Lori Ostlund


Lori Ostlund’s first col­lec­tion of sto­ries, The Bigness of the World, which includes “The Day You Were Born,” received the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, the California Book Award for First Fiction, and the Edmund White Debut Fiction Award.  Stories from the col­lec­tion have appeared in Best American Short Stories, The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories, The Kenyon Review, The Georgia Review, and New England Review, among oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. She was the recip­i­ent of a 2009 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award. She lives in San Francisco with her part­ner of twen­ty years, the nov­el­ist Anne Raeff, but is cur­rent­ly the Kenan Visiting Writer at UNC-Chapel Hill, where she is at work on her first nov­el and more sto­ries.

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The Day You Were Born


When Annabel comes home from school on Tuesday, her father is back, stand­ing at the cor­ner of Indian School and University, across the street from where the bus drops her and the oth­er chil­dren from her apart­ment com­plex.  When the light final­ly changes, the two of them cross hur­ried­ly toward each oth­er, and so their reunion takes place in the mid­dle of the street, her father twirling her around sev­er­al times and then releas­ing her abrupt­ly in order to present his mid­dle fin­ger to an old woman in a Volvo sta­tion wag­on who has beeped ten­ta­tive­ly to let them know that the light has gone red.

So, are you sur­prised?” her father asks as they pass through the front doors of the com­plex, and because his tone is light and he is hold­ing her hand and yank­ing her arm about in a hap­py, fre­net­ic way that does not match their steps, she responds hon­est­ly, “Yes,” with­out paus­ing to think through the pos­si­ble impli­ca­tions of his ques­tion or her answer.

Why are you sur­prised?” he asks, stop­ping sud­den­ly and squeez­ing her hand hard to under­score the ques­tion. “Did you think I wasn’t com­ing back?”  The pres­sure on her hand increas­es.  “Did your moth­er say some­thing?”  She looks down then.

Look at me, Annabel,” he says, and she does.

She said you were in the hos­pi­tal and the doc­tors didn’t know when you would come home,” she tells him, which is more or less the truth, the less part of it being that her moth­er actu­al­ly told her, just two days ear­li­er in fact, that the doc­tors were not sure that he would ever be able to come home.  “I’m so hap­py you’re home,” she adds because she is and because she does not want to talk to him about her moth­er.

They stand out­side their apart­ment door for sev­er­al min­utes as her father search­es through his pock­ets for his key until Annabel sug­gests that they use her key, which she takes from around her neck and hands to him.  His hand trem­bles slight­ly as he fum­bles to insert it in the lock, and Annabel looks away, breathes in deeply, and con­cen­trates on think­ing absolute­ly noth­ing.  This works, for when she turns back, her father has the door open and is ges­tur­ing, with a gentleman’s low bow and flour­ish, for her to enter.

So, are you ready for a snack?” he asks, his tone light again, and when she nods, he says, “What are you in the mood for?”

Anything,” she tells him, and she goes into her room to change, know­ing that when she comes out, her father will have made some­thing awful, some­thing like sar­dines and melt­ed marsh­mal­lows on saltine crack­ers.

How much do you love your dad?” he’ll ask, motion­ing with his head for her to be seat­ed, and though she always tries to think of new ways to answer this ques­tion, she nev­er comes up with any­thing but the same old responses—a whole lot, very much, tons.

Enough to eat sar­dines with marsh­mal­lows?” he’ll say, set­ting the plate in front of her.  And she does—does love him that much, does eat it, pol­ish­es off the entire plate, in fact, of what­ev­er he puts before her while he sits watch­ing her chew and swal­low and demon­strate her love in a way that she does not know how to do with words.

That’s my girl,” he’ll say when she’s fin­ished, words that prove to her that it was worth everything—the awful taste and the feel of the food sit­ting in her stom­ach like a stone or tum­bling about like clothes in a wash­er.  Sometimes, the nau­sea over­whelms her and she excus­es her­self, slips into the bath­room, where she leans way down into the toi­let bowl, her face near­ly touch­ing the water, and vom­its as qui­et­ly as pos­si­ble.

