‘After the Parade’–
An Interview with Lori Ostlund
by Karin Cecile Davidson
Lori Ostlund is a writer whose prose is attentive and precise and streaked with wit, her characters well-mannered and seeking truths, their worlds complicated and lush. Her story collection, “The Bigness of the World,” winner of the 2008 Flannery O’Connor Award, leads us into unexpected places: those plateaus of childhood in which adults are sighted from below, each child’s perspective unique and filled with wonder and wide swathes of humor, and then on the backs and in the minds of women and men, across foreign terrain from Malaysia to Belize, from Bali to Spain to Morocco, circling back to Minnesota for grounding and good measure, emotional topographies charting the way. Each story spins out from the smallest phrase, which in the telling becomes the center, like a seed from which a large, elegant, wide-limbed tree emerges. Phrases like “the bigness of the world,” “the day you were born,” “nobody walks to the Mennonites,” and “and down we went”—which are the stories’ titles as well—spell out meanings for the character-driven narratives.
In this same way, “After the Parade,” Ostlund’s newly published novel, also arises from a small, but powerful phrase, the fulcrum from which all else is seemingly decided—yes, exactly, from the trio of words: “after the parade.” While the story promises a brief glance into a central character’s life, the novel grants a wider, more panoramic view of a character, and Ostlund has given us a beautifully inclusive view. Aaron Englund, the novel’s protagonist, is an ESL teacher, a reader of poetry and literature, observant of those around him, thoughtful and careful, frightened and brave all at once. His journey up until his forty-second year is filled with loss, sorrow, forgiveness, acceptance, and trust, and he thinks about difference and death and love with his eyes open, never closed. Words anchor Aaron to the world, and his love and respect of language unfold before us, from childhood memories to present-day reflections.
Aaron had discovered his love of grammar as a boy, when he first observed in these structures and symbols a kind of order, patterns that allowed words—his first love—to join together and make sense. He saw that he could open his heart and love grammar almost more, the way one loved the uglier child because it required more effort to do so. –Lori Ostlund
KARIN CECILE DAVIDSON: Like Aaron Englund, many of the characters in your stories are fascinated with grammar and the power and play of language—for example, Harold of “All Boy,” who “kept lists of words he particularly liked or disliked the sound of,” and Ilse of “The Bigness of the World,” who “deeply disliked… abbreviated language of any sort.” Aaron takes this to another level, however, reaching past the wonderfully eccentric behavior of Harold and Ilse to more serious meditations of words and meanings.
How did you decide on all of the details that together create your character Aaron Englund? Were the love of language, the desire to teach, and the decision to start anew traits that Aaron started out with, or did you discover them in the process of writing scenes and chapters?
LORI OSTLUND: With each character I create, I try to give him or her some aspect of myself as a way into the character, a way to connect. Often, I use traits or characteristics that I am a little embarrassed of—my belly button phobia, my love of grammar, my dislike of public arguments. Though I am not Aaron, I did give him a lot of myself, including my love of teaching and words, my hatred of the telephone, and even my birthday. The shared birth date started out as a logistical convenience, a way to keep track of time as I wrote about his childhood. However, I soon realized that the novel needed an adult Aaron also, and suddenly I found myself working with a time span of nearly forty years, so having that easy reference point in my head became almost crucial. Beyond the shared biographical details, Aaron and I are both quite similar and quite different, and to answer your question, I discovered Aaron as I wrote. That is the only way I know how to write. It took me a long time to begin to see who this boy would grow up to be, which of his childhood traits would follow him most strongly. For example, I discovered that his fearfulness had never gone away, which made sense, and so a lot of what happens in the adult sections is influenced by his attempts to finally deal with his fear.
DAVIDSON: The present story of “After the Parade” has a timeless feeling to it, and perhaps this is in part because of the seamless way in which the narrative moves from front to back story. Though there are certainly elements that reveal the contemporary settings of staid small-town Minnesota and a vibrant San Francisco, there are details—landline telephones, elevators, public transportation—that cross over time and could be placed in the 1960s or 70s, sending us back in time as well as grounding us in true present day. Perhaps this is a matter of the pacing, how Aaron’s story is revealed, the writing careful, deliberate, threading forward and backward with a beautifully controlled momentum and breadth that seem to move in “real time.”
Is the momentum something you strived for, or did it occur naturally, the novel’s contours deciding the outcome?
