An Interview with Ramona Ausubel, by Julienne Grey
June 16, 2013
Ramona Ausubel, acclaimed author of No One is Here Except All of Us, returns with her stunning short story collection, A Guide to Being Born. From the man growing drawers from his chest to the teenager convinced that she’s pregnant with a zoo, Ausubel’s characters make for stories that are powerful, poignant, and surreal—and I got the chance to ask her about them. In our interview, Ausubel elaborates on the power of letter writing, reveals her wildest culinary adventures, and offers some whale-sized advice for emerging writers.
In your interview with Téa Obreht you said that you’ve realized that you wrote your debut novel, No One is Here Except All of Us, for your son. Are you always writing for him? Would you consider A Guide to Being Born a letter to him as well?
Even though A Guide to Being Born is so much about birth and parenthood and care-taking, I wrote the stories before I had my little guy. I was in my mid-twenties and about to get married and suddenly everyone wanted to know when we were going to have kids. It totally snuck up on me. Moms are supposed to be grown-ups, right? They’re supposed to know how to take care of everyone, and I still felt like a kid in a lot of ways. These stories were my way of asking questions about what it is to face a huge moment of transformation, not knowing what life will be like on the other end. I suppose in a way I was also writing to my son, but it felt more like writing to other versions of myself.
Letters are such a crucial part of your stories. Do you consider letter writing equally important in your own life?
I love the direct address of a letter. It feels different than straight narration because there is a character who is trying to take some control of the story, who needs another character to know something, who wants to put something on the record.
I should write more letters than I do. I used to write them all the time–it seems that my fictional letters have replaced my non-fictional ones in some ways. But then again maybe my subconscious is burying messages to my dearests in all my stories. Who knows! I do think of fiction writing as a way of assembling a version of the world that answers a question or gives voice to a feeling that otherwise doesn’t get heard. There’s a letter-y quality to that, a deliberate request that this way of seeing be recognized.
Because your stories were first published in such a variety of publications—such as “Snow Remote” first appearing in Slice—it’s remarkable how well they all fit together, resonating in such unexpected ways. Did you make many changes to have them work as a collection?
Thanks! I’m glad it feels like they belong together. I did sculpt each story to make sure it belonged in the collection, and some others didn’t make the cut because they weren’t as much of-a-piece. I also worked hard on the order and created sections for the stories. Even though a collection is a series of standalone pieces, I love it when they all come together to say something larger. It’s the difference between assembling an orchestra rather than just letting a bunch of instruments play at the same time. I find that part really fun—it’s a rolling-up-the-sleeves kind of job, which is nice after the writing process, which is so mysterious and unpredictable.
You told Clare Stein at Interview Magazine that fleshing out a fictional past for your grandmother in your novel felt like “getting to know [your] relatives.” Did you feel similarly about your short stories—that your characters started to feel like family?
The characters in A Guide to Being Born did become very familiar to me. I kept coming back to the stories for eight or nine years. I’d look in on things, work on them a bit, say hello, and let the story sit rest again. For me, short bursts of work are a good way to keep from getting overwhelmed (just do the next thing, is the mantra) and it’s also a nice to way to let the characters start to take up some space in my life and head, which is a good way to know what the stories are really about, which is a good state for writing. I don’t think of the characters as family in the traditional sense, although they are definitely part of me and I am part of them, and maybe that’s as good a definition of family as anything.
Since you started as a poet, did you find your stories starting out too condensed, requiring you to change the way you thought about words?
When I started writing prose I did find myself wondering how on earth I was ever going to fill up fifteen whole pages for a short story, and then when it was time to write a novel I was pretty sure it was impossible to write 350 whole pages. I still feel that way sometimes (writing is hard!). Otherwise, poetry was, in every way, a huge help to my fiction. Thinking in images, economy of language, being brave about looking at big emotions and complicated ideas—I learned all that from poetry. All writers should read poetry. All humans should, actually.
In many of your stories like “Poppyseed” and “Houdini,” characters ingest something they shouldn’t. Is there a reason you find food such a meaningful part of storytelling? Do you have any particularly strong memories of eating something especially awful?
I probably shouldn’t be admitting this in public, but I definitely went through a dog-food-eating phase when I was very little (dry, not wet food!). I’m sure I only ate it because I wasn’t supposed to, unless my little-kid taste buds were differently calibrated and it actually tasted good, which just seems so unlikely.
I find myself gravitating to questions about how we control ourselves when our inner emotional lives do not match up with the expectations of the reality we find ourselves living in. I like to write about characters who see a physical way of connecting the inner and outer and act upon that impulse, even if it’s surprising or weird. Eating is the ultimate outside/inside motion and upsetting the rules about what a person ingests is especially visceral in both good and bad ways (we’re animals after all, and we survive by not poisoning ourselves). It’s all just very rich and gross and I love it!
As a mentor for the PEN Center Emerging Voices Program, what do you think is the most important lesson you can give to an emerging writer?
Two things: As Jim Shepherd says, “Follow your weird.” Figure out what fascinates you, what makes the little fizzy feeling in your chest while you’re writing and do that. Don’t worry about what you think you are supposed to do. And second: spend 99% your time thinking about writing, and 1% thinking about the business of publishing. We all know that it’s good to make connections and network, but all that will come easily if you have a fully-realized, beautifully executed book or story that’s all yours, and that sings. Let’s say writing is an ocean, and finding readers is air that you need in sips, like a whale. Your whole life is spent swimming deep down, and you come up for a moment, take a breath, and go back.
Author photo: Teo Grossman
Ramona Ausubel is the author of the novel No One is Here Except All of Us, which was a New York Times Editor’s Choice, a San Francisco Chronicle and Huffington Post Best Book of the Year and a finalist for the New York Public Library Young Lions Fiction Award and the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award. Her new collection of stories, A Guide to Being Born, was also a New York Times Editors’ Choice and was long-listed for the Frank O’Connor International Story Award. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review Daily, One Story, The Best American Fantasy and shortlisted in The Best American Short Stories and The Best American Non-Required Reading and perhaps most importantly, Slice.
Julienne Grey is a writer living in Brooklyn.