Lori Ostlund has taught in Spain, Malaysia, and New Mexico and currently lives and teaches in San Francisco. Her work has appeared in such journals as the Georgia Review, Kenyon Review, New England Review, and Hobart. The Bigness of the World was the winner of the Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction in 2008.

Short Story Collections

The Bigness of the World
(Unviersity of Georgia Press, 2009)

reviewed by Annie Clarkson

Interview with Lori Ostlund

The Short Review: How long did it take you to write all the stories in your collection?

Lori Ostlund: The stories were written over the course of a ten-year period, maybe a little longer. I was also working on my novel, so I wasn’t working solely on these stories.

TSR: Did you have a collection in mind when you were writing them?

LO: Not immediately. Eventually, I began to see a theme emerging, a loose theme, which tied back to the trajectory that my own life followed: I spent my first 18 years in a town of 411 people in Minnesota, and I was very keen to leave and get out in the world. After I finished my Master’s degree in Literature, I went to Spain for a couple of years to contemplate doing a Ph.D., and that was when I realized that what I really needed 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." Half of the stories in the book are set overseas, in places where I lived or did business or spent a lot of time (Spain, Malaysia, Morocco, Indonesia) and the other half are set at "home," often in Minnesota. It wasn’t until I came up with the title (thanks to my partner) that the theme became clear, and even more so when Ilsa Maria Lumpkin in the title story says, "There have been times in my life when the bigness of the world was my only consolation." Some people (I'm in this group) go out into the world and feel this way, alive, energized, consoled, while others feel overwhelmed and insignificant. This, then, became the theme around which I organized the collection.

TSR: How did you choose which stories to include and in what order?

LO: I cut a couple of the stories set overseas, one because it lacked full character development and the other because it didn’t seem to hold together as a story. I didn't choose stories that I had written during an earlier period in my life because I felt that they were from my "learning" period. I put the title story first because it ends with an opening onto the world, and I put All Boy last because it’s about a young boy retreating from the world and back into the safety of a closet. In between, I tried to pace things in terms of humorous stories, narrator differences, and overseas stories versus domestic stories. The Flannery O’Connor series editor, Nancy Zafris, really helped me with this process.

TSR: What does the word "story" mean to you?

LO:  The easy answer would be that it has a beginning, middle, and end, and to quote Poe “is meant to be read in one sitting.” In terms of what I expect from a story, here is my list of what comes immediately to mind.

1. It’s character-driven. That is, it didn’t begin with the author’s concept or plot or need to deliver a message.

2. I particularly admire stories that offer odd and/or insightful observations.

3. A story is perfectly crafted at every level, including the sentence level. I would argue that a novel can be very good and still make mistakes but that a story cannot. When I read a story, I want to feel that the author gave me a reason to read every sentence. I hate when I have the desire to skim, or worse, when I do skim and feel as though I haven’t missed much.

TSR: Do you have a reader in mind when you write stories?

LO:  It’s important to have someone specific in mind. If one writes for no particular audience, there is a tendency to create characters, dialogue, and situations that the writer perceives as being accessible to many people. In doing so, the writer might avoid the oddities and quirks—of character, language, situation—that make the writing worth reading. I always go back to what Kurt Vonnegut said: "Every successful creative person creates with an audience of one in mind." In my case, I imagine my partner reading it. Still, when she does read it, I admit that there is a moment when she laughs at something, just as I had hoped, and I think, "Oh no. That needs to go. If she thinks it’s funny, no one else will."

TSR: Is there anything you'd like to ask someone who has read your collection, anything at all?

LO: Well, I always ask my friends which story is their favorite, mainly because it tells me something about them.

TSR: How does it feel knowing that people are buying your book?

LO: Wonderful. One of my favorite things is hearing from people who have read my book. Still, I did feel very exposed when the book was about to come out. I tend to be a rather private person, and I felt anxious at the thought that people would know about me—not because the stories are autobiographical but because they reflect how I see the world and they say something about my fears. As I work on new stuff, I realize that there is no way to recapture the sense of freedom that I felt during those years when I was simply writing without thinking about someone actually reading it. I miss that feeling and I worry about its absence.

TSR: What are you working on now?

LO:  I am working on a novel, the one that I started and then set aside during the period when I was writing this collection. It’s tentatively entitled After the Parade. I’m also working on another set of stories. I work best when I’m doing both. Here and there, I’m making notes for another novel, The Proprietresses, based loosely on the seven years that my partner and I owned an Asian furniture store.

TSR: What are the three most recent short story collections you've read?

LO: All quite different from one another, all highly recommended: Barb Johnson, More of This World or Maybe Another, Robin Black, If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This, Maile Meloy, Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It
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Find out what other authors, from Aimee Bender to Sana Krasikov, said about their collections, what the word "story" means to them, and how it feels to know that people are buying your books! More interviews >>>

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