OSTLUND: The book spans the years from 1970, when Aaron is five, to around 2006 or 2007, when he moves to San Francisco. Like me, he is not keen on telephones, so when I imagined his character, I never imagined him as someone with a cell phone. In fact, once or twice the copy editor marked a section with the question, “But wouldn’t he have his cell phone?” which made me laugh because until then I had not even thought consciously about the fact that he didn’t have a cell. It simply never occurred to me that he did. In turn, I’m not a writer that makes a lot of references to popular culture; the childhood sections do refer to a television show that I watched as a child, “Adam-12,” about two police officers, but overall there are no references to brand names or song titles. In terms of the social, historical, and political environment, there are references to the Vietnam War, for example, but the way Aaron learns about the Vietnam War very much reflects the way that I understood the war as a child growing up in a small town. It was not talked about much, at least not in front of children.
I did think a lot about pacing as I went. Pacing is something that I focus on a lot with my own writing and with my students’ work as well. I wrote the book in pieces over the course of nearly fifteen years, first much of the childhood stuff and then later chunks of the adult stuff, but I struggled with how to put it together. Finally I decided that I wanted the book to move back and forth, much in the same way that our pasts are always with us as we go about our days. I’ll be walking down the street, and one small thing—a word, an image—can trigger an entire memory, so I found myself playing off of small things a lot. For example, one of the first childhood flashbacks is to his family vacation, on which he sees twins for the first time. This scene gets triggered in the narrative because twins keep popping up in the adult Aaron’s new life in San Francisco—he rides the bus with creepy twins, his ESL students bring up twins, insisting that the US has more twins than their countries do—and while the childhood scenes are not being remembered on the page by him directly, I did want to create that feeling of triggered memories and the way that our pasts almost ambush us sometimes when we are in periods of transition. For me, it made sense that while he was in the midst of leaving his lover of many years and setting out on his own—really for the first time—he would be overwhelmed by unanswered questions from his past.
Also connected to the pacing here is that my writing tends to be quite digressive, by which I mean that I like tangents. I like the idea of a story within a story within a story, for example, and I like to see how far afield I can take the narrative before the tension snaps and the reader can’t find his or her way back. My first finished draft was over 500 pages, but I cut around fifty before my agent went out with it. Then, my editor, Liese Mayer at Scribner, helped me cut another hundred. She was so good at figuring out the places that digressions needed to be reined in and thus helped me make the pacing and movement what it is. When I’m writing, I don’t show many people my work as I go along—really just my partner Anne—but from the very beginning I trusted Liese, so when she suggested getting rid of a scene, I might have thought about it for a few days, but I nearly always came to see that she was right.
Most weekends Aaron felt as if he were tumbling over a waterfall, floating and struggling for footing, and then Monday morning came, he entered his classroom, and the ground appeared beneath him again. He had wanted his life to change—had believed he might lose his mind if it did not—and just like that, it had. He had changed it. –Lori Ostlund
DAVIDSON: Aaron’s actions—the way he moves through life, with slight unease and caution, the love of walking paired with his need for freedom, the way he observes the world—along with his thoughts—delicate, shifting, patterned, intellectual, deeply imagined, disturbed by occasional fears—bring moments of clarity to a life carefully lived, a past called up, memory selecting what should be remembered, and we become engaged in his sadness, depth of perception, need for joy and a brighter future, ability to laugh and cry and appreciate possibilities of happiness. Indeed, the emotional depth is stunning and we are right there, concerned, laughing out loud, uncertain and surprised, willing to follow Aaron into places undiscovered and rare until the very moment he realizes them as places of the heart.
As in the novel, the emotional depth you bring to your characters is revealed in the stories of “Bigness” as well—the narrator in “Bed Death,” Annabel in “The Day You Were Born,” the narrator in “And Down We Go.” When do you first become aware of a character’s sensibilities, and do you observe and then determine the details of the kinds of emotion each character, Aaron especially, will disclose? Are there writers who have influenced your writing in terms of emotional landscapes?
OSTLUND: I often tell my students that of the two—making your reader think and making your reader feel—the latter is far and away the harder to pull off. It always requires some backdoor: you can never make a reader sad by saying directly that the moment was sad or that the character is crying. But I think that the challenge of this is, in part, what keeps me wanting to write. I am a big believer in restraint. In this sense, I am very much a Midwesterner. I like the 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. Kent Haruf, for example, a writer I adore, was 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.
