Midwestern Gothic staffer Ally Wright talked with author Lori Ostlund about her novel After the Parade, small town discretion, saving oneself, and more.
Ally Wright: What’s your connection to the Midwest?
Lori Ostlund: I grew up in a town of 400 people in central Minnesota. When people ask the name of the town, I often say, “You wouldn’t recognize the name, but if you’ve started in Minneapolis and driven along the interstate to Fargo-Moorhead, stopping halfway to fish, you’ve been to my town. In fact, you might have purchased fishing gear at my parents’ hardware store.” I grew up in this hardware store, and on the rare occasion that we went anywhere, it was usually to attend the annual hardware convention in the Twin Cities. At eighteen, I moved up the interstate a couple of hours to Fargo-Moorhead for college. Most of the students were like me, from the small towns and farming communities of Minnesota and North Dakota. At twenty-three, I moved to Albuquerque for graduate school, choosing New Mexico because it seemed the farthest removed— seasonally, temperamentally—from what I knew. I felt that it was important, for me as a person as well as a writer, to be out in the world, away from the familiar.
AW: After the Parade is your first novel after your well-received short story collection, The Bigness of the World. How did your writing process change between writing short stories and writing a novel?
LO: I worked on After the Parade and the collection concurrently from around 2000 to 2008. I almost always work on several things at once, switching when I stall on one project, so there tends to be cross-pollination. When I wrote “All Boy,” for example, the final story in Bigness, it started as a character study of Aaron Englund (the main character in After the Parade) at a certain age. I tend to write in an exploratory way, trying to figure out my characters first. I don’t plot things out—with stories or novels—because I simply don’t know what will happen until I get to know my characters. I always knew, from the moment I started writing about Aaron, that his story would become a novel, though it took me many years to figure that story out. I wrote hundreds of pages about him as a child before I even figured out that the novel needed to begin with him as an adult, and then I started slowly to see who this boy would grow up to be, which of his childhood traits would shape him most strongly. I discovered, for example, that he was still fearful, and so a lot of what happens in the adult sections is influenced by his attempts to finally deal with his fear. Slowly, the various pieces started to move toward one another and I began to understand what the book was about and what structure it should take.
My process with stories is similar: I start with something—a line overheard, an odd encounter—and write. When I get stuck, I close up the file and forget about it for a while. I might open it up weeks or months later, start reading, and see what happens. If nothing happens, I close it up again. Eventually, I’ll overhear something great or come across just the image I need, and the next time I open the file, everything comes together.
Novel writing is a messy process, and I think that I’m temperamentally better suited for stories. I like to believe that stories are a perfect form—it justifies my tendency to rewrite indefinitely—whereas I had to accept early on that the novel is an imperfect form. Perhaps the biggest difference in my process when it comes to stories versus novels is that there came a point in the novel writing process—the summer of 2103, to be specific—when I had to find a way to hold the whole book in my head. Thus, from May to August, I wrote between 70 and 90 hours a week, mainly sorting through the hundreds of pages that I had already written—discarding, organizing, writing several hundred pages more—until I had my first draft.
AW: Both your short story collection and your novel share similar themes, especially family tension. However, After the Parade is much darker and more violent than the stories in The Bigness of the World. What did you find changed in your writing process as you accessed those darker themes and more traumatic moments?
LO: I’m not sure that anything changed in my process, and while I do think that the novel has more violence and darkness, it’s interesting for me to see how readers view it: there are those who find it “too dark,” while others call it “inspirational.” Neither of those matches how I felt as I wrote it, perhaps because “inspirational” is a word I’m always a little suspicious of. For me, a better word would be hopeful, largely because Aaron figures out how to take more control of his life, moving beyond fear and passivity. I do know that I found myself thinking, as I wrote, about how to deal with certain situations and characters honestly yet compassionately—with the exception of Aaron’s father. I felt no real compassion toward him as I wrote. At times, I worried about this, thinking that maybe he needed a backstory, but then I decided that a backstory wasn’t going to change the fact that he was cruel to his son, and within the context of the book, that’s his legacy. Aaron’s mother Dolores was, in some ways, the most difficult yet compelling character to write because I knew that some readers would be automatically turned off by the fact that she abandons Aaron, yet I never felt that way about her. Maybe the book reflects my worldview, which is that many people experience trauma, but some choose to take it out on others and some do not, though in the case of the latter, this often means taking it out on oneself, which is Aaron’s story, I guess.
AW: After the Parade has a lot to do with abuse and trauma, and that trauma almost exclusively takes place in small-town Minnesota. How did the setting inform the events that unfolded for the main character, Aaron?
LO: One aspect of small town life that always intrigued me is the way that its citizens agree to mind their own business, for better or worse. For example, there is a character in the book, Betty Otto, who lives behind Aaron and his mother and shoots her gun constantly. She is based on a neighbor my family had growing up, a woman who filled the back of our house with bullet holes because she was always outside shooting off her gun indiscriminately, hoping to kill a few squirrels. Our orders from my parents were to come inside when she was shooting. She actually killed the neighbor boy’s puppy in this way, shot it as he was playing with it. Yet nobody wanted to make a “big deal” out of the situation because it was her gun and she was a neighbor. I can remember the moment when I realized, truly realized, how crazy this was: my wife, who had never been around guns, came to my parents’ house with me for the first time, and when I showed her the bullet holes, I saw them entirely through her eyes. Of course, there is something good that comes out of the small-town emphasis on living together at all costs, and I touched on this in the book, yet I saw an opportunity as well to explore the ways in which people live closely together and allow one another to maintain secrets. Early on, when Aaron prepares to break down the motel room door to save a boy that is being beaten, he pauses for just a moment, “the full weight of his good-fences-make-good-neighbors upbringing bearing down on him.”
