Lori Ostlund’s novel After the Parade (Scribner, 2015) was shortlisted for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize, and was a Ferro-Grumley Award finalist and a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers pick. Her first book, a story collection entitled The Bigness of the World, won the 2008 Flannery O’Connor Award, the Edmund White Debut Fiction Award, and the 2009 California Book Award for First Fiction. Stories from it appeared in the Best American Short Stories and the PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories, among other places. Lori has received a Rona Jaffe Foundation Award and a fellowship to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference.
“The Familiar Versus the Unknown,” an Interview with Lori Ostlund
This interview was conducted via email by Interview Editor Alexis Campbell. Of the process, she said, “After the Parade is a genuine and intimate story that I could not put down once I started, and I am so glad to have had the opportunity to interview Lori about her debut novel. I appreciate Lori’s gracious answers and the time she took to give such an insightful view into her novel.” In this interview, Lori talks about authenticity, the enormity of the world, and the importance of poetry.
Superstition Review: Throughout After the Parade, I was always pleasantly surprised at the development of characters, even the minor ones. You do this subtly, and beautifully, in a way that allowed me to empathize with almost every character, even in the midst of their very problematic human decisions. What is your process in creating and developing such believable characters?
Lori Ostlund: Some have asked whether the novel’s embedded stories involving these minor characters are a nod to my short story roots, which might be partly true. Certainly there was something attractive about stepping aside from the main story to spend time with these minor characters. My main rule for creating secondary characters is that the character should never be there just to serve one specific function (e.g. to help along a plot point). I always want readers to feel that the secondary character has his or her own life, beyond the particular moment in the story when this life intersects with the main character’s life, and that they wouldn’t mind following the secondary character home instead. In writing these characters, I think that I often start with dialogue, trying to get down on the page how they sound. Often, I don’t describe what my characters look like; I find a lot of character descriptions sort of perfunctory—height, hair color, size. In After the Parade, the secondary characters are misfits, and so it became important to describe them physically. I thought a lot about how to put these descriptions on the page. They were people who were used to being noticed first for something physical that set them apart, so I had to think about how the outside world would “see” them, which often involves not really seeing them. I tried to present them through the eyes of Aaron, my main character, who feels drawn to them precisely because they are different and because, each in their own way, they are kind to him at times in his life when others are not.
SR: You discussed with Huffington Post the idea of making other people happy, regarding what Aaron’s mother told him, and that you believe “we should always act with the goal of making others happier, even though that goal is not within our control.” I love this, and I think you’ve voiced the difficult concept of contributing to happiness that many people grapple with, at least myself. How do you find this influences your writing or how you portray characters and their motives?
LO: As I’ve gotten older, I fear I’ve become more cynical. You’re allowed—maybe even expected—to be cynical in your twenties and thirties, but as I entered my forties, cynicism seemed an indulgence I could no longer afford, a way of regarding the world that feels all too real. Thus, I make a greater effort to keep it at bay, both in my life and in my writing. I’ve found that my cynicism tends to come from human beings in their collective form. I almost always like individuals. What I have come to value in other people—more than whether they are interesting and smart (though I still like those traits)—is kindness, an ability to treat others with compassion, and since that is what I value increasingly in real people, it stands to reason that I would value these traits in my characters. This makes it easier when I develop characters. Often, my way into a character is to try to understand their weaknesses. When I started writing the story “Talking Fowl with My Father,” for example, I was thinking about my relationship with my own father, which had always been difficult, so, of course, I was attracted to the idea of controlling the details as I saw fit, of presenting the father in the story exactly as I wanted to. However, as I wrote, I began to understand that this character, who was like my own father in so many ways, had his own fears and regrets. Overall, I think that I’m far more successful at being generous and forgiving on the page than I am in real life, so perhaps that’s another reason I’m attracted to writing.
SR: Can you describe your writing community? How has it changed or grown since the publication of your short story collection, The Bigness of the World, and now After the Parade?
