When We Were Young: Christine Sneed in Conversation with Anthony Varallo

June 24, 2019 | 6 books mentioned 8 min read

One of the many pleasures of reading Anthony Varallo’s fiction is how skillfully he inhabits the points of view of his adolescent and child characters. They aren’t bossy, diminutive adults who tell the real adults how to behave and what to think. Instead, they’re bona fide children and teenagers who see the world as kids believably would.

The Varallo short story that I find myself going back to most often is “The French Girls,” which appears in Out Loud, Varallo’s second collection, which won the 2008 Drue Heinz Literature Prize. This story—about the reaction to three foreign exchange students enrolling at an American high school—spans only two pages, but the author captures with an almost preternatural artistry the nostalgia and treacherous suspense of adolescence. The charm and knowingness of this story are indelible.

In The Lines, Varallo’s fifth book and first novel, the author embodies the adult and child point-of-view characters with similar nuanced humor and sympathy. The Lines is set during the gas crisis of the summer of 1979 and begins when two parents announce their divorce to their son and daughter, ages seven and 10, who subsequently become unwilling witnesses to the family’s demise.

Via email and Google Docs, I recently had the opportunity to correspond with Anthony Varallo about The Lines.

Christine Sneed: Having been a young boy in the 1970s, you likely remember the gas crisis of 1979 first-hand—what came first, the idea of a family breaking apart or the dramatic backdrop of the American gas shortage that informs your title?  

Anthony Varallo: The original title for the novel was The Parents, the Children, and that’s very much the way I thought about the book as I was writing it: a story about parents and children, divided into sections, in alternating perspectives that explores a single summer viewed from four different consciousnesses.  So, the family came first.

The novel was always set in the 1970s, but the specific 1979 gas crisis actually emerged in later drafts.  I hit upon the idea of setting the novel in the summer of 1979 when I realized the characters kept stopping by the same gas station, which led to me describing the gas station, which got me thinking about gas station details, which led me to researching those details—what did gas stations look like in the 1970s?, etc.—which led me to the gas crisis of 1979.

I do remember the summer of 1979 pretty well, actually, but my only memories of the gas crisis are of adults either joking or complaining about it.  It was something adults seemed to complain about a lot, along with the other stuff adults seemed to complain about a lot (bills, taxes, having to drive kids around, humidity, aches and pains).  But, honestly, in the summer of 1979, I didn’t spend much of my time thinking about world events; I spent most of my time watching TV and eating sugary snacks.

Oddly enough, the very last element to arrive was actually the title, The Lines, after my wife pointed out that the gas lines are the thing most of us remember about the gas crisis of 1979.  I also liked the idea of “lines” referring not only to the literal gas lines, but perhaps to storylines, too, if that’s not too much of a push.

CS: The Lines’ third-person point of view moves between the mother, father, boy and girl, and you roam among them with an enviable ease. Was the POV always this alternating close third-person?

AV: Yes, the POV was the one thing that remained consistent throughout the two years it took me to write The Lines. I knew I wanted to write a narrative in an alternating, close third-person perspective, a technique that would afford me all the intimacy of first-person POV while still lending the distance and objectivity of third-person.

That’s nice of you to say that I roam among the characters with ease—thanks!—but that’s not at all how I felt when I was writing the book. It took me forever to figure out how many perspectives I could inhabit in each section, one or two or more, until I realized the POV worked best when I explored one consciousness per section, with some latitude to comment on exterior events (what James Wood might call “free indirect style”), something my editor encouraged me to amplify in the second half of the novel. At times, the POV breaks into a near omniscience in the closing pages of The Lines, which is something I’ve never tried before.

CS: Adults in this novel often do or say questionable things—Gumma, for example, the children’s paternal grandmother, is an alcoholic who phones the boy and girl often and makes cringe-inducing statements she claims will help the children be more vigilant of potential dangers. Was Gumma always as…problematic or are there different versions of her in different drafts?

AV: Christine! I can’t believe you’re asking this question, because this is one thing I was hoping no one would notice about this novel, but what the heck, you’ve got me cornered: Gumma is actually a composite character of two characters from an early draft: one, a mean-spirited aunt who calls the children to tell them terrible things; and two, Gumma, whom I envisioned as a truth-telling, yet mostly-benign margarita enthusiast, who lives in Florida and likes to drive her golf cart around her neighborhood while under the influence. In later drafts, I combined the aunt and Gumma into the same character, reworking the dialogue and changing some of the details so that it would seem plausible that Gumma would say and do all of these questionable things. The result is a darker Gumma, more menacing, but still with some light comic touches too.

CS: The four main characters are never addressed by their given names, but some of the supporting characters, such as the two people the mother and father begin dating after their separation, are named. What is your rationale for not naming the four focal family members?

AV: The idea of leaving the four main characters nameless started off as nothing more than an experiment: I wanted to see if I could do it without getting into pronoun confusion. Luckily, since the family is separating, the four main characters are rarely in scene together at the same time, so that made the challenge a bit easier. Sometimes I’ll impose some kind of technical challenge on myself, just to see where it leads me. Those kind of self-imposed challenges help keep me going in my writing, especially through the long haul of the novel.

