Issue 4’s PORT Fiction writer Lori Ostlund talks to Betty Wood about the Hardy Boys, growing up in Minnesota and creating fiction from reality
Betty Wood: Lori, you’re a teacher as well as a writer — what’s the first thing you teach your students about creative writing?
Lori Ostlund: I often tell my students, the things that make you a better human being—travelling, finding meaningful work, engaging with others, listening, stepping outside your own milieu, caring about grammar (okay, perhaps harder to make a case for, but I try)—are the same things that will make you a better writer. This is the route that I have tried to take, and while I would like to claim that I acted with great foresight or benevolence, as the former goal suggests, the truth is that I probably acted out of self-preservation—or rather, the need to create the self that did not yet exist.[/one_third]BW: Lots of contemporary authors study creative writing at university — you didn’t. How — and why — did you become a professional writer?
LO: I spent the first 18 years of my life in a town of 411 people in central Minnesota, a primarily Scandinavian community. This was in the 1970s. We had one television channel, no computers, and my parents were Protestant, by which I mean they were not in the habit of taking vacations. My parents owned a hardware store, where I spent my summers and after-school hours. It was here that I learned I had no facility in making small talk, here that I first began to observe others. I was very shy, to the point that my parents worried when I was young that I might not know how to do anything but read.I had always taken refuge in books and education, and so I completed a Master’s degree in Literature. I went to Spain for a couple of years to contemplate doing a PhD, and that was when I realized that what I really needed and wanted was to travel and be out in the world, that the world of academia, which felt very safe, was in many ways another “small town.” My partner and I began spending a lot of time in Morocco and visited Turkey. Several years later, we moved to Malaysia, and we returned with the idea of opening an Asian furniture store, which had us traveling each year to Indonesia and Korea. Now I understand that I was trying to develop perspective and that travel—going where I looked and felt like an outsider—was my way of doing it, but it also gave me a lot of the ideas for my stories. Of course, along the way I was always reading and writing.
BW: Who were your literary inspirations growing up as a child?
LO: Well, I read what I had access to. When I learned to read, I went a bit crazy with it, so in first grade (aged 6-7), I read everything in each of the following mystery series: The Bobbsey Twins, The Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew. I think that I read pretty indiscriminately, just whatever I could get my hands on—Little Women, Huck Finn, romance novels and slightly racy novels that friends stole from their mothers and lent to me. My father had a library in our basement, which was a bit strange when I think about it now, but I read things that I found there—old comics and history books. Around second or third grade, I became quite obsessed with WWII, Hitler, and the Holocaust. I’m not sure how it even happened, but it had to do with images that I came across of the concentration camps, emaciated people on their bunks, piles of gold fillings taken from people’s teeth. I should explain that there were no Jewish people in the town where I lived, so the Holocaust was not a part of my own history or consciousness the way it is for my partner, for example, whose parents were both Holocaust refugees and who grew up surrounded by people who had that similar history.
In fourth grade, I somehow managed to check out a very large book about the Holocaust. I have no memory of who wrote it, but it was around 400-500 pages, and I read it all, though I understood very little of it. I recall, in particular, a passage about making some men drop their pants to determine whether they were Jewish, and I didn’t understand what they were doing and had no one I could ask because they would want to know what I was reading, but it made such an impression on me.
I’ve often wondered why I was so drawn to these images, but I think that they marked the moment when I understood that the world involved far more than I had ever reckoned. I was raised in very religious circles, so there was a lot of discussion about sin and the devil, but those images resonated on a different level for me. They were real, my introduction, I suppose, to evil, and I wanted to understand everything, how it functioned, what it looked like.
BW: When you’re creating characters, how much do you rely on your own experiences and memories of the past, and how much is the work of your imagination?
LO: For me, the ideal writing situation is one that begins with reality — somebody tells me a story, for example, and I want to come up with an explanation for it or a way of understanding why it might have happened. I start writing, but my rule for writing something based in reality is that I have to deviate early on from what happened in a very major way. If I don’t, I’m locked into the events as they were and I run the risk of never really getting at the core of the story, so I always follow that rule.
I also find that a lot of my characters come from making fun of myself — my rigidity about grammar, my fear of bellybuttons, my phone phobia. Also, I’m also not afraid to steal from people I know, though I’ve had some sleepless nights because of this. There are certain things, of course, that I would never write about—things that have happened to family and friends. When I’m getting ready to use something, I ask myself whether I can live with the repercussions of using it, whatever they might be, and if I can’t, I never start writing that story.
BW: What about your writing process — how much is intuitive, and how much do you revise?
LO: I’m an analytical person, but my writing process is fairly intuitive. It’s one of the reasons that I don’t try to quantify process too much. I also take a long time to write a story, quite often years. I’ll start something and it will go in several unexpected directions, and I’ll keep writing and restructuring until I hit a wall. At that point, I’ll set it aside, often for months at a time, and then the whole process will begin again, and eventually, I’ll get to the crux of it. I generally start with a narrative voice or an image.
With All Boy, which PORT reprinted in issue 4, I started with an image: the boy locked in the closet. This detail came from a former colleague, who told me that she had a babysitter as a child who used her father’s toothbrush and locked her in the closet. Her father fired the babysitter not because of the closet but because of the toothbrush. Though I don’t advocate locking children in closets, this made sense to me. That toothbrush represented an overwhelming intimacy. I took the closet idea and put Harold in the closet. Then I realized, to my surprise, that he liked being in the closet and that, moreover, he understood why the babysitter would put him there. Because I had used the toothbrush thing in an earlier story, I came up with the idea that the babysitter would get fired for wearing the father’s socks, in keeping with this notion of unbearable intimacies.
Lori Ostlund is working on her first novel After the Parade, and is the author of the Flannery O’Connor award-winning collection The Bigness of the World. She lives in San Francisco with her partner, novelist Anne Raeff