By Alex Moersen
This year’s fiction contest judge, Lori Ostlund, is the author of the novel, After the Parade and the short story collection, The Bigness of the World, which received the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, the California Book Award for First Fiction, and the Edmund White Debut Fiction Award. The Bigness of the World was also shortlisted for the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing and was named a Notable Book by The Short Story Prize. Ostlund is the recipient of a Rona Jaffe Foundation Award, and her stories have appeared in Best American Short Stories, The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories, and numerous other publications.
She received her M.A. from the University of New Mexico and currently teaches at The Art Institute of California—San Francisco, as well as Regis University in Denver, CO.
We recently had the opportunity to sit down with Ostlund and discuss her writing process as well as the themes that can be often found in her work.
Two major themes of After the Parade seem to be place and identity. How do you see those being linked in your work? Do you see those themes at work in your own life?
Though I did not know it when I started writing and really only learned this from readers and reviewers, I am very much a midwestern writer, even though I left the Midwest almost 35 years ago. It has shaped the way I think about characters and dialogue (I love restrained dialogue) and humor. I believe that most people are never truly saying aloud what they are thinking, and that has influenced the way that I think about bottom story and subtext as well as dialogue. When I think about the subjects that frighten me most to write about, it’s love and sex, which Midwesterners are sheepish about discussing. I grew up believing that I should never take up too much space in the room or the conversation, and that, too, has been good for my writing because it has made me a terrific listener and observer. I am particularly interested in sending my characters out in the world and seeing what happens to them when they are outside the familiar.
I read that something you are particularly interested in is humor in fiction. Can you talk a bit about what humor means to you in your work and why you find it important?
Readers want to laugh, I think, so I like that feeling of drawing them in with laughter and then landing the gut punch. Flannery O’Connor said something similar, that we are vulnerable when we are laughing, so it is a perfect time to sneak in. Humor has the ability to bring pleasure and then surprise us with something more. Often, difficult or controversial subjects require a backdoor approach, and humor can be the backdoor. I like dark humor, of course, and dry humor. I grew up in Minnesota, where both are important, and I often say that Minnesotans are happiest when no one else gets their joke, so maybe that is the sort of humor I like best in my writing, the sort that seems funny only to me.
Please tell us about your writing process. What’s a typical writing day for you?
That depends on whether I am writing or not, and I am not always writing. At the moment, for example, I am avoiding writing, partly because I just finished a big project. I tend to work on several things at once, but when I am nearing the end of a novel, I need to hold the whole thing in my head, and then I am very much a sprint writer: when I was finishing After the Parade, I worked around 75 hours a week from mid-May to early August. I couldn’t do that in a sustained way—it would be exhausting and I need to earn a living—but I needed to do it for those months. Most of the time, I will write new work in the wee hours, from 5 a.m. onward, and revise or edit in the afternoons.
All writers seem to have themes that preoccupy them and which tend to crop up in their writing. What are your writerly preoccupations?
I always think that my way into my characters, especially those who are quite different from me, is to find one way in which we are alike, so I might give them one of my traits—along these lines, belly button phobias pop up a lot in my work, as do grammar obsessions. My bigger preoccupations are loneliness and the ways that people feel alienated or “other.” Along these lines, I am interested in characters who feel different but appear “normal” and thus are drawn to those whose difference is physical. I am also interested in “before and after” events, tragic events in a person’s life that create a tectonic shift, after which everything is different. Certainly all of these were themes that I was interested in when I wrote After the Parade.
What is the best writing advice you’ve received?
The advice that I quote most often is from Kurt Vonnegut: “Write for an audience of one.” That is, write for the one person who most understands your voice and preoccupations and quirks. When you write with that degree of specificity, you end up with something unique. The advice I heard a lot that had a negative effect on me was, “You are not a writer if you don’t write every day.” I don’t write every day, and it took me a while to realize that is just fine. Some of us don’t write every day, but we are still writers. On the other hand, there are some for whom this is terrific advice. You just have to know what kind of writer you are and stop beating yourself up about being on the “wrong” side of the advice.
You are this year’s judge for Bayou Magazine’s James Knudsen Prize in Fiction. Will you talk a little about what you look for in a short story?
I think a lot about the moment when I buy in to a story; most often, I buy in when I sense a voice or a narrator—whether it’s 1st or 3rd person—I want to spend time with. I also love good ambiguity (but not bad ambiguity) as well as moments of surprise, the unexpected line or event that jolts me but then makes sense in the seconds after it. I like work that is layered, where each scene is firing on so many levels that I am not thinking about the writer. I love work that makes me laugh, but also work that makes me sad, dialogue that does everything I have already mentioned, and an ending that brings everything together. I don’t need to like a character to enjoy a story, but I do like writers who write with compassion toward the world and human beings with their weaknesses and blind spots.