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.
For this interview, Misha Rai poses questions specifically about The Goodbye House (a novel) and Camp Olvido (a novella).
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.