Today, when she comes out in her after-school clothes and they go through the usu­al rou­tine, what her father sets before her is a plate of cel­ery sticks, three of them, arranged like canoes, over­flow­ing with may­on­naise and topped gen­er­ous­ly with choco­late sprin­kles.  Her father, of course, knows that she hates may­on­naise more than any­thing, that she finds even the smell of it unbear­able.  It occurs to her then that her father is still angry, and so she eats with extra dili­gence, her father watch­ing as usu­al, and when she is fin­ished, she looks up at him hope­ful­ly.  “That’s a girl,” he says, but Annabel under­stands that there is a dif­fer­ence, a very big one, between “a girl” and “my girl.”

Did your moth­er tell you about these?” he asks mat­ter-of-fact­ly, pulling back the cuffs of his shirt and lay­ing his thin, white arms out on the table between them, elbows turned down, wrists fac­ing up.  Her moth­er had not told her, of course, had said only that her father was tired and need­ed a rest, and Annabel sits look­ing at them, feel­ing the may­on­naise inside of her like some­thing liv­ing, some­thing that wants out, but she will not allow it, not today.

Touch them,” her father says, his voice gen­tle but urgent.  “It’s okay.  I want you to. You won’t hurt me.”

Already the cuts have risen up in angry welts around the stitch­es, which she stud­ies care­ful­ly, think­ing about the fact that they were put there by some­one she does not even know, a stranger who held her father’s wrists and cre­at­ed these pre­cise, black marks.  There are nine of them, she notes, four on the right wrist, five on the left, and as she places a small fin­ger against each of them, one by one, she clos­es her eyes and tries to imag­ine that they are some­thing else, the stitch­ing on a base­ball, for exam­ple.  She loves base­ball, not the sport in its entire­ty but play­ing catch, which she and her father do togeth­er reg­u­lar­ly in the park, where her father throws the ball so hard that her hand stings each time she catch­es it, which she usu­al­ly does.  Sometimes her palm aches for days after­wards, though she would nev­er tell her father this.  Still, even with her eyes closed, she can­not real­ly pre­tend that she is touch­ing a base­ball because her father’s skin is warm and soft and she can feel his pulse, a slight, rhyth­mic quiv­er­ing that means that he is still hers.

Later, when her moth­er comes home, Annabel hears the two of them argu­ing, her moth­er say­ing, “What is wrong with you?  She’s a child, Max. A child.”  Annabel is only nine, but she already under­stands about her moth­er, knows, for exam­ple, that her moth­er would be angry to learn that Annabel and her father spent the after­noon inspect­ing his wrists, and so Annabel would nev­er think to tell her this.  She can­not help but won­der how it is that her father, who is an adult after all, does not under­stand such things.

The next day when she arrives home from school, her father is sit­ting bare­backed on the sofa.  She knows what this means, of course, that the mag­gots have returned and are writhing just beneath his skin, mak­ing him twitchy and unable to sit still, just as she knows that even the mer­est brush of cloth against his skin riles the mag­gots even more.  He has explained all of this to her many times, but she can­not actu­al­ly imag­ine how such a thing feels, though she knows that it must be awful.  His neck is both­ered most by the mag­gots, and when he is forced to put on a shirt—in order to greet her moth­er or go outdoors—he shrugs his shoul­ders repeat­ed­ly and tugs inces­sant­ly at the neck­line until it dips, like a very relaxed cowl, to his bel­ly but­ton.

The mag­gots?” she asks qui­et­ly, stand­ing next to the sofa with her book bag still strapped to her back.

Yes,” he answers weari­ly.

Are they bad?”

