Initially, it felt like selling out.
Wooed by good schools and creature comforts, aspiring author and English teacher Scott Wrobel set aside his reservations about America’s middle ground and moved to the suburbs.
Not just any suburb, but the “glistening, showy” cul-de-sacs of Andover.
The sameness of the suburbs is where creative impulses wither and die, Wrobel feared.
But the peculiarities of suburban life — the Welcome Wagon of neighbors, the happy hour around portable driveway fire pits, the sight of someone power washing his mailbox in goggles and a rain slicker — sparked something in him.
Wrobel, who teaches creative writing at Anoka-Ramsey Community College, began studying his new surroundings, and, last year, his first collection of short stories, “Cul de Sac,” was released by independent publisher Sententia Books. It’s a dark comedy that reveals the lives and inner thoughts of eight middle-aged guys living on a cul-de-sac. The book is provocative. Some of his characters are unapologetically racist and homophobic. His characters do things that make you laugh and cringe.
Wrobel, 44, said his book could be set in any American suburb, but the nameless “third-ring suburb” and references to the St. Paul Winter Carnival, Como Zoo, a Fun Fest and the “Fargo” accent make it feel as if Wrobel didn’t stray far from his own ’hood. He talked about himself and his book in an interview with the Star Tribune. Here’s the Q-and-A, edited for length.
Q: If you initially had a dim view of the suburbs, why settle in Andover?
A: Work, convenience initially, and we had small kids. We lived in Lindstrom in Chisago County. We wanted the kids to be in a neighborhood with other kids. We were just too isolated. That’s the reason we moved to the suburbs. We looked at the test scores for the schools and Andover Elementary was ranked really high. It was a great place when the kids were younger.
Q: Is it a great place for you as an adult?
A: It’s OK for me, but it’s not the ideal place for me. My ideal place would be on the edge of the Boundary Waters in a cabin. Anything that is remotely civilized is somewhere that’s not good for me.
I’ve sold out a lot. I’ve compromised. I swore I’d never have a cellphone. I swore I’ve never have a minivan. I swore I’d never have a house in the suburbs and be an ordinary person, but I am.
Q: What were your first impressions of suburban life?
A: It was a jolt from the country. I am not really gregarious. I am kind of a private person. Initially the Welcome Wagon was so intense and the neighborhood block parties they would have. People would have bonfires in their driveways. I think this is a phenomenon of the suburbs. People have the portable fire pits in the driveways. People just walk around from driveway to driveway having drinks and socializing and the kids run all over the place.
It was really different for me because I never had that kind of community environment before. At the same time for a private person you feel a little bit of pressure that you have to be part of that community. That rubbed me the wrong way some of the time.
Q: When did it dawn on you this is great fodder for a book?
A: Right when I got there. I immediately became interested in the suburbs as a place. One of the early points of tension was at the driveway bonfires when I asked why they liked the suburbs and why they moved here. They would give me the usual kinds of answers about safety and a good environment for the kids. That was about all I could really get. I figured there had to be more about this idea of the suburbs, so I started doing a lot of research reading a lot of books, watching a lot of movies and documentaries.
It was really interesting to see the idealism people had, almost like moving to the suburbs everywhere in this country was like moving to Disneyland. It was this ideal perfect place where all your problems are solved and everyone is happy. I like that kind of idealism, but at the same time I see it’s not ideal underneath that veneer. There are a lot of difficult and real problems. I like that difference between the public life and what people idealize and what the truth is. It’s great territory for storytelling.
Q: Would any of your neighbors recognize themselves in your book?
A: I never based any of these characters on anyone who is real in the neighborhood. As a private person and as a person who wants to continue living there, I completely avoided that. One of my neighbors who read the book, she sent me an e-mail and said I really appreciate that I didn’t see any of our families in the book. She sort of feared it a bit.
The people in my real neighborhood are nowhere near the level of dysfunction as my characters. These characters are really a presentation of a darker view of suburbia. I wanted to explore that darkly comic territory. The suburbs seemed a good environment for that. The first thing I wanted to do was create characters that were believable who were convincing, funny, pitiful, depressing, flawed, damaged — but also do it in a way this is empathetic and nonjudgmental.
Q: None of the characters are based on real people but certainly the fictional suburb seems familiar. What is the name of the “third-ring” suburb in your book? Is it based on Andover?
