Lon Otto

recorded in Minneapolis/St. Paul, MN

 

Other Writers in

Lon Otto

I’m Lon Otto and I’ve lived in St. Paul for the past 35 years, I guess most of my life, and have always lived in the city. I was talking with some friends of mine at a dinner not all that long ago and we were talking about whether we feel Minnesotan, for instance, and whether we have allegiance to that or whether they have allegiance to the Twin Cities, and I hadn’t thought about that very much before. I think that, actually, I feel more a part of a neighborhood, I guess. I don’t feel all that Minnesotan. I don’t know what that means, particularly. I’m a city guy, I’ve always lived in cities, and I guess, to me, what’s meaningful where I live is, it’s very local, it’s very much a neighborhood kind of thing, it’s this part of town, which I love, which is very diverse. You’ll see Somali women walking by in their gorgeous robes, if you sat here long enough, with their kids, heading over to the park. When we moved in 18 years ago in this neighborhood, it was mostly Hmong families living as a housing project about a block away. It was mostly Hmong there and, historically, this is a Black neighborhood, before that it was a Jewish neighborhood and it’s still very ethnically diverse and mixed. And there are conflicts that come from that, but it’s been very important to me as a writer. So to me, the literary community is not this neighborhood—I know one other writer in this neighborhood—but that’s a broader thing and that’s also really important to me, to be among writers. But I think I’d rather be, if I had to choose between being among writers and being in a neighborhood where things are complex and mixed, I’d go with the neighborhood everyday.


The Knox Writers’ House

One of the questions we're asking is: do you think there’s a Midwestern voice or aesthetic?


Otto

Ah [laughs].


KWH

What a sigh [laughs].


Otto

Well I guess I’d say I think there are Midwestern voices. I guess I don’t believe in almost anything in the singular. Politics, religion, it just doesn’t make sense to me, it just doesn’t tend to ring true. I think that probably people who’ve grown up in this part of the country are probably the truest representatives of if there is a Midwestern voice, but I guess I don’t tend to hear it. What I hear or what I see are certain landscapes, certain ethnic groups, certain patterns of life, a certain kind of architecture more than a vet specific voice, so if you’re talking in multiples, I’d say yeah, there are Midwestern voices, but whether you could always tell them from coastal voices, say, I don’t really know. I was in an anthology which you might know, it’s kind of relevant to the Midwest, it’s a nonfiction anthology, that Michael Martone put together. He called me up and said, I’m putting together this anthology based on a township trope, the trope of a township and asking people to write about it. And he called me up assuming that, because he knew my writing, assuming that I was from Minnesota. And I said, Well, I didn’t grow up in Minnesota. I grew up in Missouri and Indiana. And it turned out I grew up, a lot of my life, in Fort Wayne, which is [laughs] Michael Martone is the honorary mayor of Fort Wayne. And he’s the one that’s made that territory very much his own. So anyway, I wrote an essay for that collection, and that would be a collection worth looking at, in thinking about this. But my own experience is typical. I’m living here and have lived here, and settled in Minnesota, but came from Missouri, came from central Missouri, and then lived somewhere else. And because people move around so much, I think that the whole question of a regional voice is infinitely complicated and problematic. And interesting.


KWH

Yeah, that’s another thing we’re talking a lot about is, a poet we just talked with today was talking about being a vagabond generation and running around the United States and with the internet, you get to touch so many other schools and ideas and the west coast is doing this and the east coast is doing this, maybe, but everyone can hear it and talk about it and be part of the conversation. Do you think there’s value in roosting somewhere, in staying in a neighborhood? As a writer, as someone who is trying to establish a voice, do you think there’s some value in that? You’ve lived here 35 years...


Otto

Lived in this neighborhood 18 years, in this house 18 years. I don’t know that it’s an objective value. I think that you get something out of it. I mean, I know how this neighborhood has changed over 18 years and I know my neighbors who have come and gone and the ones that were here, who raised families, and I know their kids, and I think that’s valuable, but I think it’s also valuable to vagabond around. I tend to put down roots. I like getting to know a place. I like getting to know the people in the neighborhood and the social patterns and so forth. That’s just interesting to me. I like that. I think that nurtures me as a writer. On the other hand, the novel I’m working on is about a year we spent in Costa Rica. And while I was down there, I was writing about St. Paul, and then stuff happened down there and then I came back and I’m writing about that. I think all those questions are compulsively interesting, but certainly, I don’t believe they are answerable. I give answers, but I’d be very surprised if anybody said, Yeah, that’s the answer, that’s the one that pins it down.


KWH

More than some other writers we’ve recorded, your voice is very distinct and comfortable in its own skin and style and I wonder if that’s somehow affected by putting down roots somewhere.


Otto

I think probably not. I don’t know, I have no idea, really, but I think that it has to have a consequence of some kind, but it depends on where you are and how you feel related to the community that you’re in. If you’re essentially an outsider, and we were essentially outsiders in Costa Rica, when we were living there, it’s a very different kind of experience. I think it has more to do with where you’re finding your material, where you’re finding the people and the experiences that you want to put into the writing. To me, it has more to do with that, and I think that settling into a place, you get to a different kind of story. Not necessarily better stories or worse stories, but a different kind of story.

Listen

from As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner

Listen More