In terms of how I arrive at a character’s internal landscape, with some characters, I am very aware of feeling as though I am observing them from distance, as though I am reporting on them and trying to make sense of them, of what they are doing and thinking and feeling. These characters tend to end up in third-person, distant third, not the close third that “After the Parade” is written in. Those stories often unfold like the solving of a mystery—who is this character that I’m observing, and how did he or she come to this point? But for Aaron and for the main characters in the stories that you mentioned above, I felt very close to all of them, even those who are quite different from me, such as the narrator in “Bed Death.” Sometimes, with characters like that, I’ll write something that I might feel or do, and I realize after it goes down on the page that this character wouldn’t feel that way or the character changes as I grow to understand him or her better, and then I realize that certain details have to be deleted or tweaked to match the character’s sensibility (as opposed to my own).
He came to think of death as this, the steady tug of pennies holding him down, keeping him balanced. –Lori Ostlund
DAVIDSON: “After the Parade” is steeped in memory. Without unveiling the tragic beauty of the scenes, I’d still like to talk a little about the immediate aftermath following the parade that marks the before-and-after circumstance of Aaron’s life. Aaron is five years old. He has been given pennies, which he has distributed evenly between his trouser pockets, their weight like ballast, keeping him anchored against the confusion and sadness that might send him floating.
Would you tell us about this particular memory, how writing Aaron from a very close third-person viewpoint led the story to this phenomenal moment?
OSTLUND: I wrote that scene a while ago and don’t remember the particulars of how it came to me, though with the child Aaron, I thought very specifically about how I perceived the world as a child, how I made sense of it, and what perplexed me about adults. I often say that I remember everything I learned and observed until around fourth grade, and after that things become a blur. As I was writing Aaron as a child, I relied on those memories. I don’t have children, though I like them quite a bit, some more than others. I talk to children the way that I wanted to be talked to as a child, and I find that this often leads children to tell me things that are funny and honest and perceptive. All of this, then, came into play as I was writing this scene about the pennies. First, pennies seemed like the sort of thing that adults, at least in Minnesota at that time, might give a child at a funeral as a way to awkwardly compensate for the fact that the child’s father has just died. In turn, I thought about the way that Aaron is, focused and methodical, and I imagined him putting these pennies into his pockets, alternating between left and right. So many of my childhood memories are like this, impressionistic and associative, so it made sense to me that he would correlate these pennies and their weight with his father’s death.
“Someday, you’ll enjoy irony,” Clarence had predicted. It was true. He had grown into a man who saw the world in terms of irony and symbol. –Lori Ostlund
DAVIDSON: Irony is central to Aaron’s awareness. He understands the humor inherent in irony, appreciative of it in wistful, yet certain ways. From his brief experience with Clarence, a character whose massive intellect and humor and elevated sense of the world make him remarkably complete, Aaron is introduced to the idea of irony. Reintroduced at key moments, Clarence stays with the reader as he remains in Aaron’s mind.
How did Clarence find his way into the novel? Did his character go through various progressions, or did he emerge all at once, his mannerisms and sense of irony already in tact?
OSTLUND: Clarence is probably my favorite minor character in the book. Certainly, he was my favorite character to write. The idea for him came from a chance encounter in my childhood with a dwarf in a wheelchair who had what I perceived to be tusks. I know nothing about the man—I didn’t speak to him, but I have a memory of him scowling at me, no doubt because I was staring. So Clarence started with a memory, but who he is and the way he speaks came to me pretty much fully formed. I started writing those scenes, and he tumbled onto the page.
I began to see that he was one of the heroes of the story, in part because he is kind to Aaron at a time when few people are, yet what I liked about him and what seems essential is that he has edges as well. He tricks Aaron. He says cruel things to him. He manipulates him. Yet, at the same time, he treats Aaron like a peer. I’m not interested in characters or people who are unceasingly good. Once I started writing Clarence, I realized that he was amusing and acerbic and highly articulate, that he had suffered a great deal in his life and this had shaped him. Though Aaron is only seven when he meets Clarence, he understands intuitively that Clarence can only exist on this farm, hiding from the world. I wrote the Clarence sections in chunks, several years apart, but I always found it easy to slip immediately back into his world and voice because I found his voice easy to inhabit.
What Aaron came to understand as a boy was that people focused on difference. –Lori Ostlund
DAVIDSON: Aaron is an astute observer of those around him and remarks on the subject of differences throughout the novel. Differences learned in childhood—the memory of the boys whose father was American and whose mother was Vietnamese, who in Mortonville, Minnesota would always be seen as different. Differences remarked on by his former lover, Walter—how “gay men and straight men could never be friends” due to matters of trust and the desire to be “true, uncensored.” Differences examined each day with the students of his San Francisco ESL class, their Turkish, Korean, Ukrainian, Japanese, Brazilian, Russian backgrounds giving meaning to their discrete understandings of the English language and life in America.
