Novelist Eric Von Schrader’s Debut Depicts A Parallel St. Louis
Eric von Schrader’s debut novel is grounded in St. Louis like few other works of fiction. His characters inhabit real houses on real St. Louis streets (Flora Place, Enright Avenue). They work in Crestwood and live in west St. Louis County and remember the fun they had at Pizza-a-Go-Go when they were young.
But then something bizarre happens, and they get a glimpse of a different St. Louis: A St. Louis that isn’t emptied out or struggling. A St. Louis full of gleaming buildings, international tourists and glowing bricks. And what’s weird is that this St. Louis seems every bit as real as the one they, and we, live in.
“A Universe Less Traveled” is a work of speculative fiction that raises questions of what is and what might have been. And on Tuesday’s St. Louis on the Air, von Schrader explained that, in some ways, he was just having fun with local history and the idea of parallel worlds.
Even so, he acknowledged, the framework comes from the existential questions that bedevil the Gateway City.
“I had the luxury of creating a fantasy, so I don’t have to be practical,” he said. “But yes, I, like everyone else in St. Louis, have spent decades wondering, ‘How come we’re not the biggest, most important city in the Midwest? How come it emptied out?’ We’ve got all these problems, we’re not attracting people. What happened? It seems like it should have been different.
“So, in my story, I invented a different 20th century for St. Louis, that went a totally different direction, and I sort of play out what could have happened.”
His protagonist calls it “HD St. Louis” for its dazzling qualities. Among the inspirations for the bustling world von Schrader creates: the Sons of Rest Pavilion at Tower Grove Park, St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Bill McClellan’s campaign to have men where shorts as business attire, and Steve Mizerany, the TV pitchman who entertained local audiences in the 1970s and '80s. (You can explore more on the author’s website.)
Among the unlikely collisions of invention and real life? Von Schrader described the most successful company in his alternate St. Louis as a world-famous, wildly innovative brick company.
“I thought one of the things they could do with the bricks is generate electricity from bricks, and I thought that was a totally far-fetched and kind of silly, but fun idea,” he recalled.
About a month ago, however, the fanciful “HD St. Louis” invention was overtaken by current events in real-life St. Louis in the year 2020. Researchers at Washington University announced they had developed “smart bricks” that could store energy. And, like the ones in von Schrader’s book, they glow.
“I about fell off my chair when I read that,” von Schrader said. “I thought I had made up the most far-fetched idea I could think of.”
What: “A Universe Less Traveled” reading with Eric von Schrader
When: 7 p.m. Sept. 10
“St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.