Sunday, October 1, 2017

How can you not love a writer who obsesses? Matthew Lansburgh talks about his prize-winning collection of stories, OUTSIDE IS THE OCEAN

First, there is that knockout cover. Even better is the knockout fiction inside. Matthew Lansburgh's collection of linked stories, Outside Is the Ocean, won the 2017 Iowa Short Fiction Award. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Glimmer Train, Electric Literature, StoryQuarterly, Guernica, Ecotone, Michigan Quarterly Review, and Joyland, and has won awards from Columbia Journal and the Florida Review. Matthew earned an MFA in Fiction from NYU, where he received a Veterans Writing Workshop Fellowship. Kirkus described Outside Is the Ocean as "arresting" and said "Lansburgh’s prose offers stunning moments of tenderness amid its stark depictions of loneliness." I loved this collection—and so did Andre Dubus III, who picked it for the award.

I'm so jazzed to have Matthew here. Thank you so much, Matthew!

How does it feel? Does it make it easier to write your next project, or in some ways, harder? And are these linked stories pushing you to write a novel?

First, I want to thank you for inviting me to do this interview and to appear on your blog. It is a tremendous honor to be interviewed by a writer whose work I admire so much.  Getting the news that I won the Iowa Short Fiction Award changed everything. At least that's how it felt at the time. Suddenly, I went from seeing myself as an imposter to feeling like someone who could legitimately call himself a writer. I know that getting the award shouldn't make a difference—I'm still the same person, still have exactly the same amount of talent and ambition as I did previously—but after having spent so many years devoting myself to an undertaking that seemed to be bearing very little "fruit," I suddenly feel like it's okay to fully embrace myself as a writer.

I think that early on in their literary endeavors a lot of writers feel a certain degree of fraudulence.  For many years, I questioned whether I had enough talent and drive to publish a book. Like so many aspiring writers, I've faced a lot of rejection along the way, and I've often wondered whether making yet more revisions to this or that story was really worth it.

As for whether this stamp of approval is making it easier to pursue my next project, the answer is yes and no. Over the past few months, I've been spending a lot of time revising some of the stories in my collection for publication (as part of the book and in journals), and I've also spent more than a few hours addressing some of the non-literary aspects of publishing: setting up readings, sending out galleys, working with Iowa on the cover, etc.  In the long term, however, I have no doubt that getting this good news will give me more confidence to finish my next project.  I've been working on a novel for a few years now, and Iowa's stamp of approval gives me a bit more confidence that with enough patience and work I might also be able to publish it one day.

Outside Is the Ocean is the story of Heike, a young woman who leaves Germany to find the American dream and when she doesn’t seem to find it, she adopts a disabled child from Russia. But it’s also about the things we yearn for, the things we imagine have happened (and they haven’t). Can you talk about the origins of this astonishing book?

How long do you have? Your question taps into a very deep vein!

I'd be lying if I said Outside Is the Ocean is pure fiction. The book grew out of an ongoing desire to try to understand my childhood and my parents, who are both very complex people.  I've worked on the book, on and off, for over a decade. "California" and "House Made of Snow" were some of my earliest pieces of writing. For many years, I worked on various parts of Outside Is the Ocean without thinking they would ever come together as a book. I wrote them simply because I enjoyed the process of writing, of putting words on the page. I liked how that process allowed me to examine certain events from my life as well as characters I'd grown fond of from different perspectives.

Over time, as I showed some of this work to various readers, people encouraged me to let my imagination run free and to remember that simply because something happened in real life doesn't necessarily make it interesting.  I began to fictionalize the people and situations more fully and to try to shape them into what some people might call—at the risk of sounding pretentious—"literary artifacts." The end result is almost entirely fiction, though some of the relationships and emotional undercurrents still bear a close connection to my life.

I have to ask about the cover, which I just love (love the title, too.) I know that covers and titles are notoriously difficult to get right, and they are often changed ten million times by publishing houses. What’s the story behind yours?

I love the cover too! Iowa asked me for some examples of covers I like and sent me some possible mock-ups.  When I saw the somewhat blurred image of the mother and son, I knew immediately that this was the one. I still don't know who the artist is, but I will be forever indebted to him/her.

There’s so much about love and connection—and you treat your characters with such compassion. What was it like to write Outside Is the Ocean? What kind of writer are you?

Writing the book was part therapy, part meditation, part catharsis. Some of the material was difficult to confront. Some of it was painful. Each story went through many revisions.  "The Lure" probably went through a hundred drafts. Often I made revisions and then put the new version aside for months, sometimes even years.  At certain points along the way, I felt like it was a lost cause, like I'd done everything I could do with it, and I would never touch it again.

Then, eventually, I'd circle back to it and keep tinkering.  The process was extremely iterative. I think what kept me going, at the most primal level, was the hope that by making the work as good as it could be I would reach some kind of understanding or truth or reconciliation that I felt had eluded me in real life.

Thank you for saying you think I treat my characters with compassion. I care about the characters in the book, and one of my biggest fears is that I haven't been compassionate enough.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

I'm an obsessive person. I obsess about everything. Constantly.

I think a more productive question might be: "What isn't obsessing you now?  What feels okay in your life?"  The answer to that is easy—it's my partner, Stan.  He's the one part of my life that doesn't cause me anxiety or angst.  He's a good egg.

What question didn't I ask that I should have?

"Have you shared all of the stories in the book with your mother?" [No; she's only read a few of them. How best to navigate this issue has definitely been keeping me up at night.]

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