The Saturday Rumpus Interview with Ramona Ausubel

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Ramona Ausubel is the author of the recently released novel Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty (Riverhead Books 2016), which has been widely reviewed and named to several summer “best of” and “must read” lists, including those from Time, New York, Harper’s Bazaar, and the Huffington Post, among others. Her first novel, No One Is Here Except All of Us (Riverhead Books 2012), won the PEN Center USA Literary Award for Fiction, the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award, and was a finalist for the New York Public Library Young Lions Fiction Award. Her collection of stories, A Guide to Being Born (Riverhead Books 2013), was one the New York Times’ 100 Notable Books of the year and a San Francisco Chronicle best book of the year. She has a forthcoming collection of stories, Awayland, from Riverhead Books due in 2017. Her work has appeared in the New Yorker, the Paris Review Daily, Ploughshares, One Story, Salon, The Best American Fantasy, and was shortlisted in The Best American Short Stories and The Best American Non-Required Reading.

Ramona and I first met at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, NM, where Ramona is a faculty member in the low residential MFA creative writing program, and I was a student. I was immediately drawn to her open, engaging attitude as an instructor and her wise counsel on craft and story. I caught up with Ramona via email while she was on her summer book tour for Sons and Daughters, asking questions about her new novel and her work in general.

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The Rumpus: When you’re writing do you think about building a body of work, and the connections between your different books, or are you more singularly focused on the narrative at hand? What does it mean to you to create multiple works over time? Is there an end game or goal for your storytelling/career? How do you stay so productive and motivated? What are the joys of writing and the challenges for you?

Ramona Ausubel: Even though I am now three books in, I still feel like I’m at the beginning of my career. Once, very early on, I came to Michelle Latiolais, my teacher in graduate school (who is the smartest person I know), because I was worried that the stories I had been working on repeated themselves. I had several stories about pregnancy and parenthood, love, transformation. Michelle looked at me with her bright smile and said, “That’s called a theme. That’s what makes it a book.” Basically, the message was to trust my own obsessions. Of course the collection needed to hit lots of different notes and not, in fact, repeat itself, but echoes belong, double-taps belong, themes belong. [Editor’s note: This collection became A Guide to Being Born.]

I’m still working on one book at a time (and probably always will), but at the same time I do notice those recurrent obsessions and the questions that won’t leave me alone. I think about the act of storytelling all the time, the ways that stories change the real chemistry of the world. I think about transformation—physical and emotional. I think about the endlessly huge inner lives we’re all leading while we go about our regular old lives, how much we’re all carrying while we buy milk, pay the car insurance, fix the leaking faucet.

Several years ago my husband and I spent nearly a year traveling around the world and as we came up against the infinite choices—the entire world is big!—I kept having to remind myself to just keep doing the next most interesting thing. This mantra has stayed with me as a writer, too. I don’t know what my tenth book will be or what patterns I’ll see when I look back over my work fifty years out. I don’t need to know those things yet—and even if I wanted to, I wouldn’t be able to engineer the whole path. Each book is infinitely complex and difficult to puzzle out. I just try to stay with it, to stay fascinated, unfold the big questions and to keep doing the next most interesting thing.

Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty coverRumpus: In addition to acknowledging and examining the immoral origins of the accumulation of great fortunes, Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty also explicitly addresses the founding of this nation by genocide and stealing the land from its original inhabitants. At the same time, the book points out how that specific history is distorted and mythologized as part of a process of erasure (for example, Cricket’s teacher imparts bogus information about Native Americans in her classroom, and it is later revealed that the teacher’s only “knowledge” of Native history is from children’s book and her own imagination). This seems to be an implicit criticism of how our educational system (inadequately) teaches the history and development of this country. Can you talk about why that was important for you to include in the novel, and what happens when history is distorted and/or erased?

