Paul Griner’s fourth novel, The Book of Otto and Liam, amalgamates artifacts and narrative to not only tell the tragic story of a father reeling from a school shooting that leaves his son in the hospital, but also to examine the conspiracy theories and hoaxes that pervade American society. It’s a novel built on short chapters and precise emotional swings. Griner’s prose is swift and holds steady in the most difficult moments. I frequently found myself pausing to reread and process these short bursts, but finished The Book of Otto and Liam in one sitting.
Paul Griner is the author of the novels Collectors, The German Woman, and Second Life, and the story collections Follow Me (a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers choice) and Hurry Please I Want to Know (winner of the Kentucky Literary Award). He teaches writing and literature at the University of Louisville.
We emailed back and forth throughout the winter. Our conversation has been lightly edited and condensed.
The subject matter of this novel—school shootings, conspiracy theories, the trauma of losing a child—is extremely heavy. I felt more emotionally connected to this novel than I usually do when reading. We could probably talk about this in terms of craft, how things like tension, conflict, and tone create emotional urgency (and let’s circle back to this), but I’m also interested in this idea more abstractly, and particularly in hearing your perspective about the emotions of writing and revising this book as it came together.
School shootings are part of our world, and have been since Columbine, (which happened when my kids were very young) which means they’ve become a worry for many parents, including me. I knew for a long time that I wanted to write about them—as I often write about what scares me the most—but even knowing that, I needed a way in. Then one day I woke up with the names Otto and Liam, and the knowledge that Otto was a freelance artist and Liam his young son, wounded in a school shooting. For a long time, as I wrote other novels and a story collection, that’s all I had. I’d open the file on my computer and stare at their names, the bare facts of their lives, then get back to whatever else I was working on, knowing that someday I’d find the key that would unlock the book.
Unfortunately, it came courtesy of a two a.m. phone call from a New York State trooper, who was finishing his shift, and who asked me if the hospital had called. They hadn’t, but did as I was on the line with him, to tell me my daughter had been in a horrific car crash. She had 43 broken bones, already undergone one surgery, and was expected to have more. I packed and was on a plane by 7 a.m., and at her bedside by 11, but the news kept getting worse. Her lungs were badly damaged, so that she stopped breathing a couple times, once while I was in the room, and she had a traumatic brain injury, which at first they’d missed, and which resulted in her losing the power of speech, thrashing about, and eventually coding.
She ended up in the neuro-ICU for weeks, and it was terrifying; we didn’t know if she would live or die, and, if she lived, what her life would look like on the other side. (One doctor told us that, with the TBI she had, we could expect that she’d never be able to work). Luckily, perhaps miraculously, she’s made a complete recovery, but of course the experience marked me, and eventually that experience came together with my musings about Otto and Liam and school shootings. I don’t know if the writing was cathartic, because of the subject matter and because part of the writing entailed reliving what I’d experienced, but the writing flowed, as terrible as that sounds. In fact, the writing process was sort of like life, but massively compressed: terror, joy, laughter, confusion. The first draft of the book—400 something pages—took about seven weeks, perhaps because I’d lived with the idea of Otto and Liam for so long.
In the novel, you write a series of letters from the persona of conspiracy theorists, the school shooting denialists who harass and assault parents who lost their children. To kind of connect with my first question, how did you go about writing from this perspective? And how were you using the form—that is, letters—to enter this perspective?
Hoaxers exist. Most of them, unlike the pundits and politicians who profit from them, believe what they say. They have discovered the truth, and with the zealotry of converts, they want to share it. They’re also furious at and disgusted by those they see as liars. Maybe it’s self-protective. Maybe on some level they suspect they’re wrong, and one way of overcoming those doubts, or at least not facing up to them (and the concomitant realization that the world can be truly horrible), is to turn their anger on others. It feels good to be righteous, after all, and keeps you from having to look within. Most of us have felt that, at one time or another, wronged by someone or some entity, furious at the unfairness of it, though probably to a far lesser degree.
Since hoaxers exist, they leave spoor. Letters, emails, texts. In stories about survivors of mass shootings, or about the victims’ living relatives, you come across their letters or texts. For whatever reason, that was emotionally resonant for me, that they sat down and wrote letters. Old school, and time consuming, and therefore an act of dedication. It felt natural to inhabit the form they’d chosen when I began to write Otto and Liam.
