Iowa Short Fiction Award

Matthew Lansburgh's collection of linked stories, Outside Is the Ocean, was selected by Andre Dubus III as the winner of the 2017 Iowa Short Fiction Award and was a finalist for the 30th Annual Lambda Literary Award and the 2018 Ferro-Grumley Award for LGBTQ Fiction.  


"Not for the faint of heart, this collection is relentless and intense, but Lansburgh’s prose offers stunning moments of tenderness amid its stark depictions of loneliness. Arresting and pointed."    

                    ─ Kirkus

"The linked short stories in Lansburgh’s debut collection comprise a moving portrait of the book’s central figure, Heike ... Lansburgh reveals Heike’s complexity through exquisite imagery: Heike’s too-tight bikini, which she calls her 'orange knockout,' is emblematic of both her confidence and her exhibitionism. Recurring details lend cohesion, while the settings—zipping from 1993 to 1967 to 2019—give the collection a novel-like scope. Lansburgh’s linked stories succeed as a nuanced character study and a resonant commentary on the challenges of romantic and familial love."   

                    ─ Publishers Weekly

“Spanning years and perspectives, the 15 linked stories in Lansburgh’s ambitious collection, winner of the Iowa Short Fiction Award, reveal the world of a fractured family … Lansburgh has crafted a unique, captivating debut.”

                    ─ Booklist

"In the last couple of years, a number of debut collections have broken through the proverbial glass ceiling most short story writers confront, even with a large publishing house behind them, and have garnered considerable acclaim and review attention, among them titles by Carmen Maria Machado, Jenny Zhang, and Ottessa Moshfegh. Another writer who could justifiably take his place alongside the new generation of short story masters is Matthew Lansburgh, whose collection of linked stories, Outside Is the Ocean, was selected by Andre Dubus III for the 2017 Iowa Short Fiction Award, and was recently named a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award and the Ferro-Grumley Award for LGBT Fiction. One of the more notable formal qualities of this addictive, deeply imaginative, and often very funny debut is that despite its classification as a story collection, it could be described as a novel with equal accuracy . . . Although it would be easy to portray [two of the book's central characters] Raymond and Heike in a villainous light, Lansburgh manages to suffuse the stories that focus on them with pathos, ensuring they are fully realized, complicated characters whose sorrows and disappointments ultimately feel as immediate as Stewart’s do."

                    ─ Christine Sneed in The Millions

"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 . . . 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. Lansburgh depicts the clashes between Heike and Stewart in a way that forces the reader to take sides; such is the charged nature of their relationship . . . One moment I’d find myself horrified by Heike’s lack of boundaries . . . The next, I’d feel devoted to her and angry at Stewart for being so petulant . . . But of course that is the necessary trick of the collection, and one that Lansburgh deploys with great skill and control. 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 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 the way Stewart casts her as a villain."

                  ─ Michigan Quarterly Review

"Outside Is the Ocean ... is a particularly complete and satisfying example of the linked genre. The stories reveal a long, novelistic arc, while the broken chronology captures the fragmented personality of the central character, Heike, and the chaos she sows. Heike disappoints and infuriates everyone, but is perversely optimistic, which gives many of the stories a certain hilarity, even the saddest ones. Many of the stories in this collection have been published in top journals … and it’s not hard to see why. Structure is everything in story-writing. Classic short stories package universality, economy, and an element of surprise. Each piece of Outside Is the Ocean accomplishes that. At the same, the broad architecture of the whole promises more and bigger work from Lansburgh."

