Jesslyn Roebuck: This is a bit odd for me considering that you were my English professor just last semester, but thanks for agreeing to answer these questions about your upcoming collection, literature in general, and other pell-mell...
In an interview discussing The Missing Person, you went into great detail concerning the various musical genres and bands you listened to throughout the writing process. Dave Eggers also places considerable weight on music and has even quipped about the increasing pace of his stories in How We Are Hungry because of the fast rhythms of his favored songs. Are there any integral songs serving the formation and manifestation of the stories in your recent collection? Would it be possible to say, do a Wizard of Oz-meets-Dark Side of the Moon experiment with any of the stories in Babylon? Along the same note, would you say there’s a relationship between the music and the literature created today?
Alix Ohlin: In fact, if you listen to Matthew Sweet’s classic 1991 album Girlfriend while reading my book, you will discover some very important clues about the TV show Lost. No, sadly, that’s not true. Although I could probably name at least a few songs that I listened to for almost every story in the book. I’m the kind of person who listens obsessively to the same song over and over again for six weeks, thus ruining it for herself (and anyone else within earshot) forever. I think one reason for this behavior is that stories have a kind of melody in my head I’m reaching for, especially a chord I want them to end on, major or minor, resolved or unresolved. Often when I’m starting a story I think of the final line or image as a last note I’m working towards, the sound I want to resonate in the air when the story’s done. So maybe listening to the right kind of music helps the sound seep in where it needs to go.
It’s interesting you mention Dave Eggers because it does seem to me that there’s been an explosion in so-called indie music over the past ten or fifteen years, at the same time as there’s been an explosion in indie publishing, in which Eggers has played such a central role. Do you ever listen to the CDs they put out along with The Believer magazine? Those are really good.
JR: While much of this collection contains melancholic sentiments, you employ a lot of sharp and poignant humor in your stories. What does humor do (besides make the reader laugh) that awards it such a strong presence in this collection? Do you take a page out of the adage, “Laughter is the best medicine”?
AO: I have a big fear of being schmaltzy or self-indulgent, and I think the humor is a way of undercutting moments of potential melodrama. I hope it can do that without negating the emotional impact of the stories—ideally it can give that impact even more edge. A lot of contemporary writers I admire, like Sam Lipsyte and Lorrie Moore, are extremely funny—and the humor doesn’t diminish but actually sharpens the sadness and anger they’re capturing on the page, making their fiction entertaining, yes, but all the more searing. There’s a whole laughing-through-and-at-the-pain thing that really touches my heart as a reader.
JR: You are originally from Montreal, eh? But, Montreal brought you to Harvard and then from Harvard out to the Southwest. You’ve mentioned in an earlier interview about your first novel that:
“Sense of self is really defined by your home. These days people leave their homes, they go all over the place. They visit their families every once in a while and they don’t all live in the same village. I think that does create a very strong sense of disconnection and confusion because it is so important to be rooted.” It appears you’ve done a lot of moving about yourself. Can you talk a little bit about your experiences after Harvard and before teaching at Lafayette? Do you think these experiences at all cultivated and honed your creative talent?
AO: I moved around a lot after college, from New York to New Mexico to Texas to Massachusetts to Rhode Island to Pennsylvania. I was keeping one step ahead of the law. I think initially I thought that it would be easier to experiment and in all likelihood fail at things (i.e. writing) in a place where I didn’t know anybody. Then I would get to know people, so I’d have to move again. Later on I was chasing various opportunities, mostly fellowships or jobs or residencies, ways to keep on writing. Now I’m lazy and have more stuff, so I’d love to stop moving and stay put. I’m not sure what impact any of this had on my writing, except that I tend to always write about the place I’ve just left behind.
JR: In Babylon, many of the characters do seem sort of uprooted and disconnected, but not because of a constant movement through spatial location. Moreso the disconnection seems to come from memories, existing in the gap between young and old. For example, younger characters often interact or clash with aged characters and vice versa. Do you think then that a disconnection similar to the spatial dislocation you spoke of earlier also occurs because of a temporal disconnection? Does this have anything to do with all of this business about the postmodern?
AO: I don’t know if I think disconnection between people is solely or even mostly due to generational conflicts—I think a lot of my stories are about how hard it is to have any connection at all, period, even with the people closest to you in every way. There’s a great phrase I read once in regards to Iris Murdoch, that her novels dealt with “the otherness of other people,” and that’s always stuck with me—the idea that there is endless mystery in other people. There are always barriers between us and the people we want to know the best, and some of those barriers we put up ourselves, even whilst craving the destruction of those barriers. I don’t know if I think it’s isolated to any kind of postmodern condition; I feel like if you read novels like Madame Bovary or The Great Gatsby you’ll find the same thing, the thirst for connection wed to the impossibility of it. Maybe nowadays we have more apparatus that gives the illusion of connecting us to other people—from media outlets to email—but the basic difficulty remains the same, and it is everywhere. Certainly we have political situations throughout the world in which lack of understanding for other people, the inability to communicate and share a common language, has disastrous consequences. That’s why it’s such a miracle when we do connect, something to be sought after and treasured when found.
