Interview: Alix Ohlin, Author of We Want What We Want

Alix Ohlin author photo by Emily Cooper
Author Alix Ohlin (photo by Emily Cooper)

Alix Ohlin is a novelist, teacher, and short story writer whose work was recently described as “delectable, electric and clever” by the Vancouver Sun.

The Montreal native's short stories have appeared in The New Yorker, Best American Short Stories, Guernica, and many other publications. Collections of her fiction include Babylon and Other Stories, Signs and Wonders, and her new book, We Want What We Want (July 2021).

On Electric Literature, Ohlin described her latest collection as a group of thirteen stories about “people who want to remake their lives and who discover, in the attempt, some astringent and inescapable truth about who they are.”

Much deservedly, We Want What We Want was named a top summer read by Esquire and received favorable notice from The New York Times.

In addition to her short stories, Alix Ohlin has also written the novels The Missing Person, Inside, and most recently Dual Citizens (2019), which was shortlisted for multiple awards, including Canada's Giller Prize.

Ohlin attended Harvard and the Michener Center for Writers, then taught in the writing programs at McGill University, Lafayette College, and Warren Wilson College. She now heads the creative writing program at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.

Matt Borondy: A glowing review of We Want What We Want in The Toronto Star commented that your work seems effortless—that your book simultaneously doesn’t “feel laboured” and that you “make it look so easy.” At this point of your career, is writing hard for you? How has your writing process changed over the years? What, if anything, has made it easier?

Alix Ohlin: Writing is always going to be hard for me, because my work always falls short of my ambitions for it. I’m as riven by self-doubt as I ever was. But over time, maybe, I’ve grown to accept this as part of the process. I’ve tried to shift my attention to a sense of gratitude and humility towards the work I get to do rather than to focus on its inevitable failures. As a result, I’m a bit more easy-going in some ways, a bit more playful and able to assume what feel like risks. I’m more willing to plunge into a draft and see where it takes me. I never want writing to feel dutiful, or mechanical, and my writing process is pretty organic and true to who I am. At this point, I’ve experienced a lot of the writer’s worst-case scenarios—rejections, terrible reviews, being passed over for jobs or other opportunities—as well as some very positive ones. The pendulum swing has reminded me that all these things, the good and bad, are separate from whatever private impulses remain at work for me when I’m sitting alone in front of the computer screen. I still love reading as much as I ever did. I marvel at the accomplishments of other writers and feel called to write back in response, which is the whole reason I started writing in the first place. That’s the most helpful thing, and the most constant.

MB: In your story “The Woman I Knew,” a character buys a used book that won the National Book Award the year she was born. This gave me the idea to go back to the year I was born and start reading all the NBA winners I haven’t read from that point, to survey the development of critically acclaimed lit in my lifetime...if I can find the time. If you had unlimited time, what thematic reading projects would you take on?

AO: I love this idea. I feel under-read in a lot of global literature. If I had unlimited time, I’d probably take a map of the world and travel around it reading at least a couple of books from each country.

MB: How do you choose which new books to read?

AO: When I’m reading for pleasure, I’m often following recommendations from friends, or getting around to a book I’ve always wanted or meant to read. So far this summer I’ve read The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard, which is one of those books that’s been hovering on my to-read list for years and which was so, so good. It was a finalist for a National Book Award—you could add it to your reading list! I also read All My Cats by Bohumil Hrabal, a memoir by the Czech writer about taking care (sort of) of an ever-increasing colony of feral cats—it is horrifying and yet had the perversely uplifting effect of making me feel pretty good about my own life. In terms of more recent work, I often seek out books by writers whose work I’ve admired in magazines, like the new collection by Anthony Veasna So, because I loved his story “Three Women of Chuck’s Donuts” in The New Yorker. Or I’ll go on a tear of reading through someone’s books—in the last few years I fell in love with Yoko Ogawa, for example. And there are some writers whose new books I will always read (Kazuo Ishiguro). When I’m working on a novel, I’ll sometimes set myself a reading list based on aesthetic goals—I’ll look for books that do something unusual formally, or have a structure or voice I want to look at—and I study them for ideas. I also read a lot for work, of course, whether it’s to write a tenure evaluation or judge a prize or the other parts of my job.

We Want What We Want: Stories by Alix Ohlin cover
We Want What We Want by Alix Ohlin

MB: You were an undergrad English major at Harvard and went on to earn an MFA from the Michener Center in Austin. How early in life did you decide you wanted to be a writer? Did you take “gap time” off between Harvard and UT for other pursuits, or were you singularly focused on writing?

AO: I never wanted to do anything else except writing, but it took me a while to be upfront about it. To be willing to articulate that that’s what I wanted to do. I was a secretive writer for a long time, hoarding it to myself. After I graduated from college I worked writing-adjacent jobs—in book publishing, in bookstores, and as an editorial assistant for a scientist. I temped a lot. I spent six years doing those jobs and writing shyly on the side, not showing it to anybody. I had always been ambivalent-to-hostile about the idea of an MFA and stubbornly independent. I had this idea that I needed to be all alone with my writing. But after a while I felt quite isolated and unmoored and in need of structure and community. So I decided to go back to school, and I’m glad I did. It set me on the path I needed to follow.

