On “Outside Is the Ocean”: An Interview with Matthew Lansburgh

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Matthew Lansburgh’s luminous, character-driven collection of linked stories, Outside Is the Ocean, follows the life of a German immigrant named Heike as she grapples with the assorted disappointments of love and family. She is the book’s center of gravity, the sun around which other characters orbit — namely her estranged son, Stewart, but also a cadre of others: her adopted daughter, Galina, a handful of neighbors and in-laws, an ex-husband whose loneliness is eclipsed only by his frustration with an Airedale that tries desperately to escape him.

Winner of the 2017 Iowa Short Fiction Award, Outside Is the Ocean has recently been named a finalist for a 30th Annual Lambda Literary Award as well as a 2018 Ferro-Grumley Award for LGBTQ Fiction. Stories in the collection have appeared in such places as Ecotone, Glimmer Train, The Florida Review, Joyland, Cosmonauts Avenue, Columbia: A Journal of Literature & Art, and Slice“Driving North,” a story told from Stewart’s perspective as he navigates a tense visit home to California, first appeared in the Summer 2016 issue of MQR.

Many aspects of Outside Is the Ocean make it a memorable read: characters at once selfish and sympathetic; an overarching wit that informs the melancholy rather than undermining it; a structure that (from a craft perspective) makes the book worth studying as an exemplary model of the story cycle art form. But it is the dynamic between Heike and Stewart — particularly the constant friction between them — that gives Outside Is the Ocean life. Heike, for her part, can’t understand why her son won’t return her affection; Stewart can’t understand why his mother — pushy and angling — won’t leave him alone.

Lansburgh depicts the clashes between Heike and Stewart in a way that nudges the reader to take sides; such is the charged nature of their relationship. Often I’d find myself horrified by Heike’s lack of boundaries: No, Heike, you may not let yourself into that woman’s apartment! Then in the next story, I’d feel devoted to her and angry at Stewart for being petulant: So what if your mother wants to put on her dirndl and yodel? So what if she wants to sunbathe topless in the neighbor’s yard? Get over it!

But of course that’s the beautiful and necessary trick of the collection, and one that Lansburgh deploys with great skill and control: letting the reader determine which character’s version of reality is correct. Heike is ultimately — despite her selfish behavior, her trampling of social norms, even her eventual dementia — a more reliable narrator than Stewart. Stewart would have you believe he’s reliable, and he is by all accounts more intelligent and self-aware, but he’s also far shiftier in terms of how he reveals his world. His aversion to his mother is the exact thing than turns the reader onto Heike — the thing that makes her character both foreign and familiar, lonely and in desperate need of an ally. She is magnetic, she is charming, she is worth watching, and this is due at least in part to Stewart’s tendency to cast her as a villain.

I moved through this excellent collection at a clip and when I was finished, I had the pleasure of corresponding with Lansburgh over email about his writing process, his approach to revision, and the turning point at which he began to take himself seriously as a writer.

You masterfully alchemize autobiographical material into fiction for this collection, noting in an interview with Anne Raeff and Lori Ostlund for ZYZZYVA: “The process of taking the raw material of my life and turning it into ‘literature’ was […] incredibly difficult and involved a tremendous amount of trial and error. Some of the stories in the collection probably went through close to 100 drafts.”

I’m curious to know which stories from Outside Is the Ocean went through the most revision, and to that end, what would you consider the murdered darlings of the book?

Not surprisingly, the stories I started when I first began working on this book went through the most revisions. In retrospect, I realize I was using the earliest stories as vehicles to learn how to write short fiction. “California” and “The Lure” probably went through the most drafts, followed by “House Made of Snow” and “Driving North.” There were things about “California” that continued to bother me even after it was first published, and I put it through another round of revisions once I learned that Outside Is the Ocean had won the Iowa Short Fiction Award.

As for murdered darlings, there is one story that I removed from the collection (based on the advice of a close friend and trusted reader) just a few months before the book was finally published. The story is called “The Mother’s Tongue” and for many years it was the last story in the collection — it’s a kind of fable about a mother duck and her duckling children who fly south for the winter and become stranded in a huge storm. They seek refuge in a woodcutter’s barn and, in exchange for a warm place to sleep, the woodcutter extracts a promise from the mother duck. This promise ends up costing the mother her language. Heike tells this fable to Stewart when he is a boy as a way to explain why it is that ducks make a quacking sound and don’t speak proper German. At the end of the story, the mother duck becomes separated from her children during another storm as they are trying to find the woodcutter’s barn once again. The story ties into the book’s themes of language and maternal loss, and, as much as I loved it, I decided to go with my friend’s advice. She thought that the final scene in “Buddy” was a stronger ending for the book and that the fable might be a bit reductive.

What was your process for arranging the stories this collection, and why did you lead with the particular narrative of Heike going to Vegas? How closely does the arrangement reflect the order in which the pieces were written?

