Deep Vellum, 2021) and Ice for Martians (Columbia University Press, 2023).

Art: Julia Joppien