Luke Rolfes: We at Laurel Review have followed the work of fiction writer Anthony Varallo for a while, and it is a privilege to talk with him today about his stellar new novel, The Lines, published by the University of Iowa Press. Set during the gas crisis of the late 1970s, this novel follows an American family through the complicated messiness of a broken marriage, and their efforts as a family of individuals to pick up the pieces and move forward during a tumultuous chapter in their interconnected lives.  
LR: Before we dive into the text of this book, I’m curious about the genesis of this project. Is this something you imagined for a while before undertaking? Did this book, by chance, grow out of a smaller narrative, or was it always a novel in your mind?  
Anthony Varallo: The Lines started out as a novel, not directly tied to any of my short stories, although it shares many of the same obsessions and preoccupations as my short stories: parents and children, growing up, coming of age, nostalgia, a belief that the past is always alive in the present, and so on. My goal with writing The Lines was to write a novel that has the same compression and sentence-level attention as a short story since those are the kinds of novels I usually like best. My biggest fear while writing The Lines was that I wasn’t writing a novel at all; I was writing a long short story, although, honestly, some of my favorite novels could be described that way, too. So, to keep my fears at arm’s length, I decided that The Lines would have a novelistic point-of-view, 3rd person, with access to four main characters’ perspectives. I suddenly feel like I’m not answering your question, sorry. Basically, I conceived of The Lines as a novel from the get-go, one that might read like a short story at the sentence level but branch out into multiple perspectives and occasional omniscience. 
LR: Your last book, Everyone was There (Elixir Press), was almost entirely flash fiction, and your older titles are short fiction collections, yet you’ve switched gears and gone long form in The Lines. Sorry to use a running metaphor, but was it difficult for you to move from “sprint writing” to “endurance writing”? Did you have to retrain your writing style/voice in any way to tackle a longer narrative?  
AV: I actually like your running metaphor, thanks, since I’m a very bad runner who nonetheless gets story ideas while running. The truth is that there was very little “endurance running” while writing The Lines: I wrote it the same way I write most of my stories, in short sections, somewhat like flash fiction, but with a little more room to roam. I wouldn’t say I was “sprinting,” though, more like modestly jogging. Trotting? But I did have to retrain myself to stop rounding off the story into capital M Meaning every 15 pages or so. I had to learn to save a little for later. I think the novel form also forced me to give my characters a slightly better due than they might have received in a short story. For example, the mother character is pretty sleepy and depressed for the first 20-30 pages of the novel, and that probably would have been her total characterization if the story stopped there, but she sort of wakes up (she must have been chugging some coffee when I wasn’t looking) around page 30 and becomes a much more dynamic character—or at least I hope so. 
LR: The backdrop of this novel is grounded in recent American history, most specifically with the fuel crisis of 1979 that resulted in people panicking and waiting in long lines for gas at stations (not entirely unlike the toilet paper craze at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic). Can you talk a bit about that motif/backdrop in this book? Did the narrative about family separation form a natural weave with this backdrop, or did you have to guide the two threads together?  
AV: I’m a little embarrassed to admit this, but the backdrop of the 1979 fuel crisis arrived late in my drafting process, almost as an afterthought, really. I had set several scenes at a gas station, and I was researching images of 1970s gas stations when, voila, all of these images of cars waiting in lines appeared. I remembered the 1979 gas crisis somewhat, but I had never considered making it the backdrop of The Lines (at that point, the novel was called The Parents, The Children). But the photos made me realize I could tie the gas station to the national crisis, giving the family drama a greater degree of specificity while adding other layers of tension and perhaps meaning. I hope that the title, The Lines, can be read in several ways: one, of course, to mean the long lines of the 1979 fuel crisis, but also to suggest the storylines between the characters, especially the ones that branch out from the family to the secondary characters. That’s how I see The Lines, a series of connections that widen out and out until the connections can’t widen anymore. At some level, the gas crisis serves to mirror the family crisis, that sense that the world the family knows (domestic harmony, stability, togetherness, ample fossil fuels) is just starting to crumble. 
LR: One of my favorite things about your work is your knack for writing characters who are---I’m not sure what the right word is---unheralded? Quieter? Maybe overlooked? There’s an everydayness to these characters. We feel like we know them, and that we’ve been around people like them our entire lives, yet they are crafted with uniqueness and nuance---and, for whatever reason, they become more universal to us through this specificity. What drew you to this particular crop of people? Why did you want to tell their story in conjunction with this exact time period?   
