I haven’t been arrested yet for research for a book. I do not think so yet will take much longer though, as this last book put me in such a danger that I don’t think I’ll be so lucky next time.
When I tell this to other writers, they usually think I’m talking about unsavory Google searches like: how long does it take to choke to death? and how to remove blood from concrete walls?. But really, searches like this are just daily job risks for many writers, just to check facts, we shoot the internet in the hopes that the NSA agent assigned to patrol us is also reading our super-secret manuscript, nodding at our thoroughness. No, what I’m actually concerned about is the research I’m doing Outside of the digital hypothesis. I have been called a method writer. I research my books by pretending to be in them, which can get a little tricky when you’re writing about death, violence, and monsters.
For the squeamish among you, don’t worry. I didn’t hurt anyone. There is no wink”yet” here because I’m too prudish for the murderous lifestyle myself. What I have found, however, for which I am suited are indiscretions which, in a most unkind light, could be described – by someone I don’t like – as: trespassing, fraud, theft, impersonation, lying, and possibly arson.
My first book is an urban fantasy, and what little of it that takes place in our dimension is set in old, decaying buildings tucked into Connecticut’s vegetation. Those are real places I explored as a kid. Some have been so forgotten that even the edges of the barbed wire seem to have strayed into the undergrowth. As children, we rode our bikes on miles of deserted highways, or dragged clunky laptops with DVD players to the roofs of dilapidated buildings, or found back doors to some abandoned warehouses, asylums, and factories. When I found out that my first book was about to be published, I decided to revisit several of these landmarks, but this time with the author’s intent. You know, fact-checking my memories. Violation with a cause. And since I’m not an idiot teenager anymore, I was smart about it.
I brought my parents.
Imagine me and my notebook scurrying through the poison ivy, with two baby boomers staggering after me, talking all the time about, oh I don’t know, suburban drama, when suddenly the trees cleared around the ruins of a civilization to reveal that of every card possible. Imagine if I had my parents pose with graffiti walls. Imagine the drive home when my mother questions me about how I knew where to find these ruins, and my stepfather chuckled.
Luckily we never encountered any security on these trips, but when we did I was ready to pretend I wasn’t aware. Oh, officer, we were just following a lead! We found it on Facebook. That would never work if I was alone, but accompanied by my literal parents? And their orthopedic sandals? I would be safe.
My second book required more artistic trespassing. Literal. I posed as a handler for one of my research subjects, a world-class costume designer and cosplayer attending a convention. It was easy – handlers are often just friends carrying bags, taking pictures and getting pizza – but it taught me the holes in scammer security, which I exploited the next time I was on a scam to get backstage and chat with other designers that I would put on my interview list. I feel bad about this kind of… fraud? Is this fraud? But I also think I’ve balanced this with real credibility. A year after the publication of this book—which is about a kid entering a cosplay contest—I entered the real-life version of that contest. And then I won it. The whole thing! Best of the show. And I won it with a costume from the book I had written. Can the validity be retroactive? Sometimes when I do research I think of this strange cosmic irony and assure myself that I will make up for my lies by turning them into truths later.
That becomes a bit more difficult if after writing about fantasy and crafts you suddenly switch to writing about death and horror. In 2020, when the world was locked inside, I came up with the bright idea to sell a story about summer camps, and about the kinds of horrors hidden in the open, camouflaged by nature, and – and this came out of nowhere, even for me – beekeeping.
For months I was locked in a small, underground apartment in New York City. What was nature? I did not know. Going outside meant stepping into a constant feeling of unease, and this constant fear of being invaded by something. A germ, a swarm of insects. Whatever. The summer itself felt sinister. People online said that in the absence of people, nature had healed. I felt so, and worried if his recovery had given him a pair of tusks.
Restless as I was, I went to work. I called up my old summer camps and asked if they could visit me. Two did. They were both abandoned for the summer. There is nothing more eerie than an abandoned summer camp in the heat of July. Perfect for my book.