The scene in which Aaron assigns his class the anecdote exercise—“write an anecdote or detail about yourself that is surprising, amusing, interesting, or even embarrassing”—seems to open up the topic of differences, lending levity and pushing past stereotypes and generalizations toward specifics, precise and definite and completely unique.
Would you tell us about this subject and this scene, as it pertains to Aaron, and how the idea of difference influences your work as a writer?
OSTLUND: The classroom games and exercises are all based on exercises I used with my students when I was an ESL teacher, so some of the pleasure of writing these scenes was thinking about how my characters would respond to a particular exercise. And, of course, I borrowed moments, lines, and scenarios from my own classroom experiences. At its core, the anecdote game requires a good deal of trust, so as I began to write this scene, I quickly became aware that the game required far more of Aaron than anyone else, precisely because of the boundaries that he has established for himself, not just with his students but with most people. I think that this scene is crucial for Aaron: he realizes that he wants his students to understand him, to see him just a bit more clearly. I consider the need to be understood as deeply human, a need that nearly all of us have.
Of course, understanding others happens more easily the more we are alike, which was something that, on a personal level, I began to think about as a child. I was not aware of the fact that I was gay as a child, though I think that something resonated with me when I heard whispered talk of homosexuality. I was intrigued, even though the whispering was always negative. Since I grew up in a place very similar to the place where Aaron grows up, a small town in Minnesota where everyone was Lutheran or Catholic and most people were northern European, I found myself interested, fairly early on, in difference. When I was around eight, I became obsessed with the Holocaust and Hitler, for example, and wanted to read everything I could about it. I wrote reports about it for school, and in fourth grade, I read a very large book—maybe 400 or 500 pages—about the Holocaust, much of which I didn’t fully understand. My memory is that I didn’t check it out of the library, just “borrowed” it for a bit, which was something I did when I thought that I might be considered too young for a book. I grew up with a lot of talk around me about sin and Satan, but the images of the Holocaust hit on a whole different level. It was my introduction to the world’s capacity for evil, and I wanted to understand everything about it. In many ways, this was how I first came to understand the role of difference in the world, how difference could be used to manipulate people, to unite one group by focusing on how another group is different.
Clarity is important,” he agreed. “But maybe clarity is sometimes about knowing what you don’t need to know. –Lori Ostlund
DAVIDSON: Aaron’s realizations at the close of “After the Parade” are open and hopeful, bowing to possibility and finally shying away from worry. I love the idea of beginnings within endings, that Aaron has a future to look forward to, no matter the way it might play out.
Now that the novel has been published, once you’re back from the book tour, what projects, writing and otherwise, are you looking forward to working on? And finally, is there a question you would like to be asked – about writing, about life, about anything else?
OSTLUND: First, thank you, Karin, for inviting me to do this interview and for asking such wonderful questions about both books. Endings are always hardest for me, but what I understood was that I wanted to end with a sense of hope, which I think is a new emotion for Aaron. He’s cautious and fearful, but he’s also kind and hopeful for others, especially his students, and that was what I wanted as the lingering emotion of the novel.
As for my future, I find it terribly hard to start new projects. That said, I have a story collection that seems nearly finished, and I’ve been working on a second novel. “After the Parade” was set, in part, in the classroom. My next novel, tentatively entitled “The Proprietresses,” is set in an Asian furniture store, so it again draws from a world I know well. For more than seven years, my partner and I owned an Asian furniture store in Albuquerque, which we closed in order to move to San Francisco. I don’t write about Albuquerque a lot, relative to how long I lived there (14 years), but I think that I have finally lived away from Albuquerque long enough to feel comfortable writing about it.
I’m not sure that I have a final question that I would like to be asked about writing or life. The biggest struggle I face, in terms of writing, has always been trying to convince myself, on a daily basis, that writing matters in the face of so much human suffering and injustice. I have always believed intellectually that writing, all art, is what helps to bring about change and have certainly seen this in my own life: reading was what allowed me to access the world as a child and saved me. Still, I struggle to put aside my doubts, to silence that “who cares?” voice. I’ve learned, for example, to write very early in the morning, before I read the newspaper and look at Facebook. That said, I will probably never be someone who writes every day. I used to feel guilty about this, but I’ve stopped feeling guilty. I don’t accept the odd logic that a writer must write every day in order to be considered a writer. On a daily basis, there is so much that I do that is also necessary—teach, spend time with people, read, travel, waste time—and I also know that these things have an impact on my writing. They give me time to think and be out in the world, and being out in the world—with my students and friends and strangers—is what keeps me feeling hopeful enough to write.
Karin Cecile Davidson, Interviews Editor