This summer, the American West is a fuse. The anxiety is an undercurrent to each day while we wonder when the spark will come. A great drought continues to creep north, hundreds of miles from central California’s decimated olive and cherry groves, their corpses left as kindling along I-5. The lakes of the Cascades—Tahoe, Klamath, Mead—appear naked in their emptiness. There is so much to torch, and so little left to stop it.
It was on the way to one of these changing regions that I read Olivay, the latest novel by Deborah Reed. I was headed to Crater Lake National Park, which received sixteen feet of its average forty-four-foot snowpack last winter. The fear of fire made the vistas hazy and the novel crackle. Olivay perches two deeply damaged characters against a background of chaos in Los Angeles, creating a case study in the terrifying, total, and ultimately cleansing power of fire. In the background of the frenetic story, an unspoken question lingers: who can do more harm to our lives, a malicious stranger or our own self-destructive tendencies? The central characters, Olivay and Henry, work just as hard against themselves as the terrorist threat just a breath away.
After reading her previous novels Carry Yourself Back to Me and Things We Set on Fire, I can’t imagine a more interesting authority on the themes of annihilation and absolution. I first met Reed as a fellow student in the Pacific University MFA program in 2010, when we were both Portland-area writers. In the years since we’ve both been uprooted (Reed to Los Angeles, me to Tucson) and made our way back to a shifting Oregon landscape. She’s restarted her life in the small coast town of Manzanita, a move that bears a resemblance to one that might be made by her signature bold, complicated protagonists, who walk through glass to square the truths in their hearts. I spoke with Reed via FaceTime as she kicked off the Black Forest Writing Seminar in Freiburg, where she serves as co-director.
The Rumpus: What inspired you to write Olivay? The story’s initial catalyst is strongly reminiscent of the Boston Marathon bombing. Is this where the story germinated from?
Deborah Reed: The first inspiration came from a specific antidote from the Boston Marathon bombing. There was a guy who had gone home with a woman the night before, and it was my understanding that it was for a one-night stand. Then the lockdown happened, and the guy started live-Tweeting from this woman’s apartment, where he was trapped with a stranger! I just could not get that couple out of my mind. What would it be like to be trapped inside of a house with a complete stranger while a terrorist attack is happening, and there’s nothing you can do? And then of course that led me to think, what if these two people were very broken and had tragic backgrounds?
Rumpus: Within the novel, there’s essentially two characters that we spend the time with, post-one-night-stand Olivay and Henry, penned into an apartment by chaos. Did you face any challenges with trying to keep the momentum and suspense when the action is so confined?
Reed: I really didn’t. I was worried about that, but their backstories were seeping into what was happening there. I could keep hidden from each character what was happening with the other character’s backstory so that only the reader knows certain things, which lends an automatic tension as they anticipate something with that information they are privy to. I also wanted to pull in aspects about the ways in which human beings mistreat one another. War, crimes, terrorism, all the way down to these tiny little tears that take place between two people in a relationship. There’s also the twenty-four-hour news cycle that’s constantly accosting our senses with this pinprick of bad news that never ends. Subtle terrorism. I was really trying to distill the range of ways human beings try to hurt one another. In that vastness of hurt, at what point do we find each other? Where is that point of peace and love and trust? Can you find it if you’ve been overwhelmed with trauma? This discovery meant going to the extreme, which propelled the story.
Rumpus: There’s the large exterior terrorism in the story, but it seems there is a lot of terrorism that the characters are inflicting on each other and upon themselves. One of the reoccurring themes in recent novels (since Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl) is the “unlikable” protagonist. It seems obvious that women are multifaceted and can behave in ugly ways, but the recent willingness to portray (and publish) the female antihero has been revolutionary. How do you see Olivay falling into that trend of complexity?
Reed: Yes! I wanted Olivay to be the full range of who we are. Someone who is strong, someone who is vulnerable, someone who is mean, someone who is kind, someone who wants to love and can’t love, or someone who does love and messes it up. The whole range of what we’re capable of, and not just capable of from the standpoint of hurting someone else, but being human.
