Just two years after graduating from Washington University,Stefan Merrill Block found himself with a rough and extraordinarily large first draft of a manuscript. He sent it to Bill Clegg, at the time with the William Morris Agency, who agreed to take on the project.
After an intensive reworking of the novel, it was sent to publishers and went into auction. Another two years later, “The Story of Forgetting” became an international bestseller and received a round of awards, among them: Best First Fiction at the Rome International Festival of Literature; the Merck Serono Literature Prize; and the Fiction Award from The Writers’ League of Texas. It also landed on the shortlists for several debut fiction awards. Janet Maslin of “The New York Times” called it “A fresh, beguiling novel … as true to the anguish of [its] questions as it is ablaze with love and vitality.”
Block’s second novel, “The Storm at the Door,” published in 2011 and referred to as “this generation’s ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’” by “Publishers Weekly,” proved that his first success wasn’t a fluke. That success continues with his third novel, “Oliver Loving,” fresh off the presses and receiving critical accolades, such as “A breathtaking tale of tragedy and redemption… A triumph,” from “People” magazine.
Though he never studied creative fiction in a university setting, Block felt driven to the profession. As he states in an interview with Noreen Tomassi for The Center for Fiction, “I didn’t ‘decide’ in any real sense. I needed to write because writing was—and is—the only thing that doesn’t feel like a waste of time to me.”
His tenure at Washington University gave little clue that he would choose to make a living as a novelist. Block graduated in 2004 with a bachelor’s degree in film and media studies in Arts & Sciences, although his initial plan, when he first entered the university, was to someday follow in his father’s footsteps and become a psychologist. As a student he worked in a number of experimental psychology labs, including Professor Roddy Roediger’s, whose research centers on human memory function.
Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that his three novels explore themes related to memory and mental illness, especially in the context of family dynamics. In Block’s case, these are not hypothetical concepts. “The Story of Forgetting” deals with his very real attempt to understand his beloved grandmother’s slow descent from Alzheimer’s disease; “The Storm at the Door” revolves around his grandfather’s mental illness and involuntary commitment to a mental institution.
“My education and experience make [mental illness] topics natural for me, but — and maybe I’m just rationalizing here! — I do think that my interest in mental illness is equally an artistic one.
“These diseases, by heightening or paring away the ordinary elements of human perception, have the potential to offer important insight into ordinary human experience. For example, in writing The Storm at the Door, my exploration of manic depression allowed me a new perspective on the processes of artistic creation. After all my reading and writing about mental illness, I’m now of the opinion that the artistic process is inherently bipolar; to see the truth of things clearly (or so experimental psychologists would tell you) requires a bit of depression, and to create anything of artistic value requires a kind of mania, with its attendant energy and hubris.”
“Oliver Loving” considers similar themes, this time from the point of view of a family whose son has been in a vegetative state for several years. The novel made an auspicious debut as a “People” magazine Top Pick for the Week of January 22; as an Amazon Best Book of January 2018, and on “Esquire’s” list of The 27 Most Anticipated Books of 2018.
If Holly Silva’s review in the January 13 edition of the “St. Louis Post-Dispatch” is any indication, “Oliver Loving” delivers Block a solid trifecta:
“’Oliver Loving,’ finally, is a taut and frustrating mystery in the best sense. All of life’s difficult questions are asked on these pages. How one teenager’s neighbors and family answer them is heartbreaking and will have readers holding their breath.”
Block is a native of Plano, Texas now living in Brooklyn. His novels have been translated into 10 languages, and his stories and non-fiction have appeared in many publications, including “The New York Times,” “The Guardian,” “GRANTA,” and “The New Yorker’s” Page-Turner; and on NPR’s Radiolab.
Block’s program is co-sponsored by Arts & Sciences Connections Series, and by the University Libraries.