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Brooklyn-based author Stefan Merrill Block to discuss timely novel at Books Are Magic

Brooklyn BookBeat

January 3, 2018 By Natasha Soto Special to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Photo by Beowulf Sheehan, courtesy of Flatiron Books
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Some say it is easier to fully capture the essence of a place in writing from a distance. This is certainly true for author Stefan Merrill Block, who was able to create a portrait of a small West Texas town in his book “Oliver Loving” after living away from his own Texas home for 12 years. Block currently lives in Prospect Heights, where he continues to contemplate what makes Texas unique.

In Block’s forthcoming novel “Oliver Loving,” a school shooting leaves a lasting impact on the town of Bliss, Texas. One victim in the shooting, Oliver Loving, is left in a coma for nearly 10 years after. Oliver’s family members are all deeply affected by his condition but react distinctly — his mother keeps a hopeful vigil, his brother Charlie moves to New York and his father tries to erase the memory with bourbon. Eventually, medical tests promise a key to unlock Oliver’s trapped mind.

“Oliver Loving” will be released on Jan. 16. Stefan Merrill Block will also be in conversation with Jonathan Lee at Books Are Magic on Jan. 16 at 7:30 p.m.

Flatiron Books in Conversation with Stefan Merrill Block

Q: The Loving family and the story of Oliver are fictional, but were the

events in the book inspired by any other real life situations or events?

A: At the most fundamental level, what inspired me to write “Oliver Loving” was the history of my hometown and the need to revisit a vanished childhood. Over the years it took me to write this novel, I also thought often of our country’s horrific and widening gun violence epidemic. Each time I read the news of yet another mass shooting, I thought of my own town’s legacy of sudden and catastrophic loss, the grief that I knew would never fully fade, the painful understanding that a part of each affected family would remain trapped at that horrible moment.

Q: You grew up in Texas yourself. What inspired you to write about your own home state?

A: In my teenage years in Plano, when I looked out at the empty prairie that was so quickly filling up with housing subdivisions and strip malls, I remember feeling that my town was a kind of no place, that it could just as well have been any American suburb. But when I returned to Texas for a long stay after living away for twelve years, I was surprised to realize how particular and unique that landscape felt to me, how deeply my own sense of self was bound up with the state’s culture, history, and outspoken identity. During my fellowship at Paisano Ranch, I spent a part of every day tromping through the wilderness, and I also set aside a couple daily hours for reading that house’s collection of books on the history and mythology of Texas. I was especially fortunate that the ranch in which I was living had once been the home of J Frank Dobie, the great Texan folklorist. The legends and historical tales Dobie collected still fill his shelves, and the more I read and thought about Texas, the more it intrigued me. While the mythic Wild West past of Texas is certainly central to its boisterous persona, the state is so young and quickly changing that all that history is only part of the place’s story. The story of Texas is still amorphous, shifting, half-formed, and a huge part of this project for me was my desire to better understand how the state’s historical and sociopolitical forces shaped my own Texan childhood.

Q: After the incident at the school, Charlie is home schooled. How does Charlies experience being home schooled by Eve change and influence their relationship?

A: My own mother homeschooled me from ages nine to fourteen. In many ways, the fictional Charlie and Eve are different from my mother and me, and certainly the way they homeschooled is quite unlike the way we spent our homeschooling years, but there is a certain intensity to the homeschooling relationship that I felt compelled to describe.

When you are homeschooled (and especially when you are the only student) your educator serves so many roles for you—parent, teacher, closest friend, principal, counselor, on and on—that he or she comprises nearly the entire world of your childhood. It can make the end of childhood an especially complex and painful separation. Charlie is right in the thick of that transition in this novel, as he finds himself pulled in two opposite directions, both longing for that lost closeness and also trying to claim independence by absenting himself from his childhood home.

Q: How did the name Oliver Loving come to you?

A: The name might not mean much to non-Texan readers, but the legendary cattleman Oliver Loving (cofounder of the storied Goodnight-Loving cattle trail) is a central character in Texas’s Wild West history. At first, I only used the name Oliver Loving as a placeholder as I wrote because I loved the sound of it (the homophone, “All of her loving” was especially appealing), and also because the historical associations I felt with that name helped me conjure the spirit of West Texas. But as I continued to write, that famous name seemed more and more fitting, the perfect name for a boy situated in the nebulous territory between legend and reality.


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