The champagne corks must have been flying at Shawn Lawrence Otto's home, near the St. Croix River, earlier this month. On November 4, Otto's wife, Rebecca, was re-elected Minnesota's state auditor after a bruising political campaign. A week later, Otto's debut novel, Sins of Our Fathers (Milkweed Editions), starred by PW, had its Minneapolis launch party. We talked to the author--and sometime screenwriter (he wrote the film adaptation of House of Sand and Fog)--about his new novel, managing his wife's campaign and the American Dream.
Your publisher, Milkweed Editions, touts this novel as an exploration of race, money, and the American Dream. What do you want your readers to understand about these things?
The American Dream has always been about equal access to opportunity. Race has been a part of this discussion since the beginning, playing out in battles over economics and opportunity—who has access to capital, who can vote. These are the fundamental things we wind up fighting over. American Indians are denied in law the same level of access to justice and economic opportunity afforded other Americans, because of the unique way Congress and the Supreme Court have treated them. What does that mean, and what would happen when someone like that tried to push back against those limitations, to grab a bigger piece of the American Dream? That’s what this novel explores.
Where does your knowledge, and interest, in this subject come from?
My mother is an immigrant, so I have always been aware of this question of what it means to be an American, and the privileges of being on the inside, and what it is like to be just outside of that and wanting to get in. With Sins of Our Fathers, I started out by wanting to write a movie to shoot in my home state of Minnesota, and I’d tried various ideas. My wife showed me an article in the Fed Gazette about how and why many banks avoid lending on Indian reservations. American Indians very much fill the role of perpetual immigrants in America—not quite sovereign, not quite citizens in terms of the rights and opportunities they are afforded. Because of the way Congress and the Supreme Court have structured reservations, banks often avoid lending there and it is very difficult to get a mortgage, which is the main engine of economic growth in the middle class. On the justice side, Tribal courts cannot prosecute white people for crimes they commit on a reservation. As a result, crime tends to be much higher there. We say it’s the alcohol or it’s inter-generational poverty or that Natives just can’t get their shit together, when we’ve structurally taken away many of the tools for them to do so. We need to find a way to bend the arc of justice wider. You don’t have to be an Indian to care about that. It’s the American Dream.
You've published a nonfiction book, Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science iin America, which won a Minnesota Book Award. Nonetheless, you've also written for film and television. Why tell this story in a novel instead of, say, a screenplay?
I did start out writing Sins as a film, but as a screenwriter I’ve always sort of envied novelists the art that the form allows in terms of the beauty of writing and the ability to move people in a much more intimate way. Screenwriting places much of the art in the economical movement of emotion through the drama. I love that form, leading with the actions the characters take, which is why you hear directors shout “Action!” In a novel you have an opportunity to retain that, but you also have much more time to explore the nuances of ideas and themes, and the beauty of language and how that informs our understanding of our lives and our purpose. In thinking about shooting this film, I went to do some location scouting on various reservations and the more I learned the more opportunity I saw coming from a novelistic approach to get into a lot of really beautiful things while maintaining a thriller’s edge.
Your wife, Rebecca Otto, was re-elected as Minnesota's state auditor a week before Sins of Our Fathers was officially released. You managed her campaign. What was that like, promoting a novel about predatory financial practices while so immersed in the campaign for a state auditor?
Running Rebcca’s campaign while doing the last rewrites of the novel was a bit like painting a watercolor while battling five ninjas. You are all about numbers and messaging and strategy and the full-contact sort of combat of the political arena; it’s hard to do that while also accessing the creative space you need to inhabit your characters and be an effective writer of fiction. It got worse this last summer when we found ourselves the target of a sort of predatory attack of our own. An extremely wealthy man with political ambitions to become governor saw the state auditor’s role as a good stepping stone for that. So he decided to take her on in a primary. He ran an extraordinarily aggressive and unethical campaign, outspending us by four or five to one, smearing her with lies almost daily. We framed the race as being about love versus money, which was in some ways what the novel was about as well. I remember making last passes through the pages early in the mornings before the news cycle started and then diving back into the campaign. But it was really tough to make that mental transition, and to guard some small portion of my creative space from the ongoing fury of the battle. In the end, we beat him by four to one, and the novel got done by deadline, so I guess it worked out okay.