I met Lori Ostlund at the Mendocino Coast Writers Conference in August 2016. I should clarify: I met her when my writer friends registered for her fiction workshop and gushed about this amazing novelist and short story writer who also happened to be an incredibly nice person. The rumors about her were true.
“She is everywhere,” one of my friends said, meaning that her work was all over literary magazines and that fans of her novel included Richard Russo, The New York Times, and NPR. The Bigness of the World, Ostlund’s short story collection, is a compilation of 11 short stories that can only be described as a treasure chest. These protagonists each suffer in a deep way and find their way through Java and Hong Kong and in closets and staring at oceans as they grapple with what love, abandonment, and loneliness mean. Her novel, After the Parade, centers on the life of a young Aaron Englund, who reflects on how his abusive father’s sudden death and his depressed mother’s equally sudden departure from his life have affected his ability to recognize love when he sees it. What Ostlund’s protagonists endure is often tragic — in loud and in quiet ways. And yet, each story ends in the key of hope.
Our full interview with Lori Ostlund is featured in the Spring 2017 Premium Edition of Carve. Preorder or subscribe by Sunday, April 2, for special savings and discounts.
Did you imagine as a child that you would be a novelist someday?
I don’t know that I was equipped, as a child, to think about life — or at least my life — in those terms. I read nonstop, but I don’t know that writing novels was even on my radar as something that one did. In fact, my studies were very much focused on math and science, to the point that everyone assumed I would become some sort of engineer. I enrolled in college as a journalism major, however, because I knew by then that I wanted to do something with words, and as you know, I was raised among very pragmatic people, small-town Minnesotans; it wasn’t until my first year of college that I even realized that English was a major.
That said, just down the interstate about 30 minutes from where I grew up in Sauk Centre, Sinclair Lewis’s hometown, and though I did not know Sinclair Lewis’s work as a child, once, as we passed Sauk Centre on a rare family outing, my father said to me, "You know that Sinclair Lewis got run out of town for his books. Maybe someday you'll write a book that gets you run out of town." I was around 12, certainly not thinking that I'd be a writer someday, but my father made being run out of town sound attractive (or perhaps I just heard it that way). Nonetheless, I can't help but consider that one of the nicest things my father ever said to me.
How do you handle both the praise and the criticism of your work once you put it out there in the world? Does that feedback affect you as you continue to write?
When it comes to reviews, both good and bad ones, I have a policy: I read them just once. They are one person’s perspective, ultimately, and it seems important to keep that in mind, and the one-read rule is my way of doing so. I’ve developed a fairly thick skin. With my first book, I received a Goodreads review (accompanied by one star) that said, “Worst book I’ve ever read.” At the time, I am sure that this reader’s use of the superlative (the worst?) left me sick to my stomach, but I made a point to go back to that review periodically, especially when I was grading papers or reading someone else’s work, situations that put me on the other end of the critique, and I found that it always reminded me to think carefully about what I said, not about the feedback itself but the way that I framed it.
I will never be able to return to the absolute freedom I felt in writing my first book, when I had no consistent readers except my wife Anne and no reason to assume I ever would. Now, I find myself having more internal debates about what goes on the page, and I know this debate is caused partly by the fact that I have readers; in fact, sometimes the readers who like my work give me the greatest pause because I don’t want to disappoint them.
Most of the protagonists in your short story collection are female. When you decided to write After the Parade, why did you elect to make the protagonist male? And, in a broader sense, what advice would you offer to writers when they are writing about a perspective that is different from their own, be it in gender, class, sexuality, race, or ethnicity?
I don’t think I have room to do justice to the question here, but certainly a lot of writers have recently addressed the question of writing beyond our own identities quite well. To answer your first question, I never made a choice to write a male character. The character I began to write was Aaron, a boy who was sensitive and more comfortable with words than action. At the time and in the place where I grew up, boys like Aaron were called "sissies," and when I began to write Aaron’s story, it was in many ways more about my desire to look at the means through which people are made to feel marginalized.
In terms of writing Aaron, I have the experience of growing up gay in a small town in the 1970s but not the experience of being a man, and I worried about this at first, thinking, “What do I know about being a gay man?” Often, my students have asked me for advice on how to write a character of the other gender, and I always tell them that they need to start with the character and not the gender: Men are not all one way and women another. If you try to write A MAN, you can only end up with generalizations, stereotypes. You must create a person. I do think, though, that writing about a man helped me to separate myself from the character in key ways. Aaron and I share biographical details, but I liked having a clear distinction in my own mind early on.