LO: When The Bigness of the World won the Flannery O’Connor Award in 2008, I knew only one other writer, my wife. She had a novel out and was working on a second, but neither of us understood very much about publishing. I didn’t do an MFA, and my friends have tended to be non-writers. I don’t like to talk much about writing, and so this has always suited me well. However, since then, I have met a lot of writers and now count among my close friends writers also. I belong to the writing community on Facebook, which I enjoy for the most part. It keeps me apprised of what’s going on in the writing world—new books, latest controversies—and writers tend to be very supportive of one another. That said, I still keep my work largely to myself. I think that most people work best with feedback, but I often find that certain doors slam shut in my mind, especially when I receive feedback too early on in the process. Also, I happen to live with my best reader, my wife, and I go to her when I don’t know what else to do with a piece. My question is usually, “What is this story even about?” She’s good with the big-picture stuff, so she can usually figure out what my subconscious was doing.
SR: You said previously in an interview with Dead Darlings that in writing from the perspective of the opposite sex, you told students to look at the character as a person first and not focus on writing generalities. As a topic often debated because of authority and authenticity, can you discuss how you negotiate your feelings of writing the experiences of a gay man in After the Parade? How has this influenced your writing since?
LO: This is a great question. I’m sure that for every gay man who writes to me to say that he felt as if I was telling his story or had captured his voice, there are two gay men who feel the opposite. I was drawn to Aaron because I’ve known lots of gay men who grew up as he did, being called sissies. In fact, I found it much easier to write Aaron’s story than I am finding it to write the current story that I am working on, a novel from the POV of a lesbian who owns an Asian furniture store in Albuquerque, New Mexico (in other words, me). Since my writing often begins with something “true,” I have a system whereby I immediately change something about the narrative or the character in a crucial way, in a way that forces me firmly in the direction of fiction. However, because my new main character and I share so much, I find that she is always trying to become me, to take on my story, my worldview, my voice, and I’m resisting that, whereas with Aaron, I felt comfortable giving him some of my traits, but I never felt he was me, partly because he was a man, partly because he was passive in a way that I am not.
SR: During Aaron’s childhood scenes, I found myself amazed with the way you portrayed Aaron as deeply introspective and aware while maintaining the essence of being a child. What was your approach in writing a young character?
LO: I don’t have children, but I like them quite a bit, some more than others, and I like the child’s perspective. I generally speak to children the way that I wanted to be talked to as a child, as if I consider them perfectly capable of understanding adult diction level, and I find that this often leads children to tell me things that are funny and honest and perceptive. This was the approach that I took when writing the exchanges between Clarence and the seven-year-old Aaron.
When I recall my own childhood, I remember being perpetually amazed by the world, by how much there was to know. I recall how I felt the first time I saw twins, for example, how utterly amazing that was. Now, it’s rare that I encounter something—in the daily routine of my life, that is—that leaves me feeling that sense of amazement or wonder that I felt as a child. I miss that. Perhaps this is why I like stories so much: I come closest to that feeling of wonder when I talk to people and they tell me stories. As I was writing Aaron’s perspective, I also thought about how I had perceived the world as a child—about the things that intrigued me or perplexed me. Often, adult conversation and preoccupations make no sense to children, and I tried to capture that feeling. I often say that I remember everything I learned and observed until around fourth grade, and after that things become a blur. As I was writing Aaron as a child, I relied on those memories, many of which are impressionistic and associative.
SR: One of my favorite quotes in After the Parade is when Clarence says, “‘You know, there’s something to be said for the security of the familiar, in all its confining glory.’” It so accurately, in a bittersweet dichotomy, characterizes many people’s relationship with daily life and the place they live. Can you discuss further your approach to balancing the safety of the familiar and the possibility of the unknown throughout?