It’s all I can think about,” he tells her.  “Your moth­er doesn’t under­stand, of course.  Do you know what she tells me?  She tells me to just not think about it.”  He laughs when he says this, in a way that invites her to join in, to find humor in her mother’s insen­si­tiv­i­ty.  He has told her this before, many times, explain­ing that it is because her moth­er grew up in Minnesota, where they prized some­thing called sto­icism.

What is sto­icism?” she had asked him once.

Well,” he had said, think­ing for a moment.  “It’s like this.  Let’s say that your moth­er and I are out tak­ing a walk and I get a peb­ble in my shoe.  What would I do?”

Take it out,” she had sug­gest­ed, her voice ris­ing faint­ly at the end so that her words occu­pied the space between state­ment and ques­tion, but her father had ignored her uncer­tain­ty.

That’s right,” he said.  “Of course.  I would take it out.  Any nor­mal per­son would.  Now, what would your moth­er do?”

To be hon­est, she did not know what her moth­er would do, but she felt that it would dis­ap­point her father were she to admit this, and so, because she under­stood the direc­tion in which he was nudg­ing her, she said, after an awk­ward pause, “Leave it.”

Right again.   Because your moth­er likes to suf­fer, Annabel.  She likes to feel that peb­ble in her shoe.  And then, at the end of the walk, do you know what your moth­er would do?”  He had become more excit­ed, warm­ing to his expla­na­tion, not real­ly expect­ing her to answer. “She would tell me about the peb­ble.  She would say, ‘Max, I’ve had this peb­ble in my shoe the whole time we’ve been walk­ing, and it’s real­ly start­ing to hurt.’”  When he said this, his voice changed, becom­ing high­er like her mother’s voice and draw­ing out the o’s as he did when he teased her moth­er about being from Minnesota.  “She would expect me to feel sor­ry for her, but I wouldn’t, of course.  I’d tell her, ‘Well, sit down and take the damn thing out.’  And you know what she’d say then?  She’d say, ‘Oh, nev­er mind, Max.  It’s okay.  We’re almost home any­way.’”

He had paused then, his eyes closed, hands clasped in front of him as her grand­par­ents did when they prayed before eat­ing, but Annabel knew that her father was not pray­ing.  He did not believe in it.  After a moment, his breath­ing slowed, and he opened his eyes and said, “You see, Annabel, your moth­er needs that peb­ble.  She wouldn’t know what to do with­out it.  You can see that, can’t you, Annabel?”  His tone was fierce, beseech­ing her, his face glow­ing red, the way it used to when he came in from gar­den­ing, back when they had a gar­den, back when they had a house.

She had nod­ded, though she had nev­er seen peb­bles in her mother’s shoes, had not even heard her moth­er men­tion peb­bles.  “You need to be on your guard, Honey.  Okay?” he said.  “Because if your moth­er has her way, you’ll be walk­ing around with a peb­ble in your shoe too.”  He breathed in deeply through his nos­trils, as though the air were very fresh and only now could he enjoy it.

 

On Saturdays, Annabel and her moth­er vis­it her grand­par­ents.  Her father does not go along, even though they are his par­ents, because he says that they stare at him.  During these vis­its, her grand­fa­ther and grand­moth­er both sit in their reclin­ers, which have been placed up on cin­der blocks so that when they stand, they do not have to hoist them­selves upward in a way that would strain their hips.  She and her moth­er sit on a flo­ral sofa across from them, and Annabel feels self-con­scious because there is a pic­ture of Jesus hang­ing right above her, which means that when her grand­par­ents look at her, they are see­ing Jesus as well.  They gen­er­al­ly talk about unin­ter­est­ing top­ics such as what songs were per­formed on Lawrence Welk dur­ing the week’s reruns and how many times they saw the retired bar­ber who lives across the street mow­ing his lawn.  Once, he mowed his lawn three times dur­ing a sin­gle week, and they report­ed this to Annabel and her moth­er with a great deal of indig­na­tion.

