Navigation

Follow Authorlink:

All about publishing a book, getting help to convert a PDF to eBook, and keeping up with publishing industry news

Lori Ostlund Debut Novel Deals with Life After the Parade

| Format: Written | Contributor:

 After the Parade Lori Ostlund Debut Novel Deals with Life After the Parade

An exclusive Authorlink interview with Lori Ostlund, Author of After the Parade

By Diane Slocum

December 2015


After the Parade
by Lori Ostlund
Buy this Book
at Amazon.com

Aaron Englund’s life is divided – before and after the parade, before and after his mother leaves and before and after he leaves Walter. Trying to make it on his own in San Francisco, he finds he has to make sense of his years of growing up in small-town Minnesota, losing his parents and the attitudes of other people who impacted him there.

“. . .I rarely have much luck when I start out knowing a story or plot in advance. Usually, I write pieces . . . ”
—OSTLUND

AUTHORLINK: When you first thought of this story, did you envision that it would be the story it turned out to be?

OSTLUND: I didn’t know what this story would be for many, many years. I have my preoccupations, ideas, questions, and settings to which I often return, but I rarely have much luck when I start out knowing a story or plot in advance. Usually, I write pieces, and slowly those pieces begin to converge, and as that happens, other ideas or opportunities appear. For example, the parade was one major starting point: years earlier, I was at a social event with someone whose father had died from falling off of a parade float, and this stayed with me. The idea of tumbling from a float and dying struck me as at once tragic and humorous, a combination that I’m drawn to. I was also intrigued by the idea that the way someone died could stand separate from the death itself, could take on symbolic meaning.

Off and on for thirteen years, I wrote parts of the novel, mainly trying to understand Aaron and the world around him, yet when my agent (wisely) instructed me at the beginning of 2013 to produce a draft by that August, I still did not fully know the story or the structure. I worked on the book around 70 hours a week from May to August, and despite the fact that I had written perhaps a 1000 pages over the years, I was still figuring out some key questions, including where Aaron’s mother had disappeared to twenty-five years earlier.

AUTHORLINK: How did you decide on the structure – going from Aaron as an adult to Aaron as a little boy, or sometimes an older boy – and back?

OSTLUND: The book opens with Aaron at forty-one leaving the man he has been with half his life and moving to San Francisco, where he lives alone for the first time. 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 so that when his students ask him a question about twins, for example, this leads to a flashback of the first time he saw twins, on a family vacation when he was five. I think that this is how memory works, particularly during times of change or emotional upheaval—our days are filled with constant memories and reflections, often triggered by a smell or a word or an encounter. Structure seemed the natural way to do this. It evolved during that summer of 2013 when I was piecing the book together from all of the scenes, chapters, and descriptions I had written over the years. Since these pieces were not organized, I needed a big chunk of time during which I could read through them and hold the entire book in my head. I had three time periods to bring together—his childhood, his years with Walter, and the present—so I decided to use a straight chronology of around half a year for the present and then to fit the two pasts into it.

“I certainly drew on my past and not on research in writing those sections. . . .”
—OSTLUND

AUTHORLINK: Did you have to research the Minnesota of Aaron’s early life, or did you draw on personal or family experience?

OSTLUND: When I’m figuring a way into a character, I always begin by giving the character a few of my own traits, beliefs, experiences, and, perhaps most important, fears. Aaron and I are exactly the same age, born on March 13, 1965, which made it easier for me to keep the timeline straight. Like Aaron, I grew up in a town of 400 people in central Minnesota, and though Miltonville is a fictional town, I certainly drew on my past and not on research in writing those sections. Aaron grows up in a café, while I grew up in a hardware store, but it was in that hardware store that much of my Minnesota education really happened: by listening to people speak, to what they said and, more important, to what they did not say, to where they paused and to the words that lay on either side of those pauses.

AUTHORLINK: We learn a whole lot about many of your secondary characters. Who are one or two of your favorites and how did they develop?

OSTLUND: Clarence is probably my favorite minor character in the book and was certainly my favorite to write. He started with a memory from my childhood: a brief encounter with a dwarf in a wheelchair who had what I perceived as tusks. I know nothing of the man—I didn’t speak to him—but I do recall him scowling at me, no doubt because I was staring. I started writing those scenes around 2001, and Clarence tumbled onto the page. I realized that he was amusing and acerbic and highly articulate, that he had suffered a great deal in his life and that this had shaped him and the way that he interacted with others. Though I wrote the Clarence chapters several years apart, I always found it easy to slip back into his world and inhabit his voice. I quickly recognized 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 seemed essential to me is that he has edges. He tricks and manipulates Aaron. He says cruel things. Yet he is also kind to Aaron and treats him like a peer. Though Aaron is only seven when he meets Clarence, he understands that Clarence can only exist on his farm, that he is, of necessity, hiding from the world.