LO: I grew up in a town of 400 people in Minnesota and left when I was eighteen, as does Aaron. In many ways, I believe that curiosity saved me—I wanted to know everything that was out there—that and the fact that I didn’t see a place for myself where I grew up. Though I did not come out until I was in graduate school, I sensed on some level, at an early age, that I didn’t quite fit in. Keep in mind that I was growing up in the seventies and early eighties, a much different time for gay people. For me, the ocean has always been the ideal metaphor to express how I feel about the familiar versus the unknown: I first saw the ocean, the Pacific, when I was twenty-four, and I remember being struck, as I looked at it, by the enormity of the world. I think that there are few things that make me feel the bigness of the world the way that the ocean does. What I realized was that there are those who feel overwhelmed by that bigness, that it makes them turn instinctively inward toward the familiar, while others feel comforted by the world’s bigness. I feel an affinity for those in the former camp, but I am firmly in the latter camp. Aaron leaves the small town where he grows up because he needs to be away from the familiar, but he still struggles throughout his life to truly break away from the familiar, especially the safety of his life with Walter, his partner of twenty years.
SR: In an interview with Late Night Library, you said that one of the themes you worked with was “examining whether two people can really love equally.” This is such an intriguing thought, and also lends to our innate desire to quantify emotions, which I enjoy thinking about—especially when I can do so through characters. Can you elaborate on what attracted you to this idea?
LO: I love The Ballad of the Sad Café, and I think that Carson McCullers treats this theme beautifully there, though she looks at it largely through the lens of unrequited love. Years ago, when I first met my wife, she told me about a piece of advice she had been given by her best friend’s mother, who was like a second mother to her. This woman was very pragmatic, not at all sentimental, and when Anne was a teenager, she told her that, in (heterosexual) marriage, it was always best if the man was more in love than the woman. Of course, it was advice that turned out to have no relevance for Anne since she ended up with a wife, but when Anne related this discussion to me, I found the woman’s advice intriguing, both in terms of what it implied about the nature of love and about how women, or perhaps women of a certain generation, viewed men.
SR: Throughout After the Parade, you write of Richard Hugo and Walt Whitman, among others well-known names in poetry or literature. Who else has influenced your writing?
LO: I think that all fiction writers need to read poetry, first because poetry is wonderful but also because poetry reminds us about the beauty of rhythm and the perfectly chosen word. It’s easy to start rushing, to get carried away with a scene and forget how necessary it is make each sentence just right. I am a big fan of T.S. Eliot. I reread Richard Siken’s Crush often. I have a lot of poems that I love (“Dover Beach,” for example) even if I don’t love everything by the poet. When I was in my early twenties, Anne Sexton was very important to me. As for fiction writers, I don’t know whether “influence” is the right word because I am not sure that a direct line could ever be drawn between their work and my own writing, but some of the writers I love (and by love I mean that I have read everything by them and reread them often) are Willa Cather, predictably, for the way she captured the Midwest; Charles Dickens, for his funny, sprawling, messy books with the most wonderful minor characters; Kent Haruf, who was so perfectly restrained on the page, so emotionally nuanced in his dialogue; Louise Erdrich, for the way she also captures Minnesota and knows how to tell a good story; Chang-Rae Lee, especially A Gesture Life; and Richard Russo, who is funny and captures a world and people who feel familiar to me.
SR: In the midst of writing After the Parade, you published your collection of short stories. How did you alternate between writing short stories and a novel? What differentiated After the Parade from other pieces?
LO: I think that I always knew, from the moment I started writing about Aaron Englund, that his story would become a novel, though it took me many years to figure that story out. I tend to write in an exploratory way, trying to figure out my character and what is going to happen. I don’t plot anything out because I simply don’t know what the story is until I get to know my character. For example, I wrote hundreds of pages about Aaron as a child before I even figured out that the novel needed to be about him as an adult. Slowly, the various pieces started to move toward one another and I began to understand what the book was about.
Novel writing is a messy process, and I think that I’m temperamentally better suited for stories. I like to believe in the illusion that stories are a perfect form whereas I had to accept early on that the novel is an imperfect form. Even though I struggle with stories just as much, especially endings, and often have stories that take years to evolve, there is still something gratifying about finishing a piece, and stories are a way to achieve that feeling of gratification in the midst of the much longer process of novel writing.
SR: What does your writing space look like?
LO: My writing space is a tiny room in our garage. There are no windows except for an opening that looks into the garage, at the garbage cans to be specific. My desk is set up facing a blank wall, and all around me are stacks of papers and bills in piles on the floor. I write best when there is nothing interesting going on in the world around me, and this room makes me feel that way.