An Interview with Lori Ostlund

by William H. Coles


Read a sample story: “The Bigness of the World”

A phone interview with Lori Ostlund 9/9/2009

William H. Coles

Lori OstlundThe Bigness of the World

The Bigness of the World

Lori Ostlund is the 2009 Winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction for her collection of short stories, The Bigness of the World. She lives in San Franscisco. She is originally from Minnesota and has taught in Spain, Malaysia, and New Mexico. Her work has appeared in the Georgia Review, Kenyon Review, New England Review and Hobart.

WHC

Good morning. Lori.

LO

Good Morning.

WHC

I’d like to thank you for agreeing to participate in this interview for www.storyinliteraryfiction.com.  And congratulations on winning the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction in 2009 for you collection of stories, The Bigness of the World.

LO

Thank you.  Thanks for doing the interview, and for the congratulations.

WHC

You live in San Francisco.  Are you a native?

LO

No.  I actually grew up in a town of about four hundred and eleven people in Minnesota and that’s actually a lot of what I write about.  I left Minnesota when I was about twenty-two, and then moved to New Mexico where I lived, on and off, for about fourteen years.  I moved here about four years ago.

WHC

Do you find San Francisco a stimulating place for writing?

LO

You know, what happened . . . I’ve always been a teacher . . . and for about seven or eight years my partner and I had an Asian furniture business in New Mexico and it was  great.  It gave us time to write—we’re both writers—but we just became more and more involved in everything in the community.  We had had a lot of friends there, plus we were involved in the art business community.  Our time was no longer our own—for good reasons.  But it involved so much social activity, professional activity, and so four years ago, literally within three days, we decided we’re going to sell the business, sell our house, and move.  And so my partner got a job here, she flew out for the interviews at several different charter schools, and I started selling off the business . . . made the announcement . . . so within a couple of months we were here.  And for my writing it’s been great because I was about halfway through The Bigness of the World and sort of stalled on the novel.  So when we came here I started teaching, ESL [English as a Second Language] four days a week and it was perfect because before this I had always been a writing teacher—so much grading!  And so I wrote the other half of The Bigness of the World in the mornings before I went to work, and then in the afternoons when I came home.  Part of my goal was to just work part time.

WHC

What a brave thing to do.  Pick up and leave when you’re so involved.

LO

You know, I think I can always make big changes better than I can make small changes.  If it seems it can be fixed by a small adjustment, I have a harder time doing it.  But I can pack up everything and move halfway around the world.

WHC

Good for you.

Where do your story ideas come from?  How do they take form in your mind?  How do you get them onto the page?

LO

I just started teaching creative writing a couple of quarters ago and so this is what my students always want to know, so I’ve been trying to figure it out.   First of all, so much comes from character . . .  so often it is something that somebody says.  I remember one time at work one of my colleagues told me that when she was a kid she had a babysitter who did two odd things: she locked her in the closet for long periods of time, and used her father’s toothbrush.  Her parents fired her [the babysitter], not because of the closet thing, but because of the toothbrush.  I remember going home and thinking of that.  [Then] I was out taking a walk and the toothbrush thing triggered a voice in my head that was telling this story about a babysitter who’d been fired and I went home and started writing this story.  I think it was the combination of that one detail and then a voice that started to talk about what that detail meant.  A lot of times it’s that.  I write things down in a notebook and sometimes if I’m just sitting there and I’m stuck, I basically look through the notebook as if it’s like a connect-the-dots thing where I think: ohhhh, maybe this character should have something to do with this, and I start writing myself toward that.

WHC

How do you structure the plot around the characterization?  If you’re emphasizing the character, do you go back and readjust the character after the plot develops?  How does that work?

LO

I’m not at all a planner.  I know some people are, they have an end in mind, but I’ve always found that is the worst possible thing that I could do.  Usually I’m surprised by what happens.  It almost just presents itself to me.

The worst possible thing for me is if I have a scene that I want to present, this is what I want this to be about, because inevitable the character gets in the way . . . and shouldn’t be doing that and I’m trying to make the character do that . . . and it just becomes this conflict.  And everything else gets messed up.  I do a ton of rewriting, but a lot of times it’s just seeing what has already happened and is this really what the stories about?  A lot of times I have to pull away, pull way back.  Sometimes I let the story sit for months and months.

WHC

Do you have a feeling of theme and meaning during the revision?  Does it develop?  Do you write toward a certain theme or meaning?

LO

I have ideas of what I want stories to be about.  I suppose I’m thinking about those . . . sometimes it’s not even on a conscious level.  Sometimes I realize later it’s about this and this, and obviously that was in my head at the time.  But I can’t really say to what extent it’s on an obvious level.  I always think there is certain work that I read and I know, I can tell, when I read it, that they were so [off]. . . often it happens with stuff that’s very political and I think they were so worried about getting the political message across . . . the art of it got lost.

