Small Town Scandals: On Callie Wright’s “Love All”

CALLIE WRIGHT DOESN’T CARE if you read her book on vacation. Her debut novel, Love All, centers on three generations of the Obermeyer family, as each member — from grandpa to the youngest daughter Julia — grapples with varying levels of romantic disarray. The Obermeyers live in Cooperstown, New York, where Wright also grew up. Both in Wright’s novel and in reality, Cooperstown can’t escape the shadow of The Sex Cure, a thinly veiled tell-all about the sexual exploits of Cooperstown residents, published in 1962.

Love All pivots on The Sex Cure, as the Obermeyers nosedive into death, infidelity, and the trials of adolescence. There is a salacious cocktail party, high school love triangle, and an affair in a hospital room. It’s a terrific soap opera that moves seamlessly from grandpa’s poorly concealed affairs to his grandson’s prowess on the baseball field.

I met with Wright, with whom I used to work at Vanity Fair (where she is still a reporter-researcher), on an unseasonably cold and rainy night in June. Wright is expecting her first child in September and lives in Brooklyn with her husband. We talked about beach reads, suburban fiction, the Baseball Hall of Fame, and writing a novel with a 9-to-5 job.


BILL BRADLEY: Your book is getting lots of love on summer reading lists. How do you feel about the term “beach read”?

CALLIE WRIGHT: I’m into it. I read a lot of mysteries. I can’t control myself. As children we read to find out what happened. I still feel like the highest achievement is to write a book that’s well written and makes [readers] feel something and want to keep going at a breakneck pace. In our culture the phrase for that is beach read, which is fine. I mean, god, who doesn’t love a book when you’re on vacation that you can’t pull your nose out of? I wanted to write a book that was a pleasure to read, but that stayed with you afterward.

There are bad books where you’re like, “Fine! Who killed her? I just have to find out.” I wasn’t going for that. But I hope people do read it with that kind of fever.

BB: Scandal is the driving force of your narrative. Are there any scandalous short stories or novels set in small towns that influenced you over the years?

CW: The books and writers I loved as a kid were Updike, Cheever, Hemingway — but really Updike and Cheever. I suppose I always wanted to write suburb fiction. I would like to go back and read Rabbit, Run now. What sticks with me is not so much the dynamics between the characters, but Updike’s heart-stopping lines. Like when Harry realizes the ice tray is empty again. The loneliness he feels in realizing he’s the only person who ever refills the ice — that’s everything. To pinpoint that moment, which is so domestic and so neither here nor there to most people. And yet I can totally relate to that being the tipping point when you realize you’re alone.

BB: The Baseball Hall of Fame casts a shadow over the city throughout the book. We don’t ever step foot in the Hall, though. Is that what it’s like growing in Cooperstown?

CW: No, nobody goes there. I mean, why would you? Most people don’t move to Cooperstown because they’re avid baseball fans. It just happens to be the town where the Hall of Fame is. Although, I worked there the summer after my freshman year of college. I worked in the projector room. I wrote my first short story I ever sold up there [to Glimmer Train]. It was about a kid named Jackie, for Jackie Robinson. That was the first story I ever sold. It was 1997. I thought my career was really about to take off. [Laughs.]

BB: Did you start this when you were getting your MFA at Virginia? Is it your first crack at writing a novel?

CW: I had a different novel I started at Virginia, which ended up not selling in around 2004-2005. And I consider that very lucky now. It was very devastating at the time, of course. There were things that were good about that novel, but it wasn’t good enough. And the worst thing that could have happened would have been it coming out anyway. And I didn’t know that then. I didn’t write for about a year after that, and I was really devastated.

BB: It took you seven years to write this book. How the hell did you find the time with a desk job?

CW: In the beginning I was working at Vanity Fair. The first draft I wrote in the mornings five days a week from 6:30 to 8:30 every morning. I would go to the Writer’s Space in Park Slope before work and just be exhausted all day. It was totally untenable. Then I tried a different strategy, which was to write one day a week and both days on the weekends. And then I somehow got it to the point where I had this draft and I looked at it and I was like, “This is not a good book.” So I thought, I don’t think I’m going to be a writer. I quit my job at Vanity Fair and taught third grade at Dalton. I guess I thought I needed to find a different career. That was 2009.

I didn’t write for a whole year. Didn’t look at the manuscript. Figured out teaching was not for me. I had no clue what I was going to do next. And Vanity Fair offered me to come back freelance, which made all the difference. Because I could work three weeks and then have one week off. I would write full time in that one week—eight hours a day. And then I wouldn’t look at it for three weeks until I had another week off. I remember at one point reading it outside in front of a Connecticut Muffin, and I was like, “This is not good. But there are very good parts.”

BB: So when did you have that a-ha moment during the writing process? What turned the manuscript into the book it is today?

CW: I read this book that totally opened my mind to a different way of approaching my novel, which was called Citrus County by John Brandon. It’s so good. It’s about a girl and a boy who are teenagers in Florida, and the boy — Toby I think his name was — is sort of fucked up and lives with his uncle. His parents are not in the picture. This girl moves to town with her little sister and her father — her mother was tragically killed — and ends up befriending Toby. Then out of the blue, he kidnaps her little sister and stashes her in a bunker in the woods.

All of a sudden, I was like, Wait! That’s what the book needs. I have to put a baby in a bunker. There’s a sense of urgency on every page, because you want to know if the kid is going to get out of the bunker. Are the police going to find him? Is Toby going to confess? It’s this driving impulse to every action. I suddenly realized that’s what was missing. I needed to reconstruct every chapter with a sense of urgency in the overall plot. It wasn’t that I lacked character development. I think there was just no clear driving thread through the book. So my mantra was just, put the baby in the bunker. I rewrote it that year, starting in September 2010 through October 2011. And then I started looking for agents.

BB: You grew up in Cooperstown during the same time the book is set. Writers are always riding that blurry line between fiction and real life. Are you expecting any lawsuits from the nice people of Cooperstown? Have you unearthed more secrets like The Sex Cure did in 1962?

CW: In terms of the setting, it’s completely real. Maybe it’s the fact checker in me, but I felt really strongly about using the real setting and not fictionalizing the setting at all. I was 15 years old in 1994. I was on the tennis team, like Julia. But the love triangle is totally fictional.

[For her book] The Sex Cure, Elaine Dorian took local townspeople and barely changed their names to paint this utter fiction of what it was like to live in Cooperstown in the early 1960s. And I wanted to write the corollary, which was using fictional names in a real setting to paint a picture of what it was like to live in this town in the 1990s.

A lawyer vetted the manuscript. It’s fiction. I’ll let you know if I get run out of town.


Bill Bradley is a columnist at Next City.