Found Stories Yield Compelling Fiction
After the Parade
by Lori Ostlund
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Lori Ostlund’s novel After the Parade started as many novels do, with an overheard story. She heard about a woman whose father died falling off a parade float.
|“The story was the intersection of tragic and humorous.”
“The story was the intersection of tragic and humorous. I knew I wanted to write about a small town like the one where I grew up, so this gave me a place to start,” said Ostlund. She began writing about the businesses in town and settled on a protagonist, a forty-year-old gay man named Aaron Englund.
“I wrote several chapters trying to figure out who this character was, but it took years for me to realize he needed to be an adult and the story of his young life need to be told in flashback,” said Ostlund.
She took fifteen years to complete the story, starting work with floppy disks and working through several different computers. The book’s creation culminated in a summer of 80-hour work weeks, where she took her accumulated 1,000 pages of work and narrowed it down to novel that offers a complex, sensitive portrait of how we are shaped by our experiences.
After the Parade is an atypical journey story. Readers experience the present with Englund as he leaves his longtime partner to move to San Francisco. Readers also go back in time through flashbacks to an equally vivid and compelling past. The story takes place from December to June, but readers are privy to a lifetime of experiences. While many of the characters are audacious—a dwarf with tusks, an obese misanthrope and an aunt who is a religious fanatic—the tone is serious, thoughtful and funny.
Aaron seeks to find his own way as he looks back at an abusive childhood and controlling partner and forward to a life as a teacher and new romantic possibilities.
Ostlund was known as a short story writer. Her collection, The Bigness of the World, received the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, the California Book Award for First Fiction and the Edmund White Debut Fiction Award.
“I am a bit of a perfectionist. I feel more temperamentally suited to writing stories . . .”
“I am a bit of a perfectionist. I feel more temperamentally suited to writing stories because the novel is an imperfect form. That said, I found that I liked writing the novel because they take in so much,” said Ostlund.
Ostlund worked during the summer of 2013 as her agent-imposed deadline approached without knowing how the book would end. She found her solution by reading earlier sections and deciding who she wanted Aaron to confide in as he worked out family issues.
Portions of the story are developed as other characters tell Aaron stories about the past. “Aaron and I overlap in that way. I love story. It is what I always want from other people. When I started to think of my way into Aaron, stories seemed a natural way in. He is quite passive. It made sense that people would come to him and slowly they would become a part of who he was,” said Ostlund.
Because the story also used a lot of flashbacks, Ostlund knew she would have to be skillful at making sure they seemed natural.
“I wanted it to feel the way memory feels. You get on the bus and see something that sparks a memory. My editor (Liese Mayer) embraced the digression, but was good at saying ‘here is the point where it breaks’.”
Ostlund drew some of the book’s most unusual touches from people’s real life experience—when Aaron’s father falls from the parade float (an overheard story), the introduction of a dwarf with tusks (from a man she met as a child who had an adenoid problem) and a scene where Aaron (who is gay) is locked in the closet by an abusive father (from a friend’s anecdote about an abusive partner). None of these seem implausible because all the characters are fully drawn.
When asked about the greatest challenge of writing the book, Ostlund said finding the book’s structure and fitting the pieces together to a cohesive whole. It was a challenge she met well, telling the story of a man who reckons with his past while building a new future.
“There are many different ways to be a writer.”
“Ostlund advises apprentice writers to find their own way into their work. “There are many different ways to be a writer.”
She also suggests getting out from behind the desk. “You very much have to be out in the world. The things that make you a better person make you a better writer. Meet people. Listen.”
Ostlund is now at work on her second novel, which is set in a furniture store.
|About Lori Ostlund
After the Parade is on the shortlist for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize and is a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers pick. Ostlund’s first book, a story collection entitled The Bigness of the World, won the 2008 Flannery O’Connor Award, the Edmund White Debut Fiction Award, and the 2009 California Book Award for First Fiction. Stories from it appeared in the Best American Short Stories and the PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories. She is a teacher and lives in San Francisco with Anne Raeff and their two cats, Oscar and Prakash.
|About Regular Contributor
Ellen Birkett Morris
|Ellen Birkett Morris is an award-winning journalist whose interviews and reviews have appeared in Authorlink, Prairie Schooner Online, The Louisville Courier-Journal, and reprinted in the reader’s guides to The Receptionist and Clever Girl. Her fiction has appeared in journals including Antioch Review, South Caroline Review and Notre Dame Review. Ellen is a regular contributor to Authorlink.