In Paul Griner’s new novel, The Book of Otto and Liam, we meet Liam – a boy lying in hospital, in grave condition, a bullet lodged in his head – and his father Otto, a commercial artist whose marriage has collapsed in the wake of the disaster.
Griner’s novel taps into the vein of a uniquely American tragedy: the school shooting. It is an ambitious, empathetic, polyphonic work of fiction that addresses not just the tragedy of school shootings, but the dark world of conspiracy theorists who deny they ever happened.
We had the chance to catch up with Paul Griner about The Book of Otto and Liam, and how he approached writing about such a difficult subject.
The Book of Otto and Liam is an examination of a horrifically familiar tragedy – the American school shooting. Especially recently, with mass shootings on the rise again as the country reopens, the book seems timely. What motivated you to write about this subject?
One of the saddest tweets I read during the height of the COVID pandemic was from a father whose school-aged son said to him, “Well, one good thing about staying home is that we’re not having any school shootings now.” Post-Columbine, in the span of a single generation, school shootings have become a terrible, inescapable part of the fabric of American life.
Since Columbine happened when my first child was just starting school, and since I often write about things that trouble me, I knew for a long time that the subject was one I’d probably wrestle with. Then one day I woke to the names Otto and Liam, two imaginary characters—a father and son—Liam wounded in a school shooting, his father Otto, a commercial artist, sitting at his son’s hospital bedside as the boy recovers. For a long time, though, that was all I had. I wrote down their names and those few facts, and then got on with other works, which turned out to be two novels and a collection of stories.
As I wrote those other books, I became increasingly aware of another troubling thread of contemporary America—hoaxers, or denialists, those who believe mass shootings at schools, bars, workplaces and places of worship don’t really happen, but are false flag events, grimly staged to make it easier to take guns away from law-abiding citizens. They’re a large, growing and very vocal group, often hounding survivors of shootings or the relatives of those who died, compounding the original tragedy, and the more I read about them, the more I realized that Otto and Liam would have to deal with them in some way. That was when the book began to come together.
As for the novel being timely, since we’re coming out of lockdown and mass shootings are again on the rise—I think you’re unfortunately right. And, sadly, given the current state of affairs, I don’t foresee a time when the book won’t be timely, though I wish that weren’t so.
The book also addresses conspiracy theorists, denialists, “truthers”, and the impact they can have on grieving families and survivors. You use the form of letters to write from the perspective of school shooting denialists. Did you feel it was important to represent this perspective from the inside and was it a difficult mindset to represent?
Once denialists, or hoaxers, became central to the book, I knew I had to find out everything I could about them. That meant reading about them, which was fairly easy to do, because they spring up after almost every mass shooting and thus are easy to track down, and it also meant reading their blogs, tweets, letters, and texts. While easy to find, these are often difficult to read, because they contain so much misinformation and such convoluted conspiracies, and because they’re usually full-volume emotion, full time. Reading their anger, outrage and self-righteousness felt like sitting in a room with punk rock and heavy metal blasting from a dozen Bose Pro System speakers for hours on end; you emerge with ringing ears and a somewhat shaky grasp of reality.
But it was important to do. You want to understand all your characters, even the unlikeable ones, and eventually, through my reading, I came to see that they feel they’ve discovered the truth. Too many pundits and politicians profit from them cynically, but the true denialists are true believers, and they have a desperate desire to convince others. They don’t want what they believe to be true, but, as they’re convinced it is, they feel an almost sacred duty to enlighten others.
That they write letters is what convinced me of that. Letters are old school and time-consuming , and therefore an act of fidelity and devotion. It felt important to inhabit the form they’d chosen when I began to write Otto and Liam, and since I’d spent so much time reading theirs, slipping into that mindset wasn’t difficult, especially since we’ve all felt outrage at various times, have all felt wronged, and often have a desire to shout about the outrage and rectify the wrong. Thankfully, we usually turn aside.
But such moments for writers are weirdly thrilling. You become for short periods of time what you are not, but might have been had only a few things broken differently. And, with luck, they lead you to greater sympathy for those characters, and their real-life counterparts, who, I hasten to add, I believe are desperately wrong and extremely hurtful. But, after writing from their perspective, I have some small measure of sympathy for them, though none for their cause.
The Book of Otto and Liam uses letters, advertisements, drawings, lists, and a whole host of other media to build its narrative. What was it that led you to this approach?
A mixture of necessity, choice, and artistic influences. I’ve long loved Sandra Cisneros’s House on Mango Street and Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Paramo, in part because of the power and emotional heft of their short, dazzling chapters. I’ve also always loved collage (Joseph Cornell is a favorite, and Anne Carson’s Nox, a relatively recent book, is also a brilliant collage). The chapters in Otto and Liam are intentionally brief because I knew from the start they’d be emotionally intense; you can only put people under that kind of emotional pressure for so long, which meant the chapters had to be brief, even the joyous ones.