WHC

And short story is an art form?

LO

Yes.

WHC

What about Flannery O’Connor inspired you?  Since you’re the Flannery O’Connor Award winner is the reason I’m asking this.   What are her strengths?  What do you teach about her?

LO

I don’t teach literature.  I’ve always taught  . . . in addition, right now, to the short story writing class—I use Best American Short Stories as my text . .  . very basic skills.  I’ve always liked that.  It’s very removed from what I do on a daily basis.  So I teach ESL [English as a Second Language] or basic writing or developmental writing.  So we’re nowhere near talking about literature in terms of all those sorts of things.  What I love about Flannery O’Connor—what always drew me to her—was the humor and the darkness of that.  She deals with such dark things but at the same time there is something just very funny about it.  She has great dialogue.  For me, it’s always the trick, to kind of balance it where something dark can be happening.  But I’m a big believer in using humor.

[I teach ESL] and a lot of my characters are teachers.  Many of my students love the idea [too] that they might wind up in my stories.  A lot of my writing is about grammar, teachers, people who are really caught up with the correctness of things, how people say good when it should be well.  But it becomes—and this is one of my themes—it becomes this block so they can’t really communicate with the world.  They’re hyperfocused on these correct forms of communication with the ironic result that they’re not doing any real communication at all.

WHC

Interesting.  You frequently write in first person but you also write in third person, “The Children Beneath the Seat” comes to mind.  Which [POV] do you prefer and why do you choose a specific point of view?

LO

I was thinking about this just about a month ago.  I was looking back and counting.  I was always under the impression . . . somebody said to me, “You’re stories are in the first person,” so I counted and they’re actually not.  They’re several that are third.  What I think happens is that when I feel that I’m not fully inside these characters’ heads, if I feel that I’m more of an observer of these characters—I might not fully understand what’s going on with them emotionally so I feel outside them a little bit . .  I have a sense of what’s going on but it’s really you’re voyeuristic, your on the outside . . . the story just starts to tell itself in third person.  Or, if I’ve got a couple of different characters, but I’m not seeing the story as being deeply from one person’s point of view, this person’s not the perfect narrator, then I switch to third person.  But I do think it’s when I do feel emotionally outside them [the characters].

WHC

When you’re using first person, do you try to maintain objectivity?  I mean, do you try not to let the author or the narrator dominate the first person point of view?

LO

I’m trying to think of my stories.  Almost always the narrator’s voice takes over.  Really becomes this [or that] character, really becomes their point of view, [but] very much in their language with their perspective on the world.

WHC

How do you handle the time difference, especially when the narrator might be the character speaking from years later (than story time)?

LO

Do you mean if the narrator is older?

WHC

Yes.  If the narrator is looking back from a later time?  If you’re in scene and the narrator is looking back [with sensibilities, language, historical perspectives] from twenty years later?

LO

Okay.  Normally they’re writing in the voice, the age they are now.  For example, when I wrote “The Bigness of the World,”  she’s in her twenties and she is looking back on this event happened when she was eleven going on twelve.  So when I wrote that as her as an adult.  Her word choice, her syntax, there’s a sort of wistfulness about it, but I tried to retain a certain naiveté that she was just figuring out the world and too was quite aware of the world, but not to a point where she feels anger to her brother.  But I had to figure out ways . . . I didn’t want her as an adult just looking back and telling the reader that.  And this was the moment where I was angry, and we kind of separated and became two separate people.  So I had her . . . it was just images . .  with her looking at him and thinking that his hands looked fat and light like a bullfrog, and these sorts of things.  That was tricky.  I didn’t want her just saying: “Here I am as an adult with all these years in between and I’ve analyzed it and thought about it and I can tell you in a neat package how I felt.”

WHC

We’re skirting something that seems to be common in contemporary fiction—the difference between fiction and memoir.  When an author writes in first person, an author has a tendency to fall into a memoir approach to create a character.  Is that a valid thought in your way of thinking?  Do you deal with it when you write?

LO

Some of my stories start out with something I know quiet well and I feel much closer to the narrator.  But I have a rule for myself.  The minute I start to write something that’s based in reality, I have to deviate early on in a very major, major way.  And if I don’t, I’m locked into the events as they were.  I always follow that rule.  I might start out and I might be thinking about something—an experience from my past—and then I immediately have to have something that is not in anyway true.

WHC

That seems so difficult for beginning writers to latch onto.  Thanks.

I have a difficult question that I think is very important for authors.  What does an author do in a story to engage the reader so the reader can experience enjoyment from the story?  What are the key factors about storytelling, and the prose for storytelling, that you feel makes the reader happy, and makes the author successful?

