Lori Ostlund’s debut novel After the Parade follows the progress of ESL instructor Aaron Englund as he builds a new life for himself in San Francisco and reflects on a small-town upbringing in Minnesota.
Ostlund’s first collection of stories, The Bigness of the World, received the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction in 2008. Stories from it appeared in the Best American Short Stories and the PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories. Lori recently took time out from her launch to speak with Dead Darlings about her new novel. She will read from After the Parade on October 6 at Newtonville Books.
Dead Darlings: During the opening pages of After the Parade, protagonist Aaron Englund is about to set off for San Francisco in a U-Haul, leaving behind his long-time partner Walter. What has led Aaron to take this drastic step?
Lori Ostlund: The bottom-line reason for Aaron’s departure is that he is forty-one yet has never lived alone, despite the fact that he has spent most of his life feeling lonely. His parents disappeared from his life when he was young, so when Walter came along and offered him the means to go to college and leave the small town where he was from, he accepted. Later, he and Walter became lovers and were together for twenty years, but he has come to realize, as the book opens, that he is with Walter out of guilt and gratitude. He also realizes that unless he figures out how to be alone, he will never truly be able to move ahead in his life.
In terms of why I decided to begin the book there, a departure seemed like a natural starting point. Nearly fifteen years ago when I started writing about this character, I understood him only as a child, so I imagined the story proceeding in a very linear fashion, beginning just before his father’s death. In fact, I had written probably 400+ pages before I accepted that this structure was never going to work. At that point, Aaron was only 7 or 8, so you can see how this was problematic.
I took some time away from the book to work on stories and think. I realized that I needed to imagine this character as an adult, to think about who this child had become, and that was when I wrote a lot of the adult sections. I’ve generally found the advice about starting as close as possible to the end of your scene, story, or book to be spot on, so I envisioned a book that spanned approximately half a year in terms of its present story. During that half year, Aaron would leave, fall apart a bit as he worked to become independent, and ultimately confront his past.
From May to August 2013, I worked on the book around 70 hours a week, basically piecing it together. It was a very messy process because the pieces were, quite literally, everywhere. I had gone through three computers in the course of writing these chunks, and some of the sections never got converted from floppy disks, so they were gone. Throughout the course of this, the one thing I felt sure of was that the book started with his leaving.
Departures and disappearances play a prominent role in After the Parade. Can you discuss your attraction to this theme?
In terms of narrative appeal, departures and arrivals are often fraught with conflict. When we leave a place, we are either going away from something (often conflict—a failed relationship or career, death, a disappointment) or toward something (potential for reflection on old conflict or for new conflict). In Aaron’s case, he is doing both, I think. He is leaving a twenty-year relationship because he has accepted that he is no longer in love, but his arrival in San Francisco forces him to come to terms with everything he has left behind in order to fulfill his reason for leaving: to live a life that feels free and honest and independent.
On a personal level, I have always been interested in 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 suppose this desire to constantly be moving on is rooted in the fact that I spent the first eighteen years of my life in a town of 400 people in Minnesota. My parents owned a hardware store, which left very little time for vacations, and so we almost never left this town, and I think that my inability to stay put began then.
I’m fascinated by the structure of this novel. Aaron’s present-day life in San Francisco unfolds in a measured, linear fashion. But then you’re layering in huge chunks of backstory from his childhood, and those sections become increasingly fractured as the story progresses and we learn more about Aaron’s mother. Can you talk about how you managed structure through the revision process?
As I mentioned above, I wrote this book in pieces with no real sense of how I might structure it. I knew fairly early on that I didn’t want to use a frame structure, with the present bookending the very long telling of the past. Instead, I wanted to create the sense that as Aaron went about his new life, the past was ever with him, that small things about his new life were constantly triggering memories of the past so that when he sees the twins on the bus as he rides to work, for example, this leads into the story of the first time he saw twins, when he was five years old and visiting the Paul Bunyan Park with his parents. I think that this is how memory works—that our days are filled with constant memories and reflections, often triggered by a smell or a word or an encounter. I wanted to create that feeling in the book, which is why many of the chapters include both past and present, juxtaposed.