JR: Do you use Instant Messenger? Do you think technology could be another avenue for disconnection in our current day-and-age? I mean, in spite of the fact that we all seem to be just a cellphone ring or a computer key away from finding information or friends, do you think the same dislocation you spoke of with respect to space and time also applies to technology?
AO: This question reminds me of your great essay about IM in our class. You can probably answer this question better than I can. I’ve used IM a little and I’m addicted to email. Both are enormously appealing to me because I’m kind of introverted. They’re a dangerous temptation for me personally; I’m all too likely to turn into some kind of Unabomber-esque person who stays at home in a hooded sweatshirt, only communicating with people at a distance. If other people are like that too, then I think we’d all better be careful.
JR: Which story do you have the strongest affinity with, and which story did you find the most difficult to write?
AO: There are a couple of stories that I just basically sat down and wrote almost at a sitting, without even thinking too much about them—"Simple Exercises for the Beginning Student" and "The Tennis Partner," and I think those are probably the best ones I’ve ever written. Sometimes I think I should just wait for only the stories that come out that way. Of course, if I did that, I’d have a book of only two stories, so maybe it’s not the best plan. The one about the prosthetic leg took the longest; I wrote the first draft ten years before the second.
JR: How do you balance teaching with writing?
AO: In some ways I think they go together really well. Teaching forces me to think critically about writing—what’s true about it, what’s useful, what I can honestly articulate about it—in a way I’d probably not have to otherwise. I catch myself saying things all the time and then thinking, wait a minute, isn’t that kind of a crock? So I’m endlessly required to question and refine my beliefs such that I’m not embarrassed to hear myself speak. Also, sometimes I write down funny things my students say in class for use in stories later. Of course I never did that to you, Jesslyn, or to anyone you know.
JR: What are you reading right now?
AO: I’m re-reading a couple of books by favorite authors, for inspiration for two different projects: To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf and The Quick and the Dead by Joy Williams. For fun I read Henning Mankell, who writes depressive Swedish mysteries featuring an aging, diabetic detective named Wallander. I just got back from a trip to Sweden, and I walked around the town where those mysteries are set. They were handing out these maps with all the locations from the books marked on them. The legend was like: “Number 6. This ATM was the site of a violent murder. Number 8. This is the café where Wallander eats pastries in between solving crimes.” Etc. It was great.
JR: In our writing genres class we discussed the ongoing debate sparked by Ben Marcus’s recent indictment of Jonathan Franzen and contemporary writers’ neglected interest in language as art. Your story “A Theory of Entropy” seems to touch loosely upon this debate in terms of finding a balance between creating a book that is “art” and a book that sells. Where do you feel you fit in this debate and why?
AO: Not to be namby pamby about this, but I admire both Marcus and Franzen, and I think there’s space for both of them in our literary culture. As a writer, I sometimes worry that my work is sort of relentlessly middlebrow—I’m not experimental (however fraught that word is) in the way that Marcus is, and I adhere to a lot of the narrative traditions he might consider hopelessly worn out. But I tend to adhere to them because I enjoy them myself; for example, I love detective fiction, and some of those genre conventions showed up faintly in my first book, The Missing Person. In any event, one reason I gave you guys that essay to read is that it really inspired me to be bolder in my own work, more adventurous and ambitious, less tethered to any given belief of what a story “has to be,” and I’m grateful to him for that.
JR: Do you read reviews of your work? What is the function of reviews?
AO: I read the reviews of my own work, because it’s hard not to, and I always hope to learn something from them, some way that I can improve. I don’t read many book reviews in general—most of them I find dull, and oddly depressing even when positive. There’s a sameness to them, a format, that I find tiring. There also tends to be a focus on publishing industry gossip over the contents of the books themselves, and I don’t want to get too swept up in that. In general, what I want from a review is not just a sophisticated opinion but some sense of a thrill, intellectual and emotional and political, about books. There are, of course, pockets of excellent writing about books and culture, people who are capable of saying something really smart and exciting; I’d put Marcus in that category, and James Wood, and Meghan O’Rourke at Slate and a few others. When I read stuff they write it makes me happy to be part of these debates.
JR: The stories in Babylon have some really great titles, “The King of Kohlrabi” being my personal favorite. How did you come to name the collection Babylon?
AO: That was my editor’s idea. I think I handed it in as “Untitled Story Collection,” an inspired sequel to my first manuscript, “Untitled Novel.” He named both of my books, and I’m really happy he did. When he read the collection, he suggested either Babylon or Wonders Never Cease. I thought Babylon sounded perfect, because it had certain thematic resonances I liked, and also because it reminded me of Babylon Revisited and Other Stories by Fitzgerald. Not that I’m comparing myself to Fitzgerald in any way. Just to be clear. Anyway, though I’ve had trouble naming my books—something about encapsulating an entire manuscript gives me a block—I like coming up with story titles, and I have a file full of unused ones. They’re a lot more fun to write than the stories themselves.