LO

This is another thing I’ve been thinking about—pleasing the reader.  I think good craft does that.  When you read and are taken along so easily with the words . . . because I read so much today, I felt people thought it was enough to have an interesting plot—like here’s this great idea for a story, but there is not pleasure at the word level, or the senses level.  I think so much about that when I write and rewrite.  Literally, I rewrite passages maybe twenty or thirty times.  In fact, when I’m stuck, I just go back reading slowly and changing.  I am a big believer in narrative.  I think people like a good story.  I don’t spend a lot of time talking with other writers, or especially talking about craft, but what I do like is to sit around with people and talk about odd stories.  I’m really happy when someone tells me something strange that happens to them.  Readers like that.  Most of us like a story that pulls us in.  And that is important to me.  And just characters.  Characters that you feel like you want to spend some time with, that you want to hear a story from.

WHC

And characters that are in a situation where they have to solve some sort of conflict.

LO

Right.  Giving it all to them but making them feel they can spend some time thinking about it.  That it’s not so obvious where they go: “Oh, this is what it means.”  They shouldn’t be able to sum it up easily.  Where they feel like it’s going to stay with them, and you gave them [something].  Let them do the work.  [Don’t] present them with something that is neatly tied up.

WHC

Is there anything in classic literature that you enjoy reading and using as a source [of ideas] over and over for your writing?

LO

I don’t have a novel.  I read different things at different times.  I love Willa Cather.

WHC

My Antonia?

LO

I like that.  I really like Song of the Lark.  So I go back and read or reread her pretty frequently.  I am also a Paul Bowles fan.  I don’t know if he’d be considered classic.  He died just a couple years ago.  He started out as a composer and then moved to Morocco where e spent most of his entire writing life.  I’ve given some of his work to my students and they hate it.  I don’t try to teach it anymore.  His work’s really dark.  There’s not a lot of emotion to it.  And I find even if I’m really enjoying reading it [his work], [when I] read a lot of his work like The Sheltering Skies (probably what most people are familiar with because Bertolucci made it into a film), I find that it exerts maybe too much of an influence on my writing and not in a way that’s necessarily good.  But I think that one reason I like so much to go back and read him is that he writes so much about being in other places.  That’s really central to my work.  Half the stories in this collection are set in other places.  For me, traveling and being in other places, and maybe it’s because I grew up pretty isolated in this small town, one television station–it was very insular–it was a different time, there was no Internet, and so I grew up knowing so little of what was going on in the world and I read.  I just wanted to be gone.  I wanted to know about the rest of the world.

WHC

In a recent interview with David Lynn at The Kenyon Review, he advised all beginning writers before they started writing to go out and live life.  I can’t remember exactly what he recommended, but it was like skydiving or working in a canning factory.

LO

I so completely agree with this.  Look.  I’m forty-four, but things are just beginning with my career.  But really I’ve been writing all this time.  Like in my twenties I had my first story published.  I looked at it in print and I just said I’m not ready.  My style—I just haven’t figured it out yet.  I’m a big believer in writing that offers these observations when you read them, there’s such a sense of fulfillment for the reader.  You think that’s exactly how it is and I hadn’t thought to think of it in that way.  And that’s absolutely right.  I just think I didn’t know enough about the world when I was younger.  I think my style wasn’t there.  After that first story came out, I just said I’m not going to send anything out, and I didn’t for years.  I just read and I wrote before I started [sending out] again.  So I agree completely with David.

WHC

Do you think an MFA is essential?

LO

I don’t have an MFA.  So, I’m going to say no.

WHC

Because MFA programs point you in the right or wrong direction?

LO

I don’t think either of those are true.  I don’t think that ultimately you can teach someone to write.  You can take someone who writes well and kind of help them along.  I think that the programs do that, they give you people with more experience who can help you talk through things, point out things that maybe you weren’t seeing.  They can also give you that time to focus.  I’m teaching and it’s hard to find time.  And there you are [in an MFA program] and you’ve got this time to focus.  One of the biggest things they can do, and it was something I didn’t have, was that they allow you to network.  I didn’t know anybody when I won the Flannery O’Connor Prize; I had just been in the slush heap.

WHC

The contacts are valuable.

LO

Yes.

WHC

On your process of revision.  You mentioned it briefly.  Is it the same for every story and how do you revise?

LO

No.  More often my beginnings are going to stay as they were.  It’s the ends that are always the hardest for me.  I can tell when it’s not quite right.  Maybe I try to convince myself this is the ending.  But endings have to be perfectly balanced; they can’t tie it all up.  They have to strike the right note.  They have to be subtle; they have to capture everything you wanted the reader to feel and understand and leave them in a way that they can think about that.  So the title story “The Bigness of the World,”  I had this whole ending to do with the children as adults and it wasn’t probably a half a year later that I realized it had to end with them as children.  This kind of realization that adults sometimes disappoint you and sometimes the most unlikely people save you.  But ultimately, people have their limitations.  I just couldn’t see that ending until I was far enough away from the story.  And sometimes I just move stuff around.  I realized this information really needed to precede this information and how could I get that to happen.  And sometimes things really need to be back loaded.