AW: There are three different settings in this novel– Albuquerque, San Francisco, and Minnesota. How do these three settings interact with each other? How does Aaron see himself moving through and interacting with these different landscapes and places?
LO: Those three settings are connected first by the fact that I lived in all three places, and my life often has an osmosis-like effect on my writing. In 2005, just as I was beginning to realize that Aaron, my main character, whom I had written about only as a child at that point, needed to become an adult, I moved from Albuquerque to San Francisco, and so that move became Aaron’s trajectory also. Because he is—by nature and circumstance—passive, each move in his life until then has been orchestrated by someone else: his mother moves him to Mortonville after his father dies; Walter takes him away from Mortonville and pays for him to go to college; they eventually become lovers and move to Albuquerque because of Walter’s job at the university. San Francisco is the result of his realization that he needs to leave Walter in order to become his own person, and it is there that he lives alone for the very first time, at the age of forty-one. Cities are always good for lending anonymity and underscoring one’s feelings of being entirely alone, so it made sense to me that in this place, where he spends his days walking and teaching, the past would finally come crashing in.
AW: You’ve been described (and described yourself) as a Minnesotan writer. What does this mean to you? Where do you see yourself situated within the larger scope of Midwestern literature?
LO: First, there is a dark humor in the Midwest that I am very drawn to. The title After the Parade, 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.
Second, because I was very shy as a child, I was no good at dealing with customers in my parents’ hardware store, but I think that most of what I know about emotional restraint and language was learned there, as I listened to the way that people talked: where they paused and what they said and, more important, what they did not say. Often, something would be discussed, a long pause would follow, and then someone else would begin a seemingly new topic. I quickly learned that there was meaning in these juxtapositions, and I liked to fill in the connection, unstated, that existed between the two. I like writing that happens around emotion to be subtle, and I live in fear of being called sentimental, so I spend a lot of time worrying about whether a detail or observation overstepped in some way. One of my favorite writers is Kent Haruf, who was technically a Plains writer, but his novels about the small town of Holt, Colorado, affect me deeply. He’s so perfectly restrained on the page. I don’t think I’ve ever read one of his novels without crying through entire chapters of it. I don’t know that I’ve thought about where I’m situated specifically, but there are numerous Midwestern writers I love, including Willa Cather and Louise Erdrich.
AW: After the Parade is set partly in small-town Minnesota. What is it about Minnesota that makes it figure so heavily in your writing? What is the most appealing thing about writing about small-town life?
LO: I think that I’ve addressed this above.
AW: After the Parade has a preoccupation with being saved—whether by another person, or by your own actions—and it seems that being saved has a lot to do with mobility and escape. How did you envision that mobility as an agent of salvation?
LO: What a great question. Though Aaron and I are quite different—he’s passive and fearful and paralyzed by the past in ways that I am not—we have in common that we were born into small towns in Minnesota in 1965, at a time when it was not okay to be gay. Moreover, Aaron is sensitive and drawn to words. I’ve known numerous boys and men like Aaron, and the world was and continues to be a hostile place for them.
My parents were extremely religious, and the ongoing message was one of conformity. Though I did not understand then that I was gay, I did understand that I felt trapped, that there was no room for me to become the person I wanted to become (of which being gay was just one part), so I have always been interested in narratives of departure. I often joke that I am no good at making small changes, but I am quite at ease with big ones, particularly leaving. In 1991, when I had finished my master’s degree and was contemplating doctoral programs and thus a life in academia, I instead moved to Spain and quickly accepted that academia was not for me. I learned that I wanted to be out in the world, writing about it, and several years later, when I found myself feeling discouraged and overwhelmed as an adjunct teaching 5 comp classes a semester, I again fled. My partner and I moved to Malaysia for nearly two years. I suspect this desire to constantly be moving on is rooted in the fact that I spent the first eighteen years of my life confined to a very small place, and all of this—realizing that I was gay, pursuing my intellectual curiosity, traveling ever farther out into the world—I consider all steps in the act of saving myself.
From my trajectory grew Aaron’s. In terms of narrative appeal, departures are often fraught with conflict. When we leave a place, we are either going away from something (a failed relationship or career, a disappointment) or toward something. In Aaron’s case, he is doing both. He is leaving a twenty-year relationship because he has accepted that he is no longer in love, yet this step is mired in guilt because Walter pulled him out of his small town, gave him a home, and paid for him to go to college. Given the situation, Walter quite literally saved him, allowing him to have the intellectual life he craved, though this has come at a cost: their relationship has always had a Pygmalion-like quality, and thus, he is at once grateful to Walter and resentful of him. As I got to know both the adult Aaron and the child Aaron better, I knew that the book needed to begin with his departure, and his departure struck me as the first step in the act of saving himself.
AW: What’s next for you?
LO: I find it very hard to start new projects—I would much rather be in the midst of something—but I have a second story collection nearly finished, made up of stories that I’ve been working on since the first collection came out in 2009, one of which will appear in New Stories from the Midwest 2015. I’m also working on a second novel. This first novel drew on my experiences as an ESL teacher, and the next novel will draw on the 7+ years that my wife and I spent as owners of an Asian furniture store. The book, tentatively entitled The Proprietresses, is set in Albuquerque, where we lived for 14 years, and perhaps in Malaysia, where the idea for the store came about when we were teaching there. I’ve no doubt that Minnesota will also make its way into the narrative.
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. She is a teacher and lives in San Francisco with her wife and cats, though she spent her formative years in Minnesota, cat-less.