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    Saturday, April 20, 2024

    Lessons of the ‘Highway’: Niantic author Steve Ostrowski explores the road novel

    Steve Ostrowski (Susan Ostrowski)

    Niantic’s Steve Ostrowski grew up in an age when many adventurous and free-thinking Young Persons explored America with little more than a hitchhiker’s thumb and trust in universal goodwill.

    “It was the mid-’70s and the end of an era when you could still do things like that,” Ostrowski says in phone conversation earlier this week. “I hitchhiked across the country twice — once by myself and once with a friend. They were fascinating experiences. Definitely hairy at times, but I met a lot of interesting people I’d just describe as highway people. At the end of summer, I was going back to school — but they did it all the time.”

    Now 66, Ostrowski says those travels provided substantial material when he wrote his first novel, “The Highway of Spirit and Bone,” out last fall from Connecticut’s Lefora Publications. Ostrowski will discuss the book Sunday at the East Lyme Public Library in an event also featuring another Niantic author, Pat Procko. Ostrowski will also appear at the Waterford Public Library on March 2.

    In “The Highway of Spirit and Bone,” which smoothly segues back and forth between humor to simmering anger and profound melancholy, middle-aged narrator David drives his widowed mother from her longtime Staten Island home to Arizona so she can permanently relocate in a community near her oldest daughter, Debbie. Another sister, Jeanette, is also on the road trip, which will detour through Las Vegas to see the fourth sibling, the enigmatic brother Aaron.

    Each of these characters is running to or from problematic domestic situations — many of which can be traced to their own original family unit and the domineering late father.

    Family dynamics

    For example, David worries about his own failings as a dad; also, he’s increasingly suspicious his wife might be having an affair. Jeanette, who is gay, has just left a relationship with a policewoman who is not taking the breakup well and is emotionally disturbed. And is big brother Aaron, a poet who can’t seem to stay in one place, reclusive and obscure for darker reasons than any of them suspect? Their mother, a product of a time when women were typically housewives, seems to have the most simplistic view — but is maybe wiser than she’s given credit for.

    Throughout the book. there is tangible if awkward affection and even love between these folks, but there’s also mistrust and unhealed wounds that have extrapolated into their own adult situations. All of this percolates and simmers in the confines of a van traveling across the country. Ostrowksi is very good at interjecting set pieces within specific local cultures and settings -- and, as different and jarring or poignant as they can be, each serves to reflect a universality of emotions and humanity.

    A writer’s life

    If it took a while for Ostrowski to finally get around to “The Highway of Spirit and Bone,” he was doing plenty of what might be called preparatory work that ultimately played into the project. Now retired, he was a longtime creative writing and English professor at Central Connecticut University.

    Literarily, he’s probably best known as the author of several well-received books of poetry including “In Late Fields,” “Birds Boys God” and “Persons of Interest,” the latter of which won the 2021 Wolfson Chapbook Prize. His newest poetry collection, “Life Field,” is just out, and he’s also a songwriter and painter.

    The manuscript that became “Highway” was originally drafted in 2003. Ostrowski, who grew up on Staten Island, was in the early years of his tenure at Central Connecticut and received a grant to write a novel. The idea of a road trip novel intrigued him, and it occurred to him to explore the complexities of a family through that prism. It’s an irresistible premise through which any number of things can happen.

    First, though, Ostrowski undertook a bit of a refresher course. He bought a small tape recorder and drove back across the country, just making observations and taking notes about what he was seeing and how it all might fit into the story. And he determinedly did NOT outline the plot.

    “It was an intriguing situation because I didn’t know how the story would end,” Ostrowksi says. He laughs. “I knew where they were going, but I wasn’t sure they’d actually get there. And that was exciting to me. I don’t think I could have sustained the energy of writing a novel if I’d had a detailed outline because part of the energy required, for me anyway, is NOT knowing.”

    Ostrowski says his method worked. He sustained the excitement of discovery through the process and was continually surprised by how the plot and characters developed.

    “I feel like they’re all reaching out and trying to have this connection they’ve been searching for,” he says. “But they don’t know how. Things would happen I didn’t plan on and, more and more, I realize they reverberate back to the father. Even though he’s absent throughout the novel, his presence is huge in terms of a psychological effect on all of them — and as I realized that, the characters took on a more sympathetic tone.”

    As with many writers in an increasingly competitive business, when new authors face increasingly narrow options for publications, Ostrowski wasn’t successful going through the traditional agent/editor submissions process. Then he ran across an ad from Lefora Press looking for New England-centric literature. He responded and they offered him a contract.

    “It isn’t an easy road to publication,” Ostrowksi says. “But, as with my teaching, the rewards comes through the process and being a part of it. I’m starting work on a new novel now. I write in the morning, then maybe I paint in the evening or write a song. There’s a lot of fulfillment in all of those things.”

    If you go

    Who: Author Steve Ostrowski

    What: Discusses his novel “The Highway of Spirit and Bone”

    When: 1:30 p.m. Sunday

    Where: East Lyme Public Library, 39 Society Road

    Admission: Free

    Registration: Required at eastlymepubliclibrary.org

    Also: 2 p.m. March 2, Waterford Public Library, 49 Rope Ferry Road, Waterford; free; waterfordct.org/158/Library

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