Doesn’t the man have any­thing bet­ter to do with his time?” her grand­fa­ther had asked again and again, shak­ing his head.

Maybe he miss­es cut­ting,” her moth­er said, which was a joke, but Annabel’s grand­par­ents do not acknowl­edge jokes.

Her grand­par­ents are very pale because they do not go out­side and have not for many years.  In their garage sits her grandfather’s car, which has not been dri­ven in six years.  Every oth­er week, she and her moth­er go out and start the car to keep the bat­tery in good con­di­tion, just in case.  A cou­ple of times, she and her moth­er went to the gas sta­tion and filled a large red can with gaso­line, which they poured into her grandfather’s car.

Why don’t we just take the car to the gas sta­tion?” she asked her moth­er.  “Wouldn’t it be eas­i­er?”

Your grand­fa­ther does not want the car moved,” her moth­er explained.

Why?”

Because some­thing might hap­pen to it.  We might get into an acci­dent, and then he wouldn’t have the car if he need­ed it.”

First, her moth­er rolls open the garage door, though Annabel knows that they will not be going any­where.  They climb in, and her moth­er pulls the seat for­ward so that she can reach the ped­als.  She is always care­ful to push it back again when they are fin­ished, in def­er­ence to Annabel’s grand­fa­ther, who is very tall.  Then, the two of them sit in the idling vehi­cle, star­ing straight ahead at the rakes that hang from the walls of the garage in neat, order­ly rows.

Why do they need so many rakes?” she asked her moth­er once, after she had count­ed and dis­cov­ered that there were twelve of them.  Then, she repeat­ed the ques­tion, but this time she said, “Why do they need a dozen rakes?”  She was six and had just learned in school that twelve was also called a dozen, and she thought about this often, won­der­ing why there were two words for the num­ber twelve.  It seemed unnec­es­sary, unnec­es­sary and odd, for if a num­ber were going to be giv­en two names, the num­ber ten seemed more deserv­ing.

Her moth­er laughed at her ques­tion.

What’s fun­ny?” Annabel asked.

Oh, it’s just that you don’t usu­al­ly use the word dozen for things like rakes,” her moth­er said, but when she asked why, her moth­er replied, “Well, you usu­al­ly just say a dozen for things like eggs, or donuts, or things like that.”  When Annabel lat­er asked her father why you couldn’t say a dozen rakes, she expect­ed one of his usu­al expla­na­tions, which were gen­er­al­ly long and left noth­ing out, but instead he replied angri­ly, “Of course you can.  Who told you that?  Your moth­er?  Listen to me, Annabel. You can say a dozen rakes to me any­time you want. Okay?”

As she and her moth­er sit in her grandfather’s car on the Saturday after her father’s return from the hos­pi­tal, her moth­er says, “Don’t men­tion your father’s wrists to your grand­par­ents.”  She and her moth­er have not dis­cussed her father’s wrists either, but Annabel does not see any rea­son to point this out to her moth­er. “Okay,” she says, though she nev­er men­tions any­thing to her grand­par­ents and her moth­er knows this.

Her moth­er looks at her watch and says, “Fifteen min­utes.  That should do it. Let’s go back in and make your grand­par­ents a lit­tle some­thing.”

They always make the same thing, a hot drink mix that her grand­par­ents call Russian tea.  The mix con­sists pri­mar­i­ly of Tang, which Annabel dis­likes, and cloves.  It is her job to car­ry the chi­na cups filled with the brown­ish-orange liq­uid out to her grand­par­ents, both of whom bring the hot tea imme­di­ate­ly up to their mouths and hold it there, as though the cups were recep­ta­cles, or con­duc­tors, for their words.  It is only then—as they sit with their mouths hid­den and their eyes par­tial­ly con­cealed by the steam fog­ging their glasses—that they turn their atten­tion to more inter­est­ing top­ics, name­ly her father.

