Interview by Misha Rai
Lawrence Coates is the author of five books, most recently Camp Olvido and The Goodbye House. His first novel, The Blossom Festival, won the Western States Book Award for Fiction and was selected for the Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers Series. His second novel, The Master of Monterey, was published in 2003, and his third novel, The Garden of the World, was published in 2012 and won the Nancy Dasher Award from the College English Association of Ohio. His work has been recognized with the Donald Barthelme Prize in Short Prose, the Miami University Press Novella Prize, and a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Fiction. He is currently a professor of creative writing at Bowling Green State University.
Misha Rai: In the past year, 2015, you have had a novel, The Goodbye House, and a novella, Camp Olvido—winner of the 2015 Miami University Press Novella Prize—published, which makes it a rather wonderful year for your words and vision of the world. How did this come about? This sort of fortuitous event of having two wonderful pieces of writing published in the same year? Was it planned? Can anything be planned in the world of publishing? Also, congratulations!!!
Lawrence Coates: Thank you. No, this wasn’t planned. The Goodbye House found a publisher in the more traditional way. The manuscript was submitted to an editor with whom I’d worked before, and because this was at a university press, it had to be reviewed by two outside peer reviewers before being presented to the board. It can take longer to get a response from a university press than from a commercial press.
At the same time, I had submitted Camp Olvido to Miami University Press for their annual contest. It was sheer chance that the novel worked its way through the publication process at University of Nevada Press at the same time as Camp Olvido won the novella prize and appeared on Miami University Press. It’s been a great year, and it was wonderful to visit bookstores and be able to feature two new books. It’s probably the only time it will ever happen for me, so I’m trying to enjoy it.
I am fascinated by the second act in The Goodbye House. To me, this novel has three acts wherein the second act is the most surprising and also the most joyous to read, not just because of the language or the story being unfurled, but because of the sheer joy the characters in the novel experience in their life. It is surprising because that is not how it is set up in the first act. As I was reading this second act, I couldn’t help thinking: this here is the meat, I get to know who these people are, how they are changing, what they have going for them, and most importantly, the unexpected happiness in their lives which is sometimes a rarity in a literary novel. How did you come up with this second act? At what point in the writing of this novel did you decide I am going to give these people everything they ever wanted—to some extent—and have them experience hope and joy? Why was there a necessity for the second act to be written in this way in order for the third act to work?
When I’m teaching fiction writing, I sometimes talk about needing an inciting incident – something that is going to kick off the narrative. I also talk about a novel defining a season in someone’s life. If you’re writing a novel about a chunk of a character’s life, you’re almost by definition stating that this time in their lives is special, this is a season filled with significance, things happen during this season that are unique, unrepeatable, and irreversible.
The characters in The Goodbye House, prior to the inciting incidents, were living lives of a certain ordinariness, an everyday unhappiness that was so normalized that it was hardly noticed. Some of the inciting incidents come from the broader social context of the time, the dot-com bust in Silicon Valley and, more distantly, the War in Iraq. Some of them, like Scott’s financial meltdown and his reaction to getting laid off, are more at the character level.
But you’re right, when these characters are thrown out of their previous comfort zone, they do experience joy. The first act, as you’ve put it, shows these characters changing, and there are certain irrevocable acts, acts with consequences, like the hit and run when a boy’s leg is broken. But once they are no longer living their previous ordinary lives, they are seeking out a new place for themselves, and that search for some of them leads to an unexpected happiness.
But the happiness is always contingent and temporary. And even though the characters themselves might not be conscious of that, I hope that readers will be. The happiness was necessary, I think, for the final scenes to have the elegiac note I hope I’ve achieved.
The original title for novel, by the way, was Temporary Landscapes. If you read the book carefully, you’ll see both those words appearing like phantoms here and there. And “temporary” is the very last word of the book. I did create some joy and happiness for the characters in the middle of the book, but I’d never write a book that ended happily ever after.
