Optimism & the Colorado High Desert: A Conversation with Heather Abel
Corey Farrenkopf interviews Heather Abel about politics, satire, & her debut novel, The Optimistic Decade, in the era of Trump.
Set in the high desert of Colorado, Heather Abel’s debut novel, The Optimistic Decade, dissects the issues dividing Left from Right, positioned against the backdrop of a back-to-the-land commune-esque summer camp called “Llamalo.” It sounds like a comical set-up, but Abel’s characters are never satirical or lampoonish. Abel doesn’t ridicule one side or the other, allowing the sad realities of individuals’ lives to speak for themselves, eliciting sympathy from readers where they’d be surprised to find any. Beyond the timeliness of her novel, Abel explores the various forms of love, the awkwardness of teenage years, and everyone’s eternal search to belong. The plot follows teenagers Rebecca and David as they navigate a tense summer at Llamalo, both trying to figure out where they fit into a divided world. The novel’s true humor arises from their socially awkward relations and angst-ridden missteps. Alongside her fully realized characters, Abel’s depiction of the high desert is exacting. Her mesas and scrublands, ranches and depression-wracked towns are painted with vibrant clarity. I was lucky enough to speak to Heather after she did a reading at Sturgis Library. The following encompasses some of the highlights of that conversation.
COREY FARRENKOPF: In a particularly politically charged time, your book navigates both sides of the political spectrum, while never overly condemning or lampooning either. Caleb and Donnie are perfect representatives of the polar extremes of Left and Right. Could you speak to the challenges of writing sympathetic characters, even when their worldview doesn’t align with your own?
HEATHER ABEL: When I worked for a newspaper in Colorado, I would spend time with men like Donnie, miners and ranchers who had lost their jobs, whose lives were not turning out as they’d believed they would. I’m always interested in dashed dreams. As a reporter, you’re out to get a quote, but I wanted to do more, to follow these men home (in a non-creepy way), to see how their anger and sadness expressed itself in dailiness. How did they spend their days? What did they eat for lunch? How did they treat their children? I actually loved writing of Donnie’s humanity, even as I didn’t shy away from some of his abhorrent politics. I wrote a bunch of his scenes just after the 2016 election. I was aware that Donnie would have voted for Trump. I was aware that I believed that I hated everyone who voted for Trump. And I was aware that I loved Donnie. More of a challenge for me were Ira and Caleb, the men on the left. My politics are as left as you can get, but I am painfully aware of the faults of many of us who hang out on this end of the political spectrum — our self-righteousness, our narcissism, our ego, our provincialism. I wanted to write these men with all their contradictions laid bare, but I didn’t want to lampoon them. This was delicate, and I’m so glad you found it successful.
Some critics have compared the main struggle in your novel, the ranchers versus the campers, to the Israeli / Palestinian conflict. Was that intentional on your part? If so, could you speak to how you threaded such narrative through the book and how it influenced your decisions? If not, what are your thoughts on such a reading?
First off, I was honored to get such a thoughtful review in The New York Times, which came with the online headline: In the Colorado Desert, a Debut Novelist Finds A Metaphor for Israel and Palestine. Books operate on many levels, of course, and on the main level — the level of plot and character — I meant this as a book about the American West. Donnie and Caleb are influenced by and reacting to a very particular Western mythology and masculinity. And the camp, Llamalo, has a very American history. It belonged to the Ute Indians until they were forced off. Under the Homestead Act, the government gave it to Donnie’s great grandfather, a white pioneer. Exxon’s disastrous oil shale project bankrupted Donnie, forcing him to sell the land to Caleb. This is such an American story of power, conquest, resources, and succession. Llamalo’s story is not the story of Israel and Palestine.
At the same time, books always swim in the ocean of metaphor, and I was consciously working with the metaphor of the Promised Land. I was thinking explicitly about how we ask particular swaths of land to create community and to transform us. In service of this, we create borders; we keep people out. I was also thinking about the Jewish idea of mitzvot, actions we do to get close to God. Early on in my writing of this book, I read Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel, in which Heschel explains that the holiest place for Jews is not a place at all, not even a synagogue. It’s a day, a period of time — the Sabbath, a mitzvah. I was so interested in the idea that actions are holy instead of places, especially since I was writing about the myth of place. Of course, I did think about Israel when I read that. I decided that I wanted the spiritual development of my book to reflect this understanding. All that is to say, yes, the metaphor was there, but it was super low level. How cool, then, that the reviewer picked it out.