JR: Since you have now completed both a full-length novel and various works of short fiction, do you prefer one genre to the other? You also teach screenwriting at Lafayette. Do you find yourself gravitating toward one of these genres over the others?
AO: I tend to gravitate towards the short story as a procrastination technique, i.e., I write a new story when my current novel-length project isn’t going well. It’s hardly ever going well, so I’ve got a lot of stories. There’s less of a time investment and that makes it easier to experiment. But after writing a novel, my stories changed. I got more interested in narrative events, in the ways that you can use narrative to support the other aims of a work. Teaching screenwriting has been part of that, too. Before I tried screenwriting, nothing would ever happen in my stories. On the last page there would be a minute alteration in the emotional state of some character, and I’d be like, there! What a rousing finale! I’ve tried to get away from that a little bit, so now the occasional incident occurs.
JR: If you were to choose another profession/professions, what would it/they be?
AO: I hope I don’t have to, because I don’t know how to do much else. My only real skill is that I type fast, so I’ve done a lot of temping in my day. Sometimes I get upset at the state of the world and would like to become a full time social worker-environmentalist-do-gooder-type-person. I do some tiny amount of volunteering in that direction and have been vowing lately to do a lot more than I do.
JR: Many of the stories in Babylon have specific character intrusions or invasions that disrupt or reveal the darker sides of family life. For example, in “I Love to Dance at Weddings” the young married couple’s bliss is disturbed by the announcement of an older and slightly bawdy mother’s fourth betrothal. Or in, “In Trouble with the Dutchman,” the intrusion is a dogfight. In nearly every story, such an intrusion occurs that elucidates something beneath the surface. These disruptions enervate and propel this collection’s wisdom. Since banal and often-comic intrusions are a part of daily life, did you intend for such disruptions to be the catalysts for the stories? If you can, tell us a bit more about how you went about composing these stories.
AO: I guess that’s sort of a classic, Dubliners short story structure: there’s some contained incident that sculpts the narrative and ultimately prompts an epiphany or moment of discovery for the characters and the reader. That structure has stood up for a long time because it’s so muscular and you can do so much with it. Of course “banal and often comic intrusions” are often part of our lives and don’t occasion epiphanies of any kind, so maybe that’s the difference between life and art, that in art we can use such things to prompt more of an elucidation, in a way that still seems organic. I was listening to a radio interview with David Foster Wallace the other day in which he said (paraphrasing very loosely and much less articulately) that an essay was an opportunity for a layperson writer to think deeply about some subject on behalf of the reader—to take the time to investigate and probe and come up with an analysis of something that the reader might find interesting but doesn’t have the time to really look at closely him or herself. He was talking about nonfiction, but I think a story can do the same thing: construct a moment of examination, an arena where life can snap into focus.
JR: A couple of the stories in your collection, such as “Babylon,” “A Theory of Entropy,” and “Ghostwriting” seem to deal, in part, with the writing and publishing process. As such, I am interested in hearing your thoughts about the relationship between the author and the characters he/she creates. Is it a mystical, cathartic, none of the above? Milan Kundera speaks of achieving immortality through a legacy. Do you feel you impart any of your own qualities into the characters you create?
AO: I guess all characters come from some qualities of the writer, and one of the things that’s endlessly intriguing about writing is that you’re forced to fully connect with whatever parts of yourself would relate to, say, a heartbroken blind Siberian general. If you’ve chosen to write a story about a heartbroken blind Siberian general, that is. You have to have a certain amount of closeness to and understanding of characters who are different from you, even characters who are weird or bad people. It’s sometimes embarrassing, knowing that people will read your work and be aware that all these characters are the creation of your deranged brain. But that’s the way it goes. I don’t think it’s especially cathartic, and I certainly don’t think it’s going to help me achieve immortality, but I do think it’s pretty interesting.
JR: Since a few of the stories in this collection relate to some elements of science, do you feel there are any similarities between science and the writing process? How about between science and love?
AO: I tend to get all excited about some aspect of science, like thermodynamics or reproductive biology or whatever, and use it in a story for the purposes of metaphor, which is no doubt very annoying to anyone who actually understands the science in a more legitimate and substantial way. I’ve resolved to become more scrupulous about this in the future.
JR: After Babylon, do you have any works in progress?
AO: I’m trying to write the novel-of-great-procrastination, referenced above. It’s going slowly. It’s set mostly in Montreal, where I grew up, and during the winter, and that’s about all I know so far.
JR: Why write fiction as opposed to nonfiction? Do you think it is possible to educate a reader more through storytelling and stories than blanket facts (or media-strewn facts)? Do you think a writer can be more subversive by crafting a message through fiction?
AO: I think fiction surrounds us. Stories are told to and by us all the time. We relate anecdotes to friends; we conceive our own lives as stories, believing that a certain chapter has drawn to a close or that we are the protagonist in a given tale; politicians frame events in narratives that cast certain characters as heroes and others as victims. Stories are the way we understand the world. Fiction writers are just maybe a bit more upfront about it, that’s all.