Then I read a lot of hoaxer websites, which was probably the hardest part of my research—but I needed to get down their rhythms, their thought patterns, their beliefs, their urgency and fury. Some letters in the book have intentional misspellings, and in some the writers sound oddly offended—one, bewildered at being visited by the police after sending a threatening letter, tells Otto, You’re not a benevolent person!—and some are truly evil. You’ll find all that in their online personas. But some of the letters were so dark I sensed the need for balance, and I was happy when the first letter from the nun came. I knew it was important that there be voices of reason and kindness in this world, a kind of balm to balance the bile, and it’s important too because those voices do exist, though they’re often drowned out because they’re less spectacular. My editor wanted more letters from the nun, and she was right.
Misinformation and disinformation are both central to this novel. Some of my academic research is in this area, particularly around propaganda that contests, denies, and attempts to erase the Armenian Genocide. Disinformation is nothing new and, at least in the U.S., I think much of the malicious contemporary disinformation we’re seeing around tragedies like school shootings, police brutality, and the pandemic is here to stay for a long time. I’m curious what it was like to research this aspect of the novel? In what ways do you think a work of fiction can combat conspiracy theories?
I think you’re unfortunately right that much of this disinformation is here for the long haul. As you know, in October of 2019 the U.S. House of Representatives approved a resolution that read, in part, “it is the policy of the United States to…commemorate the Armenian Genocide through official recognition and remembrance.” That this resolution was passed more than a hundred years after the genocide occurred tells us that, even now, people deny it ever happened; otherwise, it wouldn’t be necessary to specify that it did. And while I think it’s both right and important that our government did this, you can’t reach believers (or, in this case, non-believers) with facts; they’ll ignore or twist them. For instance, the school at Sandy Hook was demolished and its rubble carted away to places the state mandated remain secret. Why? Because they didn’t want people digging up Sandy Hook souvenirs. But to hoaxers, that becomes further proof that the shooting was staged, the removal part of a vast coverup. It’s immensely frustrating to see how they shift their narratives to counter or deny any rational response, and, in the book, Otto, grieving for his wounded son, grows angrier and angrier the more he deals with them.
In our world, the House and Senate could unanimously pass as many bills as they wanted saying that the mass shootings in Sandy Hook, Orlando, Las Vegas, etc. were real events, and the President could sign all of them into law, but that wouldn’t banish a single bit of disinformation, or persuade the true nonbelievers that they’d been wrong. As you point out in your research, the Turkish campaign of revisionist propaganda worked extremely well to erase much of the Armenian genocide from public consciousness. Memories fade, the devious dispute facts, lies assume the patina of truth. So, if facts and reason don’t work, you must find other ways to reach these people, to invoke their sympathy, to create empathy. I think some of them can be reached, that art can do what the truth can’t. I hope that Otto and Liam is part of that process.
I’d like to ask a few questions about how this looks for you as a writing professor. In what ways were you thinking about the subject matter of this novel as an educator who must, both consciously and subconsciously, be prepared for this kind of violence in the course of your job? Has this changed over time? How does your day job influence your writing?
Yes, this has certainly changed over time. When I first started teaching, Columbine hadn’t happened yet, nor had Virginia Tech. The University of Texas shooting had been so long before that it wasn’t really talked about, and I’m not sure I knew about it until articles about the other shootings brought it back to prominence. Virginia Tech felt a little closer to home, because it was a university, and because my next-door neighbor had a son there at the time, attending a class in the building next door when the shooting happened.
In the aftermath of Virginia Tech, it became clear that teachers—specifically, a creative writing professor—had worried about that shooter ahead of time, but the university didn’t really have any mechanism for those concerns to be acted upon. That brought changes to the University of Louisville, where I teach, and many other schools. We have to notify our Department Chairsand Deans if we suspect someone is dangerous. And we now have an alert system on all our phones, and, posted about the buildings, including in classrooms, are placards denoting steps to take if we have an active shooter. The last step usually involves some variation of, if you come to face to face with a gunman, you must use your own judgment about what actions are best. Reading that, I always think, Good luck with that one and hope none of us ever have to decide what that might be.
Now, usually at the beginning of each semester, or when, during class, you hear yelling in the hallway, you’re a little more attuned to the possibility of danger. It’s unlikely, of course, but not impossible, so in each new classroom, I figure out the first day of each semester what I’d do if we needed to barricade the door or doors. But that’s true for going into movie theaters now, and grocery stores as well. It’s become part of our lives, the way that drills for nuclear bombs were when I was a kid. We all hid under our desks, or lined up in hallways with no windows, a couple of times each month. I doubted even those drills would save us, but being aware about possible shooters just might.
As for how that affected or underlay my work, I can’t really say. I wasn’t consciously thinking of it as I wrote, but, again, our daily concerns are part of what we write about, whether we know it or not.
How do you talk to your students about difficult subject matter when approaching creative work?