AV: For me, The Lines is all about the characters. I wanted to give each of them their best possible due, within my limitations as a writer. I’m drawn to ordinary characters because I guess in some way that’s how I see myself, also because some of the books I love best and mean the most to me tend to focus on so-called “ordinary life,” whatever that is. When I was writing the characters in The Lines, I tried to create an embarrassing intimacy between them and the reader by showing the character’s innermost thoughts, secrets, fears, doubts, worries—basically, everything they would never admit to anyone else.  One idea that appeals to me is when a character thinks of something uncharitable or mean, and then suddenly feels grateful that no one else will ever know they thought that. In The Lines, for example, the girl is happy that no one will ever know her uncharitable thoughts about the babysitter’s girlfriend; or the boy is glad that no one will ever know how scared he is of nearly everything. Each character has a secret life, in a way. For me, that’s one of the basic pleasures of being alive--that you can think your own thoughts and cultivate a private inner life—and something I wanted to afford each character.    
LR: The main characters in this novel have names, yet you chose to refer to them in narration as “the boy, the girl, the mother, the father, the babysitter, etc.” I was struck by that choice, especially when juxtaposed with the outsiders who fall into lockstep with this broken family---Sarah, Cliff, and Marcus---who are named. I read in an earlier interview that this choice was a challenge/limitation you placed upon yourself in writing. It seems to me that this technique draws a delineation between which characters are involved in pre-separation and post-separation. I’m curious, though. As you look back on this limitation now, how did that shape the story and your construction of it? 
AV: Wow, that’s a great observation about the named characters appearing after the separation, while the unnamed ones have been around prior to that event. I never thought of that. Yes, as you mentioned, I really just wanted to try to write a novel where the main characters were unnamed, simply as an experiment, because it pleased me, in some weird way. I think I needed a little something extra, something offbeat, even, to help keep my interest in a writing project that was definitely going to be longer than a short story. Almost like, “I wonder how long I can keep getting away with not naming them?” I like the idea of placing a limitation on myself as a kind of motivation. But I think not naming the main characters forced me to characterize them with greater specificity since they didn’t have names to help out (really wish I could come up with names as good as Scout Finch, Holden Caulfield, or Jay Gatsby, but oh well), and since I didn’t want them to slip into universal “types” (e.g., young boy who wonders about the world around him). By naming the secondary characters, I hoped to stress that the family—the children in particular—was now looking outward, to others, whether as romantic partners or caregivers, to help navigate the unfamiliar world of separation and divorce. In a way, those names represent the family’s longing to find “family” elsewhere. The only limitation I faced with not naming the characters was that I couldn’t go into elaborate backstories or past scenes, since if I write “As a boy, the father loved to play with sandcastles” the reader will likely imagine a grown man playing with sandcastles, not the father as a young boy playing with sandcastles. Not that there’s anything wrong with playing with sandcastles as an adult (I might later today, actually) but it is sort of a jarring image. So that forced me to keep the action in the present, which might have helped me steer clear of endless introspection, something I often struggle with in my writing.   
LR: The relationship I found to be most fascinating is the daughter’s relationship to Sarah (her father’s new girlfriend).  There’s a moment toward the end of the book where the girl meets Sarah’s own mother. Sarah’s mom warns the girl, “One: Sarah is an excellent daughter. Two: Sarah is an excellent student. Three: Sarah is not an excellent friend.” It seems that a lot of what these children learn in this novel is about the fallibility and imperfections of the adults around them. Can you comment a bit about the relationship between the girl and Sarah and how you hoped readers would take it?  
AV: The girl’s relationship with Sarah was one of my favorites to write, and the one readers tend to ask me about the most. Why did Sarah send the girl away? Why was she so cold to her? I must confess that The Lines went through three main revisions and that in the first two versions, Sarah and the girl reconciled at the end, hugged it out, and renewed their bond. Sorry to spoil this for anyone who hasn’t read the book yet, but that’s not what happens in the final version, the one that I worked on after my editor and several readers said the book needed to be “darker.” So, in the “dark” version of The Lines, things don’t work out, things fall apart, the wheels come off—all that. So, with Sarah and the girl, I wanted that relationship to end with a note of finality, no chance that they will stay friends. Sarah’s motivation seems to me that she’s breaking off the friendship in order to spare the girl’s feelings later on, sort of like ripping off the Band-Aid, I guess. Sarah knows that maintaining a close relationship with the girl will be more hurtful than helpful in the long run. So, they part ways. (I will also mention that in the early versions of The Lines, nearly everything works out in the end, the cat is fine, no protests, and everyone gets together at the end and has a party. So glad no one will ever read those versions!) 