Auto-Fiction has been big in recent works of Realist fiction. How much of The Optimistic Decade is pulled from real life versus your imagination? Where does Rebecca fit into all of it?
So much of writing is sitting in a chair reaching for objects that we can’t see, all the tangible stuff our characters touch as they go through their lives. When I wrote Rebecca, these objects were easy for me to find. She grew up in Santa Monica, like I did. Her parents were journalists, and I’d worked as a journalist. Like me, she spent her childhood going to protests and meetings and potlucks with other L.A. leftists. It was fun for me to reach for her objects: the spiralbound reporter’s notebook, the beer poured into apple juice bottles for a picnic, the sand in the bottom of the beach bag, the pin on the Christmas tree that says Wearing Buttons Is Not Enough. (In this way, David’s objects were easy, as well.) Auto-fiction implies, I think, a cohesion between the author and the character’s internal states as well as fluency with the external objects. There’s definitely some distance between Rebecca and me emotionally, and often I feel closer toward Suze or Caleb or Georgia. But I was trying to say something in this book about masculinity, which I navigated through Rebecca and her growing understanding of men and their power and privilege. I still feel really emotionally close to that part of the story, and I hope it’s speaking to young women. (And men!)
Llamalo is a kind-of-commune, back-to-the-land summer camp utopia. Where did you get the idea for that setting? Why the high desert of Colorado? Any interesting firsthand accounts of commune life or the search for a supposed utopia?
When I was nine or ten, I was home from school with the flu, and I found a book about the kibbutz in my dad’s office. I was enthralled. People didn’t always live in nuclear families? How fantastic! I studied intentional communities and communes in college, and I read pretty much everything I could about them. My own personal experience is not with a commune but with a back-to-the-land summer camp in northern California. I worked there for six years. It’s not as rugged or ramshackle as Llamalo, but it definitely taught me that camps can be myths come to life.
I know you said it took several years and many rounds of edits to create The Optimistic Decade as it is now. I get hung on the time it takes me to finish my own works of fiction. Could you fill us in on the publishing process that went into bringing your novel into being? What would you say to other writers who struggle with the fear of writing too slowly?
The Optimistic Decade had a comically long gestation process. I started it in graduate school, but when an agent asked to represent me based on some short stories a professor had sent her, I stopped writing. (Oh, naïve youth, what I wouldn’t do to get those years back!) I was thrilled, but clearly overwhelmed. I put the novel aside for some years to make money, and when I finished a draft, my agent said it wasn’t quite right. I was nine months pregnant at the time. After my baby started daycare, I scrapped that version of the book and wrote it anew. When I had another draft, I sent it to a friend’s agent who offered me representation. He spent over a year doing a very belabored line edit, and then he gave up agenting. By that time, I felt distant from that version of the novel, so I wrote much of it new again. I sent this to the fantastic Doug Stewart at Sterling Lord because I loved a book he represented — Bobcat by Rebecca Lee (read it!). Two weeks later — and about a decade after I started the book — Doug sold it to Kathy Pories at Algonquin. I had a wonderful experience with Kathy who is such an astute and kind editor, and the plot of the book changed drastically once again.
There is so much about publishing that is out of our control. Agents leave. Editors might work slowly. The market slogs along. Capitalism is not our friend. The only thing we control is how truthfully we write our stories. Sometimes it takes a long time for this truth to come out. We get sick, have babies and jobs and crises.
That said, I now see the purpose of pushing myself to write quicker. One of my teachers told me I should finish the book before my first baby was born because the experience of motherhood would change me, and I wouldn’t be able to keep writing the same book. I didn’t listen to her, but she was right. I had to rewrite my book. When my second baby was born, I was changed once again; so once again I changed the book.
For this next novel, I’m trying to challenge myself to write quicker, to get a draft done before I change or the world changes. The world is morphing so quickly now that I wonder if our stories — even if they’re set in the past or the future — won’t seem as relevant to us if we take a decade to write them like I did. But I can do this (or at least try to) because my kids are older, my chronic illness is under control, and I’m in an entirely different place financially. I want to give everyone permission to love their slowness. I know that I love reading the books written by authors who took years and years. I appreciate the complexity and richness that comes from a snail’s pace.
Rebecca and David are very authentic teenagers. The fluctuation of their emotions is spot on, along with their social anxieties and desires. How did you get in the headspace to write from their perspectives? Any advice to writers struggling to nail down that authentic, angst-ridden, teenage voice?
