~Q&A conducted by Ms. Elizabeth Wyckoff
If you haven’t yet read the work of Ramona Ausubel, prepare to be enchanted. With one novel, No One is Here Except All of Us, and one short story collection, A Guide to Being Born, now under her belt, Ausubel is swiftly establishing herself as one of the most exciting and mesmerizing new fiction writers around.
The stories in A Guide to Being Born have been published in The New Yorker, One Story, Electric Literature, and FiveChapters among other journals, and included in The Best American Fantasy anthology. They often dance into the realm of the fantastic—a man’s torso turns into a literal chest of drawers, a gaggle of grandmothers find themselves inexplicably trapped at sea on a giant cargo ship—but Ausubel expertly draws from the fantastic elements of everyday life, as well. She keeps her stories hovering effortlessly, like lovely ghosts, in that perfect territory between realism and fantasy.
Ausubel—who is just as delightful as her prose—spoke with us a few months before the publication of A Guide to Being Born about book-jacket anxiety, the bizarre miracle of procreation, and the literary spaces where brightness and darkness meet.
BOOKPEOPLE: First, congratulations on A Guide to Being Born! This debut collection and your debut novel, No One is Here Except All of Us, have both been published within the last year and a half. What has the experience been like?
RAMONA AUSUBEL: Thank you! Publishing a book is a crazy experience because on the one hand, it’s the biggest, best thing ever (I have books! And people are actually reading them!) and on the other, it’s kind of quiet. There is no big staging of the play, screening of the movie or gallery opening where you can watch people absorb the work. Reading is private, and except for a handful of bookstore events where I have gotten to read a few pages aloud, the writer and the reader make what can be a profound and intimate connection without ever laying eyes on one another, without the writer even knowing it happened. It’s kind of beautiful, and I feel this huge gratitude to those people for letting my stories into their lives.
BP: How long have you been working on these eleven stories?
RA: I started writing the first of the stories eight years ago, but I wasn’t working on them all that time. I would say I spent two full years where the stories were my main project, and after that I would put them down and pick them up every few months. They’ve been in my life a long time. Some of them feel like old friends.
BP: I’m curious to know: were you thrilled when you saw the book’s cover art for the first time? I certainly was. It’s bursting with bright colors, vivid imagery, and bizarre little details—the visual art strikes me as a lovely compliment to your writing. What are your thoughts?
RA: I crazy adore the cover. Before either book was published, that was something I was really nervous about—the jacket image becomes this huge part of the way the book is received and the impression of what’s inside, and yet the author has little control. With No One is Here Except All of Us I had cooked up this nightmare scenario in which the publisher would be pushing an image of rubble with a Nazi flag draped over it, and a pair of naked legs and an inexplicable Adirondack chair (anxiety is awesome!). The cover for the novel, which is a beautiful image of a birch trees, was so lovely that I was more relaxed the second time around. Still, I didn’t ever dream that someone would create something this perfect. Seeing it felt like looking at a prettier image of the contents of my brain.
BP: You’ve divided the book into four sections: Birth, Gestation, Conception, and Love. At what point in the process of writing or editing did you come up with these categories? How do you think they might change a reader’s experience of the collection?
RA: I started writing individual stories, not thinking thematically at all (or so I thought). But then, after a couple of years when I had a bunch of stories, I read through them and it became very obvious that I had certain obsessions. All the stories looped around moments of transition—literal birth and figurative birth. At one point, a smart reader asked about the arrangement, and I tried to see if I could organize the stories in such a way as to press the question of what it is to be alive someplace in the cycle of being born and dying, and in the continuum of ancestors and descendants. Many of the stories could have fit into different sections but I thought hard about which note I wanted to elevate in each. I wanted to provoke the question: what is it about this story that makes it about conception or birth? What is it that makes it a gestation?
BP: Atria, which was originally published in the New Yorker, features a teenager named Hazel who becomes convinced she’s pregnant with an animal, rather than a human baby. In this story, horrible acts of violence occur right alongside moments of humor and fantasy. How do you strike the right emotional tone in a story like this, which addresses serious issues like rape and unwanted pregnancy?
RA: I’m glad you think the tone was struck. I was getting ready to hand the first version of this story in to a workshop when I suddenly got scared that someone had already written it and I was unknowingly plagiarizing. I Googled “teenager girl gets pregnant thinks she’s going to give birth to eagle.” I got a page about the teen moms at a Texas high school whose mascot is the eagle. I finally emailed my teacher Michelle Latiolais and asked her. I felt like I was saying, “So I’ve got this idea for a story: a young white boy goes down the raft on the Mississippi and he makes friends with an older black man. What do you think?” She wrote back and told me that the question is not the subject matter but the treatment. That was hugely instructive, and it sent me back into the story with a focus on writing into the precise aches and gifts and oddities and discomforts and kindnesses of this character, this situation, this world. Any success in tone is owed to that advice.