As a writer, and as a reader, I don’t think anything should be off limits. And many students want to write about serious subjects. We have empathy and imagination, and, as writers, we have to put those to work; the tricky thing is to do so well. Some of that is a function of time. I’m not sure I could have written this novel in my 20s or 30s, for instance, but that doesn’t mean we can’t write about difficult subjects when we’re younger, and if students want to go for it, great. My job is to push them to do it better. To research more, to imagine more fully, to be sure they’re approaching the subject with the necessary depth of understanding, rather than sensationalizing or being exploitative.
I talk to them often about my own experiences writing about difficult subjects, both the mistakes I’ve made (having a relative tell me he’d never speak to me again, after using some events from his life) and successes (such as having a woman who’d lived through the firebombing of Hamburg in WWII tell me she had to stop reading my book The German Woman at one point, because I’d captured it so well).
With current conversations around disinformation, polarized media, and free speech evolving on college campuses, what do you think is the role of the artist/professor in teaching and engaging with these issues?
Often, you have to listen, and not just to what students say, but, as Otto says in the book, to the space behind their words. Sometimes, though rarely, you have to shut things down. If someone says something overtly racist, misogynistic, or simply untrue—the earth is flat, say—as a teacher you need to call it out. The classroom can’t be a place where hate goes unchecked or untruths flourish. But you also can’t banish doubt, and you have to remember that students are in classes to learn.
I often teach Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg. As a prelude to a discussion of Modernism, and the influence of WWI on literature, I’ll give a quick quiz. When was WWI fought? What countries fought, and on which sides? Who won? My favorite answer ever was, “Sometime in the 1850s, and I think the north won.” It made me laugh, and still does, but it also reminds me of that need to listen, and that, by listening to what’s behind their answers, you realize that a lot of students don’t have any real sense of history, of how we reached the place we’re at now, so some of their opinions aren’t particularly informed. I wasn’t any better at that age. I read a lot, and so knew some things, but had plenty of knowledge gaps, and I made some embarrassingly bad pronouncements at the time. No doubt I still do. So, part of my job is to get them to see where their gaps are, and help them figure out how to address them. To develop their empathy, and to get them to think. Not to think like me, but to see these issues from different perspectives. I hope the same is true of Otto and Liam, that it gets people to think and to feel, more deeply than they might otherwise. And perhaps that it will alter their paths, however slightly.
This is your fourth novel. How has your approach to the genre evolved? Do you think about building a novel differently than when you wrote your first? I ask this in part because The Book of Otto and Liam uses lists, letters, drawings, artifacts, advertisements, and other genres to build its narrative.
The house of fiction has many rooms, and each novel has its form. I don’t think I’ve changed my approach to novel writing, though I may be more willing to take risks. Among my favorite novels are Jean Toomer’s Cane, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, and perhaps most pertinent for Otto and Liam, John Dos Passos’s USA Trilogy with its various narrative forms. Other novels I’ve long loved include Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Paramo, N Scott Momaday’s House Made of Dawn, and Clarice Lispector’s Family Ties, a story collection that I’ve always read as a novel, with relatively straightforward narratives interlaced with others that read like myths or fables. Each of those books has expanded the definition of the novel. I didn’t consciously think of any of them as I wrote this book, but I’ve read them all multiple times, so that they’ve become part of my writing imagination, and they must have been in the back of my mind (Rulfo’s Pedro Paramo for example, proceeds through multiple, sometimes fragmentary short sections). The things that surround us or that we love come out sometimes years later, often in unexpected ways. You note that in your own work, Franz Werfel’s novel The Forty Days of Musa Dagh came to influence characters after you’d finally read it when you neared thirty, yet it was a book that had been part of your childhood as a kind of avatar.
But perhaps most importantly, the lists, the letters and drawings and artifacts and poetry and other forms you note seemed necessary, a way of capturing not only the joys, terrors, and traumas these characters experience, but the polyphonic world that surrounds them. Collectors, my first novel, is a much tighter narrative because it’s a study of a single character, not so much her wider world, and the formal differences of the two books reflect that, though I hope they’re equally urgent and compelling.
The “chapters,” a term I use loosely here since the sections vary in form, in this novel are often extremely brief, sometimes using space, the absence of words, to say just as much. What was the process like of developing and compiling all of these small but necessary pieces?
I’ve always been interested in collage as an art form—in paintings and prints and objects (Joseph Cornell is a favorite, as are Hannah Höch, Annegret Soltou and, more recently, Kara Walker)—but also in literature. Earlier I mentioned Ellison and Dos Passos and Morrison, but more recent (and more overtly collage-like) works have deeply intrigued me, such as Anne Carson’s Nox. As I wrote various chapters in Otto and Liam, others would spring to mind, so I’d spend the next days writing them. As I said above, it all came together quickly. A friend and very gifted writer read that first draft and made some incredibly helpful suggestions, which I spent a few months wrestling with, and when I sent it to my agent, she too had incisive comments, though hers were mostly about cutting, since that version was a hundred pages longer and had more characters. I spent another several months cutting, compressing, and tightening before she sent it out.
