A Brief Interview with Alix Ohlin

Weston Cutter
June 27, 2012
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The following is a very brief interview conducted over email with Alix Ohlin, a writer you either already love or will as soon as you pick up one of her books, the two most latest being Signs and Wonders, a collection of stories, and Inside, a novel. Coincidentally, Ohlin has, as of now, published essentially pairs of book simultaneously—these latest two were released on the same day, and his previous two books, Babylon and Other Stories and The Missing Person were published barely a year apart. She’s a writer about whom plenty’s been written but much of which can be boiled down to this: if you recognize Jean Thompson to be a national treasure, or if your shortlist of phenomenal writers features Munro on one of your top spots, Ohlin’s for you. If you like your fiction to feature almost shockingly thorough character development done at maximal efficiency (meaning: you need be only paragraphs into one of her stories to fully know the person you’re reading about), and if you like the sort of stories in which plots hinge on the sort of small-scale human decisions that end up casting such large shadows and gravity inside each of us, Ohlin’s for you. This is a writer (who not coincidentally was a Peter Taylor fellow in 2004 at the Kenyon Review’s Writers Workshop) you should absolutely be paying close attention to.

1) As much out of curiosity as anything else, what do you see/feel/perceive as differences between Babylon and Signs and Wonders? At any level: structural, thematic, etc. I of course think there are differences between the two, but I’m curious about what the inside view’s like. And, maybe more: was there any…agenda or attempt to make differences between the two books? I apologize for starting like this, but collections of stories are fascinating to me (I’d love to ask this Q to Lorrie Moore and Dan Chaon and lots of others as well. For what it’s worth: it seems to me this collection’s got more loss overall—more divorce and hurt, but maybe that’s just recollection + the fact that I’m reading this one now from here, a husband and soon-to-be-father, whereas I read Babylon as an unattached younger man).

From what I can tell, looking back, the thematic differences between the collections are a natural outgrowth of me growing older. The first book has more coming-of-age stories, with characters who are children and teenagers and young adults, and often their predicaments involve a sense of not having much agency over their own lives. This new book tends to feature older characters who come to understand that whatever difficulties they’re facing are, more often than not, of their own devising. There’s a sadness to that realization, I suppose, or more properly put, melancholy.

Formally, the first book contains a few stabs at experimentation (stories in the form of a medical transcription report and a scientific paper); it also has more outright comedy. In recent years, I’ve been interested less in experimental structures and more in trying out some genre influences (there’s a murder mystery, a ghost story, a romance) and I think the humor in Signs and Wonders, while still present, is less absurdist, and a little more gentle.

2) You’ve done plenty of interviews elsewhere, so I don’t want to ask the same questions regarding influences + such, but I guess the question I’m more interested in is if there are any writers working at present with whom you feel an artistic affinity—not if you feel in some group or something, but if there are people who do stuff and you read it and say: yeah, that looks like we’re trying to head similar places. Does that make sense?

This is a surprisingly difficult question for me to answer. Partly it’s because the writers I’ve been reading most closely of late, and having little love affairs of connection with, are slightly more historical than contemporary (Elizabeth Bowen, Muriel Spark, Samuel Beckett).  And partly, when I think about contemporary short stories that have really excited me, they tend to be work that’s really different from my own. I read it and want to learn from it, borrow from it, to see if I can expand my own range. So, for example, Lauren Groff’s “L. DeBard and Aliette”—I’m amazed by the breadth of that story. Or William Gay’s “The Paperhanger,” the atmospheric menace he conjures there. Sam Lipsyte’s “The Dungeon Master,” his arresting syntax and deadpan dialogue (“any of you feebs want to take on the twerp with the kitchen utensil?”). How Jennine Capó Crucet brings forth an entire community. How Kevin Wilson is so weird—darkly, amusingly weird. I’m interested in all these writers and what they tell us about how flexible the story form is, how much variety it can showcase.

I realize I’ve sidestepped your question a bit. Sorry.

3) This is as much just personal stuff as anything else, but do you teach poetry as well as fiction at Lafayette? If so: how? Of course plenty of folks teach both genres but I’m interested in how you find yourself teaching poetry, how it works out for you, what you learn from it, etc. This feels like a dumber question now, looking at it written here, than it seemed in my mind, for what it’s worth.

I don’t think it’s dumb at all. I teach an introductory creative writing class at Lafayette that covers both poetry and fiction. At first—and, okay, still—it was extremely challenging, because I myself write one poem about every seven years or so, and I’m not as widely read in it as fiction, though I’ve worked hard to get better on that front. I’ve learned so much from teaching poetry—a greater consciousness of meter and rhythm, the exactitude of language that is required, and a certain freedom, too. As a fiction writer I sometimes get bogged down in some very literal-minded mechanics of narrative and scene. Who’s standing where, what are they saying, what’s going to happen next? And then I read some completely explosive, figurative poem and it reminds me, oh yes, this is the exhilaration of language, this is beauty.

4) This’ll be harder because it demands trying to articulate something about your actual stories, but here goes: one of the things I’ve loved about your work since I started reading it is this sort of overwhelming easy grace (in the language; not in the stories themselves, in which whatever grace arrives is earned)—nothing feels forced in your work, and your touch is so deft and light that following the story and the language, into and through surprises, is almost narcotically easy. I don’t know if that sounds like the compliment it’s intended to be. I guess I’m curious if you can talk at all about process in how you write, the levels of effort that go into you working the words (I’d write lathing, like spinning wood, but who knows). Also of course if you have access to this in clear terms: how do you know when you’ve got it?

Well, thank you for that.

One thing I learned from my editor is that I have this tendency to say things twice, sometimes in a general and then a specific way, as in: she was thin, as skinny as a stick. (Not an actual example!) You don’t need both and the repetition is just a byproduct of the thinking process as I was writing, the way I was working into the sentence. He taught me to remove that repetition and tighten things up by focusing on the phrase that was the more interesting and sharper version.

Overall I tend to shy away from anything that seems too mannered in my own work. I want to achieve a certain transparency, or at least a sense that the images belong, by which I mean that ideally they feel both startling and organic to the subject at hand. So a lot of my revision involves shaving away something that seems too much, or that’s in the story just because I was indulging myself. It’s amazing, when you go back through a draft, how much is just there as a signpost to yourself, something you needed because you were figuring stuff out.

As for how I know when it’s done: I’m not sure. I will say that the act of getting a first draft down on the page is anxiety-producing for me. I hurry through it a bit. But then going through a draft line by line, sentence by sentence—there’s a lot of pleasure in that for me. I could do that all day.

5) What’s the view out your window?

Right now I’m in a hotel room in San Francisco, before a reading. I can see the brick wall of the building opposite, and the tiniest, shadowy sliver of Union Square.

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