Stefan Merrill Block on 'Oliver Loving,' Tragedy, and Coming Home

Oliver Loving, the new novel from Texas-born author Stefan Merrill Block, follows the aftermath of a school shooting in a small West Texas town. It's a book that will break your heart in a thousand small ways—it's one of our favorites of the winter, as well as one of the most timely. For Block, who grew up in Plano during the heroin epidemic of the 1990s, it is also a deeply personal examination of the lingering effects that tragedy can cast over a community. Rather than focus on the immediate reaction—the flurry of news coverage, the investigations, the politics—Oliver Loving spools out over the long (and often unbearable) aftermath of unspeakable sadness. Through it all, Block deftly mixes love, family, humor, and grief to create a book that is at once tragic and hopeful—and altogether mesmerizing. 

We were thrilled to catch up with Mr. Block earlier this month for an insightful Q&A. (We also encourage you to read his engrossing interviews in both Texas Monthly and the LA Times after you're through with ours.) Get used to hearing about this book—it's a perfect selection for any book club.

Finally, be sure to mark your calendars for Thursday, February 1, when the author will join us in the shop for a discussion and signing.

Welcome home to Texas! Tell us a little about your new book, Oliver Loving.

Stefan Merrill Block, photo by Beowulf SheehanThank you! It’s always so nice to come home. I might have grown up near Dallas, but Blue Willow has always felt like a literary home for me in the years since my first book came out. And I think it’s appropriate to open this chat in the spirit of homecoming: Oliver Loving, in many ways, is a book about homecomings. The first stirrings of what would become this novel began during a long stay I had in Texas, a few years back. I moved away from Texas when I was eighteen, but around the time I turned thirty, I came back from New York for the six-month Dobie Paisano Fellowship, a wonderful residency program for writers in the Texas Hill Country. During that time, I was able to make frequent trips to my hometown of Plano, and it was in those visits that I began to have the haunted feeling that would lead to this novel. 

Plano, when I was a teenager, was at a particularly troubled moment. Within two years, nearly twenty kids from my town died in an epidemic of heroin overdoses and suicides. Returning to Plano many years later, I still felt acutely the legacy of that time. Though Plano has changed profoundly now, I found myself thinking of those kids we’d lost, boys and girls who would always remain teenagers, trapped in that dire moment. Also, like anyone returning to their hometown, I felt like some prior version of myself was still there in Plano too, a teenage Stefan still looking for answers. I wanted to write a book about all of that: about the ways a large-scale tragedy changes a town and the ways, even years later, loss can make you feel like you are in an endless conversation with a past that will never quite speak back to you. 

In Oliver Loving, I fictionalized and dramatized that feeling. This novel is the story of the aftermath of a terrible catastrophe in a small Texas town, where a boy named Oliver Loving has remained trapped and wordless in his hospital bed, the fate of his mind unclear. In some ways, this novel is a mystery about the town’s tragedy, about the answers that perhaps only Oliver can offer. But it’s more truly a novel about family — about the stories, belief, grief, and hope that can both hold a family together and break a family apart. Obviously, it’s a book with some dark themes, but I also tried to tell it with the levity and humor that feel to me like vital components in dealing with loss. And it’s also, in many ways, a love letter to Texas; it’s a book that is deeply involved with the state’s myths and legends, its turbulent history and unsettled present.

The subject matter is sadly relevant in today’s culture. What inspired you to tell this story now?

The massacre at Columbine happened in the midst of all the losses in Plano, and as my town was in the throes of our own tragedy, I felt a strong sense of kinship with the families and students of Columbine. I knew, when beginning to write this book, that it would deal with the repercussions of a large-scale catastrophe, but I felt trepidatious to write about a mass shooting, as if it would seem like I was trying to make a comment on (or worse, retool for my own purposes) the events at Columbine. But, over the years it took to write Oliver Loving, these shootings became appallingly commonplace, and it started to feel unavoidable and urgent as a subject for my novel. Each time I read the news reports of the latest horrors, I think about my own town, the tragedies I know will not end when media attention moves on. The long aftermath feels like a vital part of the story to me, and it also feels unbearably lonely that it so often goes untold. And so, in my fiction, I wanted to explore what happens to such a town long after the national attention has moved away.

West Texas is big country—open sky, open spaces. Why did you choose this setting for your book?

