Alix Ohlin’s most recent books are the novel Inside and the story collection Signs and Wonders. She lives in Easton, Pennsylvania, and teaches at Lafayette College. An excerpt from her story “Risk Management” can be found here. It appears in the July/Aug 2017 issue of the Kenyon Review.
What was your original impetus for writing “Risk Management”?
There are three men who are always at my gym—close buddies who spend as much time talking as they do exercising. I love listening to them. One afternoon, one of them showed up late and apologized, saying he was at a risk management meeting. His friend said, “Who’s at risk?” The first guy shook his head and said, “Everyone’s at risk.” I thought, that is so true, and vowed to write a story with that line in it. It seemed to encompass so much. Later I was at a doctor’s office and the two women who worked there were so clearly not getting along at all. I was just there for my checkup and needed to present my insurance card but these women were definitely having a very intense and difficult time working together, and they seemed trapped in a very small enclosed space behind that plastic sliding window, and I felt for both of them. I combined those two ingredients—risk management and the emotional lives of co-workers—into the story.
Several of your characters seem to decide that they know one another before they truly do. The narrator initially views Little as an organized, efficient, and model worker in an office otherwise full of troubled people until she visits Little’s home and hears more about her life. Little, too, has deceived her now-boyfriend Josh by cat-fishing him in order to escape her country, proving that she has some talent in pretending to be someone she’s not. How do you feel that these instances of discovering that characters may not actually know each other might affect the reader’s comprehension of whether or not they know the characters themselves?
I’m really interested in the workplace as an arena of collision: you come up against people you’d probably never otherwise meet, and you can spend enormous swathes of time with them and often develop very strong and complicated feelings about them. Sometimes you know what’s going on in the rest of their lives, and sometimes you don’t. A romance can be that kind of iceberg too, especially at the beginning of it. I don’t conceive of the characters in this story as especially deceitful or hard to know. They’re just living lives that have boundaries, whether geographical or professional. I like thinking about moments when that boundary shifts, and things between people feel suddenly, sharply different in a way that may or may not be permanent.
The narrator and Little come to share an underlying and mainly silent understanding of one another of which Josh is oblivious. What do you think about their shared status “as women who are used to cleaning up after everyone else has gone to bed” does to contribute to their mutual comprehension of one another?
That line about cleaning up is meant to be suggestive of more than housework. Both of these women have endured difficult pasts and moved on. (The fact that Josh is a recovering addict indicates that he probably also has a troubled past, but he’s not the one having the central moment here.) They recognize a certain quality in each other. They’re women who take charge, of necessity, and do what they have to do. They’re risk managers.
What is either the best or the worst piece of writing advice you’ve received or given?
One piece of advice that I’ve heard a lot is “write the book you want to read.” I don’t necessarily think it’s bad advice, I just find it puzzling and can’t imagine applying it myself. It doesn’t seem to address any of the spastic self-doubt or anxious paralysis or (on good days) joy of discovery. For me writing is mostly a process of having no idea what you’re doing and slowly, slowly, figuring it out.
What project(s) are you working on now, or next?
I’m working on a novel set in Montreal and New York, and a collection of short stories that are mostly, like this one, about close relationships between women.