Welcome to Guildtalk. For this exclusive series, the Rumpus has partnered with the Authors Guild to bring attention to exciting new voices in American literature. In each installment, an established Authors Guild member will choose an emerging talent or a largely unknown master to interview about writing, publishing, marketing, craft, and teaching. The result should broaden our understanding of what it means to live a literary life. It will also bring us together for a conversation about what it means to be a writer in the twenty-first century.
In this third installment, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Russo returns to talk to debut novelist Lori Ostlund, author of After the Parade. The book follows Aaron Englund, its protagonist, as he travels from San Francisco, California, to his childhood home of Mortonville, Minnesota, and back again; it contains a creative and surprising cast of characters, from a “sardonic, wheelchair–bound dwarf” to Aaron’s “kindly aunt,” who is “preoccupied with dreams of The Rapture.”
Lori Ostlund is also the author of a collection of short stories, The Bigness of the World, which won the University of Georgia Press’s Flannery O’Connor Award (Scribner will reissue it in February 2016).
The Rumpus: A new Authors Guild survey shows that income for the majority of writers is down significantly from a decade ago (surveys in the UK and Canada reveal similar results), with many writers now living below the poverty line; that suggests that the writing life (as it is commonly understood—the ability to earn a living from writing) is much diminished. Give us a snapshot of your writer friends, especially the younger ones. How are they faring? Are they hopeful? Despairing? In addition to writing, what kind of jobs are they working at? How much time are they finding to write? Do they feel like they’ve missed the boat?
Lori Ostlund: I’ll begin with my own road to publishing, which is reflective of the general situation that many of my friends face, I think, though not entirely. I came to publishing (though not writing itself) late. My story collection, The Bigness of the World, came out when I was forty-four, and now, at fifty, I’m seeing the publication of my first novel. While so much has gone right for me, it took me this long to get published partly because my stories had a hard time finding their way out of the slush piles and partly because I was busy earning a living. I have spent twenty-plus years in the classroom, all of them adjuncting, and another seven as a small business owner in New Mexico. People are shocked when I tell them that the latter allowed far more writing time than the former, but it did, partly because business didn’t occupy my thoughts nonstop the way that teaching tends to (which probably also explains why the business didn’t last).
In 2008, I went on strike at the fly-by-night ESL school where I had been teaching since we moved to San Francisco in 2005. I had taken a couple of years off from submitting work, wanting to focus on developing my voice without the pressure to publish, but when I began submitting again, I still had trouble landing stories. The strike ended badly, and that summer, jobless and despondent, I vowed to quit writing fiction and find a job that would reward me financially for my work ethic and writing abilities: I decided to become a paralegal. I enrolled in a program and secured classes teaching developmental English, and in the way of such things, when I came home from the first day of classes, I had a voicemail from University of Georgia Press: my collection had won the Flannery O’Connor Award. At that time, I didn’t know other writers, except my partner, so I’d been stumbling toward publication blind. I didn’t do an MFA and knew little about publishing, nor did I think of writing in career terms. That is, it didn’t occur to me to think of the writing and teaching of fiction as a way to earn a living. Needless to say, I did not give up writing, nor do I imagine that I would have even without the Flannery news. I also did not become a paralegal, and today I continue on as an adjunct because I love teaching, though this means a low salary and no job security; I have healthcare only because my wife, who teaches high school, claims me on her plan.
I do know other writers now, and here is some of what I hear from them and see discussed on social media. Many want to teach creative writing, so the urgency to publish seems even greater to them because it is the means to both a writing and teaching career as well as a way to pay back student loans. In the meantime, many work as adjuncts and/or have teaching loads of 4/4 and even 5/5, all of which leaves little time for writing. Among my short story-writing friends, there is despair at the difficulty of getting a collection published, especially among those who do not see themselves as novelists. Writer friends talk increasingly about “building a platform” and are much more likely to engage their own publicists, which requires money. And among my older emerging-writer friends, there is the added frustration that publishing seems to reward youth. Overall, I think that writers run the gamut from hopeful to despairing, often on the same day.
