In 2007, I attended the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley, a week-long writers’ conference that includes workshops every morning, and panels and readings every afternoon and evening. It’s inspiring and fun, and also totally exhausting, because there is so much to read and learn and do. I highly recommend this kind of fatigue.
At Squaw, Ramona Ausubel and I were assigned the same workshop. At that time, Ramona was a student at UC Irvine’s MFA program, and I befriended her that first morning because I liked her clothes (priorities, people!). I soon discovered that aside from being stylish and amiable, she was also an insightful and generous reader. And then, on the last day of workshop, it was her turn to submit, and she turned in a kind-hearted, dazzling, and odd story, the kind of story that makes you think, “Wow, what a voice!” Sharing my work with Ramona, and getting to read her work, was one of the highlights of my time at Squaw. Years later, I would still recall her story’s whimsical tone, and the world she created: like our own, but stranger, and more absurd, but not any less cruel or complicated or joyful. That story, “Catch and Release,” is in her beguiling and elegantly written collection of short stories called A Guide To Being Born, which is, simply put, a pleasure to read. It’s been so much fun to see my talented friend publish and receive acclaim for her work. She deserves it.
Ramona answered a few questions via email. I am sure she was wearing something fabulous as she did so.
The Millions: For some reason, I didn’t expect these stories to be so funny. There’s this wonderful, amused tone to much of your work, whether it be a bunch of grandmothers who, upon mysteriously finding themselves on a ship, call out, Does anyone have a compass? and then, I’m from the DC area!, or a teenage girl’s mother eating a “low-this high-that salad.” It made me wonder how you regard the comic in fiction, and how you balance it with more serious subject matter. Can you talk a little about this?
Ramona Ausubel: For me, humor is totally necessary, in the way that a certain organ is necessary, yet you have no idea how it works. I don’t think about humor logically, as in, I don’t see a dark place in a story and think, “I could use some comic relief here.” It’s much more instinctual than that, and actually I think that’s a feature of humor in general. We need it, even, or especially, in the hardest situations. Sometimes it’s an escape, but just as often it’s a way of actually feeling the sad or hard thing, which might be too big to wrap one’s brain around otherwise. Plus, when you get your reader to laugh, they become involved in the story in a new way, they are a participant, and I like that. I like it when everyone’s got their hands in the mud-pile together.
TM: This collection is separated into four parts, Birth, Gestation, Conception, and Love. How did you conceive (ha!) of this organization, and why did you decide to move backwards, from birth to love? Can you discuss the formation of these stories into a collection?
RA: It’s always amazing to me how long you can go along, not realizing your own obsessions. I first wrote these stories as individuals and not as a book, and then I looked back at the stack and the themes jumped right out at me. There was a moment where I actually felt deflated by this, worrying that my range seemed limited or something. Then someone said to me, “No, that’s what a book is.” After that, I decided to really push the question of what it is to be born again and again throughout one’s life, and that’s where the ordering and sections came in. I wanted to get at the idea that we are in one long cycle, and at the same time we are each in a constant state of transformation and mutation.
TM: There are some interesting echoes throughout the book. Grandmothers find themselves on a ship in “Safe Passage,” and then, later in the collection, in “Magniloquence,” professors wait for a Nobel Laureate lecture that never happens. Both stories are about death, and though they feature a main character, the narrative alights on many others who are also captive to their peculiar situation. Magical bodies abound: a man with drawers growing out of his chest; arms that sprout each time someone falls in love; a girl imagining she’s giving birth to a giraffe. And there are also a lot of family secrets, particularly surrounding a child’s absent parent. Did these echoes happen consciously, or did you step back later and see the return of certain themes and images?
RA: I would say I was semi-conscious of themes and recurring images. I don’t find I do very interesting work when I’m navigating with logic, so I try to let themes rise up if they rise up, rather than setting out to write a book about such-and-such. I know I’m going to write a story if I have a crush on the idea — the fluttery heartbeat, the staring off into space and thinking about it when other people are talking, etc. It’s driven by desire and instincts and all those animal-brain forces, which maybe explains why things get weird and also why I keep coming back to certain questions in different ways.
On the specifics: I like the tension between the unique experience of an individual and the pull of group-think. These won’t be the last stories about groups that you’ll see from me, I predict. And I’m totally fascinated with storytelling and with stories as actual things that affect the people who tell or hear them. A story is much longer-lived than the fleeting moment in reality that birthed it, and I love exploring the chemistry between fiction and reality. As for the fantastical elements — yes, I recognize that no one has ever grown another arm when they fell in love, but our real, actual bodies are very, very strange and amazing, even though we’re used to them, and love is very, very strange and amazing. So even though I was writing about an unreal variation, to me the magical elements are simply a magnification of what we’re all in the throws of all the time.
TM: I’m a pretty pure realist when I make up stories. Even when I’m playing pretend with my son, I’m far more likely to have us imagining we’re cowboys rather than, say, dragon-slayers. Or I have us pretend we’re at the post office. (Fun, right? Stamps! Envelopes!) This collection made me even more aware of my leanings — there is so much nutty stuff in your work, and I like it! Can you talk about these elements of fantasy and the magical in fiction?
RA: Thanks for sticking with the nuttiness! That’s definitely the way I’m wired. I love realism, too (I love anything that shows me the world again, whether it’s a world where crazy-crazy things happen or crazy-normal things happen). Some stories in the collection do not contain anything fantastical, yet I find I write most fruitfully when things are at least a little bit elevated or exaggerated. There are lots of conversations in the world about writing which focus on the benefit of the reader and what works for him or her, and of course all writers should care about that, but at the same time, the magic act of making something out of nothing is happening in the writer’s head, and it’s that brain that needs to be tended to first. I try to make sure I’m pushing stories in directions that make the brightest electric storms in my head, and hope that a reader on the other end is susceptible that same kind of lightning.
TM: I love the grace of your sentences. How do you approach prose when you’re writing a story? Does your sentence-making change when you’re writing a story versus a novel?
RA: Thank you! I often feel like I’m working when it comes to plot — I really have to put my back into it — yet when it comes to writing sentences and paragraphs, I’m the one getting paid. That part is (almost) pure pleasure, and it makes the whole job doable.
I don’t know if my approach is consciously different when writing a novel vs. writing stories, although I’m sure there are more workaday sentences in No One is Here Except All of Us and in the new novel I’m working on, simply because there is more story to tell. Now I’m curious about this too! I’ll pay attention and we can talk about this again later!
TM: Because this is The Millions, I must ask you: What’s the last great book you read?
RA: I’m finally reading Pale Fire by Nabokov, which is, unsurprisingly, really good. It’s weird and puzzling and there are many great, bizarre moments. I also just read a great first novel: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra, which takes place in Chechnya and is about war and joy and survival and love. The writing is gorgeous, and though the subject matter is sometimes horrible and hard to read, the book is also funny and wise.