“I certainly drew on my past and not on research in writing those sections.”
—OSTLUND

AUTHORLINK: When Aaron was learning the stories of people he encountered along the way, did you write them as a way to advance Aaron’s story? Did you have to alter or delete characters (or their stories) who may have failed to do this?

OSTLUND: A few people have asked me whether the stories and anecdotes layered into the book are a result of my love of the short story format, which is a pleasing suggestion and partly true, though from the beginning I considered these stories essential to understanding Aaron. I think that this is another way that Aaron and I are similar: we both have been shaped by the stories of others and have learned to understand the complexity of the world, in part, through stories. That said, I did not always write these stories with Aaron in mind. For example, early on, I toyed with the idea of writing a book about Bernice, but her story kept converging with Aaron’s. Ultimately, I cut away a good 50 pages from her section and then wrote more, focusing on the fact that Aaron was the sole receiver of her stories, that he was lying on a sofa in her house late at night, listening to her talk. I also had a chapter about Aaron’s great great uncle, whom he meets on the family vacation. Though I love that chapter, my wife thought that it wasn’t necessary and my agent agreed. The book was over 500 pages at that point, so I was actually relieved to cut it. What I learned in the process of writing and editing this book is that often it’s a tremendous relief to let things go.

“Ultimately, I cut away a good 50 pages from her section . . . “
—OSTLUND

AUTHORLINK: When Aaron was learning the stories of people he encountered along the way, did you write them as a way to advance Aaron’s story? Did you have to alter or delete characters (or their stories) who may have failed to do this?

OSTLUND: A few people have asked me whether the stories and anecdotes layered into the book are a result of my love of the short story format, which is a pleasing suggestion and partly true, though from the beginning I considered these stories essential to understanding Aaron. I think that this is another way that Aaron and I are similar: we both have been shaped by the stories of others and have learned to understand the complexity of the world, in part, through stories. That said, I did not always write these stories with Aaron in mind. For example, early on, I toyed with the idea of writing a book about Bernice, but her story kept converging with Aaron’s. Ultimately, I cut away a good 50 pages from her section and then wrote more, focusing on the fact that Aaron was the sole receiver of her stories, that he was lying on a sofa in her house late at night, listening to her talk. I also had a chapter about Aaron’s great great uncle, whom he meets on the family vacation. Though I love that chapter, my wife thought that it wasn’t necessary and my agent agreed. The book was over 500 pages at that point, so I was actually relieved to cut it. What I learned in the process of writing and editing this book is that often it’s a tremendous relief to let things go.

“I would be happy to know that Aaron’s story allowed readers to consider the loneliness all around them, including their own . . .”
—OSTLUND

AUTHORLINK: What do you hope the reader will learn from Aaron as he finds himself during these six months after Walter and as he reflects on his years after the parade?

OSTLUND: Though I was not necessarily considering an overt message when I wrote After the Parade, I would be happy to know that Aaron’s story allowed readers to consider the loneliness all around them, including their own, or encouraged them to listen to a stranger’s story. After food and shelter, I think that what most of us crave is to have our stories listened to by others.

AUTHORLINK: Your collection of short stories, The Bigness of the World, won a list of awards. How did it help you in writing and selling your first novel? What was different about the experiences with the two?

OSTLUND: At the time that the collection won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction in 2008, I did not know much about publishing, nor did I know other writers, except my wife, who was equally ignorant. Only two of the eleven stories in the collection had been published previously in journals, though not for lack of submitting. However, in the year between when I won the award and when the book was published, eight more of the stories appeared in journals, leading some people to assume that 2009 was an extremely prolific year for me. The truth was that I had started writing some of those stories as far back as 1999. It simply became much easier to get the work noticed with the award. I had some very frustrating years leading up to the award, though I know that many things have gone right for me. For example, it was because of the award that I got my agent, without going through the usual process.

I had been working on After the Parade and the collection concurrently. I almost always work on several things at once, switching when I stall on one project, and so there tends to be cross-pollination. When I wrote “All Boy,” for example, the final story in Bigness, it started as a character sketch of Aaron at a certain age, but very quickly it became clear that the boy in that story, was working through different issues and came from a different economic background.

About the Author:

Lori Ostlund has another short story collection nearly finished and is at work on a novel related to her experience as an Asian furniture store owner.  After the Parade is a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers pick. She lives in San Francisco.

Diane Slocum
About
Regular Contributor:
Diane Slocum

Diane Slocum has been a newspaper reporter and editor and authored an historical book. As a freelance writer, she contributes regularly to magazines and newspapers. She writes features on authors and a column for writers and readers in Lifestyle magazine. She is assigned to write interviews of first-time novelists and bestselling authors for Authorlink.