Lori Ostlund – After the Parade
In 2009, Lori Ostlund wrote one of my all-time favorite story collections, The Bigness of the World, which received the Flannery O’Conner Award for Short Fiction. Now her first novel, a very well-constructed, deeply introspective book called After the Parade, is set to be released in September 2015. We recently sat down to talk about it.
ZHANNA SLOR: Where did the idea for your novel come from originally?
LORI OSTLUND: The book was quite long in the making, so the idea evolved over time. Originally it started because I was remembering an incident that happened where I grew up, in a small town of 400 people in Minnesota.
ZS: Is this the same town that’s mentioned in the book?
LO: It definitely draws from it, yes, though the book is fiction. If you grow up in a place that small, you can’t really create another town of 400 people and expect it to not have similarities.
ZS: I’ve always found small towns fascinating. Have you seen the show Gilmore Girls?
LO: No, I haven’t.
ZS: It makes small-town living seem cute and nostalgic and sort of nice, especially how you know everyone. I live in Chicago so I can’t even imagine walking down the street and seeing someone I recognize. I don’t even know my neighbors.
LO: Yeah, there is something nice about it; now that I’ve lived away from there for over thirty years, I can see so much of how I was shaped by it. Many of my good traits probably came from there. I can’t lie to save my life. I work really hard. I’m glad for that. However, there is a part of me that is very uncomfortable with disagreements, and while wanting people to get along is not such a bad thing, I do think it comes at a cost, and that is something I wanted to write about in this book also—because in small towns, people basically agree that they’re not always going to say what they think because they are keeping a certain peace. It’s part of an unstated social contract. But there’s the other side of that also, like how people know everything about you, and sometimes it’s hard when they won’t say what’s really on their minds, because you can feel them thinking it.
I live in a much different world than the one I grew up in, and as a writer I am always trying to place myself at the intersection of these two worlds, to translate one world for the other. Though I didn’t necessarily feel like an outsider at the time, I knew that I wanted to leave as soon as possible. I felt that the world was much bigger and I wanted to know about it. I had no real idea I was gay back then, in the 1970s, when I was growing up, but I heard people say things, always negative, and so I sensed on some level that I didn’t belong. Also, it’s a very religious place, and my parents were deeply religious and I’m not, which has made it difficult for us to have a relationship.
ZS: That must be hard. I can definitely see where that background intersects with your protagonist’s. Was there anything else that inspired you to write this book?
LO: Yes. To go back to my earlier point, there was a man in this town where I grew up, and he was arrested for abusing three teenage brothers. When he got out of jail, he came back there, and he was a pariah, of course. I was fascinated by his decision to return. I kept thinking, Why would you come back to this town after that? That was where the book started—with wondering why it seemed safer to come back than to go elsewhere. The question I was left with from that original starting point was “Why do some people leave a place and why do others stay, and what different things do each of these decisions demand from you?”
ZS: There are two very distinct timelines here; Aaron’s life as an adult and Aaron’s disturbing childhood. Who did you like spending time with more: Aaron the boy or Aaron the man?
LO: That’s a really good question. I don’t write nonfiction, since I don’t know how to be that vulnerable with something that’s true, so the most vulnerable I can be is through fiction, because at least it allows me a little buffer. With that in mind, I think Aaron the boy allowed me to explore that need to be vulnerable a little more, because he’s a child. Without getting sentimental, I could take some risks with emotion that I’m not always comfortable taking in my writing. I think I figured out how to get there with him as an adult too, but it took longer. At first, I had no idea who he even was as an adult, only that he was gay and he came from a small town, where it’s very hard to be gay. I had no idea what the rest of the story was going to be. Then Anne and I moved here to San Francisco, and I started thinking that maybe he’s leaving his partner and moving to San Francisco, because that’s what I was doing (even though I wasn’t leaving my partner). And then from there the adult sections started to evolve quickly. Still, the adult stuff really took forever. So maybe that answers your question.
ZS: You don’t have kids, correct?
LO: I don’t.
ZS: Did that make it more difficult to access a child’s brain?
LO: I’ve had so many students tell me that people warn them not to write about kids because the perspective can be limiting and they often end up sentimental, but I think that maybe the fact that I’m not a parent helps me in some ways. I really like kids, and I’ve been fortunate to always have a lot of friends with kids, so I’ve always had kids around me. I like the way they think. I always talk to kids like they’re adults, and I think they like that; that’s the way I liked to be spoken to when I was a kid. When Clarence speaks to Aaron, for example, he assumes everything he says to Aaron will be understood, even though Clarence speaks in a very formal way with lots of big words and subtext. Of course, we know Aaron is seven, and that he won’t understand, but there’s sort of a suspension of disbelief that happens with those sections, I think. And the thing is, Aaron does understand, not all of it, but the core of it. The two of them have a rapport.
ZS: Speaking of Clarence, he was probably my favorite character. I felt like I could understand him completely as a character in a very short amount of time. He really resonated with me.
LO: Good! I’m glad to hear that. That’s one of the hardest things to do with minor characters. He’s my favorite minor character too.