Camp Olvido, on the other hand, is a very bleak tale. Set in 1932, in a migrant camp in California, the conflict between the workers and the land barons and Esteban, a contrabandista caught in the middle, is brutal. Because I was reading your novel and novella back to back, I forgot half way through reading Camp Olvido that you had written both of them. I think it is wonderful, to surprise your audience with such contrasting subject matter and writing style. After I finished reading Camp Olvido, I went back and read the middle bits of The Goodbye House though because I wanted to feel some joy again so I wondered if it was harder for you write the bleaker novella as opposed to the novel? And as a writer, in general, are there certain elements—for lack of a better word—that you find easier to write or tackle than others?
One of my literary heroes, Virginia Woolf, seemed to recreate herself as a writer with each book. I think it’s a marvel that the same author who wrote To the Lighthouse and The Waves also wrote Orlando. I do deliberately try to match my writing style with the book I’m working on, and I intentionally used a conscious and knowing narrative point of view for The Goodbye House, and a more distant and austere point of view for Camp Olvido.
The point of view for The Goodbye House was right for a story that is generally comic. I sometimes refer to an omniscient point of view in which the narrator is opinionated and comments on the foibles of the characters as “smart ass omniscience.”
On the other hand, the point of view for Camp Olvido fit a story that centers on a man who is complicit with a corrupt and exploitative system. The story goes into darker corners of the world, and so the level of diction is higher and the point of view is distant and delves less into the consciousness of individual characters.
I do think that a work like Camp Olvido is more difficult and harder to sustain. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons it’s only ninety-eight pages long.
Sort of along the same lines of my earlier question in The Goodbye House was there a character—because this is a multi-generational and many people story—and storyline you enjoyed creating most? Was there a character and his/her storyline that gave you a lot of trouble till you somehow (and do share) sorted it out? How did you keep all the characters straight in your head as you were writing the novel?
In response to your earlier question, I spoke about the season of a novel. And I do find it helpful, when I’m first taking notes for a new book, if I can at least articulate for myself what the overall season of the novel will be, what will be at the beginning and end. If I have that, it gives me some comfort and assurance as I’m writing every day. I’ve never been able to work from an outline, but if I understand the season, then I can keep some overall shape in sight as I’m making the daily discoveries in writing. In The Goodbye House, I knew that the story would begin with Katherine and Carter having moved back in with Katherine’s father into that emblematic house, and I knew it would end with the characters saying farewell to that house in some way, but I had to invent or discover how the characters would get there.
I originally tried to write the book just from Katherine’s point of view. I always saw her as the main character, and I enjoyed writing her scenes. But the story grew to the point that I had to follow the threads of the other characters as well. This is my method, and I make no claims as to whether it would work for anyone else, but I use large sketchbooks, 18” x 24”, and I draw out arcs of action in them. It helps me keep track of what various characters are doing if I sketch it out and have a visual reference. This was very useful for my earlier novel, The Master of Monterey, which had an even greater number of intertwined stories.
I’m a great believer in thinking about character through motivation. So as I’m thinking about character, I’m frequently thinking about what the character wants – that old chestnut of creative writing workshops – and understanding the motivation for each character helped me work through the various storylines.
When you sat down to write Camp Olvido did you know it would be a novella? And when you realized it was a novella what was your reaction, not so much as a creator or an artist but as someone who now has to don another cap as a person who has a product to sell? You don’t find many novellas in bookstores or come across sections in bookstores specially set aside for them, which is why prizes like the Miami University Press Novella Prize are so important.
I wish I could say that I’d known that Camp Olvido would be a novella, but it’s not true. In fact, I originally envisioned Camp Olvido as a journey story. And it ends at the point when Esteban is just setting out on the journey. As I was writing the story, I followed Esteban from his state of being at the beginning of the story to his state of being when he takes the mother and child in his car and is driving them toward Milagro Park. And I realized that I had written a complete dramatic action, to borrow a phrase from Flannery O’Connor, and I had nothing else to uncover about this character. The journey across California, chased by a nemesis figure, might have been a great picaresque adventure, but it would not have added anything to the deep moral ambiguity of that final image.