One of the truths of the world that pulls at me again and again is the ways in which sadness and violence are twisted together with beauty and levity. There is always some grace, even if it only comes in naming what was lost. I find myself wanting to write towards those places where darkness and brightness meet—I love the strange light there.
BP: In a recent blog post for The Qwillery, you cited a Smithsonian article about a family that lived in the Russian wilderness, cut off from all human contact, for more than forty years. In several ways, that story mirrors the premise of No One is Here Except All of Us. You wrote, “Literature is filled with fantasy because the world is filled with it.” Did instances of “real magic” inspire the fantastic elements of any stories in A Guide to Being Born?
RA: I definitely think [I’m inspired by] the idea that two naked people do a thing in the space of (upwards of) a few minutes that results in one of them growing a creature inside her body. The creature starts out as only a few cells, which soon double, and then the creature grows a tail for a while, and then it makes little arms and legs, and a teeny, tiny spleen and stomach, and then it grows fur just to lose it later. That’s real! That happens all the time! All people got here that way, and most people will be partner to this bizarre miracle as adults, and then, when the creature is born, those people will care for and love that new creature and watch their own hearts mutate and transform because of it. I just find that unendingly fascinating. And to be the new creature, under the beautiful and difficult weight of your parents’ love or lack thereof. And all of them will live a while, and then they’ll be gone, and no one knows or ever will what happens next. What’s more fantastical than all that?
BP: On a craft level, I’m so impressed by your use of white space in these stories. The spaces indicate not just the passage of time, but also subtle changes in the direction of your stories, as if they are signposts helping the reader along a winding path: First here, now here, now this way. How do you get white spaces to do this kind of work within your narratives?
RA: I think there are several things at work here. I see narratives as groupings of moments or images or details as much as straight plot lines. Even a true story is an edited, selective version of life, with many details left out and others brought forward. I think white space can emphasize the sense that this is one arrangement, one path across a much larger landscape. Also, I wrote poems for years before I wrote prose and I love the way a poem has built-in resting places, and how the lines before and after that space have extra light shown on them. I love how a poem can offer you different objects to hold onto, one at a time, and those objects are defined enough that the reader actually gets to take a minute with each one. White space can make room for that kind of experience in a story, too.
BP: I noticed that names play an important role in many of these stories—not only do characters have interesting ones (like Poppy, Belbog, and Mabel Lady Finch), but many also tell stories about the origins of their names. What is it about naming that draws your attention? What role do names play in your fictional universes?
RA: I love names. Sometimes I wish I wanted to have ten children so that I could name them all (I should definitely get goldfish instead). Names are these super compact little things that can freight in dead people or famous people or conjure exotic locations (or Dallas). They are expectation and aspiration. People get grand names and weird names and plain names and those words follow them for their whole lives. There are people named John Smith IV, and then there are people like a doctor my family had when I was a kid named Laser Nightsky. Tell me there isn’t a story there!
BP: What stories do you tell, or have you been told, about your own name?
RA: My dad says it was two weeks before I had a name and that they couldn’t land on something they loved, until it struck him suddenly. My mom says it was just a couple of days. My grandmother says they chose ‘Ramona’ because I was conceived in Mexico (why she seems to know this is its own question). I like that I’m the only person in the world with my full name and that my last name is very rare—there are just a few of us on earth.
BP: What books influenced this collection? Are there any that might surprise us?
RA: George Saunders will not surprise you. That being said, I tried to avoid books that seemed like they were working in the same vein, like Aimee Bender and Karen Russell, but I was thrilled when my book was done and I could devour all their beautiful stories. Because I wrote poetry before, I was playing a lot of catch up, fiction-wise while I was first writing these stories (I still am catching up, and always will be), so I was reading all my Raymond Carver, Ernest Hemingway and Alice Munro but also Lydia Davis and Ben Marcus and Christine Schutt and Marilyn Robinson. Jonathan Safran-Foer’s short stories were favorites. I was also reading and influenced by books friends were writing, some of which have since been published, like the amazing Drenched by Marisa Matarazzo and Shards by Ismet Prcic.
BP: I’m so excited for the next book! What are you working on now?
RA: It makes me happy to know that you will be on the other end of the line! I’m working on a new novel that takes place over the course of a week at the end of a marriage. The children are half-feral, the pets keep dying and the parents set off in opposite directions, one by car and one by ship. There’s also a giant in the book, and free cream pies, and a tipi. I’m also working on a collection of stories that take place all over the world and across history. There are Vikings and mummies and a disappearing Lebanese woman and characters far away from home from China to Morocco. The book asks questions about home and away, about belonging and being an outsider, about everything that has come before and all that is ahead.
Copies of Ramona Ausubel’s books are available on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.