Ausubel: My starting point was the idea of wealth and the things money can and can’t buy us, but pretty soon the scope expanded. I heard Claudia Rankine read when I was a few drafts into the book and during her remarks she said, “Every book is a book about race.” Because I am white, it’s possible for me to think of my work as neutral, not racially charged, but of course that’s false. I realized that this book I was writing about money had to be about race and it had to be about class and it had to be about privilege, and which of those things we are able to see and which we are blind to.

Soon after that reading I joined the faculty in the MFA program at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe. Native cultures are openly distorted, coopted, and stolen from. Once again, I felt that if I was going to write a novel about the beginnings of America, about the story of this country, I couldn’t look away from that aspect. At the same time, it’s not my story to tell and I didn’t want to be just one more white person snatching someone else’s culture or sadness for my own. The story became one of misunderstanding and mythologizing, of the ways in which stories are cycled and taken, revised and erased.

I find tremendous hope in the act of storytelling—the way we can redirect energy, to reclaim history, to build back lives that have been otherwise upset. But there’s also thievery all over the place. It’s so easy to write ourselves into another person’s story, or to write that person out of it. As humans, stories are our habitat and we do all the good and terrible and magical things in that land, just like we do everywhere.

Rumpus: There are some interesting implicit critiques in the novel about the roles of men and women that are standard during the depicted time period (i.e., the 1960s and 70s), and particularly the constricted roles that women are expected to play. For instance:

  • Edgar’s mother is overly concerned with maintaining the status of their class—she has no work or passion other than maintaining the perfect house and hosting and attending “the right” social functions.
  • Fern’s mother in particular balks at the confining roles of her gender and especially of motherhood—she’s an artist and only gets married because women (of her class) couldn’t be single and working. She chooses a husband with medical issues so that she is alone frequently to work. She isn’t interested in being a mother and Fern and her brother are essentially raised by nannies.
  • Fern herself operates largely as a wife and mother. Her attempt at going to college is thwarted by her own lack of ambition and her second pregnancy.

 

So what is the novel saying in terms of the roles of women of this class during this time? What insights, if any, do you want the reader to take away from how social structures limit women’s ambitions?

Ausubel: As the story developed I began to think about the many structures that contain us. There are the larger societal structures and the very small personal structures, and gender roles seem like a powerful holding pen in both these spheres. Then there’s the architecture of wealth (or lack thereof). We tend to think of money as freedom, but I’m not so sure it’s that simple. Certainly there is huge power with wealth, but the moment there’s power, need for control comes next. Women were never meant to have either power or control and, at least for the characters in the book, their stature comes with a life built of upkeep and tending of their gilded cages. There are particular parties and particular dishes and houses that must conform just so, and conversations that are allowed and not allowed, and purchases that must be made visibly and others invisibly, and meanwhile the self, the actual woman, ought to shrink down to just the littlest shell. To upend this system is harder than simply walking away. The whole world has to be rebuilt. Every expectation, every part of life is implicated in the structures around us. Even as a person who was raised by extremely progressive parents far from the perfected rose gardens or country clubs Fern and Edgar’s parents inhabit, I still feel that my life is ever-touched by these same questions. In what ways am I tending and keeping up appearances? What subtle messages am I sending my children (a boy and a girl) about who they are or who they can be? The structures are powerful and we still have a lot of dismantling to do.

Rumpus: Your first two books were both widely praised for their poetic style (an aspect that I also really appreciated). Reviews often mentioned the style of those works in terms of magical realism, fabulism, or surrealism. Sons and Daughters, however, deviates from pronounced magic realism, and is largely told in a realistic style. Can you talk about the shift in styles for this new work? Does the style grow organically out of the story? Was it a conscious choice you made to write this book in a more realistic style?