ZS: I like him a lot. I love this line he has when they’re all having dinner. After his sister asks if they can please just have a pleasant dinner, he says, “You mean an evening where nobody says anything interesting and certainly not anything they really mean?”
LO: That’s what I like about Clarence too. He’s like the odd hero of the book. He’s probably the nicest person in Aaron’s childhood, because he just accepts Aaron how he is, and interacts with him, and likes him. Aaron doesn’t have people in his life who like him.
ZS: That’s true. His father certainly doesn’t seem to like him. How’d you come up with Aaron’s father? He was so unlikable!
LO: I don’t know where he came from. He bears no resemblance to anyone I know.
ZS: I was hoping that was the case.
LO: I started thinking about what it would be like for a boy like this, who would be the worst father for a kid who was effeminate and likes to read, and I thought it would be this angry, tough cop figure.
ZS: I noticed there’s a lot of unrequited love in this book; lopsided love, love that doesn’t even know it’s love, love that’s not love but more an aggressive possession. Aaron and Winnie even give it a name: Sad Café Love. Then at the end, there finally seems to be a glimmer of hope. Is that why you ended it like that, to sort of balance the scales a bit?
LO: Oh that’s another interesting question. Yeah, I would like to say I was thinking about that. One of my themes was examining whether two people can really love equally. And while the ending does connect to love, what I was really thinking about was giving a sense that Aaron was moving forward. When I thought about the ways this would happen, I knew it had to involve his students, who are really important to him, and that something had to happen with his love life too. I hadn’t made this connection with unrequited love, but you’re right.
ZS: I thought a lot about Aaron’s intense disinterest in hearing coworker gossip. I felt like it was maybe a defense mechanism so that he wouldn’t get close to people. Was that your intention?
LO: That’s interesting, because I think of his colleagues as people I wouldn’t be close to either. I was probably more projecting my way of being at work, which is that if it feels like it’s just going to suck me dry, or involve me in politics, I stay out of it.
ZS: I thought maybe it was a distancing thing, because he had only just moved to San Francisco and they are the only people he really meets and he has no interest in them at all. Also, I really like gossip, so when they would start telling him stuff and he would cut them off, I would be disappointed because I wanted to hear more.
LO: I’m someone who is really cautious at work, because I don’t like gossip. This is probably because of where I grew up, where there was so much gossip and people were always pretending to stay out of your business but they never were. I don’t like to get embroiled in work politics. With Aaron, the period where he moves to San Francisco is a period where he’s really shut down, so that’s also part of why he stays removed from everyone else.
ZS: I remember you mentioning this book was long in the making. When did you actually start writing it?
LO: It was 15 years in the making, actually. I first started it around 2000. But I had very long stretches away from it, where I was figuring out how even to write a novel. I also wrote my story collection The Bigness of the World at the same time, so there would sometimes be years where I wouldn’t even look at the novel. When I got the Rona Jaffe Foundation Award, I’d said in the application that I would use the money to reduce my teaching schedule and work on this novel, so that’s what I did. But I really didn’t get all the way into it until 2013, when my agent said it was time to finish it up. She gave me the deadline of August 1st. At one point I had like 1,000 pages written for this book, on three different computers and all sorts of files, so that spring and summer I just took everything I had and put it in one file and started going through it all, trying to structure a book.
ZS: What are you working on now?
LO: I have been largely in the post-major-project trough, but I have gone back to several stories that I left hanging when I went into overdrive with my second novel in the spring of 2013, so I guess I am working on another story collection as well as a second novel, which is tentatively titled The Proprietress. My first novel attempted to look at the world of ESL teaching, a world I know well. The second novel focuses on another world I know well: for nearly 8 years, my partner and I owned an Asian furniture store called Two Serious Ladies, after the Jane Bowles novel, and my book, of which I’ve written several chapters, is set in a fictional store called Two Serious Ladies. I don’t write linearly, and I have no idea whether these chapters will amount to anything or even what this novel is about, though I have some ideas–perhaps euthanasia, most certainly loneliness. I’ve always understood that people were lonely, but I don’t think I fully understood how many lonely people there were in the world until we had our store.
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Lori Ostlund’s first novel, After the Parade, will be released by Scribner in September 2015. Lori’s first collection of stories, The Bigness of the World (University of Georgia Press, October 2009; forthcoming from Scribner in 2016 as a reissue), received the 2008 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, the California Book Award for First Fiction, and the Edmund White Debut Fiction Award, and was a Lambda finalist. Her stories have appeared in the Best American Short Stories and the PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories and in such journals as New England Review, the Georgia Review, Hobart, Prairie Schooner, and the Kenyon Review. She lives with her partner, the novelist Anne Raeff, in San Francisco.
Zhanna Slor is a Ukrainian-born writer and painter living in Chicago. She has been published in numerous literary magazines, including Bellevue Literary Review, Tusculum Review, StorySouth, and Michigan Quarterly Review, which published a piece that later received a notable mention in Best American Essays 2014.