As I pieced it together, I began to understand what the book was about and what was still missing, and so I think of the summer of 2013 as not really a revision summer but as the period during which I began to hold the whole book in my head and put it together. As I did so, I wrote a lot of new stuff also. I had spent years developing character and backstory, but the present plot was largely a mystery. When I sat down in May of that year, I still did not know where his mother had gone when she disappeared 25 years earlier. But by being immersed with the book in that way, I suddenly understood where she was and I wrote those chapters quite quickly.
Early on, I saw how messy and overwhelming the situation before me was, so I came up with the idea of structuring his present life in San Francisco in months, December through June, and I started going through my files and organizing: I had hundreds of pages of writing, some of it in chapter form, some of it in scenes, some of it just paragraphs. I read through everything and placed it in one of three files: no longer part of the novel, might be useful, and definitely part of the novel. The second category got put into one file with a table of contents that I could scroll through when I was looking for something particular or just needed inspiration. The third category became my primary focus.
I created a file for each month, December through June, and then I began pasting all of these chunks into the most likely month. The present-day SF stuff was, of course, the easiest to place. The childhood chunks got moved around a lot, sometimes within a certain month, but often they jumped to different months as I realized that certain information needed to be revealed earlier or later. The hardest chunks to place were those from Aaron’s middle years, his life with Walter, because those seemed as though they could go anywhere. Once I had my month files, I began with December and the process of simultaneously arranging and writing more in order to bring it all together.
Your secondary characters are so well-drawn. I am particularly captivated by Clarence, brother of Aaron’s mother’s friend Gloria. Where does Clarence come from, psychologically speaking, and what accounts for his affinity to Aaron?
I love creating secondary characters and generally have one rule for myself, which is that a secondary character should never be there simply to serve one specific function (e.g. to help along a plot point or round out some aspect of the main character). I always want readers to feel that the secondary character has his or her own life, beyond the particular moment in the story when this life intersects with the main character’s life. I want readers to feel almost as if they wouldn’t mind following the secondary character home instead. In this book, the secondary characters are quite often misfits —a morbidly obese agoraphobe, an aunt who is constipated and obsessed with the Rapture, and Clarence, a wheelchair-bound dwarf with tusks. Aaron is attracted to these people, perhaps because they reflect how he feels on the inside.
In my mind, Clarence is one of the book’s heroes. He likes Aaron and treats him kindly at a time in Aaron’s life when few people have, certainly not his father or his classmates or his kindergarten teacher. At the same time, Clarence is not always kind to Aaron. He has moments of cruelty, a trait that felt important to me in thinking about how the world had shaped him and about his own vulnerability. Most important, Clarence treats Aaron like a peer, someone capable of understanding him. I think that this is partly a reflection of Clarence’s loneliness and partly a reaction to Aaron, in whom he sees a kindred spirit.
As a child, I met a wheelchair-bound dwarf with tusks. I don’t know anything more about him, but I’ve always carried the image with me, of a man scowling as I, no doubt, stared. I don’t recall speaking to him or hearing him speak. All I know is that I took the memory, no doubt distorted the way that so many of our childhood memories are, and imagined a character, and when this character opened his mouth, he was acerbic, highly articulate, and deeply lonely.
While Aaron’s homosexuality is not the core topic of After the Parade, it does inform his life choices. What opportunities and challenges did you encounter in rendering this key aspect of Aaron’s personality? What does it mean to publish a LGBT-influenced novel in 2015, versus 2005 or 1995?
