For Anthony Varallo, writing “The Lines” — a novel set during the energy crisis of the 1970s and centered on a couple whose marriage is dissolving and their two young children — involved a blending of the familiar and the challenging.
“‘The Lines’ is my first novel but it is my fifth book. My four other books are short story collections, and many of those stories deal with parent and child relationships, whether they’re single parent families or children sort of out of the view of their parents navigating the world on their own,” said Varallo, a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, in a phone interview.
“So it’s territory that I’ve explored before, but I’d never done it as a novel and I’d never done it where I would inhabit the consciousness of the parent characters and the children and allow for that kind of wide angle view. Four distinct perspectives — the mother, the father, the boy, and the girl — that felt new to me, so as I was writing it I had the thrill of having never tried this before ... It was something new, and yet it was something I had explored thematically in my stories.”
Varallo set himself another challenge — a challenge he encourages his students at College of Charleston to avoid. Readers of “The Lines” never learn the names of the four primary characters.
“I did it as an experiment, just to see if I could do it,” he said. “I don’t mean that to sound glib. I just wanted to work my backhand a little.”
Skillfully avoiding pronoun pitfalls, Varallo found pleasure in the exercise.
“As I kept experimenting and challenging myself, I began to enjoy employing titles in place of names and I just kept going ... I didn’t have a thematic, ‘Oh, it’s going to work on this level or it’s going to work on that level.’ I had no other goal than besides to see if I could do it and to see how it might feel to me as a reader and writer.”
The conceit adds a certain weightiness to other characters whose names we do know. That serves Varallo’s story well.
“It amplifies the secondary characters and I think that’s part of the story. Courtesy of this terrible thing that’s happened, the children have wandered far afield from their presumably easy, straight-laced life and are getting to know all kinds of people in all new ways. ... They are starting to see adults in a new light and meet kinds people they had not hitherto met because their parents were married and they didn’t really roll that far outside the pocket of their parents’ protection.”
Throughout the novel, certain items and ideas recur, gaining significance with each appearance. It’s a device Varallo employed to add a sense of motion to the novel.
“I always know my limitations as a writer ... and I’m not terribly gifted at plot. So I wanted there to be a feeling of forward movement, that we’re moving through time, and that events of consequence are happening,” he said. “But I knew I just had kids sitting around in the summer. They go to Florida for a little bit, but it wasn’t a scintillating plot. So I looked for things that could, in place of plot, could accumulate throughout the novel, like the money in the bank, like the appearance of the cat throughout the novel, the gas station lines growing longer and the violence growing more tense until it reaches the boiling point in the last scene.”
Varallo speaks of his time in the Writers’ Workshop with great fondness, even as he acknowledges he was struggling as a writer at the time.
“I loved it. I was there from 1995 to 1997. I took wonderful classes from Frank Conroy and Marilynne Robinson and James McPherson. I met my current wife there in our first workshop, and we now have two kids together. So I had as wonderful an experience as one could have in any writing program. And quite honestly, I was not writing very well. In fact, I wrote a lot of really bad, embarrassing stuff and put it up for workshop. That was good for me. It was good for me to see so many writers who were simply better than me. That was instructive. Though it was kind of hard to take at times, it helped me push myself as a writer.”
Each summer Varallo returns to teach in the Iowa Summer Writing Festival. This year, he is teaching a weeklong course entitled “Get In, Get Out, Go On: A Short Story and Novel Workshop.”
“Being able to teach there each year in the summer program, it’s like manna from heaven, he said. “I just love it.”
• What: Anthony Varallo will read from his new book “The Lines”
• When: 7 p.m. Monday
• Where: Prairie Lights Books, 15 S. Dubuque St., Iowa City
• Cost: Free
• Also reading: Charles Holdefer will read from his book, “Magic Even You Can Do”