I knew that much of my book would focus on a single cabin and the girls preparing elaborate parties with in. I mimicked that in my own life by grabbing a few writer friends and finding the most eccentric cabin I could find in the Catskills. My friends thought the purpose of the trip was to write, but I was LARPing (Live Action Role Playing). Actually pretending, and paying attention to my pretending. I wrote down every intimate detail of that house and wrote endlessly about the joy of spending time with people I loved, and doing nothing at all.
But then the bees came. I couldn’t just research beekeeping. I was determined to try it out myself. In New York City, it’s not that easy to just steal a swarm in an empty beehive, as you see on TikTok. So I found a beekeeper willing to let me take care of him, and I ventured to his apiary to poke through the hives. It was overwhelming and warm. It was perfect. It gave my writing a confident aesthetic. The atmosphere I so longed for. Now all I lacked was technical depth.
So I took a course. An online beekeeping course. The content was interesting, but I mainly focused on the people in the class. How did they talk? What terms did they use? What problems did they have? And at the end, when the instructor briefly flashed his email in case we had any questions, I grabbed it and fired my pre-written follow-up.
“Would you be open to an interview? I am writing a book about bees and could use an expert perspective.”
There was more to it, but you get the gist. I find that people are much more willing to talk to me now that they can google my name and see the serious author photos pop up. Sometimes I’ve learned that playing the game as myself has benefits. This was one of those times. The expert said yes, but with one huge caveat: He’d talk to me, but I’d never be able to publicly associate with him.
I learned not to ask too many questions beforehand, so I saved my curiosity for after our private interview, which focused mainly on questions about bees (duh), and the designation of a hive as a superorganism. Unlike most animals on Earth, an individual bee is not viable. It must exist as part of a system. They survive through their ability to organize and solve problems through many agencies at once. A hive, in the most literal sense, and such a strange thing for such an independent, selfish thing like me.
Finally, during the interview, I found a way to ask my question: Why the intense secrecy for the interview?
At this point I had imagined a million different reasons. I was already attuned to themes of conspiracy and the occult thanks to the book I was researching, and everything I learned about bees seemed to peel away nature’s flowery camouflage and reveal a seething, merciless interior. Was I about to enter a ruin I couldn’t get out of? Should I have listened when the bees on my veil clumped in the apiary and sang warning songs to me?
The bee expert fell silent.
And he told me a devastating secret that served as a threat.
I hung up feeling heavy and discouraged, and like I was making a terrible mistake. Research had yet to be done – I ambushed a honey merchant in Union Square Market and set a small fire in Central Park to see if I could do it with a little water and a vase (I could) – but nothing could take away the burden that was given me of this secret. This one curse.
In all my travels thus far I had never been arrested or even caught, but I now saw that this would have been a kindness. In a way, the bee expert had arrested me anyway, leaving me in a state of perpetual fear that I still haven’t been able to shake off.
You want to know what he told me, right? Fine. He told me about a prophecy. He told me in the bee community, that people like me have come in before. intruders. Artists, lured by the intoxicating buzz of the beehive. We always start with clarity and inspired intention. We steal sweet honey from the bees, greedy hands full of comb. The bees warn us not to use their power to create a great evil, because that is what they have seen time and again, and this is why the expert forbade me to name him. He couldn’t survive the wrath of his own community should I disgrace the hive. He would be eaten separately, and then they would come for me.
I asked him what terrible thing happened? What atrocities were committed to arouse such fear? What could be so insidious that a beekeeper trembled with fear for his own reputation?
“Oh,” he laughed, but there was no joy in it. “Don’t worry, you’ll be fine, as long as you don’t…”
He walked away. I had to know. What? What prophecy would I defy for the rest of my life? What was this great evil?
He looked around the zoom meeting, as if little ears could listen, and he whispered it to me.
“The Bee Movie Starring Jerry Seinfeld.”