A: It’s nameless. I tried purposefully to avoid a specific place or locale. I really didn’t even want this cul-de-sac to be associated with the Midwest initially. My artistic purpose was to make this an American cul-de-sac. I did leave some references in there, even though I tried to scour the book for them.
Q: You say it’s hardly biographical. Are there are parts of you in this book?
A: I think the overall sensibility, definitely. The common themes the guys in this book share are that each one is burdened by something and it’s not all the same things. I share that sense of understanding and knowing what feeling burdened is — as all parents do.
Q: There’s a lot of power washing going on in your book. What is the importance of that tool in suburban life and in your book?
A: The movie “Fargo” influenced me with the use of the power washer. In the story about the neighborhood alcoholic-masochistic-racist guy Gordy, he gets power washed by his son. That was a little bit influenced by “Fargo” and the wood chipper scene because the wood chipper was sort of this rural thing. What would be a spectacle scene like that at the end of my story? Power washer — suburbs — perfect. It just seemed to fit. Guys, they love their power washers, man.
I once saw a guy power washing his mailbox. He was power washing the mailbox and he had on goggles and a yellow raincoat.
Q: There’s also a lot of scrapbooking references in your book? Any significance to all this scrapbooking the wives are doing?
A: It was pretty trendy a few years back, so it was in my brain. My wife and I did a little bit of that but the furthest we got was [documenting] a trip to Disney World. We got maybe three pages in and it was so much work we stopped. Now the pictures are back in boxes. It seems like a funny and an interesting activity for a lot of suburban people who really get into this as a way to somehow capture their ideal family life. In your books, it’s all pretty stuff. When people show you their scrapbooks, its always presented really well and they have little captions and they have the artwork and everyone is happy and it’s just a perfect world.
That’s what I wanted to capture in my book. What people display is always very happy and perfect, but what if the scrapbook really mirrored what family life was like? You’d see people fighting and you’d see a kid with a bloody nose or screaming. It’s a very ideal presentation of the world. It’s a big lie but it’s a fun kind of lie. It’s a metaphor for the suburbs in a way — presenting that perfect world.
Q: The book is written exclusively from the men’s perspective. Why focus just on the men?
A: I’ve never really read any fiction about domestic guys. Everything you read about men is they’re adventurers or athletes or business guys who are heroic, physically aggressive — all those stereotypes. What about domestic guys — everyday dudes — who also parent and who go through everyday life?
Q: It’s a dark comedy and you do not skirt around sensitive issues. Some of your characters are openly racist and anti-gay. Why include those uncomfortable subjects?
A: Those kinds of topics are typically avoided and if they are discussed then everyone says the appropriate things. I wanted to get inside some of those characters and show what they’re really like and to reveal their inner lives as opposed to their public persona. That’s the main goal. Show what people are like in realty.
Look at reality. Look at the bullying issues going on in the [Anoka-Hennepin] School District. That’s a result of what? That’s a result of homophobia. It’s prevalent in suburbs. I don’t think Anoka County is unique in that, but for some reason it’s become a national story here. Typically, people who don’t conform to the standard suburban expectations are not often treated well. I wanted to show that a little bit without going over the top with it. I didn’t create any big spectacles or anything like that.
Q: You moved to the suburbs for your kids — good schools and safety — but do you ever worry that it’s doing more harm than good?
A: No, because I think it’s good for kids to be exposed to everything and talk about it and understand the differences and to know where they live.
The negative side to me is any kind of material comfort, and that’s what the suburbs are about, leads to a little bit of laziness that makes me a little bit afraid. A lot of the characters in this book are materially comfortable and because of that they are intellectually dead. I do fear that for my kids, for all suburban kids. How much entertainment and corporate influence are kids under because of the suburban world? That’s scares me.
Q: Are you a subversive element in the suburbs?
A: Yeah, that’s fair. The thing is I like it too. It’s comfortable. The weird thing is I am a suburban guy. I am one of them. I do really like my neighbors. Having that tension is sort of interesting. It’s that love-hate relationship.
Author Scott Wrobel will read from and discuss “Cul de Sac” from 2 to 5:30 p.m. on April 23 in the Campus Legacy Room at Anoka-Ramsey Community College’s Coon Rapids campus. The reading is part of the Two Rivers Reading Series.