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Interview with Ramona Ausubel

Ramona Ausubel

Ramona Ausubel

Ramona Ausubel grew up in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She is the author of the novel No One is Here Except All of Us, published by Riverhead Books in 2012, and a collection of short stories A Guide to Being Born (2013).  Winner of the PEN Center USA Literary Award for Fiction and the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award, she has also been a finalist for the New York Public Library Young Lions Fiction Award, and long-listed for the Frank O’Connor International Story Award and the International Impac Dublin Literary Award.  She holds an MFA from the University of California, Irvine where she won the Glenn Schaeffer Award in Fiction and served as editor of Faultline Journal of Art & Literature.

Her work has appeared in The New YorkerOne StoryElectric LiteratureFiveChapters, the Green Mountains ReviewSlice and elsewhere and collected in The Best American Fantasy and online in The Paris Review.  Her work was included in a list of “100 Other Distinguished Stories of 2008″ in the Best American Short Stories and thrice as a “Notable” story in the Best American Non-Required Reading.  She has been a finalist for the Puschart Prize and a Fellow at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference.

Ramona has taught and lectured at the University of California, Irvine, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Pitzer College and the University of California, Santa Barbara and served as a mentor for the PEN Center USA Emerging Voices program. She is a faculty member of the Low-Residency MFA program at the Institute of American Indian Arts.

She is at work on a new novel and a new collection of stories.

Phoebe – Helen Oyeyemi writes in her New York Times review of your recent collection of short stories, A Guide to Being Born, that you are “sensitive to our [the readers’] precarious position between safety and peril–locked out of full access to one another’s inner lives, locked into the pitiless machinations of our own biological systems, left certain only of our uncertainties.”

Your writing balances these opposing forces, magnifies both, literally transgressing the boundaries of scientific (though perhaps not “natural”?) phenomena in order to redeem and revitalize the human experience; all this, as you say in the Englewood Review of Books, in a world that is “super weird, [and where] we’re all living these emotional lives that are much more overgrown than we let on.” It gives us, as readers, that same “safe place to ask the hardest, darkest, strangest questions” that you experience when writing the stories.

So, what makes a story good for you? And, of course, we can’t help but also ask: What have you read recently that is most different from your style of writing but which has fed your work?

Ramona Ausubel – Thanks for all those nice observations! I have a hard time putting my finger on what makes a story good for me.  I’m a huge sucker for language and voice—something that immediately transports me to another place.  It won’t surprise you that I love Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but I have stories that I carry around in my head that are very different from what I do: Anna Karenina and Ulysses, Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety, Gilead by Marilynne Robinson.  I also love great literary journalism—I would like John McPhee to move in next door and explain everything in the world to me. I love some experimentation as density, as with Fanny Howe and Christine Schutt’s Florida.  And poetry!  I started out as a poet and I always come back.

P – Humor us: If you could invite any author–dead or alive–to dinner, who would you invite and why?

RA – Off the top of my head I’m going to say Hunter S. Thompson just for the pure entertainment I imagine would take place.  But there’s one stipulation: I want the dinner to be at his house and not mine, partly because I would love to see the physical space that he inhabited and also because I’m quite sure I’d need to go to sleep long, long before he would (my general drug and alcohol tolerance is probably considerably lower so escape might be necessary!).  Something I love in a writer is an absolutely unique point-of-view, a way of seeing the world and explaining it.  Thompson certainly had this.  Humor, irreverence and bravery are also qualities I admire.

P – If we invented a special time machine which could take you back to talk to your younger self, what are some things you would tell her right now?

RA – Oh, all the usual Oprah-sounding things: take in everything you possibly can, but be you.  It’s OK to not want to go to law school or become a third grade teacher or open a restaurant or become a doctor even though I could (maybe, maybe) have done those things. Spend at least as much time on the things you love as you spend worrying that you won’t get to do them. Just write.  And keep writing and writing and writing.  Also, value everything you do: shitty jobs can lead to great stories (see George Saunders), and so can going to the zoo or living in a small town or huge city or a far away country.  Absorb, keep notes and then get those pages down.

P – You worked as a mentor for the PEN Center USA Emerging Voices Program. Who were your mentors and how did they shape your writerly practices and identity?

RA – I was a mentor for a terrific young writer named Krisserin Canary.  She is working on a novel about three generations of women in California.  It was a huge pleasure to get to spend those months going over her first draft and laying the groundwork for her second draft.  I can’t wait until she’s finished!  I know it sounds kind of cliché, but I truly do learn as much from my students as I hope I’m teaching them.  I’m also on faculty for the low residency MFA program at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, which is an amazing program with amazing students and I feel grateful all the time for the work I get to read there.  I love getting to pay that kind of close attention to someone else’s work.

P – Guilty pleasure reading:

RA – I don’t think there’s a reason to feel guilty about anything we read!  Even if there’s something we think of as technically less “good” we still learn things. I mean, it’s hard to make a literary case for US Weekly, which I do love.  Although mass culture and group obsession do come up in my work, so there! Justified!

P – When you spoke about your debut novel with Riverhead, No One Is Here Except All Of Us, you said, “It surprised me in writing this book that I got much closer to the truth once I had put all of my notes away. I stopped looking back at everything and trying to get it right and I figured out that the story was something that I knew not in my brain but somewhere maybe in my heart. And I was a much better teller of it once I had given up trying to get it correct.” Any surprises in your writing since then? In what ways have you changed as a writer?

RA – My second novel, forthcoming from Riverhead (title still to be decided), was inspired in certain ways by the other side of my family.  Instead of the Jews of Eastern Europe, my mom’s side is a kind of fallen American aristocracy.  They weren’t Rockefellers or anything, but they had wings of museums named after them and were very comfortable in their standing.  Except that my grandparents didn’t really like being rich and ended up either giving away or spending pretty much everything.  Once again, while writing this new novel I had to learn that same lesson again and let go of the facts I knew.  It was not quite as hard this time, but almost as hard.  Even though I knew this from the first book and had talked about it over and over.  That departure is a leap off the cliff of the known and it turns out that leap is always hard to make.  The novel is very much fiction—aside from some small details and the question of what money means and the ways in which it is both a burden and a freedom, nothing that happens in the book actually happened in real life.  I kept having to let go and let go and let go as I wrote.  The book is much more about me and my questions than about my grandparents, really.  The more I dove into my own weird brain, the more fun I had and the better the book got.

P – In your interview with the Rumpus’ Malcolm Forbes, you describe this instinctive attraction you feel for your story-seeds, which captivate you in a way that makes boredom impossible: “No matter where the idea comes from, what I’m always looking for is a fizzy feeling in my chest. It’s the writing version of a crush. I need the right combination of known and unknown, a puzzle for which I have enough pieces to begin, but not so many that I can already see how it will be put together and am therefore bored before I start.” You later mention your love of cut-and-paste and the constant push against boredom in writing a story. Are there any other tools you use when you find yourself “bored” (godforbid!) in a story?

RA – My favorite writing advice, from Jim Shepard, is to “follow your weird.”  When I’m stuck I try something big: add a twist, cut the piece in half, change the gender of the main character, switch the setting, write from a different point-of-view.  It’s like throwing sand down on an icy road: it doesn’t need to be permanent, just create traction.

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