CofC professor’s debut novel is rooted in a 1979 national crisis

A Moment in Time

A recent local book release features a new novel with an old setting: the 1979 gas crisis. Local author and College of Charleston English Professor Anthony Varallo published his first novel, The Lines, this August.

“The title refers to the lines of cars waiting in line at gas stations, because the novel is set in the summer of 1979. That summer, there was a gas crisis in America, and for various reasons, there was a shortage of gas, so I use that recurring image of people waiting in line, in long lines of cars,” Varallo says. “The family that’s the central group of characters in the novel, they have to deal with the gas crisis.”

The family at the center of the novel struggles with transitioning into normal life after a marital separation. Throughout the book, the perspective changes between the four main characters: mother, father, and two children. The boy, 7, and the girl, 10, share most of the point of view throughout the novel. Varallo says that throughout the book the kids are “branching out from the life that they formerly knew before their parents split up.”

Originally, Varallo set out to use the 1970s as a generic backdrop for the novel but eventually he used the gas crisis as a central event.

“The first draft of the novel doesn’t have anything to do with the gas crisis, and the characters kept going to this gas station,” Varallo says. “I went online, because I wanted to get some details of what gas stations looked like in the ’70s, and everything came up [as the] gas crisis of 1979.” From there, he decided to add the event into subsequent drafts of the novel. “I can hit all the gas station details and tie it to a distinct historical era. It was a total accident — I didn’t mean to write a book about 1979 — it happened by researching and wanting to find really good details to describe the look and feel of the gas station.”

From there, he says that the theme stuck. “I think the novel feels a little more grounded, some readers tell me about their memories of that summer, and it wasn’t the most scintillating event in American history, but it was memorable for people of a certain age.” The rest of Varallo’s inspiration for the novel came from the characters themselves.

Varallo chose to dig in deep with each character in order to have them drive the story forward in a personal way. “One of the things I tried to set up in the novel is that everything the characters reveal in their scenes is nothing they would tell you in real life. They could never, if you sat down at a table with them or had coffee with them, admit the things that they’re admitting in each scene because I wanted it to have this real, embarrassing kind of intimacy to it.” Varallo used this concept to guide him to create a personal and intimate look into the lives of each character. “There was a lot of stumbling around,” he admitted. “It all started with the characters, and it’s all about a desire to imagine: what’s the thing they would never tell anyone?”

Prior to The Lines being published in August, Varallo had published several collections of short stories. “I’ve always wanted to write a novel, even though I love short stories,” Varallo says. “I realize there’s a reader preference for novels. People tend to want a fuller story, and they like the beautiful passage of time that a novel captures [which] a short story isn’t usually able to grab.”

Varallo used his short story experience to find the footing for his novel. “You write a short story and someone says ‘this could be a novel’ but my personal high praise for any novel I love is ‘this is good enough to be a short story.’ It’s so natural, it’s so compact, and the language is so alive on the page that it delivers in the way that a short story does.”

Varallo’s experience with short stories goes beyond his own work. Currently, at CofC, he is teaching an undergraduate course in short stories and a graduate course in short-short stories, only 100-1,000 words in length.

“They’re really hard to write. The students have just figured that out.” Varallo’s last book Everyone Was There is a collection of short-short stories.

Beyond his own writing Varallo is the editor of Crazyhorse, CofC’s bi-annual literary magazine. “It’s an international publication and we receive submissions from all across the globe: fiction, poetry, and essays,” Varallo says, adding, “It’s a nice asset for the college.”

On top of teaching, writing, and editing, Varallo has a family. “I also have parenting, I have those responsibilities. That’s sort of my life.” While Varallo’s kids weren’t a central point of inspiration for The Lines, he says, “I’ve mined them for other stories, trust me.”

Varallo will host a reading of The Lines on Nov. 21 in Randolph Hall at CofC.

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