It’s true, there are not many publishers who will put out a novella as a standalone, and I wanted that for this story. I did try placing it with some literary journals, and I got some admiring comments, but usually the statement that it was too long. And though I may in the future write some other short works that might fit with this novella in a collection, I didn’t want to wait until I might have a critical mass of work. So I looked for contests, and I was especially drawn to Miami University Press’s contest. It has specialized in the novella for more than a decade, and I knew my work would be in good company. And I was fortunate enough to have my work chosen. It was a completely blind selection process. The final judge literally didn’t know my name until he had made the selection.
In my acknowledgements, I thanked Miami University Press for highlighting the novella. Many of our greatest works are novellas, from Billy Budd to Heart of Darkness, and Miami deserves great praise for providing a venue for this form. Let me take the time here to mention Nouvella, another publisher of novellas that I admire.
Camp Olvido is set in the early 1930s which makes it historical fiction which is what a large body of your work can be characterized as also so what is your attraction to writing historical fiction? How much research do you usually do when you are writing historical fiction? Do you do the research before you begin putting down the words or do you research as you go along?
While it’s important to understand the historical context sufficiently to conceive of the story, I think it’s a grave error to wait until your research is complete before you begin writing. You would be setting yourself an impossible goal. In my experience, it’s the writing itself that tells you what you need to know, and where the gaps are in your knowledge. For instance, in a previous novel, The Garden of the World, I discovered that I needed to understand how the military draft for World War I worked, and so I read accounts of it in memoirs and in newspapers from 1917. But I had to write the story up to that point to discover that I needed to understand that. And if I then hadn’t done the research, I might have made some very basic errors. One example: in World War I, the draft age was twenty-one, not eighteen as it was for later wars. And the research can give a writer some unexpected gifts. When I learned that there was a national day of festivities in 1917 to encourage young men to sign up for the draft, and that it was called Loyalty Day, I was able to craft a chapter around that day and use “Loyalty Day” as the chapter title. The notion of mixed loyalties has some thematic resonance in the book as a whole.
Still, while I don’t think a writer should wait until research is completed to begin writing, I am always happy to be in a library or an archive or a local history museum, researching and learning. Story ideas come to me while I’m reading about the history of a place.
As for my own attraction to historical fiction, I believe it is tied up with my notion of myself as a regional writer. Place is storied. It’s not simply a given. It is produced, by decades or centuries or millennia of human activity in all its complexity. And I think most writers of place at some point realize they can only understand the present of a place by understanding and dramatizing the past of a place. William Faulkner is one example of a writer who went deep into the past in his work, and the work set in his own contemporary world has more weight because of it. Gabriel García Márquez—a writer greatly influenced by Faulkner—went back one hundred years in a single novel.
The Goodbye House is set in a suburban housing tract, a place that might seem to have no history. But I made certain, even in a suburban novel centered on a fragmenting family, to gesture toward the origins of the development and this historical context within which the house of the title was built.
Both The Goodbye House and Camp Olvido are set in California as are all of your earlier novels. You have lived in Bowling Green, Ohio, for a long time now so I guess my question is, why is so much of your creative output centered in this place?
Regional fiction is an important aspect of American literature. Many writers are connected with a certain place, even if all of their work is not set there. I can mention William Faulkner, Willa Cather, John Steinbeck, or contemporary writers like Susan B. Straight or Russell Banks, and a certain place comes to mind. A young writer who has had a lot of recent success, Lauren Groff, seems to have marked out upstate New York as her literary territory.