Do we ever really leave our teenage selves behind? I found it perhaps too easy to write from the teenage perspective. It’s such a hyper-aware time, a time when we fluctuate so quickly from self-aggrandizement to self-flagellation. Two things did help me, though. First, I played music from my teenage years, because music is a failsafe vehicle for time travel; put on Melt with You and I’m gone, back to the Lincoln Jr. High gym, watching Nick dance with Wonnie and wondering if I might conflagrate from jealousy. Second, I became friends with my embarrassment. Adolescence is constant humiliation, and we find ways to contort ourselves in adulthood to avoid some of these feelings. When I shoved myself back into teenage-sized to write David and Rebecca, the constant embarrassment returned. Rather than push it away, I grew fond of it. How vulnerable we all are! How odd and soft and searching.
In a lot of ways, The Optimistic Decade can be read as multiple variations on the traditional love story. There’s the standard narrative of romantic love, but then you complicate that with the love of ideas and the love of a place. Can you talk about balancing all three throughout the narrative? Did you find one more challenging than the others?
Oh, I’m thrilled that you call it ‘multiple variations on the traditional love story.’ That’s exactly what I was hoping someone would take from the book. I actually found the love of place hardest by far. My love for the West is so primal and deep; it too easily relies on the language of cliché. The wide-open spaces! The grandeur! Romantic love is societally sanctioned — it keeps society chugging along — and love of ideas is honored in my family, but not everyone goes through life strung out on a place. I can feel myself becoming a little defensive of this love, a little too insistent. Many of the novel’s false starts were because I didn’t know how to express this love. Finally, I just gave it to a cadre of characters — Donnie, Don, Caleb, David, Suze, Rebecca — and let them all enact it in their idiosyncratic ways.
I really enjoyed what you said in your audience discussion about setting, how you anchored your fiction in places from your past that you missed. Could you speak to the idea of visiting old stomping grounds through fiction?
I fell in love with Colorado’s stories and landscape when I moved there at 23. Five years later, I left Colorado for New York to get an MFA in fiction. At one of the first parties I attended, I told a guy that I’d be moving back as soon as I finished my degree. This guy became my boyfriend, then my husband, and his job took us to Massachusetts, where the mountains look like anthills and all my neighbors vote just like me. I began The Optimistic Decade in mourning for Colorado but soon realized that by writing it, I could live in Colorado again. Every day I would travel to the high desert, walk between sage and rabbitbrush, climb up into the pinion-juniper forest, visit with the ranchers and miners and hippies who had been my neighbors.
What are you working on now? Any work coming out in the near future you’d like to talk about?
I can barely speak about my current project for fear that it will evaporate. But I can say that my new work is set in Northampton, where I live. As I alluded to above, for many years I hated living here. I couldn’t see it as a place of story. I felt uninspired, turned off by the landscape and the lives of the people I met. Finally, I realized that to fully exist here, to open myself to the place, I needed to write about it, to learn its history and think about its future. It’s worked! This is the first autumn that I’ve been fascinated by New England, especially by the way seasons rule over people here. Now I find Northampton to be both a much more haunted place and a much more real place. It’s no longer the site of my dislike but the site of my curiosity.
Any final Optimistic advice to readers and writers living in our not-so-Optimistic decade?
Ever since I decided to leave journalism to write fiction, I’ve been doubting myself. Through the Bush years and the Obama years, I would fret: What is the point? How is this helping anyone? Should I do something else with my life? Part of this is because I was raised in an activist, academic family. I remember my mom giving me a bumper sticker that said Art Saves Lives. She said, I thought you would like it, but I’m not sure it’s true. Sure, I agreed. How did art actually save lives? Can art perform surgery? Can art give everyone health insurance? Can art reunite a child with her parents?
Oddly, it’s been the disaster of Trump that has quieted my doubts. They seem like indulgences from a more naïve time. We need immigration lawyers, definitely. We need journalists. We need social workers and teachers and domestic abuse counselors, and we need people to run for congress. But we need art, too. We need storytellers. We need our world reflected, analyzed, altered. I think we feel this need every twisted day, every day spent on the Internet watching horror, watching a man try to become a dictator. So my advice to other writers is really just gratitude. Thank you, all of you, for the stories you’re telling, for doing this hard work, for moving at a snail’s pace in this fast world, for saving my life.