Most of the other forms of narrative sprang from the characters themselves and the world they inhabit. Otto is a commercial artist, so he draws, doodles, paints and produces mockups for clients, and it was natural to include those. He also pokes through antique shops and old bookstores in search of objects for his work. One of them—the erasure book he and Liam work on together—I found in an antique shop when I was writing Otto and Liam, and knew instantly would become part of the novel. May is an engineer and often makes lists to help with her work; those found their way into the book too, and hoaxers and nuns write letters and texts. To accurately capture these characters, those had to be included as well.
Very shortly after I began writing the book, I started looking forward to discovering what other forms of narrative would pop up, such as partially redacted testimony, poems, listicles, and a Q&A. The novel has many registers, and the playfulness, beauty, and humor of the drawings, lists, artwork, and found objects are meant to balance the heavier subjects of certain chapters and letters. Just as in life, the emotional tone changes rapidly throughout the book, and the various narratives help capture those swift emotional transformations.
This is a heavily emotional subject to write about, obviously for those directly affected, but also for a nation that has been collectively dealing with the trauma of school shootings for decades. How do you approach a subject like this – as you do in The Book of Otto and Liam – sensitively and ethically?
As a writer, and as a reader, I don’t think anything should be off limits. We have empathy and imagination, and, as writers, we have to put those to work; the tricky thing is to do so well. Some of that is a function of time. I’m not sure I could have written this novel in my 20s or 30s, but that doesn’t mean we can’t write about difficult subjects when we’re younger. I certainly did, sometimes more successfully than others. I once had a beloved great uncle tell me he’d never speak to me again, because I used some events from his life in a story (though we reconciled once I explained why I’d done so). On the other hand, an elderly woman with a thick German accent approached me after I’d given a reading from my novel The German Woman, to tell me she’d had to put the book aside when she came to a chapter on the firebombing of Hamburg; she’d lived through it as a young girl. I apologized, thinking I’d got it wrong, and told her I’d spent a lot of time researching and imagining it. She stopped me before I could say more. “No,” she said, “I stopped reading for a while because you captured it so well.”
Many of my students write about serious subjects, which I think is great. My job is to push them to do it better. To research more, to imagine more fully, to be sure they’re approaching the subject with the necessary depth of understanding, rather than sensationalizing or being exploitative. I have to be sure of working that way too.
Many chapters in Otto and Liam are set in the neuro-ICU, where Liam goes to recover after the shooting. It’s a place I’m unfortunately familiar with, because my daughter was in a terrible car crash years ago. She had forty-three broken bones, multiple surgeries, and a traumatic brain injury (as Liam does in the book), and spent over a month in the hospital. We weren’t sure if she’d live, and for the first weeks, the news kept getting worse, not better. Luckily, she’s made a complete recovery (and remembers almost none of it).
As I was writing this novel, it made sense to use my own experiences from that time as I imagined what Otto, May, and Liam were going through while Liam was hospitalized. There are moments of odd humor when the semi-conscious Liam says peculiar things, and a funny scene when Otto is asked to witness the reading of a last will and testament for a comatose patient that takes place entirely in Ukrainian; Otto, of course, has no idea what he’s listening to or signing. Those came almost directly from my experience.
But I also had to research and imagine things I hadn’t experienced. Liam’s symptoms, injuries, and care differ markedly from my daughter’s because he’s been shot, not involved in a car accident. It was important to try to get those right and to do so in ways that didn’t exploit the experience of those who’ve lived through shootings. I hope I have.
What would you like readers to take away from reading The Book of Otto and Liam?
Hope. Hope and a sense of the enduring nature of human resilience. And a deeper sense of the need for and power of empathy and compassion.
As you note in one of your earlier questions, the book explores profoundly emotional subjects: school shootings, the wounding of a child, and hoaxers. I think it’s important to write about these subjects, in part because we often see such things on the news, and in part because we live through them as well. If we have children, or nieces and nephews, grandchildren, etc., they sometimes get hurt, and sometimes get hurt badly. We have relatives, friends or co-workers who are hoaxers, and we live in towns, cities or states—like my own—where school shootings happen. And we all live in places where people get shot and sometimes killed. So, like it or not, these things are part of our world.
I understand the pull of escapist literature, where none of these things happen, but I think the books that teach us the most, that move us the most, are ones that dive into the biggest issues of our times. The Book of Otto and Liam is meant to do that. And despite the devastating facts it details—a school shooting and its physical and emotional aftermath—one of the other things it explores is how, even in the midst of tragedy, we can find grace, strength, and empathy, by trying to forgive ourselves and others, by trying to find the best in people, here or departed, by refusing to give in to the quick but ephemeral satisfactions of anger and revenge.
The characters in this book go through the hardest things imaginable, and yet, at the end, most of them endure and reach out to others despite their pain, and they still have hope. They have grace, they have empathy, they have compassion. They’re people I can understand, and most of them are people I could admire; I hope when readers finish their journey with the book, they can too.
The Book of Otto and Liam is available now.
Paul Griner is the author of the novels Collectors, The German Woman, and Second Life, and the story collections Follow Me, (a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers choice) and Hurry Please I Want to Know (winner of the Kentucky Literary Award). He teaches writing and literature at the University of Louisville.