I also spent a lot of time moving things around—for instance the order of the Kate chapters (Kate is the nominal head of the hoaxers). Hers is a story that develops alongside the other narrative threads, and changing that order changes how both she and Otto are perceived. Deciding which drawings to use (and where) also required a lot of thought. Many of those by the way were collaborative. I made some of them, but the artist for many others is Cassidy Meurer. She and I would talk about what I wanted, and why, and how it would fit into the book, and then she’d go away and send me a few questions to help her shape things and come back weeks later with a series of drawings. I’d choose among them, perhaps make suggestions for changes, or more often simply say, as I did when I saw the one of Liam holding the apples, I love this. It’s perfect. And the drawings themselves sometimes sparked the creation of other chapters. That happened with the two drawings my sister supplied as well.
The chapters are intentionally brief because I knew from the start they’d be emotionally intense. You can only put people under that kind of emotional pressure for so long, which meant the chapters had to be brief, even the joyous ones. It also required me to be concise, to compress. A large part of the revision process (after the cuts) became me looking at a seven-page chapter and figuring out how I could hone it to five pages, or to reduce others from three pages to one: I had to find the essential. And of course the drawings, texts, letters, etc., fit naturally into a single page, or less. In many cases, that was a boon. Some of the things the hoaxers write, for example, are so devastating, that if they were longer than a couple of sentences or paragraphs, they’d lose power. The space surrounding them on the page allows them to echo in your mind, the way negative space in a painting can make selected objects more focused and more powerful. And I hope that the interim chapters, which briefly and dispassionately detail the growing number of school shootings that occur after Liam’s, develop a terrible density as the list lengthens, until you reach the final one. That one is meant to leave a mark.
How were you imagining these various genres, including found items and visual art, as integral to the story?
I wanted Otto and Liam to be immersive. This is the world these characters live in, filled with TV shows about shootings, with letters from strangers who have intentions ill and good, with visual reminders of what’s transpired such as the yellow ribbons that go up on trees during anniversaries or when other school shootings occur. Otto is an artist, so he draws, paints and produces mockups for clients, and spends time in antique shops and old bookstores, etc. in search of objects for his work. One of them—the erasure book he and Liam work on together—is a book I found in an antique shop when I was writing Otto and Liam, and I knew instantly that it would become part of the novel. The scents and sounds of the ICU matter, to him, to Liam and May, to all who are in them and to those who wait for them and work to heal them. The joys and playfulness of the found objects and artwork too, since the novel has many registers, with much love and beauty and humor to balance out the darker subjects. While, as you note, the core material here is heavy, I view it as a hopeful book. The drawings and letters and found objects are meant to reinforce that.
You’ve published books with several different presses, both indie and big five. What’s your process for finding the right home for each project? I recognize some of this is based on your agent and the industry, but I’m curious about your relationship to the publishing process and the commercial aspect of it all.
You’re right that a lot of that is based on the industry. I’m lucky to have a great agent (Nicole Aragi). I’m also lucky because I’ve had great editors. Unfortunately, the first two (for my first three books) ended up losing their jobs during publishing upheavals, but my agent has been a terrier for my work from day one. That’s allowed me to keep publishing, when otherwise I might not have. Mostly I write and have a few trusted readers, and after listening to their comments I revise, then send my work to my agent. She too usually makes editorial suggestions, which are uniformly superb. I’ll revise again, but, from there, I show up to sign contracts.
Sarabande, who published my story collection Hurry Please I Want to Know, and who will publish The Book of Otto and Liam shortly, have been fantastic. Terrific editorial suggestions, great cover art, a dedicated, diligent, and creative publicist. You don’t have a lot of control of things in this business, so, for fiction writers, an agent who loves your work is maybe the most important thing of all. But then if you find yourself at a publishing house that values your work and works really hard for it, you’re truly lucky. And so, I am.
The Book of Otto and Liam
By Paul Griner
Published April 13, 2021
Aram Mrjoian is a writer, editor, instructor, and PhD candidate at Florida State University. He is an editor-at-large at the Chicago Review of Books, the Southern Review of Books, and the Southeast Review, as well as the managing editor at TriQuarterly. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Millions, The Rumpus, Boulevard, Cream City Review, Gulf Coast online, Longreads, Joyland, and many other publications. He earned his MFA in creative writing at Northwestern University. Find his work at arammrjoian.com