Rumpus: Where did the idea for this novel come from?
Ostlund: I don’t think that the idea came from any one place but instead started in several places with ideas that steadily evolved and grew toward one another. The title, for example, refers to the fact that the father of the main character, Aaron, falls from a parade float, onto his head, and dies when Aaron is five. Years ago, I heard of someone dying in this way, and it struck me as at once tragic and humorous, an intersection of emotions that I am always drawn to.
Around fifteen years ago, I started writing about a boy who loses his father in this way and moves with his mother to a town of four hundred people in Minnesota. I grew up in a similarly sized town, a town that I left thirty-two years ago but which nonetheless has had a profound impact on how I see the world, and I found myself drawn to the question of why some people stay in a place where they feel different or unfulfilled, and why others leave? By then, I had come to understand Aaron, my main character. He was a boy more enamored of words than activity, a boy who is sensitive and fearful and lonely. The world can be particularly hard on boys like this, and I knew that part of Aaron’s story would be leaving but that he would find himself drawn to “misfits” and outsiders who could not.
By the time I realized this, I’d written around four hundred pages and Aaron was only in the second grade, so I set the book aside to think and to work on stories. At the time, my partner (now wife) and I were closing our business in New Mexico and moving to San Francisco, where I returned to the ESL classroom, and so the idea for the present story came about because of the sudden turn that my own life was making at that time. My daily life and preoccupations generally have an osmosis-like relationship to my writing, so when I sat down to work on the book again, there was Aaron, moving to San Francisco and teaching ESL. Suddenly, the book had found its beginning point.
Rumpus: Did you think of Huck Finn at all when you were writing Aaron Englund? He has a wonderful innocence about him, and he seems to be surrounded by adults who would corrupt him if he’d let them.
Ostlund: I would like to answer yes, but the truth is that I did not think of Huck at all, though I’m delighted that you did.
Rumpus: Lots of your characters are confined in small spaces. Adult Aaron in his San Francisco apartment, his mother in the closet, Clarence in the clothes basket. Was that part of a conscious plan or just your subconscious at work?
Ostlund: I love this question the way that one often loves a question that points clearly back to something about one’s writing that one has missed. It had not occurred to me that confinement was one of my writing preoccupations. I am not fearful by nature, but I have my fears and silly phobias, most of which I deal with either by making fun of them in my writing (as is the case with my belly button and phone phobias) or by taking the stoic Midwestern approach and ignoring them. That said, I don’t like elevators or sitting in the dentist chair with people huddled over me or riding the subway during rush hour, all of which may have to do with a “game” that my brother used to play when we were young. When I was stretched out watching television, he would throw a beanbag chair on top of me and sit on it for the duration of the show while I screamed and cried and flailed around beneath it.
Speaking metaphorically, I think I have a fear of being trapped in one place, in the smallness of the world, which might account for the ease with which I can pick up and move. My parents owned a hardware store, so we almost never left that town of four hundred people, except to go once a year to the hardware convention in Minneapolis, two hours away. The first time I saw the ocean, I was twenty-four, in graduate school. During spring break, I drove twelve hours west, from where I was living in New Mexico, to Los Angeles. Years later, I attempted to put words to what I had felt, looking out at the Pacific, in my story collection The Bigness of the World. In the title story, a nanny says to her two young charges, “However can you expect to understand the bigness of the world if you do not see the ocean?” While I credit my wife, Anne, with handing me this line one afternoon as we looked out at the ocean here in California, it expressed what I understood in 1989 as I encountered the ocean for the first time—half of my life ago now: there are those who look at the ocean and, overwhelmed by the world’s bigness, want only to hide, and there are those who feel comforted by the fact of its bigness. While I understand the former urge, the simple truth is that I am most often comforted by the bigness.
Rumpus: Aaron is an ESL teacher and his classroom sessions are some of my favorite parts of the book because his lessons in grammar provoke such profound discussions about human behavior. Were these always a part of the book and central to its structure?
