Thursday, June 18, 2020

Research, Writing and Memories

James Coburn in costume- Hell is for Heroes (1962)
I’m currently working with my publisher, Potomac Books, to finalize the content and design of Dervish Dust: The Life and Words of James Coburn. I’m so glad that my employer, the James and Paula Coburn Foundation who commissioned the book, had a good lawyer who was able to give guidance on legal issues.

One of these is that of interviewee clearances. When you are working on a nonfiction book and plan to cite interviewed sources, it's a good idea to have a clearance form available at the time. This is a simple legal document that people sign giving you permission to use their words. It means that later on you don't have to scramble when the publisher asks you about it.

I was writing a fact-based book, that included research that was backed up by documents such as dates stamped in passports and published newspaper articles, as well as paperwork from movie productions, such as call sheets and the daily production report. This meant that it was easy to fact-check and cross reference the recollections of individuals. I was fortunate in one aspect, which is that director Sam Peckinpah was notorious for keeping every scrap of paper that he ever made a mark on or crossed his desk, all of which can be found in his files at the Margaret Herrick Library. I'm told that his section is 75 linear feet of papers. I think I already mentioned, but it bears repeating, write down ALL the details of any published source you use for your footnotes/endnotes. 

However, sometimes fact-checking is impossible, when there are no actual written sources referring to events that happened 50 years ago. Does this mean that opinions or recollections cannot be included? No, but it means that you should say that it is a person’s memory or belief, or otherwise express that this is a rumor, or “reportedly”, or “generally believed”. 

If two people have different recollections, it's okay to say so. That the other person recalls an event differently, may even make the story more interesting. Sometimes it was a case of another family member saying that's not how that happened. It is up to you to determine whether you are going to dispute the storyteller in the main text, or add it as a footnote that another person has a different recollection of the event. In my case I was writing a biography that was based on James Coburn's memoirs. I was reiterating what he recalled about events, so if another family member had a different recollection, in the absence of written sources, the dispute usually tended to go into the notes.

Sometimes a person's recollection was just completely wacky compared to what other people knew to have occurred, or the differences were of tiny and minor details between two individuals who had been there. If the details were unimportant to the story, I just left them out altogether rather than have a bone of contention. For example, this was the case with the color of one particular car belonging to Paula, unlike Jim’s cars, the colors of which were mentioned often in various sources.

The most important thing I learned was about memory. Memory is very malleable. We know this from researchers examining how memories are formed, how they are held, and how they can change over time. In this case I was writing a book that was founded upon a man's memories sometimes going back over 65 years of his life. What I realized in going over Jim's memoirs, that he had recorded in response to conversational prompts from an interviewer, was that people often forget factual details, such as dates. What they remember are their emotions - how they felt, what they focused on that made an emotional connection with them. They will remember events, but not necessarily the exact sequence.

For example , Jim had very strong recollections of his first trip from Laurel to Compton, when his family moved. His memories were a series of vignettes of moments that made an impression on him, made him laugh, things that he specifically noticed in the context of the people that he was traveling with - his father, his aunt, and his mother. However, what he couldn't remember accurately was how old he was. His age went variously from being 4, 5, or 6. He just had a vague recollection that it was early in his life. Thanks to research and the prominence of the Coburn family in Laurel, so that their doings were mentioned in the local newspaper, I was able to pinpoint the exact date that they left because it was written down.

Dervish Dust: The Life and Words of James Coburn is scheduled to be published in Fall 2021.

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