Rumpus: What has the response been like from readers? Not only are we given a woman who isn’t “nice,” which tends to freak GoodReaders out, we’ve also got a shock-drop ending.
Reed: Endings can be so tricky. A reader can love the whole novel, but if she doesn’t like the ending, she doesn’t like the book. Readers want that payoff one way or another, that sense of satisfaction. For the most part, the reaction has been, this resonates with me. The way that the book ended caused them to keep thinking about the story days after they put the book down. Which is every writer’s hope, that someone won’t turn the last page and just walk away or just pick up the next one and not think about it.
Rumpus: I’ve had a lot of conversations recently not just about novels but the “golden age” of TV with shows like Game of Thrones, where choices and consequences unfold that are very painful to watch, but stay true to the characters and are authentic in the world. Do think our expectations of story are shifting toward not needing that tidy, prescriptive resolution?
Reed: I absolutely do. I think people are sick of everything getting wrapped up. People respond strongly to things that feel raw in a way that they didn’t used to. It just resonates with reality. I mean, yeah, we’ve all been in love and had relationships, but how many of them have happy endings? Very few. People break up, people die, people divorce, people get sick. Literary fiction helps us understand these things without needing to escape them. I definitely feel and see a shift in our interests through literature—more raw and reflecting what it means to be human, especially in circumstances that don’t look pretty. Once you scratch beneath that ugliness that sits on top, there’s a beauty. And that’s what people are looking for. Beauty in the destruction and meaning in the hurt.
Rumpus: It seems like this is especially important right now with the permeation of anxiety in our world. With all the violence that we’re encountering on a daily/weekly basis, the climate changing, existential dread—
Reed: I was living in Los Angeles when I was writing this novel, and I refer to it as my “terror and angst novel.” Which also describes my two years in LA! There was so much chaos and a constant buzzing energy of stress, doom, and anxiety. But it was actually good for me to write Olivay while I was living there. I felt a symmetry going on. It’s a city where everyone is trying to make it in the business, and there’s this sense of constant taking. You always want to know what people can do for you, right off the bat. That weaves in and out of so many interactions, and it’s an energy that’s absolutely exhausting. Don’t get me wrong, there are places and people in LA that are phenomenal. But I’m speaking specifically to that anxiety-filled LA.
Rumpus: You left Portland to move to Los Angeles, fleeing what’s known as an overwhelmingly literary city. Did you feel any of that LA-style anxiety in Portland to constantly compete?
Reed: Yes. (Laughs)
Rumpus: I’m not trying to lead you! I’m just like, wow Deborah. I feel like this ALL THE TIME.
Reed: The answer is a great big Yes. Yes. I did feel that. Very much so. And I will say that while living in LA, that was one of the Portland things I was happy to escape. I felt a lot of pressure and competition. I’m not coming down on Portland, I love the city, but I think that’s the nature of getting a lot of people in one place who are all doing the same thing. Everyone starts to look at each other and wonder why they do or don’t have what the other does. The feeling feeds itself because everyone is so isolated on their own Writer Island. It’s bound to happen.
Rumpus: How have you felt since moving from California to the Oregon coast?
Reed: I feel like I’ve found a true home. A place where I can write, be myself, and feel unencumbered. There’s a great literary community in that small town. It’s not overwhelming; it’s very laid back. People are very supportive because they love books. That seems to be the real focus, the love of literature. Before I moved to Manzanita I would visit to write. I always did my best work there. My writing would come easy to me.
Rumpus: Many of the characters in your other novels (Carry Yourself Back to Me, Things We Set on Fire) and in Olivay—the women, the protagonists, come to a tipping point where they decide that they’re going to live life the way they want or leave it on their own terms. What was the tipping point for you (to leave LA) and do you feel like writing these characters helped you get there?
