This month, we had the opportunity to talk with one of our favorite writers on the planet: Ramona Ausubel. Her fourth book, Awayland, published earlier this month. In this, Ausubel’s second collection of short stories, a Cyclops looks for love online, a rootless mother turns to mist, and a couple loves each other so intensely that they want to, literally, exchange hands. Here, Ausubel shares her wisdom about using magic to tackle complex emotions, about forging lovely sentences, and about arranging a cohesive story collection. Read this interview, and then get lost in Awayland yourself.
“Language is my home base. Sentences and images are the reason I write in the first place, the reason I’ll never quit even if no one ever pays me or reads a single word again. It’s about naming a precise feeling or moment in a world that is constantly rushing us ever onward. It’s about dredging up the fantastically complex inside life and allowing it a way to live above ground.”
First of all, let me just say how much I enjoyed Awayland. I am a huge fan of both your novels and your stories and I was so thrilled to see another collection by you. Like your first collection (A Guide to Being Born), Awayland is also broken into four distinct sections: “Bay of Hungers,” “The Cape of Persistent Hope,” “The Lonesome Flats,” and “The Dream Isles.” Can you talk a little bit about how you arrived at this structure? Did you write the stories to fit it, arrange the structure based on the stories, or a little bit of both?
I’m delighted to talk to you! I wrote these stories over the course of several years and there are so many questions and layers of my own life and mind in them and the themes in the collection come from these places. But I wanted, in the end, to turn eleven stories into one book and I like the way those sections help build a larger arc. In this book, which takes place all over the world, I wanted a kind of mythical landscape on which to plot the stories and their individual geographies.
Some of my favorite stories of yours have magical elements. What stands out to me about them is that they all have a real, emotional anchor—which is always beautifully expressed. In “Fresh Water from the Sea,” for example, a woman’s mother is literally turning into mist but this is closely tied to the mother’s own feeling of rootlessness. How do you accomplish this? What comes first: the magical component or the emotional one?
I love to use magic as an amplification of something real in the emotional realm. I have felt that feeling of rootlessness (for entirely different reasons than the character in that story) and yet I’ve always had a hard time naming that feeling clearly. In the story I gave the feeling a physical manifestation so that I could see and feel it at its real emotional volume. Sometimes I come up with the conceit first—what if a Cyclops filled out an online dating profile?—and then build the realness into it and sometimes I come up with the feeling first and then build a physical life for it.
What are you reading (and loving) right now?
In my bag right now I have three books: The Seabeast Takes a Lover by Michael Andreasen, which is a collection that I loved long before it was a book (Michael and I went to grad school together) and am besotted with once again; There There by Tommy Orange (out in summer, 2018) which is a ferocious and amazing novel centering on a cast of contemporary Native American characters in Oakland, California; and Fever Dogs by Kim O’Neil, another splendid collection from an old friend and another book I have waited for with baited breath.
Many of your stories have to do with conception, pregnancy, and motherhood. In “Template for a Proclamation to Save the Species,” the mayor of a Minnesota town encourages couples to conceive on a designated Love Day. In “Mother Land,” a woman conceives a child while traveling to her lover’s childhood home in Africa. In “Departure Lounge,” a chef and her gay ex-boyfriend agree to have a baby together, because each wants to be a parent. In “Chest of Drawers,” one of my favorites from your first collection, a man who is envious of his wife’s pregnancy literally grows a set of drawers in his chest. The stories all take very different angles. What inspires you to continue examining the concept of conception in stories? How has your approach differed from story to story?
All of my obsessions and fascinations are accounted for in this topic. First of all, pregnancy is both science fiction (I can grow a never-before-seen human in my body??) and mundane (reproduction is the first item on life’s to-do list). It is the intersection of the past and the future, the place where different lives merge, and rare in human existence, it is something with an exact beginning. All of hope is in there and all of despair and fear and invention and disappointment and potential tragedy and salvation…I could go on!
Something that has always struck me about your writing is the precision of your language. What is your editing process like, for stories in particular?
Thank you! Language is my home base. Sentences and images are the reason I write in the first place, the reason I’ll never quit even if no one ever pays me or reads a single word again. It’s about naming a precise feeling or moment in a world that is constantly rushing us ever onward. It’s about dredging up the fantastically complex inside life and allowing it a way to live above ground.
I’m a huge reviser. I go back to each piece ten or twenty times. Luckily I love this long phase because each time I find a new layer and new ways to sharpen the lines and the paragraphs and the movement.
What are you working on now? What can we expect to see next from you?
I’m working on a new novel that includes a wooly mammoth and I’ve got the beginnings of a few new stories. I have no idea how either book will come together yet but I’m enjoying the adventure through the darkness!
Interviewed by Sadye Teiser