Q & A: 'After the Parade' (with Richard Russo) and 'The Bigness of the World' (self-interview)
To see the Guildtalk interview that Richard Russo did with Lori Ostlund about After the Parade for The Rumpus, go here.
Author self-interview from 2009 about The Bigness of the World:
How did you learn that you had won the Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction?
In October 2008, I started a new job at the Art Institute of California-SF, teaching transitional (developmental) English. At the time, I was feeling tremendously disheartened about my writing. I'd submitted my short story collection (minus "All Boy," which wasn't ready yet) to the Flannery O'Connor Award competition in May, but by October my thoughts were more on earning a living. I came home after my first day of classes, and there was a message from Erika Stephens at University of Georgia Press asking me to return her call. I tried calling, and tried and tried, but I kept getting sent directly to the voice mail of a man who was not Erika Stephens. I told only my partner about the call, and because I am a stoic Minnesotan at heart, I did not allow myself to jump around or celebrate, though is it possible that we allowed ourselves a restrained toast to the possibility. Then I spent the rest of the night trying to think of some perfectly obvious reason that the University of Georgia Press would be calling me that was not related to the O'Connor Award. The next morning, I got up at 5 as usual and waited a couple of hours for the press to open, and then I called and got through—immediately—to Erika Stephens, who informed me that The Bigness of the World had been chosen as one of the two 2008 winners. The other winner was Geoffrey Becker's Black Elvis.
What was the process of publishing your first book like?
Wonderful—and highly stressful. First, the staff at the University of Georgia Press is great, and the series editor, Nancy Zafris, is absolutely wonderful. She helped me place many of the stories that had not yet been published (which was most of them) in journals. At the time, I was teaching three classes, taking two classes, and suddenly getting my manuscript ready for publication. I generally worked seven days a week and wrote nothing new during this period.
The Bigness of the World contains stories set abroad and stories set in the United States. Where did the ideas for the six stories set abroad come from?
The Bigness of the World includes five stories that take place overseas and six that take place 'at home.' The five stories that take place overseas are set in countries where I have either lived (Malaysia and Spain) or spent a lot of time (Morocco, Indonesia, Belize). From 1996 to the start of 1998, my partner and I lived in Malacca, Malaysia, where we taught business communications at a two-year college. We returned to New Mexico with a container of furniture, and for the next seven-plus years, we ran an Asian furniture business in Albuquerque, which had us traveling frequently to Indonesia and Korea. Quite often, customers who had also spent a good deal of time in Asian made, what seemed to me, a perplexing claim: that they had never felt truly at home until they arrived in Asia. This is a sentiment that I could not relate to and still cannot. On the contrary, one of the things that I most loved about being in Asia (indeed, in any culture that feels quite different from my own) was that I never felt truly at home. People were extremely hospitable and friendly, but never did I stop being keenly aware of how little I belonged. There is something freeing about this—so much gets excused!—and something eye opening as well. I understood myself better, and I also began to understand concepts such as 'culture shock'—not in an intellectual way but in a deeply personal way. I think that living outside of one's country, outside of one's milieu, is important for everyone, but especially for writers. I learned a different sort of empathy from being an outsider. I also became an even better voyeur.
Over the years, my experiences in these countries have become fictionalized, a natural process: there is an element of this each time we tell a story, I believe. The story becomes a bit different, more removed from the reality, with each telling—and, thus, a bit more in line with what the experience meant for us. In some cases, I'm left largely with the fictional accounts, with the account that I've created on paper. (In the Excerpts section, I discuss the 'Backstories' for four of the stories in The Bigness of the World.)
Where are the six 'home' stories in the collection set?
The six stories that are set 'at home' are set in the places here that I have called home—Minnesota, Albuquerque, and now San Francisco. I lived in Minnesota the first twenty-two years of my life, which at this point means half of my life, and much of my writing explores what it means to be from a small town, and specifically, from a small town in Minnesota. I consider myself a Minnesotan in that I am occasionally ponderous and generally polite to a fault. I can't lie to save my life, and I'm happy to help anyone out but hate having to ask for favors. If someone asks me directions while I am standing on a corner waiting for a light to change, I will stand there and give them detailed directions through as many light changes as it takes.
A lot of your stories involve bad relationships. Why is that?
I don't know.
Do you have a background in creative writing?
Although I have always known that I wanted to be a writer, I took a rather circuitous route to becoming one. I did not do an MFA program. I began writing when I was in college and, for a couple of years back then, worked with a writing group made up of writers far more experienced than I, but during the years that I worked on my Master's degree and for several years afterwards, I observed, traveled, and read far more than I wrote. At the time, I thought that I would spend my life in academia, but when I finished my Master's in English, I moved to Spain, planning to spend a couple of years there before beginning a doctoral program. By that point, I had spent the last seven years almost steadily in a college classroom, reading my way through numerous syllabi, and I found myself, in Spain, reading purely for pleasure again. I also started going to Morocco frequently. In short, my perspectives—on academia, my ideas about how to become a writer, my future—all shifted dramatically. When I returned to the United States, I began writing. I am extremely critical of my own work, and when I had my first story published in 1998, I read it in print and decided that I was not 'there' yet, that I needed to spend my energy on writing and finding my voice to the exclusion of thinking about trying to get published, and so I did. When I finally began sending my work out, I went first through years of rejections, followed by years of good rejections. This is one of the drawbacks of not doing an MFA; I knew nobody in the publishing world and little about how it truly worked, so I did my time in the slush heaps.
Do you write every day?
I know that the answer is supposed to be yes, but there are days when my schedule doesn't allow it and other days when I simply need a break. I spend a lot of time procrastinating, which causes me a lot of stress, even though I am aware that procrastination is part of my writing process.
Where do your ideas come from?
I keep a little book in which I write down bits of things, things that I suddenly remember or overhear, things that my friends or students say, things that suddenly occur to me. I write these things down, and when I am sitting at my desk trying to write, I flip through this book, and sometimes the story unfolds like a game of connect the dots—I just figure out ways to go from one item in my notebook to another.
Teaching and my students provide lots of my ideas. Over the years, I've taught ESL in San Francisco, test preparation in Spain, business communications in Malaysia, and college composition in New Mexico, and now story writing and developmental English at the Art Institute in San Francisco. Many of my characters are teachers. I've had a range of students, and I've generally found them insightful and often quite funny. I've also learned a great deal about language and grammar from teaching them to so many different audiences and in so many odd contexts, and so I write a lot about grammar, in particular. I'm somewhat rigid about it, and so I create characters who are as well—it's their fatal flaw, or one of them. I n fact, I find that a lot of my writing ideas come from making fun of myself. This was the case, for example, with Dr. Deneau in "Dr. Deneau's Punishment." His voice came naturally to me—almost as though it were my own at times. The narrator in "Bed Death," while nothing like me, has a phobia about navels, which I share; I say this sheepishly, but the truth is, I can't bear to hear people discuss navels.
Finally, many of my ideas simply start with a voice. I start writing in that voice, and the ideas follow. This was the case with Veronica in "The Bigness of the World." That first line started when I was out walking, and I literally ran home and started writing it down, and she just kept telling the story.
Do you prefer to write in the first-person or the third-person?
I do like writing in the first person, but not all stories are suited for it. Sometimes, I don't feel completely inside the character; rather, I feel as though I'm observing the character, watching what they do but not really capable of commenting on it with the same degree of awareness. Also, generally when I write about children, I prefer the third person. I'm struggling with this in my novel at the moment; I've written about Aaron, the main character, as a boy in the limited third person, but now I'm discovering who he is as an adult, and part of me wants to go into the first person.