For me (as for many, I think) West Texas is Texas in its most archetypal form. It still looks more or less unchanged from its days as a mythic stage for westerns, and I think that is a big part of what drew me to it. I felt that this story, which invokes mythic themes, should also have a mythic setting. Also, I think writers are generally attracted to places that are out of the way; there is a kind of pioneer glee in making a place your own, which is simpler if it is not so easily accessible. The Big Bend country in West Texas is also an interesting microcosm for so much of the chaos going on in our country at the moment: the real-life wages of the immigration debate, the dissatisfaction of a wilting middle America, the dramatic effects of disastrous environmental policy.

The Loving family is fractured in so many ways, and yet they remain intertwined as only a family can. How did you create those complex family dynamics?

Oliver LovingIn my first two novels, I always felt like my characters were in the service of the plot. They could surprise me, and I tried to pause to let them speak in ways that felt true, but I was always hustling them along to advance the story. In Oliver Loving, I tried a different approach: I wanted to let the characters, not the plot, take the lead. This meant that I ended up spending enormous amounts of time writing complex backstory and long subplot scenes for all of them — hundreds of pages, which I ultimately cut from the manuscript. But for the Lovings to feel real to me, both independently and in relation to one another, I think I had to write all those extra pages. I had to write about them until they felt like real, complex, unpredictable people.

The book is written with heartbreaking ambiguity. Can you unpack why you made that choice and what it was like to write?

As a reader and a writer, I’m always attracted to questions that can’t be answered. I think that ambiguity around a central, urgent dilemma leaves intriguing room for the reader to participate, to bring his or her own opinions. In the case of Oliver Loving, I wanted the reader to feel what the Lovings feel, to live inside the question of whether this lost boy might return from his neurological condition, without ever offering the relief of a certain answer. 

Both of your previous novels have some autobiographical themes. This one?

In an early draft of this novel, I tried to include some memories from my own life that happened exactly as I described them. But when I received my notes back from my agent all those pages had big ugly Xs drawn through them. “Unbelievable,” my agent wrote in the margins, next to descriptions of actual stories from my past! It made me laugh, but I also saw his point: I think that fiction (or at least the kind of fiction I write) requires invention; without it, events feel stiff and strange. But that’s not to say this book isn’t deeply autobiographical. As I wrote, I often tossed in little details from my own experience (like Charlie, I was a pug owner), but more deeply this book is quite autobiographical in the sense that what I imagined comes from my deepest longings, anxieties, fears, hopes.

What are you currently reading?

After six years writing about Texas and the Loving family, I’m excited to set out for a very different setting. I’m writing a novel that will largely take place in Vienna in the 1930s, so I’m reading a lot of great Austrian Literature: Ranier Maria Rilke, Karl Krauss, Robert Musil, and Joseph Roth. The two books about Austria that have meant the most to me thus far are Stefan Zweig’s wonderful memoir, The World of Yesterday, and Edmund de Waal’s surprising and exquisite family history, The Hare with Amber Eyes. But I feel like it’s also important to take breaks for contemporary fiction, and I’ve recently read and loved Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie, Forest Dark by Nicole Krauss, and Adam Johnson’s astonishingly inventive and harrowing book of stories, Fortune Smiles.

Author photo by Beowulf Sheehan.

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Oliver Loving: A Novel By Stefan Merrill Block Cover Image
Email or call for price
ISBN: 9781250169730
Availability: Out of Print
Published: Flatiron Books - January 16th, 2018

Oliver Loving has been living in a vegetative state for 9 years after a horrific school shooting in the small west Texas town of Bliss. As his family falls apart in their grief, each person's personal hell is told in this mesmerizing new novel. The secrets, hopes, and dashed dreams are hidden from each other as mother, father, and brother deal with the sadness that life has given them. The majestic big sky of West Texas hangs over all of them, playing a metaphorical role in their ongoing stories. Is Oliver Loving cognizant in this state? What does he know about that fateful night? Is there a possibility of him waking up?
— Valerie

The Story of Forgetting: A Novel By Stefan Merrill Block Cover Image
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ISBN: 9780812979824
Published: Random House Trade Paperbacks - April 7th, 2009

Abel Haggard is an elderly hunchback who haunts the remnants of his family’s farm in the encroaching shadow of the Dallas suburbs, adrift in recollections of those he loved and lost long ago.

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