How is he?” one of them gen­er­al­ly asks her moth­er at this point, as though they believe that a sim­ple pro­noun in place of his name will keep Annabel from know­ing that it is her father to whom they are refer­ring.

He’s fine,” her moth­er always replies sharply, inclin­ing her head toward Annabel, who pre­tends not to be lis­ten­ing, hop­ing, futile­ly, that they might be per­suad­ed to say more.  Instead, they all sip their Russian tea and gaze at the pho­to­graph of her father that hangs on the wall near the tele­vi­sion, a pic­ture in which her father, wear­ing a green bolo tie, looks cheer­ful and hand­some and not a bit like the twitchy, shirt­less man they have come to know.

Today, how­ev­er, there is no men­tion of her father, and Annabel won­ders whether they have for­got­ten to ask or whether this omis­sion is some­thing inten­tion­al, some­thing that they planned before­hand.  She actu­al­ly hopes that it is the lat­ter because the idea that her father has sim­ply been for­got­ten, par­tic­u­lar­ly in the midst of such tedi­um, is too much for her to bear.  She turns toward her father’s pho­to­graph, but it is gone, which means that the entire time that she and her moth­er have been sit­ting here, lis­ten­ing to her grand­par­ents talk about the bar­ber and his mow­ing, it was already gone—gone, and she had not even noticed.

 

Most Saturday nights after Annabel and her moth­er return from her grand­par­ents’ house, she and her father fol­low the same rou­tine: her father helps her get ready for bed, and once she is set­tled beneath her Raggedy Ann quilt, he asks her to describe the vis­it to his par­ents.  He lis­tens qui­et­ly to her report, and when she fin­ish­es, he says, “Just remem­ber, Annabel, that these are the peo­ple who made your father sleep on the cot.”

Yes,” she always replies. “I remem­ber.”

Good girl,” he says as though they are fin­ished with the mat­ter, but then he tells her the sto­ry of the cot again any­way because he likes to remind him­self of it, par­tic­u­lar­ly as she is snug­gled against him in her very own com­fort­able bed in her very own room.

Your grand­par­ents,” he always begins, “had pro­duced sev­en chil­dren by the time I made my appear­ance.  Imagine, Annabel, four boys, three girls and the two of them liv­ing in a tiny, three-bed­room house.”  During the intro­duc­tion, his tone is always non­com­mit­tal, as though the sto­ry might just unfold in a way that allows for sym­pa­thy toward these nine peo­ple, his fam­i­ly, crammed togeth­er like peas even before his arrival.

Well,” he con­tin­ues, “I was put in your grand­par­ents’ room to sleep, in a crib wob­bly from overuse.” And there it is, the hard­en­ing in his voice at the words “wob­bly from overuse.”

At the age of two, her father had gone from sleep­ing in this crib to sleep­ing in the hall­way out­side his par­ents’ bed­room, on a cot that was fold­ed up and rolled behind the door of his sis­ters’ bed­room each morn­ing.  The hall­way, he told her so that she could pic­ture it because her grand­par­ents had long ago left that house, was like the back­bone of a cap­i­tal E, and the three bed­rooms, which jut­ted out to the left, were its arms.

It’s not even that I mind­ed the cot,” he always told Annabel at this point, after he had impressed upon her the image of this small boy, him, iso­lat­ed from every oth­er mem­ber of his fam­i­ly.  “It was com­fort­able enough.”  No, what he had mind­ed, he said, was the fact that when his par­ents unfold­ed the cot and set it up for him each night, they always placed it as far to the right as pos­si­ble so that it stood just at the edge of the stair­case that con­nect­ed the upstairs sleep­ing area with the main floor—despite the fact that there was no rail­ing sep­a­rat­ing the upstairs, and thus him, from the emp­ty space of the stair­well.

