About the Variations

by William L. Sullivan

For my Oregon guidebooks I hiked every trail I could find in the state. I suppose I also spent that time plotting these tales. (Click here to skip to an author interview with additional discussion points about the stories.)

Oregon is its own inspiration, but in writing this book I was also inspired by the symmetry of Bach’s Goldberg Variations and the loneliness of Franz Kafka’s short stories. I decided to attempt a fugue, using the structure of Bach’s music and the theme of loneliness to tell the story of a place and its people.

Bach’s variations begin with a lonely aria. Then he inverts and shifts the aria’s seven-note theme in two cycles of fifteen variations. To match that structure, the Oregon Variations open with an “Aria for Tenderfeet” that states the theme in the second sentence. After that, the stories shift voice, point of view, genre, and setting in two cycles of ten.

I’ve even included a couple of modern fairy tales. “The Vortex” can be read as an updated version of Jack in the Beanstalk, with Amazon as the giant. On the opposite side of the variations’ cycle, “Beaver Clan” has an echo of Hamelin’s pied piper. But in this variant Beaverton is beset by an infestation of mall rats, rather than actual rodents. Either way, you have to pay the piper.

Some of the stories contain elements of magical realism. In “Aria for Tenderfeet,” for example, Jack Dobson is astonished to find that his missing toes have regrown. But were they perhaps there all the time? The disability that trapped him on his ranch may have been psychological. Jake’s transformation recalls Kafka’s “Metamorphosis,” where the narrator awakes from uneasy dreams to find himself transformed into a giant cockroach. Likewise, in “The Starter,” is Gabby really an alien who reproduces by means of bread dough? Or is she a metaphor for the narrator’s recurring cancer?