                    ─ The Common

"It’s been nearly a century and a half since Tolstoy dismissed happy families from the field of literary curiosity, and although I’m reluctant to argue with Tolstoy about anything, I can’t help thinking that stories about unhappy families are now so abundant that they too are becoming hard to tell apart from one another ... It takes a rare talent to make a story about difficult parents and troubled children stand out against such a backdrop, and I am happy to report that Matthew Lansburgh has that talent in abundance. His collection of linked short stories, Outside Is the Ocean, revolves around one of fiction’s great bad mothers, Heike, a German-American who survived the Second World War only to inflict what seems, at times, to be nearly equivalent terrors on her son and adopted daughter. Self-centered, vain, erratic, and yet passionately convinced of her own righteousness, Heike is the permanent center of her own terrible party, the victim of so many monstrous everyday injustices that she’d be beatified if only anyone knew, or cared. Heike could be a monster, but Lansburgh — even as his stories draw energy from her wild terribleness — is wise enough to render her as a person ... [H]e accomplishes this in part by remaining aware, at every turn, that people define each other as much or more than they define themselves ... Another reason why the stories succeed in moving — and indeed captivating — the reader is that Lansburgh keeps his emotional palette big. There’s plenty of anger in Outside Is the Ocean, and plenty of thwarted searching for a connection which is perhaps impossible to achieve. But there’s joy also, and humor, intimacy, and relief. You might find, as I did after finishing the collection, that Lansburgh does much more than write about a monstrous parent in a new way. His great achievement is that he complicates the creaky old opposition between happy families and unhappy ones. Lansburgh shows how much room there is, even in bad circumstances, not only for survival, but for tolerance and even for love."

                    ─ Electric Literature (Introduction of "Gunpoint" by Paul La Farge)

"Lansburgh … possesses a keen eye for the telling detail, whether he’s describing Heike’s latest harebrained scheme or chronicling Stewart’s romantic misadventures. The humor and the sadness contained in each story seem unforced, balanced so that neither overwhelms “Outside Is the Ocean.” … Heike is a genuine original, but it’s likely the reader knows someone like her. With his debut collection, Lansburgh makes his readers cringe at her behavior and sympathize with her plight. Only the hardest-hearted will be unmoved by this graceful and empathetic chronicle of fractured family life."

                    ─ Portland Press Herald

"In structure and effect, Outside Is the Ocean calls to mind Olive Kitteridge, the Pulitzer Prize winning collection of linked stories by Elizabeth Strout. Just as Olive exerts a gravity of her own in Strout’s collection, Heike, an immigrant to America who has difficulty maintaining relationships of all kinds, is at the center of Lansburgh’s fictional universe ... She is the kind of character who could easily become a caricature with her clumsy English and outsized sense of the world’s unfairness to her. Instead, Lansburgh presents her sympathetically — a woman doing her best to overcome a lifetime of challenges and setbacks, some of her own making, but some imposed upon her. Outside Is the Ocean is filled with characters who seem buffeted by a sea of emotions and problems. Lansburgh invites us to empathize and offers the solace of connection for those with struggles — which is, of course, all of us."

                    ─ The Gazette

"A linked short story collection, when done well, can be more satisfying than a novel because of the way in which the stories bounce off one another and provide different entry points into the overarching narrative. Outside Is the Ocean, Matthew Lansburgh’s wonderful linked collection, published by the University of Iowa Press and the winner of the Iowa Short Fiction Award, does just this. Primarily the story of a mother and son over time, the POV shifts from between the two, as well as to other characters, and by the end of the book, we feel intimately connected to these lives."

                    ─ CRAFT

"Winner of the 2017 Iowa Short Fiction Award, Matthew Lansburgh’s first collection possesses the satisfying reach and depth of a novel . . . The narrative voice throughout the collection is keenly self-aware, bracing, and heartbreaking, but also funny in the way that philosophy-infused comedy can be funny—comedy that depends upon perspective or distance . . . Lansburgh is a writer whose mind houses labyrinths underground but also towering cathedrals; even in ruins, they open onto sky.