Sometimes, he told her, his arm hung down off the cot in his sleep so that his hand brushed his father’s head as his father climbed the stairs for bed.  “I would wake to that feel­ing, the brush of my father’s hair against my fin­ger­tips, and for a moment, I had no idea where I was.  You see, already I thought of sleep as a peri­od of iso­la­tion, and that was so ingrained in me, Annabel, that even half-awake, I found the feel of anoth­er per­son dis­ori­ent­ing.”  Then, he would reach out to stroke her head or caress her ear­lobe before he went on.

It was like sleep­ing on the edge of a cliff.  On any giv­en night, I could have rolled right instead of left, and that would have been it.  I would have gone right over the edge.”  This is where her father’s sto­ry always end­ed, with the under­stand­ing that had he been a dif­fer­ent sort of boy—less vig­i­lant, less aware—he would have sim­ply rolled over the edge and been gone.

 

This Saturday, when she and her moth­er return from her grand­par­ents’ house, her father is not there.  She and her moth­er eat din­ner togeth­er qui­et­ly, and when her moth­er puts her to bed because her father is not there to do it, her moth­er perch­es awk­ward­ly on the edge of the bed and says, “I told him to leave, Annabel.  It was just get­ting to be too much.  I hope that some­day you will under­stand this, maybe when you’re old­er.”  Her moth­er goes out of the room quick­ly, for­get­ting to leave the hall­way light on as her father always does because he under­stands about the dark.

The next day, Sunday, the tele­phone rings again and again, and when the answer­ing machine picks up because her moth­er has told her that she is not to answer it, there is her father, singing a song or telling them about some­thing unimportant—a snapped shoelace, the way his orange juice tast­ed that morn­ing because he for­got and brushed his teeth before he drank it—as though he is right there in the room with them.  By evening, how­ev­er, he has begun plead­ing with her moth­er.  “Think about Annabel,” he says.  “Have you asked her what she wants?”  Before they go to bed, her moth­er eras­es the entire tape, and then she unplugs the answer­ing machine.

When Annabel opens the door to the apart­ment on Monday, let­ting her­self in with the key that she car­ries around her neck, the tele­phone is ring­ing, and she can­not help but feel for a moment that the apart­ment does not belong to her because the ring­ing was there before her. She knows that she should not answer it because her moth­er has instruct­ed her not to, but after sev­er­al rings, she picks it up, jus­ti­fy­ing this course of action by telling her­self that it could be her moth­er call­ing to make sure that she has arrived home safe­ly.  However, once she has already com­mit­ted her­self by lift­ing the receiv­er, she real­izes that if it is her moth­er call­ing, she is only doing so to test Annabel.

How’s my girl?” says her father, whis­per­ing as he used to do when she was young and hav­ing bad dreams in the mid­dle of the night.

Hi,” she says in response, sur­vey­ing the apart­ment ner­vous­ly because she can­not ful­ly shake the feel­ing that her moth­er is there some­where, sit­ting off to the side, lis­ten­ing.

Did you get my mes­sages yes­ter­day?” he asks.

Yes.”

I miss you.”

I miss you,” she answers, whis­per­ing now also.

Listen,” he says then.  “I need your help.  I need you to write down some things.  You know, things that your moth­er says about me, things that we could use if we had to.”  She doesn’t answer, and then he says, “Annabel, she doesn’t want me to see you or even talk to you.  It doesn’t make sense.  It’s not as though this is the first time.  She acts like this is the first time, but it’s not, so why now, Annabel?  Do you under­stand?  Because I don’t.  I sure­ly don’t.”  There is a very long silence.

The day you were born,” he declares sud­den­ly, no longer whis­per­ing.  “That was the first time.  I bet you didn’t know that, did you?  It was the day you were born.  Your moth­er made me promise that I would nev­er tell you that, but what’s the pur­pose of these secrets?  I mean real­ly, Annabel, what is the pur­pose?”  He is speak­ing slow­ly now, form­ing these last four words with great care.