Ostlund: When I develop a character, I always need to find a way in, and usually that happens by giving the character some of my traits or experiences. I’ve taught ESL among numerous other subjects, and as I wrote in my acknowledgments, teaching makes me feel useful and hopeful, both of which I need in order to continue writing, and it seemed to me that Aaron might feel similarly about teaching. Like Aaron, I embraced grammar because it struck me as necessary knowledge, as a way to feel more sure of myself, especially as I found myself living in a world much different than the one I grew up in. Like Aaron, I have allowed grammar to become a barrier to communication, including with my students. Also, I liked the idea of writing about the teaching of grammar because I knew that there was potential for humor as well as misunderstanding since the ESL classroom is fraught with both. I drew heavily on my own classroom experiences in writing those sections—the Culture Game, my students’ obsession with learning phrasal verbs, the trickiness of “hope” versus “wish.” My main concern was not to overdo the classroom stuff while still letting the students be more than just a two-dimensional chorus. I credit my editor, Liese Mayer, entirely with helping me find that balance.
Rumpus: The novel is also a story about stories, about the effect of stories on our lives. But often you choose to tell them in a non-linear fashion. You’ll get a big chunk of the story on page 250, and then, just when you’ve all but forgotten, you’ll get that story’s conclusion on page 325. That’s a high risk, high reward strategy. To this reader it paid huge dividends, but did it worry you that readers with ever-decreasing attention spans would get frustrated and bail on you?
Ostlund: For me, one of the benefits of not doing an MFA was that I wasn’t exposed to certain guidelines or best practices (to use a term that I dislike). I remember one of my thesis students asking me if she needed to follow a certain “rule” for novel structure, the gist of which I have since forgotten. I told her that since I didn’t know the rule, I could hardly enforce it. To be clear: I think that guidelines generally come from good intentions—our desire to quantify certain aspects of writing in order to make them easier to talk about and teach—and are helpful for a lot of writers, particularly in the early stages. However, I’ve learned that, for myself, considering guidelines or even talking with others about my ideas often has the opposite effect: it shuts doors in mind that I want left open. So, I’ve accepted that if my novel takes longer to write because I don’t know what I’m doing, then I’m okay with that.
With After the Parade, the structure came about because I was trying to mimic the way that memory works, particularly in times of transition or upheaval, when everything you see or hear triggers thoughts of the past, and these memories often come at you in fragments. Using structure, I wanted to create the feeling of being inside Aaron’s head as his memories crept up on him and then overwhelmed him, and I didn’t think that a more chronological structure would create that effect.
Rumpus: To me, After the Parade reads like a plea for understanding and empathy, for the surrender of our national angry, self-righteous default-mode. One of the reasons we like Aaron so much is that he seems to take people one at a time, which results in his having unlikely friendships, like the one with Bill, the detective. Would readers be correct in assuming that his creator shares Aaron’s extraordinary generosity, his determination not to classify people and judge them accordingly?
Ostlund: Thank you, Richard, for this generously worded question. I often refer to myself as a misanthrope, but the truth is that I like people a lot. I frequently lose hope for us human beings collectively, though rarely as individuals. Over the years, I’ve become increasingly sure that the truth almost never fits into one political box or ideology, and when we try to make it fit, we generally end up angry or self-righteous. Which is not to say that I don’t have strong political beliefs. I do, but I don’t lead with them when I write. In fact, a lot of times, I try to write against my own assumptions or beliefs, just to figure out what I’m missing.
Perhaps this is a reflection of the role that I play in the classroom, where my job is to make every student feel welcome and to help them figure out how best to express what they believe. Mainly, though, I think that it has to do with the fact that I was extremely shy well into my twenties, so I primarily got to know people by listening. Because I listened well, people—both friends and strangers—confided in me, and as I listened, I learned how rare a clear-cut situation was. I found my shyness quite painful then, but I think it has rewarded me as a writer. And as I tell my students, the things that make you a better person also make you a better writer: step outside your milieu, engage with strangers, find meaningful work, travel, read.