LR: Another interesting dynamic was the boy and Marcus (who serves the roles of bully and surrogate older brother). I was struck by the fact that the girl ends up getting shunned by Sarah, but the boy is actually the one who shuns Marcus. What is inevitable to you that these characters would have these showdowns?     
AV: Wow, that’s another great observation, thanks. I’m going to have to show you my next novel in progress, Luke, I swear! The only thing I knew about the boy’s relationship with Marcus was that it would come to an end that somehow signaled the boy’s transformation from a passive character who mostly has things done to him to an active character who does something to others. The boy is trending “up,” in a way, while the girl is trending in the opposite direction, or at least experiences a slight fall from grace. Mostly I try to let my characters lead me to wherever they want to lead me, but I did want the novel to leave the reader with a sense that they had traveled in some direction. My biggest fear is that my characters will leave the reader right where they found them, sort of like a pleasant bus ride. I aimed for something a bit rockier in The Lines
LR: In this book, you write young characters extraordinarily well. How do you balance realism with accessibility when writing youthful characters? Is it easy, if one is not careful, to turn them into caricatures of someone their age?  
AV: My only “rule” about writing young characters is that they cannot be cute. They cannot say cute things, or do cute things, or cure adult malaise simply by being cute and charming. Beyond that, I’m always asking, “What’s life really like for my characters?” That question feels like 90% of writing to me. I just keep asking it over and over again. Usually, the answer is: I have no idea. So, then I revert to, “Well, what’s something they would probably never tell anyone about themselves?” Usually, that question helps me figure out what life is like for them or shows me a glimpse of something I need to know about them. But it’s not all that different than writing about adults. I mean, all characters conform to type, at least a little; the challenge is to keep it to a minimum. 
LR: The mother chooses (or settles) for Cliff. The father is drawn to Sarah. Cliff and Sarah are presented as polar opposites. Cliff is a nice, steady guy---boring and ubiquitous. Sarah is young and beautiful---a free spirit and unpredictable. The interesting thing about my reading is that Cliff and Sarah had some effect on the mother and father’s external actions, but they seemed to have little effect on who they were on the inside. Cliff and Sarah both seem, in a sense, like temporary placeholders for the mother and father. How do you see them? Are Cliff and Sarah just rebound lovers? What are your thoughts on these two?   
AV: Alas, I think you’ve got them dead to rights: Cliff and Sarah are rebound relationships, nothing too serious. The biggest loss will probably be for the girl, for whom Sarah was a caregiver, friend, and occasional confidant. I wanted Cliff and Sarah to take the story in new directions, and I think they did, at least to some degree. Cliff brings Marcus into the picture; Sarah challenges the father’s rationalizations and takes him down a peg or two. The main difference in characterizing Sarah and Cliff is that Sarah is revealed by what she says and does, whereas Cliff is characterized by what he doesn’t say or does privately (he sharpens all of the mother’s stubby pencils, then puts them back where he found them, to cover his tracks, to keep a low, Cliff-profile).   
LR: One last question. Now that you’ve published fiction books in everything from flash to novel-length, which form is your deepest love? What is next for you and your writing? Do you think you will return to a shorter form, or are you more interested in writing extended narratives now? 
AV: Thanks for asking! My new story collection, What Did You Do Today?, has recently won the Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Short Fiction, and is forthcoming from the University of North Texas Press in November 2023. The collection features mostly flash fiction, with a few longer stories toward the end. I think the short story will always be my favorite form, but I really enjoyed writing The Lines and would love to write more novels. So maybe a novella next?   
LR: The Lines is a tremendous novel. Thanks so much for talking about it with us today! ​​​​​​​
AV: Thanks, Luke! 

Bio: Anthony Varallo is the author of What Did You Do Today?, winner of the Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Short Fiction, forthcoming from the University of North Texas Press in Fall 2023. He is also the author of a novel, The Lines, as well as four previous short story collections: Everyone Was There, winner of the Elixir Press Fiction Award; This Day in History, winner of the John Simmons Short Fiction Award; Out Loud, winner of the Drue Heinz Literature Prize; and Think of Me and I’ll Know. Currently, he is a professor of English at the College of Charleston, where he is the fiction editor of swamp pink.​​​​​​​
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