A few years ago, Lori Ostlund was known to Albuquerqueans as an instructor at TVI and one of the Two Serious Ladies who ran that eponymous furniture store in Nob Hill. She and her partner decided in 2005 that they needed more time to write, and in order to simplify their lives, they moved to San Francisco. Since then, her first book, the short story collection The Bigness of the World, has earned her the Flannery O'Connor for Short Fiction and a Rona Jaffe Foundation Grant. Prior to her upcoming appearance in Albuquerque, Ostlund chatted with the Alibi on the phone about the weather in San Francisco (sunny), novel-writing (difficult) and the Internet (distracting).
What does the short story allow you to do that a longer form doesn’t?
You're asking that at a time when I'm working on a novel. ... I'm on sabbatical now, which is nice because I can work on it and not be pulled out of it. Short stories are easier that way: You can be pulled out and go back pretty quickly because it's contained. But with a novel, it's this huge thing. Maybe it's because I've done it more, but I'm much more comfortable with the short story format. ... What I probably love about short stories the most is that you finish them and you have this sense of accomplishment, this closure. You can deal with this one thing, this one little world in a very specific way. That doesn't happen with novels; they just go on.
Did you feel that you had to write a novel?
You know, I don't know if “had to” is quite the way to put it. I actually started this novel years ago, way back in Albuquerque. I wrote probably 200 to 300 pages and then set it aside for years. Years. In publishing, people want a novel. And so what's happening is that editors are writing to me and the first question is always, Do you have a novel? Are you working on a novel? In the publishing world, there's a certain push toward novels. I love novels, but I really love short stories. People are always saying, There's no market for short stories, but I know so many people who love short stories. I don't know if it's fair to say that I'm forced to, because I started so long ago, but maybe it's that I feel forced to finish it. ... I work well under pressure. I'm a bit of procrastinator.
What’s it like to be a procrastinator on sabbatical?
My partner takes the wireless box with her every day to work to keep me from looking at e-mail and messing around.
There are probably a lot of answers to this, but what unites the stories in The Bigness of the World?
You know, this is the question I keep asking myself because people ask me. Sometimes I have an answer, sometimes I don't. You're right in that there are a couple of answers. I think part of it has to do with ... when I was a kid and growing up and wanting to know about the world, wanting to go out into the world. I'm always intrigued by how that experience is for people. Some people go out into the world, they think they want to, but then they're just terrified by it and just want to go home. Other people find it really liberating. They want to be out there and know everything and see everything and do everything. I think it's this whole idea of going out into the world, and trying to escape the past and not being able to quite escape. I also think it's about people who try to communicate with other people and ultimately aren't very good at it. They try to have relationships with lovers, with students, with other people but they can't.
You've been a teacher, but in an interview with William Coles, you said you don't think you can teach people to write. How do you reconcile your role as an instructor with that belief?
I was speaking specifically about creative stuff, and what I've always taught is transitional, basic writing. ... For that stuff, I think you can teach. I know your question has more to do with creative writing ... and that I don't think you can teach. But I do think that people can benefit, but they have to bring something to the table. They have to have a certain way of looking at the world. They have to have an affinity for language and a curiosity about people. They have to bring those things. You can't really teach somebody to be able to observe the world in a different way.