Q&A with Jamie Duclos-Yourdon,
author of Froelich's Ladder
After all, what did a person dream about, when he spent all his days on a ladder? He dreamed of climbing, of course.
In his debut novel, Froelich's Ladder, Jamie Duclos-Yourdon imagines a world both believable and magical, where ladders reach the clouds—clouds that travel in herds, are hungry, and are sturdy enough to carry a man for miles. This is no fantasyland, though; danger lurks around too many corners for that. And, as he does with so many of his characters, Duclos-Yourdon takes his readers on an incredible journey.
Victoria Fullard: Froelich’s Ladder is something of a tall tale (pun obviously intended) that requires a healthy dose of willing suspension of disbelief from readers. What drew you to this sort of fabulist approach?
Jamie Duclos-Yourdon: When one attends an MFA program, like I did from 1999–2001, there’s a mandate to produce realist fiction—fiction that states, “I’m real; this is not make-believe.” But the stories we hear in childhood are fantastic, aren’t they? They’ve got incredible stakes and anthropomorphized animals. Even the jokes we tell are representative; a man doesn’t actually walk into a bar. With that in mind, I wanted to write a book that declared, “I may be make-believe, but I’m not insignificant. And you, the reader, are allowed to enjoy yourself.”
VF: You’ve set Froelich’s Ladder in Oregon during westward expansion. Did you see Froelich’s journey up the ladder as a parallel for other explorations that take place in the book, like Frank’s westward pursuits or Josie’s decision to leave Scotland for America?
JDY: When I first conceived of the plot, the ladder was meant to represent Manifest Destiny—so, yes, in that sense Froelich’s journey is similar to Frank’s and Josie’s. But I also saw the ladder as being akin to the Internet, a modern-day device that binds and alienates us.
But wait, there’s more! In conversations with my editor, we further discussed the notion of “climbing the ladder of success.” Many of the characters in Froelich’s Ladder are proponents of the American dream, in terms of self-idealization and their pursuit of wealth or happiness (or both).
Which is all to say: a good metaphor will take you far.
VF: The catalyst for the plot of your novel is Froelich holding an incredibly long grudge. What’s the longest grudge you’ve ever nursed? Are you still holding it?
JDY: Ha, ha, ha. Okay, I’ll share a story with you and then retire it:
Many years ago, I went with a friend to see Troy. This was the movie starring Brad Pitt as Achilles—and I say “starring” reluctantly. After ten minutes, my friend excused himself. I assumed he was going to bathroom, but after another fifteen minutes I realized he’d ditched me.
I watched that whole, reprehensible movie by myself. He later said he thought I’d enjoy it (god help me, I did), but that I also would’ve left, out of politeness (true again). I got over my grudge—I mean, he’s the godfather of my children—but I’ve been telling that story for a decade. Until now. Jon, in front of Victoria and all these other people, I officially forgive you.
VF: Some of the events in the book are quite dark, yet I wouldn’t describe the novel as a whole as dark. How were you able to strike the right balance between the plot’s more violent turns and the risks some characters (particularly women) face, with the tone of the book?
JDY: To me, the tone of the book is hopeful; it’s hopeful because the characters in Froelich’s Ladder endeavor to help one another. And while it’s true that my female characters are at greater risk than my male characters, that reflects the world we live in—both contemporary America and 1870s Oregon. Still, I believe in our universal capacity to be good, to love and nurture each other. This is one possible way that could look.
VF: Froelich’s Ladder is a tough book to categorize. How did you go about finding the right publisher for it? What advice do you give writers who are pitching or promoting books that break the mold?
JDY: The simple answer is: I lucked out. Laura Stanfill, the owner of Forest Avenue Press, is adored by the Portland literary community. She tirelessly works to promote her authors and is a gifted novelist herself. I approached her with a goofy, disjointed manuscript and a willingness to revise, and together we fashioned something unique.
In terms of advice: write in your own voice. The more you sound like yourself, the less you sound like everyone else. It’s scary to deviate from the norm, but you—not your best Nick Hornsby impersonation; you—are what’s missing from the broader conversation. Contribute something that no one else can. Aside from having genuine value, it’s your best chance at success.
VF: Is it too soon to ask what’s next?
JDY: Not at all! I’m always working on something—at the moment, that something is a book-length Mesopotamian ghost story. It’s fabulist in nature (e.g., talking crows, people returning from the dead), but it’ll address real-world themes of guilt and grieving. Hopefully the same audience that enjoys Froelich’s Ladder will also find it appealing.
VF: Fill in the blank (hopefully in an unexpected way): People who like ________ should read Froelich’s Ladder.
JDY: I’ll go out on a limb, but I’ve heard Froelich’s Ladder compared to the 1963 film It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Both are madcap adventures that feature a diverse cast of characters—and that’s where the similarities end. Hey, you said unexpected!