A Guide to Being Born coverAusubel: I try to stay open to each new work and the rules it will teach me. I didn’t set out to write realism this time around, but as I went along, the story kept wanting to stay within the boundaries of the recognizable world. Weird things still happen (probably guaranteed when I’m in the room!). There were drafts very, very early on where I thought I was writing an entirely different book and it did have some magical components, but those naturally fell away as the story came into focus. It’s a matter of listening and watching, trying and noticing. It’s always amazing to me how long it takes before I see what I’m doing and even though I used to find this long dark tunnel disheartening, now I actually love that part. Discoveries happen over years, one by one, and only at the end can I know what I’ve done. Terrifying? Sure, but also pretty spectacular once the book comes clear.

Rumpus: Time is fractured in this novel. The story takes place from 1965 to 1976 and is broken up chronologically, starting in 1976 (the present of the story), and subsequent chapters alternate between the past and the present. How did you decide on this structure? What function do you think structuring time like this works in the story—telling the story not in flashbacks but in different “present” moments that careen through the history of the story?

And in terms of the writing process: Did you figure out the chronology of the characters’ lives first and then decide how to present the order of their lives to the reader? What was the process to first understand and then present the structure of the story? How does this time structure work to enhance the overall storytelling?

Ausubel: The structure took a long time to figure out. I wrote the current 1976 story first and I knew that would be the through-line, but because it includes three sets of characters (Edgar and Glory, Fern and the giant, and the children), I kept toggling between thinking about the story as a whole and what kinds of notes I wanted to sound, and I’d do a draft where I separated each character’s journey into its own document and worked it through, then I’d splice them back together and play with the order. That went on for a long time. Meanwhile, I had the backstory tucked into those sections mostly as memories. It was really complicated and I kept trying to find the perfect spot for each recollection and it was a maze and a puzzle, both for me and the readers I showed it to. My mom has this beautiful letterpressed sign in her kitchen that says, “Stop! Think! There must be a harder way!” I was in that mindset, thinking that I had to do the hardest thing. Somewhere, somehow I realized that it was possible to choose simplicity, to choose clarity, to choose to allow the oxygen of chapter breaks and that lovely negative space as we shift from one year to another. And because the arrangement isn’t some convoluted matrix understood only by me (and possibly not even me) it turned the structure into part of the story, an invitation to read something into the order, the story we see from the past at the particular time we see it up against the moment everyone is currently in.

Rumpus: Even though you’ve just had a book come out and you’re currently in the process of promoting it through a book tour and readings, people always want to know “what’s next.” Can you tell us a little about what you’re working on now? Also, in general, you seem to move pretty seamlessly between novels and short stories. What are the pleasures and pains, benefits and hardships of each form for you? Do you write in other forms, too, such as poetry, drama, screenplays?

Ausubel: I’m working on a new collection of stories featuring characters far away from home all over the world. There’s a lonely Cyclops living in Washington State, a bunch of mummified animals, some shipwrecked Vikings, and a young couple with a very bad plan for staying together even after one of them dies.

I’ll always go back and forth between short and long work. I started writing my first novel because I felt I should and the early stages of writing something longer still cause a certain amount of panic in me, but I have come to love both forms. I love that a short story can go so far and so deep in just one flash, and I love the geologic laying of the novel writing process. I used to write poetry and I credit that with a huge part of my education as a writer, but at the moment I feel pretty well settled in prose. But the future is big and language is endless!

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Author photograph © Twin Lens Images.


Penny Perkins holds an MFA in creative writing from the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, NM. Her short story “Car Ride Through Corn Fields (1975)” was chosen by Manuel Muñoz as the winner of Beecher’s Magazine's 2014 Fiction Contest. Her short story “Gut Feelings” was a finalist for the Reynolds Price Prize in Fiction as a part of the 2015 International Literary Awards sponsored by the Center for Women Writers. Recent fiction, poetry, and creative non-fiction have been published or are forthcoming in the Rocky Mountain Revival, Perversion Magazine, Fiction Fix, The Dulcet Review, The Pine Hills Review, Waxwing, The New Verse News, Entropy/Enclave, Beecher’s, and HOAX, as well as Memoirs of the Feminine Divine. She currently lives in northeast Florida and teaches writing at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville. More from this author →