I don’t know,” she says.

It was because I loved you so much, even before you were born, and I could feel how much you loved me.  That’s why I did it. Do you know that, Annabel?” He paus­es, as though wait­ing for her to reply.  “At night, when your moth­er was asleep with you between us, I would put my hand on her stom­ach, on you, and I could feel you telling me that, Annabel.  I could feel you say­ing that you loved me.  That already you loved me more than any­one had ever loved me or ever would.”

She thinks that her father might be cry­ing, but she isn’t sure, and for a while, nei­ther of them says any­thing.  “So you see,” he says final­ly, his words taper­ing off as though he is falling asleep.  “It doesn’t make sense.”  Annabel waits, but her father doesn’t speak again, and after sev­er­al min­utes, she hangs the tele­phone up, gen­tly, not want­i­ng to wake him.

When her moth­er gets home, she seems dis­tract­ed, but she goes through the usu­al set of ques­tions: Did you have a snack? Did you do your home­work? What sounds good for din­ner?  Annabel answers these no, sort of, and I don’t know, and when her moth­er adds a new one, “Did your father call?” Annabel paus­es for just a moment, and then, very calm­ly, says, “No.”  Her moth­er looks so relieved that Annabel under­stands, with sud­den clar­i­ty, that lying is not always a bad thing, not when it so obvi­ous­ly means that she can help them both; lat­er, she even hears her moth­er hum­ming as she makes fried ham, which is Annabel’s favorite.

The next day when Annabel arrives home from school, the phone is ring­ing again, but she knows what she needs to do, and she sits on the sofa lis­ten­ing to it, her hands tucked beneath her thighs.  Eventually, she gets up and sets the table, two places instead of three, so that every­thing will seem right when her moth­er gets home. When the ring­ing final­ly stops near­ly two hours lat­er, she feels its absence like a sharp, sud­den pain, but she under­stands now how it is: that this pain, this pain is how much she loves him.

 

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Interview With Lori Ostlund

Meg Pokrass


Can you tell me why this amaz­ing sto­ry (the one we are pub­lish­ing) was not in a lit. mag before? Can you tell me about your life before “The Bigness of the World”?

First, let me say how hap­py I am to see it pub­lished here in BLIP.  A cou­ple of weeks ago, I was speak­ing to a fic­tion class that was read­ing my book, and they had noticed that most of the sto­ries appeared in jour­nals in 2009, which was the year the book came out. They surmised—very incorrectly—that I wrote most of the sto­ries with­in a short peri­od of time and got them pub­lished very quick­ly, and then the book came out.  Here’s what real­ly hap­pened:

The eleven sto­ries in The Bigness of the World were writ­ten over the course of maybe ten years. I spent sev­er­al years in my mid-thir­ties not send­ing stuff out because I want­ed to focus on find­ing my voice and style, but then I start­ed send­ing work out again, and that was when it got hard—I felt that the work was ready, yet nobody want­ed it. I got some good rejec­tions, but those only keep one afloat so long. I did not have an MFA, so I had no con­tacts, no writer friends except my part­ner, and very lit­tle sense of how things worked. I was doing my time in the slush piles, which I will be the first to agree are daunt­ing for writ­ers and edi­tors. Eventually, New England Review and Blue Mesa Review pub­lished sto­ries, and that kept me going for sev­er­al more years. I was teach­ing part-time at an ESL school, try­ing to fin­ish these sto­ries, and in the spring I quit that job after a botched strike. It was right around then that I sub­mit­ted the col­lec­tion to the Flannery O’Connor Short Fiction Award.

