First there is the praise: "A miracle of a book," Newsday. Then there is the book itself. I am not kidding around when I say I live for books like Stefan Merrill Block's Oliver Loving. Gorgeously written, it's also deeply profound. About the aftermath of a school shooting, it changes lives for both its nuanced characters--and for readers.
Thank you for answering my questions and being here, Stefan. I think I'd read your grocery list (well, as long as it didn't have lard on it, or mayonnaise.)
And here is the bio: Born in 1982, Stefan Merrill Block grew up in Texas. His first two novels are THE STORY OF FORGETTING and THE STORM AT THE DOOR, which won Best First Fiction at the Rome International Festival of Literature, the 2008 Merck Serono Literature Prize and the 2009 Fiction Award from The Writers' League of Texas, and was also a finalist for the debut fiction awards from IndieBound, Salon du Livre, and The Center for Fiction.
I always want to know what was haunting you that made you know that now was the time to write this novel?
I love that you chose the word “haunting.” I don’t think that I believe in actual ghosts, but beneath everything I’ve written is a similar haunted feeling of unfinished business from the past, a lost person or lost people who still feel profoundly present in some way. In the case of Oliver Loving, the haunting was tied up with my hometown of Plano, Texas. Plano was a boomtown for much of my childhood – for a few years it was the fastest growing city in America—but beneath all that sudden prosperity there was also some profound darkness. In the 1980s, the media dubbed Plano “The Suicide Capital of America,” after eight kids ended their own lives. When I was a teenager, another crisis rocked Plano: within a year and a half, eighteen kids from my town died from heroin overdoses and several more from suicide. It became a fairly big story in the news; reporters from all over the country showed up to try to answer the same question that those of us in Plano could not: why this town? Why did so many children of a prosperous, upper-middle-class community fall victim to such terrible despair? All of this is now nearly twenty years in the past, but for those of us who were present for that time, the scars remain, as well as the essential unanswered questions.
Around the time I turned thirty, I came back to Texas for a long stay. I’d been living in New York since I graduated, and my homecoming felt surreal in many ways. Like anyone stepping into their high school bedroom, it seemed to me like some prior, teenage version of myself was still living down there in Texas. But in my visits to Plano, I also found myself thinking often of all those children who died, who will forever remain trapped as teenagers. The impossible conversation that I felt myself having with those lost children and also with a prior version of myself: that was the particular haunting that I wanted to explore in this novel.
You call your character’s last name “Loving,” and the town in which the tragedy unfolds is “bliss.” What made you choose these ironic names?
Both those names, Loving and Bliss, have a big place in Texas history. The cattleman Oliver Loving is a kind of folk hero in Texas, and Fort Bliss is a major army base in far West Texas, not so distant from the fictional town of Bliss I invented. To my ears, both those names are steeped in Texan lore, and that was a big part of why I chose them. As a reader, I’m always attracted to novels where an essentially realist story has dashes of fable or myth, something mysterious and larger than human drama at work. Given all the unanswerable questions about what happened to Oliver --and the long, unknowable way he has spent the last decade-- Oliver has become “a boy and also a legend” to the people of his hometown, and I wanted to choose names that also carried a kind of mythic echo. But you are right that those names are also ironic, considering all the tragedy that has befallen both Oliver and his town. In many ways, this is a book about how the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and I liked the way the names “Bliss” and “Loving” reinforced that theme, suggesting a huge contrast between the hope implied by those words and the reality of the present-day situations.
So much of this gorgeous novel is about family, and how our minds work—or do not work, and how we reach one another. I just loved it. Can you talk about this please? And about how this differs from your earlier masterwork, the mystery of forgetting?
Almost all of my stories have an impenetrable or unknowable space at their hearts. In the case of The Story of Forgetting, it was the aphasiac mind of a person in late-stage Alzheimer’s; in The Storm at the Door, it was a grandparent who died years before I was born; in Oliver Loving, it’s a persistent vegetative state. In all three cases, the novels are largely about the stories that families create to make sense of those places where our ability to understand breaks down. There are a lot of reasons why this dilemma appeals to me, but I know that one of my major motives has to do with my own feelings about the purpose of fiction. As literary fiction continues to wane from the public conversation, it feels important to me that we writers try to make a case for the necessity of invented stories. I’m always interested in thinking about what fiction can do that no other art form can, and the greatest power of fiction, to my mind, is its unique ability to enter the interior experience of minds other than your own. And that is a major reason that I’m attracted to these minds that exist in a space beyond our knowing: it is perhaps only through an imaginative literary act that you can throw some light into those dark and unseeable places.
How were you changed in writing this novel?
Caroline, as you have now written nine novels, I’d be curious to know: do you feel, with each book, that you are reinventing yourself? Zadie Smith once wrote, “fictionally speaking, the nightmare is losing the desire to move,” and that rings very true for me. To keep moving forward, it feels essential that I revise both my idea of myself as a writer and the sorts of books I’d like to write. In the case of Oliver Loving, that revision felt more radical than ever. Though my first two novels touch on my own personal dilemmas, I also wrote both (as an actor might say) “in character,” transforming my voice to fit the story at hand. With Oliver Loving, I had a new goal: I deliberately wanted to sound like myself. I wanted the narrator’s voice on the page to be closer to my voice in real life. I took the advice I tell my students: I imagined that I was telling this story to a close friend, with whom I could be as sad or funny or ironic as I am in my life outside of writing. I don’t exactly believe in the old modernist ideal that every writer must “find” his or her truest voice – I think that every writer potentially possesses many different voices and tones in which he or she could write-- but I do feel that in the process of writing this novel, I found a way to be fluent in something closer to my actual self.
What’s obsessing you now and why?
After three novels that took place close to home in one way or another, I’m very excited to write about a time and place far removed from my own. I’m working on a novel set in Vienna in the 1930s, which was a fascinating, harrowing period in the city’s history. One can’t help but see –in the rise of fascism and the demolition of that city’s intellectual culture—dark parallels with our own moment. The story I’m working on is about an inordinately gifted but badly misunderstood child and his family’s fight for survival in a society where difference would not be tolerated. In part, I know that my curiosity in that topic is a response to what is going on in our country right now, but I can also see that my motives are more personal than that. My wife and I just had our first kid, and I find myself wanting to explore another parent’s story as a way to prepare myself for the joys and anxieties of raising a child.
What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
One last topic that I would like to talk about quickly is the presence of gun violence in this novel. Even now, it somewhat surprises me that a mass shooting is there, right at the center of my book. Of course, these shootings have become a national epidemic and an urgent crisis, but I think that my need to explore it in my book came from my own childhood. Every time I see the news of another mass shooting, especially one in which young people are killed, I think about all those kids who died in my own hometown when I was a teenager, the grief that I know will stretch for decades and transform a community forever. There is a tremendous sadness in the thought that this long story of aftermath usually goes untold, as the public attention turns to the next tragedy. In putting a shooting at the heart of my novel, I wanted to explore that longer, more inward story of how sudden, drastic loss transforms families and communities, a story that has only just begun when the media have already moved on.