MB: You’re now the chair of the writing program at UBC. What pedagogical approaches do you most strongly believe in for teaching fiction writing? What book do you most enjoy teaching?

AO: I think the most important thing for me is that people come away from my classes with a sense of exhilaration about their work. A perceptive and relevant conversation should be about opening up the possibilities of a draft, not closing anything down. Kindness and rigor can go hand in hand. And even the best workshop discussion is probably most productive when buttressed with other forms of learning: reading, critical analysis, individual mentorship, reflection, active experimentation with techniques for generating or revising work, etc. I spend a lot of time on craft and trying to give people a choice of frameworks or concepts or models that they might fruitfully apply to their own process. I never want anyone to think that there’s one right way to proceed, because there just isn’t. I hope that people can learn how to articulate who they are as writers, where they’re coming from and where they want to go, in a process of empowerment. Developing a language for what you’re trying to do as a writer will give you some clarity during the long confusing time it will take to do it. At least that’s my hope! My classes center on the short story and in recent years I’ve really enjoyed teaching work by Jenny Zhang, Bryan Washington, and Souvankham Thammavongsa, as well as essays by Namrata Poddar, Jane Alison, Brandon Taylor, and Alex Chee.

MB: Also in “The Woman I Knew,” Mulvaney, the author character who wrote that award-winning-but-misogynistic book, tells a concerned young feminist, “I don’t disavow the book, but I see it as an artifact of its times, and a very limited one at that. I would write a different version of it now.” Is that a valid response to current criticism of older works that contain racism, sexism, and other problematic sentiments that were more normative at the time of their writing? In your perception as a teacher and reader, how should we treat classic authors whose writing hasn’t held up as popular views of race and gender have evolved?

AO: That character is meant to be pretty slippery and at least in my own reading of the story, his response is both facile and hard to rebut. These negotiations we make around reading are fluid and evolving and highly individual, so there isn’t any way to make a flat or reductive set of guidelines around them. What do we ask for from books? What are we trying to learn from them? What do we need? The answers to these questions are often quite different depending on the circumstances of the encounter with the work, depending on who you are as a reader and where you are in your life. There are some books I’ve gone back to, books I once loved or admired, and found I couldn’t read them anymore. There are other books I’m willing to forgive, for some complicated and entirely personal cluster of reasons. As a teacher who assigns writing, I do think I have a particular responsibility, because a class is a space I’m inviting students into, that I’m curating. If I assign a piece of writing, I don’t take its implied value as a given. I have to provide some scaffolding for the discussion. I don’t want any student to feel alone or invisible in whatever struggle they may have with a work, or that there’s no space for critique of it. And that’s true of any writing, whether it’s contemporary or historical.

Signed copy of Alix Ohlin's novel Inside
The interviewer's copy of Alix Ohlin's 2012 book Inside

MB: Given how frequently you’ve moved, you’ve presumably experienced many shifts in perspective. How strongly do you identify with your past work? Do you feel tethered to it, or is it something you leave behind as an artifact of a person you were at a specific time?

AO: I never think about my past work at all. No one is more critical of my writing than I am, so when I am required to look back at it for some reason, I see only its flaws. The part of my writing I’m tethered to is the beautiful, as-yet-unwritten thing.

MB: You told Jane Ciabattari that your next writing project involves environmental themes and that when it comes to that subject your thoughts have become “pretty apocalyptic.” What moved you in the direction of writing about climate issues? How do you work through the hopeless feelings that come with being immersed in the realities of that topic?

AO: I’ve always been invested in environmental issues and have grappled with them in my work. My first novel is an absurdist comedy about environmental activists in New Mexico and my most recent novel, Dual Citizens, has a narrative strand about wilderness preservation and animal caretaking. I’ve struggled, though, with figuring out how to position the environmental themes in the foreground or background of my work, how to weave them into the texture without being didactic or trope-ily dystopian. As a reader I’m drawn to books that come at these ideas aslant, in a way that has some mystery or uncanniness. An example would be Yoko Ogawa’s The Memory Police, one of my favorite books in recent years. It’s about a world in which loss is crushingly inescapable, as the result of a surveillance state, and the gradually escalating losses include birdsong, roses, animals. The novel has many layers and among them is a devastating and subtle portrait of life during climate change.

As for the hopelessness, that’s so true and hard. There’s some slice of me that’s one news item away from turning into the mother in The Road, wanting to exit the apocalypse. But at the same time, what’s happened now—what has happened—is for me impossible to ignore and therefore impossible not to write about. The writer Emily Raboteau did this amazing thread on Twitter in which she linked to anecdotes, news items, essays about climate change, over the course of a year or more, and that sustained work of testimony was so impressive to me. She reminded me, over and over again, of the importance of recording, the importance of not looking away.

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For further reading, we recommend Alix Ohlin's Lit Hub piece on how to map the shape of your short story.

Also: Revisit our 2006 interview with Alix Ohlin.

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