More about the Variations

The Navillus Press sat down with the author to learn more about what lies behind the Oregon Variations. Navillus Press: Each of your variations begins with a map of Oregon counties, showing where the story takes place. Why use two shades of gray?

Sullivan: Darker gray shows the counties where the story is actually set. Lighter gray shows counties that play a smaller role.

Navillus Press: And the musical key signatures at the start of each story?

Sullivan: The stories with flats primarily involve a female protagonist. Those with sharps feature men. The stories generally alternate.

Navillus Press: Some stories have as many as five flats or sharps in their key signatures.

Sullivan: It’s a weirdness warning. The stories solidly grounded in reality use just one sharp or flat. The more black notes, the stranger the tale. I try to vary that as well.

Navillus Press: You say that this collection of short stories is based on Kafka’s theme of loneliness. But isn’t Kafka’s work more about hopelessness than loneliness?

Sullivan: Not in my opinion. Look at Kafka’s story, “A Report to an Academy.” In that tale, an African ape is brought to Germany in a cage. To find a way out of his prison, the ape makes a monumental effort to speak and behave like a civilized European. But his accomplishment comes with a price. He no longer belongs to either world. In my story, “A Report to a Commission,” I explore that theme of loneliness in reverse.

Navillus Press: Let’s talk about the first variation, “The Eastbank Elegies.” At the end of the book you describe this as a found poem, containing snippets of the conversations you overheard one day on the Portland waterfront. Where in that crowd of voices is the theme of loneliness that’s supposed to permeate this book?

Sullivan: Hidden in plain sight. Try reading the poem in a different direction.

Navillus Press: You studied German at the University of Oregon. What’s going on with “Elvis Presley at the UO German Department”?

Sullivan: (laughs) When the U.S. Army drafted Elvis in 1958 they sent him to Germany. He learned enough there to sing a pretty good version of “Muss I Denn,” a lonely old song about having to leave your girl. I think the final line about the wooden heart was Elvis’s idea. To make sense of the English transliteration in "Messy Den" it helps to watch a video of Elvis singing the song. Near the end he uses the original German lyrics: "Muss i denn, muss i denn/ Zum Staedele hinaus, Staedele hinaus/ Und du, mein Schatz, bleibst hier?/ Sei mir gut, sei mir gut/ Sei mir wie du wirklich sollst, wie du wirklich sollst,/ 'Cause I don't have a wooden heart."

Navillus Press: You have given us two stories that could be categorized as flash fiction. Why do you call one of them “Fifty in the Alvord Desert” and the other “Ninety on a Tangent Farm”?

Sullivan: One is constrained to exactly fifty words and the other to ninety. The stories also deal with characters who are fifty and ninety years old—arguably the loneliest ages of all, when we face the crises of mid-life and old age.

Navillus Press: The book includes two crossword puzzles. The first puzzle involves puns.

Sullivan: Sorry. At least they’re spicy puns.

Navillus Press: The second crossword puzzle doesn’t seem possible with ordinary letters.

Sullivan: Spoiler alert! To solve “Double Cross” you have to use a double cross. The pound symbol can stand for the word “pound,” the word “number,” or for a double L in either direction.

Navillus Press: Love is an issue in many of your stories.

Sullivan: Love is always an issue, especially in stories.

Navillus Press: But you rarely give us happy endings. In “The Secret Place” you introduce us to two nice people, Rick and Laura, who obviously need each other’s love. But then you have them break up.

Sullivan: Breakups like this happen, even when they don’t seem right. More often, though, I try to leave the endings of love stories in doubt.

Navillus Press: That’s even worse! In “Chab” you have an alien move heaven and earth to get Vera back together with the mechanic who had proposed to her 48 years earlier. As if by a miracle, the mechanic shows up on a motorcycle with an extra helmet for her. She’s wearing his engagement ring at that very moment. But then you end the story before we find out if she gets on the motorcycle.

Sullivan: Let’s do a quick poll. How many readers out there want her to get on a motorcycle with a jerk who abandoned her for 48 years? Sometimes it’s better to give the readers a choice.

Navillus Press: Then you like ambiguous endings?