For sev­er­al months, I felt sor­ry for myself—no job, more rejec­tions. I can still pic­ture the moment that summer—we were walk­ing up Taraval in San Francisco, wait­ing to cross the light at 19th—when I said to my part­ner that I was going to stop writ­ing and get a prop­er job (a prop­er job being one that paid prop­er­ly). Though I did not actu­al­ly stop writ­ing, I did enroll in para­le­gal cours­es and start­ed teach­ing reme­di­al English part-time at the Art Institute of California. In fact, it was my first day at the Art Institute that I came home to the mes­sage from University of Georgia Press that I had won the Flannery O’Connor. Actually, they did not say that I had won, just that they would like me to return their call, which I tried doing for hours; they were hav­ing trou­ble with their phone sys­tem, I lat­er learned, which explained why my calls kept going direct­ly to the voice mail of Bob, a very cheer­ful-sound­ing man, but not the per­son who had left me the mes­sage.  Eventually, I gave up for the day, and when my part­ner came home, I said, “I think I might have won the Flannery O’Connor.” She said, “Let’s drink a toast!” but I’m Midwestern, so that—celebrating some­thing that didn’t yet exist—was out of the ques­tion. I spent the rest of the night think­ing up plau­si­ble rea­sons that the Press might be call­ing (that did not have to do with my win­ning the FOC), and then the next morn­ing my call went through.

Nancy Zafris, the series edi­tor, guid­ed me in get­ting most of the sto­ries placed in jour­nals before the book came out. I prob­a­bly would have been too shy to do that, to write to jour­nals and say, “Will you con­sid­er a sto­ry because I just won the FOC,” but she was great at offer­ing advice and encour­age­ment. Within a cou­ple of months, I had sev­en more sto­ries placed, and then just when the book was going to press, 5 Chapters request­ed one of the two remain­ing sto­ries, “And Down We Went,” and that left “The Day You Were Born.”

Tell me about your cats?

Last sum­mer, our cat Palenque, whom we had had for six­teen years, died just as we were leav­ing to spend a year in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where I am the vis­it­ing writer at UNC. Her kid­neys failed when she was eight, so for half of her life, we gave her dai­ly sub­cu­ta­neous injec­tions, and she led a long, hap­py, and active life. We had start­ed to think of her as immor­tal, in fact, and then last May, we woke up and found that overnight she had bal­looned, becom­ing this huge, puffy, car­toon-like cat. The flu­ids were all trapped under her skin, and the vet told me what we knew already: that the flu­ids had stopped work­ing, and she would die soon. We were hap­py that she did not have to make the move, and we decid­ed that we would spend the year in Chapel Hill with­out a cat. After eight years of hav­ing to plan all our trips around whether we could find some­one to live in our house and put a nee­dle in our cat, we looked upon this as a year of free­dom (sad free­dom but free­dom). By October, we were unbear­ably lone­ly, so when we heard about a cat refuge in the for­est near Chapel Hill, we went to have a look. The refuge har­bors around 200 cats, who are allowed to roam around in a very large, fenced-in area of the for­est, and we spent three days there before com­ing home with Oscar and Prakash, whom we refer to col­lec­tive­ly as The Boys. We changed Oscar’s name to Oscar Romero, after, well, after Oscar Romero, and Prakash was orig­i­nal­ly named Rocko by his for­mer own­ers, who had giv­en him up to one of the shel­ters. On the paper­work that they filled out, in response to the ques­tion “What does the cat like to do?” they wrote “Nothing.” We now refer to them as the Philistines.

What is it like to leave the warm freez­ing nest of San Francisco? What do you miss most?

Among many oth­er things, I miss the view from our house, even though there usu­al­ly isn’t a view because of the fog; walk­ing up the very steep hill from the K train every day; being able to walk out the door and get chick­en feet from the Chinese place down on Ocean; spend­ing the week­ends walk­ing all over the city; the anonymi­ty of a city; our sub­scrip­tions to the sym­pho­ny and to var­i­ous the­aters. I do not miss think­ing that there is going to be an earth­quake every time I get in an ele­va­tor (that sce­nario com­bines two of my biggest fears—earthquakes and ele­va­tors) or try­ing to find park­ing.