That said, I wouldn’t recommend this technique too highly, since it prohibits exploring the characters’ pasts in great depth. So, for example, if I wrote “The father recalled his kindergarten playground, where the father liked to swing on the swing-set and slide down the sliding board,” the reader will picture an adult male swinging on the swings and sliding down the sliding board. Which would be…odd. The technique only seems to work in present tense narration, with nearly all the action unfolding in the present, as is the case with The Lines.

CS: The boy, who is seven, is probably my favorite character—he’s sweet, funny, and earnest and still believes in the goodness of the world and his adult caretakers, and as a result is easily victimized. Is a child’s POV one that you find yourself able to inhabit instinctively or is it hard work? Or both?

AV: I had a lot of fun imagining what life was like for him. I knew I could play his “unreliable” perspective for irony and humor, but I wanted to be careful not to overdo it. I didn’t want his naivety to be his only trait; I wanted him to have the capacity to change too. My approach to writing my child characters is to allow them to see the world of the story in all its brightly lit particulars, with 20/20 vision, but not nearly as able to understand what they are seeing. So, the boy sees everything that the girl sees, for example, but what’s clear to the girl (and the reader) is often a mystery the boy has yet to solve.

I’ve written several narratives from the perspective of children, so I guess it does feel comfortable to me on some level. Still, I try to take into consideration a reader’s possible objections to inhabiting a child’s POV—sentimentality, familiarity, a child narrator who is ridiculously wise beyond his/her years, etc.)—something I’ve had to learn over the years. My one rule about child characters in general is: no “cute” children in fiction. Your child characters can be sharp, observant, curious, even clever, but they cannot be “cute,” or say “cute” things, or, God forbid, redeem the sorrows and complications and disappointments of adulthood by just being plain adorable. No.

CS: Until now, your books have all been short story collections. Can you comment on why, after four collections, you decided to write a novel?

AV: Well, the real answer is: because I did write novels before, but no one would publish them. But the sort of real answer is: because I’ve always liked the short story a little bit better than the novel, since that’s what I teach and read and edit, and since that’s the form that means more to me than any other. Another answer is: because novels are really hard to write, and it took me forever to write one that someone actually wanted to publish. All of the above are true.

CS: Each of the 14 chapters in The Lines is broken into several short sections—did you feel at times as if you were writing a short story? The narrative compression seems short story-like too.

covercovercovercoverAV: My original idea for The Lines was to write a “collage” novel that would employ vignettes, short-shorts, flash fiction, and short sections in some kind of point and counterpoint fashion to tell a story about a family of four going through a transition. My models were Jenny Offill’s Department of Speculation, Renata Adler’s Speedboat, Elizabeth Hardwick’s √Sleepless Nights, and Jacqueline Woodson’s Another Brooklyn. I was able to write the opening pages of The Lines in this style, but, like nearly every writing idea I’ve ever had, this one started to break down after about 20 pages or so. I couldn’t write the “collage” novel I’d set out to write; I had to give up on my plan and let the story instruct me how to write it instead. I don’t know why I have to keep learning the same lesson again, but here’s one I can never quite seem to remember: Your writing doesn’t really care about your plans for it.

Yes, I was aiming for compression throughout the novel, both at the sentence and paragraph level. I wanted The Lines to be the kind of novel that hits as hard as a short story, since those are the kind of novels I like best. I also wanted each section to have some emotional compression, too, where the character reveals something to the reader they likely wouldn’t reveal to anyone else, ever. Eventually, I began to see that as one of the themes of the novel—the pleasure of having a private life, private thoughts no one will ever know—even though I get a little nervous thinking about themes in my writing.

CS: Who are some of your key influences? And would you say that, like John Updike, your default mode is the comic?

AV: I’m glad you mention Updike, since I sometimes get the feeling that no one really reads him anymore. His writing is important to me in the way it says yes to the world, the way it embraces everything, no matter how ordinary or banal or insignificant (He wrote a little too often about golf, but oh well.). That’s a quality that I notice about most of the writing I love, the way it finds the extraordinary in the ordinary.  That still means something to me. I also love humor, of course, maybe too much at times. My stuff always reads a bit lighter to me than I intended, not sure why. Lightweight syndrome? But the writers I’m reading right now with the most enthusiasm are Sally Rooney, Rachel Cusk, Elena Ferrante, and Karl Ove Knausgaard. And a few dozen others I’m utterly failing to mention.

CS: What are you working on now?

AV: I am working on another novel. It’s in that stage where I can’t quite explain what it’s about yet, which has been the case with every novel I’ve ever written or tried to write. I’m hoping this stage will pass soon, and I can answer this question with a jacket copy-worthy sentence.

is the author of the novels Paris, He Said and Little Known Facts, and the story collections Portraits of a Few of the People I've Made Cry and The Virginity of Famous Men. Her work has been included in publications such as The Best American Short Stories, O. Henry Prize Stories, New England Review, The Southern Review, Ploughshares, New York Times, and San Francisco Chronicle. She has been a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and has received the Grace Paley Prize for Short Fiction, the 21st Century Award from the Chicago Public Library Foundation, and the Chicago Writers' Association Book of the Year Award. She lives in Evanston, Ill. and teaches for Northwestern University’s and Regis University’s graduate creative writing programs.

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