For many years, I didn’t spend much time thinking about the best order for the stories and simply kept them arranged chronologically. Once the manuscript was finished (or began to feel finished), I spent more time thinking about the book’s opening. “California” and “House Made of Snow” are both foundational stories in that they provide key background information about the main characters, but these never struck me as the strongest pieces in the collection, so, in an effort to “hook” readers, I tinkered with other possibilities. When one of my readers suggested using “Queen of Sheba” as the starting point, that immediately felt right. A lot happens in the story, and it allows the reader to get to know many sides of Heike’s personality in just a few pages. Once that decision had been made, I felt much more comfortable adjusting the order of the other stories. I no longer felt the collection needed to be sequenced temporally; instead the logic that guided me focused more on the evolution of the characters and the way the stories might play off one another thematically.

For the most part, I composed the stories in chronological order, though “Outside Is the Ocean” broke this rule — it was one of the last stories I worked on. Unlike many of the others, I wrote it in just a few days and it didn’t go through that many drafts.

I love the opening line from “Driving North,” which originally appeared in MQR: “Five years ago, when his mother announced that she was flying to Moscow to adopt a five-year-old girl, Stewart did his best not to react.” So much character revealed in that single line! I’m curious what gets you writing a story in terms of the initial spark, and how do you find your (consistently wonderful) points of entry?

Thank you! I worked on the opening of that story, on and off, for a long time. (I re-wrote the first two pages of “Driving North” and “The Lure” dozens of times over a span of many years.) I think that finding the right way to start a story is often like finding the missing piece of a puzzle. As all writers know, beginnings pose many challenges: how to hook the reader, how to create mystery, what information to privilege, what information to withhold, how to create a scaffolding for the rest of the story to rest on. It’s a tall order and always difficult to pull off.

As all writers who are sending stories to journals constantly hear, editors reading slush are always looking for a reason to reject a story and move on. The first paragraph has to be strong, and if it fails in any respect, it usually means the story won’t get picked up — no matter how good the rest of it is. For me, this results in substantial hand-wringing and lots of trial and error.

How did the semi-autobiographical characters of Heike and Stewart develop as you were writing these stories? (Nerdy follow-up: Did you work with any sort of character map or timeline to keep yourself from committing continuity errors from one story to the next?)

I’m afraid my answer isn’t that interesting: I started close to life and, over time, I gradually moved toward fiction. With each successive draft, with each new story, I gave myself more and more permission to invent the characters’ personality traits and the situations they found themselves in. The end result is mostly fiction, though some key elements in the identities of the characters remain true to life (e.g., I’m gay; my mother lives in California but grew up in Germany).

I did end up making a kind of timeline or chronology. At a certain point, the dates started getting very hard to keep track of!

You note in a touching essay for Glimmer Train on the obligations one owes to family when writing about them: “I first started writing Outside Is the Ocean many years ago as part of an ongoing effort to make sense of the people who raised me and shaped who I am: to understand and grapple with the anger and mistrust, the guilt and, yes, love that has characterized so much of my relationship with my parents.”

Because this collection has been many years in the making, I wonder at what point the individual stories began to work in conversation with each other? In other words, when did you know you had a book?

I spent a long time working with these characters and trying to write what I hoped might be stories before I ever thought of writing a book. For many years, I never took myself seriously as a writer. I liked writing and I tried to carve time out of my schedule to write, but I felt pretentious calling myself a writer. I didn’t know anyone else who wrote seriously, and I sometimes felt certain friends thought my efforts to write were a bit perplexing. Close friends knew writing was something I’d always cared about, but I think some people thought it was strange that I’d rather stay home and write than go to a party or meet up for dinner. Sometimes, I used my vacations to take the train to Princeton where I’d stay at the Nassau Inn and spend my days in the library. I’m sure this also seemed strange to some people.

Getting my first story published and then enrolling in NYU’s MFA program were turning points for me. I began to meet other people who valued writing, and I felt a greater sense of legitimacy. This is what ultimately allowed myself to think about working towards a book. Writing is, in many ways, an act of faith. You have to believe in yourself. You have to work towards a goal that may, at first, seem inaccessible and far-fetched. You have to give yourself permission to dream big — and to fail along the way . . . without giving up.

Finally, what are you reading right now, and what are some books you’re most excited to read in the near future?

I recently finished Christine Sneed’s The Virginity of Famous Men, which I adored. I also just re-read Remains of the Day, which is one of my top ten favorite books ever. (The novel I’m working on now is narrated by an unreliable narrator, and Stevens is such a great example of a narrator whose understanding of himself and the world around him is occluded in heartbreaking ways.)

Next up: All The Names by José Saramago and Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood. I also have a shelf of books related to the discovery of the Americas and the conquest of the New World (e.g., Bernal Díaz del Castillo and Bartolomé de las Casas) that I’m hoping to get to at some point. They may or may not help me think about a future writing project I’ve been considering. One of the biggest fears I face as a writer is that I’ll run out of ideas!

Find out more at matthewlansburgh.com, or follow him on Twitter @senorlansburgh.

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