My own work is set in California because that is the place that feels most like home to me, and I have a knowledge of the place and people and culture there that I can’t simply transfer to Ohio. I’ve written some short stories set in Ohio, such as my prizewinning story “Bats,” but I don’t think I’ll ever write a novel set here. At BGSU, we have an MFA program, and we attract students from around the country and around the world. But we also have a BFA program, and that program attracts mainly students from Ohio and a couple of surrounding states. My hope is that one of my students will one day write a great novel set in Northwest Ohio, in the heart of the Great Black Swamp.
Please note: when I say regional writer, I’m not saying that a writer’s scope or ambition is limited. Faulkner wrote mainly about one small county in Mississippi, and yet he wrote about all the passions of the world.
One of the things I noticed in both the novel and novella was your ability to craft out really vivid setting. Could you talk a little about how setting contributes to the success of writing a compelling narrative?
I can hardly do better here than to refer to John Gardner’s notion of the fictional dream from On Becoming a Novelist. He writes about how a novel can, through language that is “sharp and sufficient,” set off in a reader’s mind a dreamlike state in which the words on the page disappear and the reader is in another place and time. He celebrated the novel’s engagement with the material world, and how the right details can make the world come to life for readers.
Flannery O’Connor, in her essay “The Nature and Aim of Fiction,” gave a hint about how to create this effect. Using a metaphor from painting, she says that it takes “three activated sensuous strokes to make an object real.” She goes on to imply that these strokes should come from all the senses. Writers tend to privilege the visual, but we can make use of touch, and smell, and sound, and taste to make setting come alive. I might add that you can’t describe a setting just once and call it good. Sticking with O’Connor’s metaphor, you have to keep giving strokes to the setting as the story continues.
If the setting is vivid, and it sets off in a reader’s mind that fictional dream, it will go a long way toward making a book compelling. It’s not sufficient by itself, of course, but it’s important.
Did the writing of the novel and novella coincide? Or did you write one first and then the other one came along? Both of them are very different, as I mentioned above, not only, obviously, in form but also in the characters that people these stories so what triggered your writing of these characters and stories? How did you dream them up?
I would like to be able to work on more than one thing at a time, but I’ve never been very good at that. Still, the writing of the two works did overlap. I finished a draft of the novel first, then put it aside for awhile before I revised it, and I began working on the novella and some other things that have yet to see print. After I returned to the novel and thought it ready to submit, I went back to the novella, and it was at that point that I decided it should end where it does, with Esteban driving out of the valley with the widow of the man whom he killed.
How did I dream up these characters and stories? I don’t have a simple answer. I wanted to write a contemporary suburban novel set in the same region as my earlier historical novels, but exactly how I went from that vague notion to a finished novel is hard to describe. And a minor story in a previous novel, The Garden of the World, centered on some Latino migrant workers, and I felt I had more to say about their world, but again, how I went from that feeling to Camp Olvido isn’t easily described.
The best answer is probably that I dreamed them up by working day by day in front of my keyboard, with a blank piece of paper to fill. Perhaps that’s true for most writers. “Get black on white,” as Guy de Maupassant said.
What are you working on right now? When I was almost done with the first draft of my novel I realised I knew what I would write about next. It was strange because when I was smack dab in the middle of writing the novel I thought I was out of all my good ideas and suddenly here was something new that I could be excited about. How does something new come to you?
Having a new idea that you’re excited about is a wonderful feeling, and I’m happy that you’re in that space after finishing your first draft. I am working on a novel now that is something like a diptych, with one section in the 1950s and another section in the early part of this century. I’m not that far in, but I’m enjoying the work thus far.
Misha Rai was born in Sonepat, Haryana and brought up in India. She holds an MFA from Bowling Green State University and is currently pursuing her PhD from Florida State University. Her prose has appeared in Indiana Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review and The Missouri Review blog. She has work forthcoming in Sonora Review, where she was a finalist for their 2015 essay prize, and Crab Orchard Review. She is also the recipient of the 2015 George M. Harper Award. She is currently at work on her debut novel.