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Scott Wrobel and the goofy heart of suburbia

It’s important to know that Scott Wrobel lives in the suburbs, because at first glance, he’s taking more than a little sport with the neighbors in “Cul De Sac.”

Scott Wrobel
Scott Wrobel

It’s important to know that Scott Wrobel lives in the suburbs, because at first glance, he’s taking more than a little sport with the neighbors in “Cul De Sac (Sententia Books), his first collection of short stories. But he’s not working from stereotypes or presumption; he has firsthand knowledge of and affection for suburbia and the guys who live there. After all, he’s one of them.

Wrobel, who teaches writing at Anoka-Ramsey Community College, graduated from the Mankato State MFA program, then settled into teaching. But he didn’t write much for years; he was too busy with work and family and home improvement — you know, suburban stuff.

When his kids got older, he started to write again — sometimes in the kitchen, with a laptop open while cooking dinner. There’s a little diagram at the front of the book that shows the neighborhood —houses ringing the bulge of a cul de sac. Each house has a guy’s name on it, and Wrobel tells each guy’s story — funny, pathetic, annoying or wonderful. Neighbors.

MinnPost: You’ve called these “inappropriate stories.” But they are pretty much filled with the stuff of life — house problems, kid problems, health problems, weight problems. What’s so inappropriate about being middle-aged?

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Scott Wrobel: That’s a purposeful tongue-in-cheek adjective. I’m still amazed that there are people out in the world who view certain ugly aspects of real life as “inappropriate” subject matter. One of the general aspects of Midwest American suburbia I try to make some sport of is a general reserve or phony politeness that pervades so many cul de sacs, but it’s those things that people don’t talk about in public spaces that are the most important things to talk about, to witness, to expose. 

MP: What, exactly, do you enjoy about suburban living? Because in these stories, I’m not exactly seeing the love.

SW: I enjoy living in the suburbs for a twisted reason: It’s a weird and fascinating place populated with amazingly interesting people. My surroundings are a constant source of amazement. At the same time, the real people who live where I live are not in the stories. They have their own lives and their own troubles, which I purposefully avoided so as not to compromise anyone’s privacy, and so my characters are the product of a twisted imagination. The neighborhood I created is purposefully dark and comical, an attempt at satirizing American suburbia, but with some empathy to temper the dark view. I make some sport of larger institutions like the self-help industry, the religious and inspirational movements, but at the same time try to present the individuals in the stories as realistic and complicated and with some level of respect.

MP: Are people in the ‘burbs truly different from city or rural Americans?

SW: That’s tough. I chose to write fictional stories about the suburbs early on instead of essays precisely to avoid mass generalizations and stereotypes, the usual fare of sociological academic studies of the suburbs. This will sound really pretentious, but the “artistic” challenge I gave myself was to write a satire about the suburban world through realistic character sketches – action, dialogue and description – rather than through statements or any sort of exposition that broadcast any of the typical negative stereotypes about how suburban people can be: insular, paranoid, fearful, conservative-leaning, etc. If any of those stereotypes exist, and they do, because they exist, I wanted them to arise naturally from the characters’ actions and words rather than from my own narrative stance, so I did my best as a narrator to remain hidden in the background and be almost invisible and let the readers determine any larger messages or themes.

And a more succinct answer would be “no.” All human beings, no matter where they live, are universally flawed. I think, at root, these characters could live anywhere and be just as goofy.

MP: You have a fascination with some really dated music here — Engelbert Humperdink, Barry Manilow. If the suburbs are about nostalgia for a perfection that never ended, are these guys the soundtrack for that? Or are you confessing your guilty pleasures here?

SW: Both. I love watching old programs like the “Dean Martin Variety Show” and the “Andy Williams Show” and listening to what hip people would call “kitsch” music, and I integrated that sort of music into the stories to show that strange sort of manufactured joy that was pervasive to the grown-up suburbanites back in the late ’50s and on through the ’60s and how it still, in a weird way, exists. At the same time, as I did my research and started actually listening seriously to some of the music, such as Engelbert Humperdinck, who I chose initially for the joke possibilities, I started to like and respect the music (some of it). There’s some real respect delivered in the stories along with the satire, once I started to understand why people liked it and still cling to it — a strange sense of hope and idealism.

MP: Your poor wife. You’ve got a morbidly obese former RenFest whore, a scrapbooking harpy, a cancerous mom, a fair bit of domestic abuse in these stories. How’d she take that?

SW: Surprisingly, I’m still married. She read the final proof of the book during a family road trip to Florida last year, read them there silently in the passenger seat as I drove. It made me nervous. She didn’t say much, just made marks, corrections. When she was done, she looked over at me and said, “I love them. These stories don’t sound like you!” She meant that as a compliment, and I took it as a compliment. I achieved my previously mentioned pretentious artistic purpose of keeping my normally preachy and didactic writing voice out of the stories in favor of realism and good humor.

MP: What literary works would you sort into a definitive canon of American suburbia?

SW: Some who’ve influenced my own writing have been Raymond Carver, John Cheever, Robert Olen Butler, Lorrie Moore and Russell Banks, all of whom have had the suburbs at the heart of their major works. Joseph Heller, Philip Roth and Joyce Carol Oates would probably have to be in the conversation, too.

MP: Do you have a writing group or share pages with other writers?

SW: I am not in any writing groups currently, but as I was writing the material for the collection, I was involved in two writing groups. I drafted and revised, and thrived on the smart feedback of a bunch of terrific writer friends who I started meeting back in college at Mankato in the MFA program (late ’90s), some folks whom I met when I was a part of the Loft Mentor Series program in 2006, and mutual writers I met through all of these terrific folks. In a way, the book is the result of being part of a terrifically supportive literary community.


Tuesday, Nov. 27, 7 p.m. Reading with Paula Bomer (“Nine Months”), Common Good Books, St. Paul.