You know Nancy [Zafris], the Editor for the Flannery O’Connor Prize, I remember when she looked at “The Bigness of the World”  she said you have to frontload some information about the parents.  And she was right because the parents ended up crucial to that story.  But I didn’t talk about them until I was halfway through and she suggested I bring stuff up about them on the first page and that’s what I did.

WHC

She’s terrific in that way, isn’t she?

LO

She is.  My God, she’s a really an amazing person to help me through this whole process.

WHC

She is that.

Do you have an agent?

LO

Yes, I do have an agent.

WHC

Do you advise beginning writers to seek an agent?

LO

Yes.  This I kind of stumbled into.  This woman had sold the rights to Andrew Porter’s collection, which had one last year, so they were talking to her so she read the book and she called me and said she would like to represent me and wondered if I had a novel I was working on.  I talked to Andrew and other people, just about the whole process.  I talked to her and really liked her.  For me, if somebody is competent and I really like them–have a good feeling about them–then that’s what I’m looking for.  Once you have something completed, you do need to think about an agent.

WHC

Do you use a copy editor a or a content editor before you send out your stories.

LO

No.  I do that myself.  I’m a pretty major grammarian.  I go through things over and over and over.  Literally, when I think it’s done, I still read it through five more times.

WHC

What is the difference with your approach to the short story and the novel?

LO

Oh, God.

WHC

Sorry.

LO

That question reflects the bane of my existence.  Do you do both?

WHC

Yes.

LO

When I started writing this novel several years ago, I looked back on it and I realized I was making each chapter like a short story—that kind of arc and felling of fulfillment at the end, but I didn’t know how to carry that into a whole novel—how to create an arc in the whole novel.  Each chapter was going but that’s not fulfilling.  So I gave up on the novel for a while.  I decided short stories have always come very natural to me.  I’ve read a ton of them.  I love short stories.  And I never feel at a loss.  It’s funny because most people tell me: “I like short stories but I don’t get it, but novels I’m getting into.”  I never feel that way.  I love short stories.  This structure of the novel is much harder for me and I think probably I just don’t have the time to immerse myself into it.  You really have to be able to do that to remember what already came and where you’re going, and what’s happening tight now.  I just don’t know.  I’m struggling with this so I have no good advice.

WHC

What is the difference between genre fiction and great literary fiction?

LO

When I think of genre fiction I think of some sort of a format that is followed.  Stories, of course, have a beginning, middle, and end.  But beyond that, I feel there isn’t a format . . . that anything is possible.  Some of my structures are a little more episodic, if that’s a way to think about it.  Where they have his kind of trope that runs through them, like the whole idea of a bird defecating on you, and how that marks certain points in your life and that becomes this take off point.  With genre, and I’m not really familiar with genre writing, but I tend to think of it as something that follows or adheres to this certain format.  The formula that one has to follow.  It has to go like this, and it has to end like this, and it should involve these types of characters.  I don’t know if that’s fair to say because I don’t know enough about it.  But that’s how it strikes me.

WHC

Does the characterization differ between the two?  Especially in the depth of how you develop a character?

LO

I do think there is that also.  With my students—I teach at an arts school—a lot of my students are taking my class because they are going to be creating video games or animation, or film, and the idea that character is everything and out of character comes plot and I tell them you exist, everyday you go out and do things, that’s the order of things, because of who you are you do certain things.  It’s no different with a story.  I see them because they are coming much more from the world of genre writing, they’re big SciFi buffs, they’re fantasy buffs, and I do see that idea is novel for them, the idea that character is central and that’s where you start.  They like it, they take to it, and when the write they can see where that’s the case.  So I think you’re probably right.

WHC.

What are your career goals and what can we expect in your writing over the next few years?

LO

Well, I’m trying to finish this novel.  I was quite lucky.   I just won the Arona Josey Foundation grant, which is $25,000 dollars . . .

WHC

Terrific.

LO

. . . thank you, so at the end of the month I’ll go to New York for that ceremony and return with a check which means that I’ll go on sabbatical and I won’t teach from October to the rest of the year—I’ll take that qaurter off, and then cut back on my teaching next year.  So the plan is to finish this novel.  That’s what I’ve been working on.

WHC

We’ll look forward to it.

I’d like to thank you for participating in this interview.  It’s been valuable for me, and for the website.

LO

Thank you so much.

 


Read other Interviews by William H. Coles

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