ERB Fiction editor Chris Enstad interviews Ramona Ausubel
about her new book
A Guide to Being Born: Stories
Ramona Ausubel graduated from the MFA program at the University of California, Irvine where she received the Glenn Schaeffer Award in Fiction. She has been published in The New Yorker, One Story, The Paris Review and Best American Fiction, among others. Her debut novel, No One Is Here Except All of Us landed in the midst of American literature with a huge bang. We reviewed it in early 2012 and since then it has been named a New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice and the Best Book of the Year by the San Francisco Chronicle and the Huffington Post.
Her writing is astonishingly fresh and her perspective on life unique for it’s clarity and playfulness. NPR describes her writing as “often funny — usually heartbreaking… tiny works of art.” I would have to agree.
A Guide to Being Born is a book of short stories that use her magical imagination to examine the heart and life from birth to motherhood to death. Ausubel’s imagination comes in deeply intense contact with the truly life altering events that are the human condition: falling in love, becoming parents, approaching death. The opening salvo comes in the guise of a ship full of grandmothers at sea and, “They do not know how they got there.”
The ship, it seems, exists in the moment between life and death. Alice, our central character, makes a choice to enter the water and the ship leaves her behind. Ausubel writes, “She dives under and spins, making a lopsided flip, and emerges with her hair stuck to her face. Drops fall from her chin in a glowing chain. They fall from her hair and from her ears and the tip of her nose. They fall from eyelashes and from the lobes of her ears. The drops join back up with the whole ocean and disappear inside that enormous body. Alice throws her arms up in ta-da position, water flying off in a great celebration of sparks.”
It’s hard to describe such a grasp of the art and craft of writing by doing damage to the book with less artful and craftless reviewing so instead I asked Ramona to answer some questions for me and you. I’m grateful for her willingness to do so and so let us move from my words to hers:
CE: I found this collection of short stories to be totally original, breathtaking and conscience shaking! Your use of the language is truly inspiring. I wonder who you take as your literary forefathers and mothers? Are there writers you find yourself gravitating towards?
RA: Thank you so much! It’s always hard for me to pin my influences because there are so many, and because I think whatever I’m reading filters into what I’m writing, even if I’m not conscious of it. There are writers I adore over and over again like Michael Chabon, Christine Schutt, Ron Carlson, George Saunders, Lydia Davis (and very many others). And it would be easy to draw a line of influence between my work and writers like Karen Russell, Aimee Bender and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and I love all of them, but while there are formal and thematic echoes, I think I’ve been at least as influenced by people who write very differently from me. A good reading experience is about being overtaken, put under the influence. In that way, I try to let everything I read in.
CE: When you set out to do this project did you see it in its full form from the beginning or did it take shape over time?
RA: I wrote drafts of all the stories without thinking of them as a piece. But when I read back through the whole group it was clear that I had certain things on my mind and was coming back to the same questions again and again. Once I saw that, I worked hard in the revisions to draw those echoes out so that each story had a voice of its own but that they all worked together as well.
CE: Do you see the world the way you “write” the world? How does this work or not work for your day to day interactions? I am drawing from a story like “Chest of Drawers,” do you see people like this? I was especially taken with how you grasp the realities of a true marriage in this story how Annie takes the occurrence as something else to grow to accept… is this the message you are trying to convey?
RA: When my grandmother first read this book, she said something like, “but you seem so sweet and normal! I had no idea what was going on in your head!” I think I’m a pretty well adjusted person, and sometimes I wonder if part of that is because I get to allow these really bizarre scenarios to play out in my fiction. I have a safe place to ask the hardest, darkest, strangest questions. At the same time, I really do think the world is super weird, and that we’re all living these emotional lives that are much more overgrown than we let on. In my work, I try to allow the physical world to rise to meet the inner worlds of the characters, as with Chest of Drawers. In any case, any deformity or odd behavior has to be rooted in emotional truth—that’s always what the story is really about.
CE: Can you speak to us about your interactions with death and life in your real life and how you bring those experiences to this book?
RA: I think about death a lot when I write. It feels like the ultimate unknown, and until each of us gets to that point, all the possibilities for what happens next are on the table. Fluffy clouded heaven? Reincarnation as harbor seal? Absolute nothingness? It’s all impossible to imagine yet we’re all going that way, and I can’t help but feel that question hanging over our time on earth. Meanwhile, the living keep living, and that fascinates me, too. We gather at funerals and eat too much. Sometimes we are inside-outed by loss forever and ever, and sometimes the deepest pain comes when we realize that we’ve moved on.
CE: If your books were required reading for citizenship on this planet, what emotion or learning or existential point would you hope to be conveyed across the spectrum of human existence? I don’t pretend that your ego is that big, of course, but when you set down your pencil and tell yourself, “That is good” what are you hoping your readers might take away from their time with you and your writing?
RA: I don’t know that I’ve ever thought about it that way before. More than a lesson or a point I want to voice a truth. If I ever say “that is good” it’s because I feel like a sentence or an image or a moment does something true, elevates or isolates one particular aspect of lived life. I feel a sense of “whoa” when I think of what people survive, how hugely people love and in what conditions, the risks we take, the beauty, the sadness, all of it. If I can transfer that captured energy from my head into a reader’s, then I’ve succeeded.
Thanks to Ramona Ausubel for taking the time to talk with us!