Sullivan: No! I know that’s all the rage in American literary magazines -- having the words stop a page or two before the story is finished. There’s a difference between leaving the reader to ponder a dilemma and leaving the reader adrift.

Navillus Press: Two of your stories are about lesbian love. That seems like a lot.

Sullivan: “Roller Girls” and “The Starter” involve women with fantasies about other women. Things like this happen. Two stories out of thirty-one? In real life, that’s par for the course.

Navillus Press: Speaking of sexual fantasies, we were a bit shocked by “The Bridal Veil Rooster Rock Laboratory,” where you alternate selections from a children’s storybook with graphic descriptions of two sex doctors making love.

Sullivan: This particular story was the most complicated in the book, and turned out to be the longest. My wife Janell challenged me to write a story about romance. Not sex, not love, but true romance. I think she knows what a challenge this is, especially for a man. And to be honest, I’m not sure it’s possible. In my attempt, I pair a romanticized Wild West storybook with a research program to find an elixir of love. In essence, I've tried to define romance by default, by describing what it is not. In the end, what else is there? Where in all of literature has anyone revealed pure romance? And don’t tell me Jane Austen managed it. As you see, I am a man.

Navillus Press: The only subject more dangerous than love is religion. Do you realize how many people you have offended with “The Word”?

Sullivan: Religion, belief, and myth are part of Oregon’s story too. There really is a church beside the freeway in south Salem with a cell phone relay mounted to its cross. Recently the church disguised the transmitter with a tube that covers the cross. But can you imagine the lineman installing the relay, suspended from the cross, announcing “It’s finished” (consummatum est) and throwing a switch to let everyone be “live again”?

Navillus Press: The most troubling story of all is “Heavens Gate.”

Sullivan: The return of wolves to Oregon has split communities, especially in Wallowa County. For this reason I’ve given the wolf three names and three personalities: Journey, OR-7, and Cerberus. Each name reflects a different viewpoint about wolves: the environmentalists, the scientists, and the ranchers. I tried to be balanced about this issue, but of course I’m not.

Navillus Press: What we found troubling was not the wolves, but rather the religious overtones. You’ve placed the Heavens Gate house halfway between heaven and Hells Canyon, as a gateway to death for cancer patients. Sullivan: Yes. The Realtor, Sharon Acheron, describes herself as the “agent of the sticks.”

Navillus Press: In the Northwest, the word “sticks” is jargon for the backwoods, but did you really mean “Styx”?

Sullivan: A Realtor named Sharon does bring to mind Charon, the ferryman of Greek myth who takes souls across the River Styx to Hades. Oregonians call the Wallowas “God’s country.” Why not take that metaphor to its logical conclusion, using the scenic county as a “Make A Wish” destination for the terminally ill?

Navillus Press: You portray the wolf as a bloodthirsty avenger, but you also call him a god.

Sullivan: For better or worse, wolves are gods.

Navillus Press: Or werewolves? Pete, the wildlife biologist, never appears at the same time as Journey, the wolf. Are they one and the same?

Sullivan: Certainly they are both "part of the package."

Navillus Press: That's not an answer.

Sullivan: No.

Navillus Press: Mystery also seems to play a role in your sex-and-romance story, “The Bridal Veil Rooster Rock Laboratory.”

Sullivan: The mythology of the “Kramned” tribe is not intended to be realistic. Kramned is Denmark spelled backwards, just as Ailama is Amalia, Ranger is Regnar, and Snegom is Mogens, a common Danish name. The stereotypes about Native Americans in this fictional storybook are meant to be just that: romantic stereotypes, and they certainly don't represent the Nimipu, the Nez Perce people of that area.

Navillus Press: Actually, we were wondering about the man from Pfisto, the pharmaceutical company.

Sullivan: He’s somewhere between Pfizer, Mephistopheles, and Faust, the scholar who sold his soul to the devil in exchange for knowledge. When you think about it, that’s what Eve did in the garden of Eden: sold her innocence for a bite from the apple of knowledge. Amalia is tempted by the same glowing Apple logo on a laptop computer. But she manages to resist.

Navillus Press: We thank you for this opportunity to look deeper into The Oregon Variations.

Sullivan: Please come back.