Still More about the Variations

Welcome back. If you have found this hidden page, you must be willing to delve even deeper into the layers of The Oregon Variations. The Navillus Press returns to ask the author more dangerous questions. Navillus Press: Are any of the stories autobiographical?

Sullivan: Everything I write is. But these stories also owe debts to many other people. My daughter Karen, who once competed in roller derby and now teaches linguistics in Australia, inspired “Roller Girls” and “Birdsong.” My son Ian, who has a Ph.D. in astrophysics, inspired “Light Weight” and told me about the LIGO project. The late Ida Kannenberg, author of Project Earth and UFOs and the Psychic Factor, inspired “Chab” (which of course is another anagram for Bach). My ski buddies inspired “To Say Nothing of the Dog.” The Eugene humor author Frog provided the off-color joke in “The Bridal Veil Rooster Rock Laboratory.” Lewis McArthur documented the etymology of "Mount Emily" in Oregon Geographic Names. In each of these cases, however, the protagonists are fictional, and truly do not resemble the real people who gave me the idea for the subject matter.

Navillus Press: The setting for “The Ransom” is confusing. When and where is this peculiar story taking place?

Sullivan: It’s set in present-day Portland, but in an alternate reality. The story’s genre is Steam Punk, a literary category that assumes technological advancement stopped before computers and airplanes could be invented. Steam engines, bicycles, and sailing ships remain as primary means of transportation. To match the genre, I’ve created an alternate history: What if the Civil War had been averted by granting Oregon independence?

Navillus Press: The ransom plot seems forced.

Sullivan: Perhaps not in this alternate reality. In fact, the plot came from a writers conference in Gold Beach, Oregon, where I presented alongside the prolific science fiction / mystery author Kate Wilhelm. Kate challenged her audience to explain what they might do if they were broke, but had to come up with a $30,000 ransom for their spouse by Thursday. She shot down all the proposals. But that evening at dinner I suggested that I would kidnap someone else’s spouse and demand a $30,000 ransom by Wednesday. Instead of rejecting this proposal, she smiled. “Yes,” she said. “And what if you had kidnapped the kidnapper’s wife? Perhaps everyone would be happier.” Immediately I said, “Dibs.”

Navillus Press: If the book’s structure is meant to mirror Bach’s music, why include crossword puzzles?

Sullivan: Bach loved games. His last, unfinished masterpiece, The Art of the Fugue, concludes with a colossal work braiding three melodies in four voices—including a final theme where the musical notes spell his own name, BACH. In the Oregon Variations, you might look for BACH in words like backache and bachelor, and in the odd name Vasily Luchabnek, although the key to that anagram mixes in Sullivan too.Navillus Press: You say Bach spelled his own name in his music. Is there a musical note for the letter H?

Sullivan: In Germany they use H for the note we call B flat. To learn more about the complexities of Bach’s variations, explore the intriguing “Digital Bach” website of the Oregon Bach Festival . Click on windows and wall patterns while you’re there, but search especially for the hidden electronic keyboard.

Navillus Press: Let’s talk about the final story, “To Say Nothing of the Dog.” It actually doesn’t include a dog.

Sullivan: Or does it? The story tips its hat to Jerome K. Jerome ’s book, Three Men in a Boat, To Say Nothing of the Dog, which is based on a real trip undertaken by three men. But the dog on that outing, Montmorency, was fictional. Jerome later claimed that the dog “developed out of that area of inner consciousness which, in all Englishmen, contains an element of the dog.”

Navillus Press: You ended the book with a metaphysical dog?

Sullivan: No. The Crater Lake story isn’t the last variation.

Navillus Press: What? Oh, you mean because it ends with the quotation, “This story isn’t over.” We assumed that was the equivalent of a musical repeat.

Sullivan: It’s true that Bach’s variations were meant to be repeated, with the Aria repeated last of all. But Bach’s final and thirtieth Goldberg variation was different. It was titled “Quodlibet”.

Navillus Press: What does “quodlibet” mean?

Sullivan: In Latin, it means “what pleases.” You might translate it more freely as “whatever you like.” In music, a quodlibet is a humorous mashup of songs and themes. Bach had a large family of talented children. In the evenings the Bachs often performed serious works together, but they’d usually end up with a quodlibet, just for fun. The Goldberg Variations have the same kind of surprise reprise, weaving the Aria’s theme in with some new, off-the-wall melodies, as the terminally ill virginal player in the "Heavens Gate" story discovers.

Navillus Press: But our interview with you here is linked inside an appendix you have also titled “Quodlibet.” If our discussion is in fact the thirtieth variation, then this batch of tales really is an illusive hall of mirrors.

Sullivan: An illusive batch? There’s another anagram, this time from the next-to-last paragraph in the book. I suggest we go back to the start and begin again together.

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