                   ─ Salamander

Advance Praise

“Matthew Lansburgh has a keen eye and ear, and he puts them to great use in this lovely and, frankly, mesmerizing linked collection that explores, among other things, the tenuous tie between mother and son, between the Old World and the New, between what was and what is. And Lansburgh illuminates all of this gracefully, moving with ease from first-person to third and capturing not only the sounds of his various characters but their particular world views as well, each fraught with trouble and a sometimes darkly comic drama that is never self-conscious but always moving. Outside Is the Ocean is a gem.” 

─ ANDRE DUBUS III, New York Times bestselling author of The House of Sand and Fog (finalist for the National Book Award), The Garden of Last Days, and Townie

"Matthew Lansburgh is a great writer in the Raymond Carver vein. Deceptively simple, emotionally deep, his work shimmers with sneaky passion. He's the real deal."

─ DARIN STRAUSS, author of Half a Life and Chang and Eng

"Matthew Lansburgh's Outside Is the Ocean is one of the best short story collections I've read in years. It's sharp and funny and it sweeps the reader along through the lives of a cast of difficult and damaged characters. But there are no villains here; the joy of reading Lansburgh's stories is that he keeps spinning his characters around, finding tenderness alongside their abjection, compassion alongside hurt, until finally the people in this book feel as human and real as anyone you've known."

─ PAUL LA FARGE, author of The Night Ocean and Luminous Airplanes

"At the core of Matthew Lansburgh’s linked stories are Stewart and his mother Heike, one of the most unforgettable characters I've encountered in fiction recently. Whether Heike is stealing her tenant’s dog or adopting a child from Russia in an attempt to secure filial love and piety, Lansburgh writes with humor and, most of all, deep compassion about loneliness and the disappointments of family. Outside Is the Ocean is that rare collection in which individual stories create a whole that is much more than the sum of those wonderful and deeply satisfying parts. What a lovely, sad, funny new voice this is."

─ LORI OSTLUND, author of After the Parade and The Bigness of the World

"Every so often a work of fiction presents us with the great gift of an entire life. What Matthew Lansburgh has given us here, like the points of a constellation, is the breadth of a family, across many decades, through all their hardships, unspeakable heartbreaks, and small victories. Outside Is the Ocean is a book full of grace and endurance. It’s an exceptional debut, and we’re lucky to have it in this world, now." 

─ PAUL YOON, author of Once the Shore and Snow Hunters

"Matthew Lansburgh writes with a remarkable mixture of empathy and humor. These stories are taut with the most meaningful of tensions: the painful complexity of love between two flawed souls trying to find their places in each other's lives. Outside Is the Ocean is a poignant and perceptive collection of bravely explored stories built into a deeply affecting debut." 

─ JOSH WEIL, author of The New Valley and The Great Glass Sea

"Outside Is the Ocean offers the thrilling revelations of masterful short stories, and the deep satisfactions of a novel. Stewart and Heike are hilarious and heartbreaking—often in a single sentence—and feel as real to me now as any close, flawed friend." 

─ ANNA SOLOMON, author of Leaving Lucy Pear and The Little Bride

About the Book

Outside Is the Ocean tells the story of a young woman who grew up in Germany during World War II and who leaves her home soon after her 20th birthday to cross the Atlantic and start a new life. The book traces Heike's struggle to find love and happiness in America. After two marriages and a troubled relationship with her son, Heike adopts a disabled child from Russia, a strong-willed girl named Galina who Heike hopes will give her the affection and companionship she craves. As Galina grows up, Heike's grasp on reality frays, and she writes a series of letters to the son she thinks has abandoned her forever. It isn't until Heike's death that her son finds these letters and realizes how skewed his mother's perceptions actually were.

Outside Is the Ocean is about a mother and son who spend their lives searching for a sense of belonging that neither is able to find. Ironically, this turns out to be one of the few traits they share in common. This collection of linked stories examines the tenuous nature of family in America today—the struggles we undertake to distance ourselves from those we are supposed to love, and our ill-fated efforts to form bonds with the strangers we come across in our journey through life.


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