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.
with Lori Ostlund
How long did it take you to write all the stories in your collection?
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
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.
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
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.
does the word "story"
mean to you?
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.
Do you have a reader in mind when you write stories?
It’s character-driven. That is, it didn’t begin with the author’s concept or plot or need to deliver a message.
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.
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."
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
What are you working on now?
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
the three most recent short story collections you've read?