Lynn Sloan: Coast to Coast with Ollie

Lynn Sloan
photo courtesy Lynn Sloan

Lynn Sloan recently had a story from her debut collection, This Far Isn’t Far Enough, chosen for inclusion in the acclaimed radio series Selected Shorts. It’s a potentially huge boon for an emerging writer, and I hope it helps introduce readers not just to “Ollie’s Back,” but to other fantastic stories like “Call Back,” in which an aging actor struggles to take care of his wife as she goes through dementia, or “Nature Rules,” which starts out as a story about a woman dealing with a bear rummaging through her garbage cans but takes a sharp detour into family drama. In this guest essay, Sloan talks about what it’s like to have your work showcased in what just might be America’s most widely recognized reading series.

“VIP parking at the Getty,” my friend exclaimed.

I had just her told that a story of mine that she’d read five years ago in messy draft form had been chosen for Selected Shorts on Stage. Selected Shorts! She and I often talked about the outstanding short stories read by notable actors we’d listened to on this long-running NPR show. I thought she would be wowed by my news. My story, “Ollie’s Back,” chosen for this fabulous literary show—amazing. The program, “A Feast of Fiction,” would also include stories by Donald Barthelme, Stephen Tobolowsky, Annie Proulx, and Willa Cather (Willa Cather! I read Willa Cather in eighth grade!). Such luminaries and me—astonishing.

This Selected Shorts, which usually performs at Symphony Space in New York City, would be at the Getty Center in Los Angeles in March, which is way better than New York City in March, and I would be there. None of this impressed my friend more than the fact that I would be given a VIP pass to park at the Top of the Mountain at the Getty.

Two months later, as I stood on the plaza of the Getty an hour before the performance I understood why: VIP, Very Important Person anything, doesn’t enter the normal writer’s life. But here I was an hour before my story, “Ollie’s Back,” would to be read by the actor Nate Corddry on the plaza of one of the world’s most beautiful museums with a view that overlooked Los Angeles and reached to the Pacific Ocean. It doesn’t get better than this.

When I decided to write a story about a down-on-his-luck cook, I knew I wanted him to draw upon regional roots for his inspiration. But which region? In my public library, I scanned the shelves of American regional cookbooks: Appalachian, Southwest, Yankee, Cajun, Minnesotan, the Pacific Northwest, and more, before coming to Lowcountry, the food of the Carolinas along the Atlantic coast, which reflects many influences, the early Huguenots and the French, the Spanish spice traders, the colonizing British, the enslaved people from Africa. Lowcountry it would be.

I decided that Ollie, my character, would come from a small town outside Charleston, and he would end up in the restaurant business in Providence, Rhode Island. He would be a man of the coast, a man who could “abracadabra the raw harvest of fields, forests, and sea into food that pleased.” That summer I cooked a lot of Lowcountry food. Then I took a road trip to Charleston, feasting on barbecue, pilau, okra and collards, oysters, and terrapin, and learning about the special foods given to us by estuaries, about King Charles, about rice, about the history of the enslaved people and what they brought to America.

None of this history is in my story, but it gave me what I needed to make Ollie real. Five years ago, Ollie took me to the Atlantic Ocean on east coast of America. Now, as I looked over the hills of Los Angeles to the Pacific Ocean, I realized that Ollie had taken me to the opposite coast as well.

Inside the auditorium, the lights dimmed, and the show began. When Nate Corddry began to read “Ollie’s Back,” he made Ollie real, too. In the dramatic lighting on stage he became my Southern cook, baffled by circumstances, betrayed by his partner, and, finally powerful. When Cordrry declaimed the last line, thunderous applause broke out, and the announcer, Jane Kaczmarek, strode on stage to say, “This wonderful story is from This Far Isn’t Far Enough—love this title—and the author is in the audience. Will Lynn Sloan please stand up?”

I took a bow. Ollie had taken me from coast to coast and to the mountain top. For that one moment, I had become a Very Important Person. And Ollie had earned me a rightful VIP parking pass.

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18 June 2018 | selling shorts |