After the Parade is one of the best novels I've read in a long time; as its jacket copy states, it is "a deeply moving and beautiful novel about a man who leaves his longtime partner in New Mexico for a new life in San Francisco, launching him on a tragicomic road trip and into the mysteries of his own Midwestern childhood."
You're from a town of about 400 people in Minnesota, and Aaron Englund, your main character, is also from a Minnesota town of that size. Would you say that the fictional Mortonville resembles your hometown?
Very much so, though I worked hard to differentiate Mortonville from that town, largely by creating residents that were not based on real ones. I grew up in my parents’ hardware store, Ostlund Hardware Hank, and so my natural inclination was to set the childhood scenes in a hardware store, but then I soon arrived at the idea of having Aaron’s mother buy the café in town. Aaron, as a child, does not have friends, so I needed a place where he could interact with and observe people, and a café provided lots of possibilities. My general rule when I draw from my life is that I have to find ways to change things up very quickly, to deviate from “truth.” Otherwise, I get bogged down by what really happened, and the doors of possibility slam shut, so this shift was for the best. It broke the spell and allowed me to more freely invent this town and its citizens, though when I picture Mortonville, it looks exactly like the town I grew up in.
Aaron's parents aren't exactly parental role models, but he manages to survive his childhood and become a deeply caring and kind man. Where did Aaron come from? I.e,. how did he and his upbringing first take shape in your mind?
Though I am not Aaron, I did give him a lot of myself, including my love of teaching and words, my hatred of the telephone, and even my birthday. I almost always need to do something like this as a way into understanding my characters, particularly my main characters. That said, Aaron and I are quite different as well. I think that Aaron is controlled by a fear and passivity that I don’t have, and understanding that fear and passivity was one of the challenges and pleasures of writing his character. One of my preoccupations as a writer is thinking about why some of us prefer or need the familiar, will even cling to it, staying in a place or a relationship solely because it is familiar. In his case, he had easily left the small town where he was raised, but had spent 20 years in a relationship with Walter, whom he had long ago ceased to love.
I discovered Aaron as I wrote, which is the only way I know how to write. Around 1999 or 2000, I began writing about a boy who was a sissy, to use the language of the time. I wrote perhaps 400 pages about him, and he was only in second grade, so, of course, a lot of those pages got cut, but I think that they helped me understand who he was and where his fear came from, on a very intimate and specific level. Eventually, I understood that I needed to write about him as an adult, and I discovered that his fearfulness had never gone away, which made sense, and I saw that a lot of what happens in the adult sections is influenced by his attempts to finally deal with his fear.
You've taught ESL classes in the U.S. and in a few different foreign countries, and some of your novel's most funny and moving scenes are set in an ESL school in San Francisco. Are many of the classroom exchanges based on ones you've observed or participated in?
I taught in Spain and Malaysia, and when I first began to write the adult sections, Anne, my wife, and I had just moved to San Francisco after years in New Mexico. I began working at a sketchy ESL school, where the students were great but the place was falling down around us. Thus, Aaron’s life and mine followed the same trajectory. Every morning, I would get up and write about his teaching and the students, and then I would go to school and gather more inspiration. I’ve been a teacher for over 20 years, teaching ESL among numerous other subjects, so it felt very natural for me to make Aaron a teacher, but having him teach ESL seemed particularly attractive because I knew that there was potential for humor as well as misunderstanding since the ESL classroom is fraught with both. The classroom games and exercises are all based on exercises I used with my students when I was an ESL teacher, so some of the pleasure of writing these scenes was thinking about how my characters would respond to a particular exercise. And, of course, I borrowed moments, lines, and scenarios from my own classroom experiences and from my students. The anecdote game, for example, requires a good deal of trust, so as I began to write this scene, I quickly became aware that the game required far more of Aaron than anyone else, precisely because of the boundaries that he has established for himself, not just with his students but with most people. I think that this scene is crucial: Aaron realizes that he wants his students to understand him, to see him just a bit more clearly.
You wrote one of my favorite story collections, ever, The Bigness of the World. While you were writing After the Parade, which I know you published sections of as stand-alone stories, how did you approach the much longer time commitment that novel-writing requires, as opposed to that of short story-writing?
Thank you, Christine. You have been a wonderful friend to The Bigness of the World. Around 16 years ago, I started writing pieces of After the Parade, not really knowing what I was doing or what story I was trying to tell, except that I had this sense of the main character, Aaron, and I knew that he was growing up in a small town. At the same time, I was writing the stories that eventually became Bigness, and after that came out, there was an expectation that I would finally finish the novel. I continued on, writing parts—lines, paragraphs, chapters—still trying to understand Aaron and the world around him, though secretly I feared that I didn’t have it in me to write a novel. Novels are messy and imperfect, and temperamentally, I had always felt more suited for stories: short, precise, perfect.
When my agent (wisely) instructed me at the beginning of 2013 to produce a draft by that August, I still did not know the full story or the structure. I worked on the book between 70 and 80 hours a week from May to August, and despite the fact that I had written perhaps a 1000 pages over the years, I was still figuring out some key questions, including where Aaron’s mother had disappeared to twenty-five years earlier. Working with that kind of steady, feverish focus allowed me to hold the book in my head in a way that I couldn’t when I was working on it for 10, 15, 20 hours a week.
(If you don't mind telling me) How have your friends and family from Minnesota responded to After the Parade?
I don’t talk about my writing much with my family, and I suspect that my mother doesn’t even know about the book. This hesitation has more to do with my relationship with my family than it does the book itself. Two of my four siblings and my sister-in-law have read it and responded favorably, albeit in very different ways. My sister is enthusiastic but more general in her praise, whereas my brother likes to look for the places that our childhood and the book overlap (such as Clarence, for example). When my first book came out, my aunt read it (inexplicably) and immediately wrote to tell me that it was evil and she wanted it out of the house. She put it out on her porch. In her P.S., she wrote, “It’s obvious you write well as I didn’t understand much of the book.” I’ve had a great response from readers in the Midwest, but I still have a hard time thinking about doing readings in Minnesota. The paperback of After the Parade comes out in July, so I need to get past these fears and do some readings in the Midwest.
What are you currently working on?
I find it very hard to start new projects—I would much rather be in the midst of something—but I have a second story collection nearly finished, made up of stories that I’ve been working on since the first collection came out in 2009. I’m also working on a second novel, which I’ve been gathering pieces for over the last several years. This first novel drew on my experiences as an ESL teacher, and the next novel will draw on the 7+ years that my wife and I spent as owners of an Asian furniture store. The book, tentatively entitled The Proprietresses, is set in Albuquerque, where we lived for 14 years, and perhaps in Malaysia, where the idea for the store came about when my wife and I were teaching there. I am currently spending a semester in Albuquerque as the visiting writer at the University of New Mexico. Normally, I write best about a place when I’m removed from it, but I’m finding it actually helpful to be back here as I write.