After my story collection came out in 2009, I gave a university reading, and one of the MFA students stood up during the Q&A and said that she, as a writer who is gay but who writes literary fiction, felt hopeful when she read my book. I understood her point, that in the past, writers who were gay most often made a decision: they wrote genre fiction for a gay audience or wrote about straight characters for a literary audience, perhaps with homoerotic subtext. Eventually, this began to change: “coming out” stories started to find a place in the literary world, stories where the whole process of coming to terms with being gay was the conflict of the book and its primary focus, and now, finally, we are seeing fiction in which characters are gay without that being the only or even primary focus of the story.
That said, identity is part of the equation. Certainly, the fact that Aaron is gay does, as you say, inform his choices. It also accounts for the fact that he feels marginalized growing up where and when he does, in a small town in the 1970s. Moreover, he is effeminate, and though his father is cruel to everyone, we suspect that his father’s cruelty is intensified because he recognizes something about his son that repels him.
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 opposite sex, and I always tell them that they need to start with the character and not the sex: that 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.
After the Parade is neither an urban nor a rural narrative, but clearly Aaron’s thoughts and actions in San Francisco are informed by his small-town heritage. When I tried to place your novel in this country-city continuum, a strange mix of comparables came to mind, from Anna Karenina to The Beverly Hillbillies. Likewise, I had trouble classifying this as a coming-of-age narrative, given that Aaron is into his 40s. Were you at all conscious of genre when you wrote the book?
I don’t think that I ever gave genre any thought. My own life has been both rural and urban, and though I consider myself better suited for urban—I like the anonymity—I know that much of who I am has to do with the fact that I grew up in a small town. The same is true for Aaron. As to whether it’s a coming-of-age novel, every decade of my own life has involved major realizations and changes, and I suspect that this will be the case right up until I die. That is, I think that the shift from childhood to adulthood that happens in one’s teens and early twenties is crucial, but I think that these tremendous shifts in knowledge and perspective and clarity regarding our roles in the world keep happening and should, which, one could argue, is another form of “coming of age.”
That said, after spending years trying to tell the story in details, I now have to figure out how to describe the book in terms of the bigger picture. I think that finding the best labels is particularly important in terms of figuring out how to market the book, by which I mean finding the interested audiences. One of the first cover suggestions from the press, for example, was of a country road, which didn’t make sense to me, to how I perceived the book, so perhaps I was responding on some level to this rural-urban continuum.
I also did not think of it as a coming-of-age book when I wrote it, despite what I said above about the continuum that is life, yet I noticed a while back that Amazon categorizes it under several headings, including “coming of age,” “family life,” and “gay,” all of which tell part of the story, though none of them the whole. Maybe the best case scenario is one in which someone gets pulled in to read it because they like stories about family dynamics but finishes it thinking that they now have a better understanding of what it means to be gay or to be a teacher.
Aaron’s work at San Francisco English Language Center induced many laugh-out-loud moments during my reading of After the Parade. Given that you taught ESL in the Bay Area, can you describe the line between fact and fiction in your novel? Was there a real-life Rich Pulkka who refused to pay heating bills?
Let’s just say that I taught at a fly-by-night ESL school, that we went on strike, and that I quit a week in because I could not imagine working as hard as I was for so little pay in order to benefit the owner, whom I never met. On the positive side, I had wonderful, funny students at that school, many of whom I’m still in touch with, and when I was writing the book, I found myself drawing from this experience and often from the funny things that they said.
For me, fiction often begins with fact, but I’m happiest when I don’t know too much about a situation—I like to know just enough to be intrigued and am forced to imagine the rest. I have a rule for myself when I begin writing something triggered by fact: I always force myself early on to shift away from fact in a significant way. Otherwise, I end up in the trap of thinking about what really happened rather than what should happen, and that’s almost always limiting.
In February 2016, Scribner will reissue my story collection The Bigness of the World, which won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction in 2008 and came out the following year. Though the last few years have been mainly spent working on writing and revising After the Parade, I do 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. 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 partner and I spent as owners of an Asian furniture store in New Mexico. The book is tentatively entitled The Proprietresses.