Reed: It’s interesting, I have had so many things I’ve discovered in my work recently that feel like clues leading me to the place I’m at now. At the time I gave these difficulties and solutions to my characters, I didn’t see them as an extension of myself. But when I go back, particularly to Things We Set on Fire, there are a lot of eerie resemblances to my life now. I finished that novel three or four years ago. But particularly the ending, that character and where she ends up, even the house that I described that she lives in, it matches the house I live in now. I got goosebumps when I went back and read the last chapter of that novel after moving to Manzanita and I saw so many similarities, down to the little dog. The strangest details all came into being, so I’ve been thinking a lot about the subconscious and the stories that we tell and what we may know about ourselves without realizing that we know. In watching how this plays out, I think of the Dorothy Allison quote hanging next to my bed. “The long work of life is learning the love for the story, the novels we live out, and the characters we become.”
Rumpus: It seems as though your stories and your life are daring and nurturing each other, driving toward a state of belonging.
Reed: I feel a sense of returning home, and that’s a theme that runs throughout my work. I don’t mean returning to the place you grew up. I mean finding where your home is. I think I’ve always had this fantasy, a yearning for where I belong. I feel that the coast is where I feel most like myself. And I think that’s the key. That’s the home that I’m talking about. I feel unencumbered as a human being. If I feel like going to the post office in my pajamas, no one is going to care. And if I want to dress up in high heels and go to the post office, no one cares either! I can just do my own thing. If no one sees me for days, that’s okay. If I’m out every night at the local pub, that’s okay too. It’s kind of the place where anything goes and it’s very easy for me to be myself. I’m from Detroit originally, a Midwesterner. I completely relate to the western United States. The vastness of it, the possibility, the beauty, it never gets old. This coastal line never gets old. Every day I walk on the beach with my dog and I’m still awestruck by what’s around me.
Rumpus: That reminds me of one of the images in Olivay of the Ponderosa pine, with the seed that needs to be ignited. That really stuck with me, still has really stuck with me long after I read it. Last year, I had to light my life on fire. I abandoned my home, I quit my job, I left my agent in the same week. It was kind of insane, and yet now, a year later I wonder if I’d be happy or here at all if I would have taken small, researched, precautionary steps.
Reed: I would venture to guess no, and I’m so glad you pulled that line out of the novel, because that was the core of everything in the story. That idea of the pine with a seed that, in order to germinate, needs to be destroyed. Massive destruction is what’s needed for new growth. Without it, you get nothing. The tree is not going to proliferate. It’s not going to become something more than it already is, in fact it will eventually become less and less. I have had many times throughout my life I’ve had to set myself on fire, so to speak. You just reach points where everything needs to be burned to the ground so it can begin again and be done in a better way, a more enriched way. If you’re stuck in one place for too long, you’re just settling for a life. I often think of Mary Oliver’s poem “When Death Comes,” especially the last four lines.
When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.
That terrifies me. I’ve always been afraid that I would just live a life that was on the same level and that nothing bigger came of it. A life where I didn’t engage in something. I didn’t give enough or take enough out of all that is possible. That’s maybe my biggest fear, dying before I actually lived. I give that terror to my characters. I tear them down so they can rebuild. It’s not always perfect, in fact it mostly never is, but it’s necessary.
Rumpus: I think that’s why I identify to your characters so deeply. There are so many passive female characters written into novels and films, and it’s difficult to relate to people with that lack of aggression and ambition because that stationary life is my biggest fear as well. I remember being a kid and freaking out with songs like “Jack and Diane”—hold onto sixteen as long as you can—thinking, that’s four years away! I’m wasting my life!
Reed: I’ve always had this sense of impending time-passage. Not doom but time continuing and me not having done anything with the time. You start to realize, what was I doing a year ago? And then another year has passed. Even as a child I worried about it. I worried about what was happening year after year. I’ve never been passive. Any time I have been passive in my own life, I’ve been extremely unhappy and had to light a fire again. It’s just what I do. It’s not without its problems. You’re taking a huge risk for yourself and for the people you love and your relationships. But I can’t see living any other way. I feel like the result is that I’ve been able to find a presence in the world and write novels, which is such a luxury. There’s such a richness there to be able to do that. And that all stems from taking chances and not wanting to remain stagnant.