Ramona Ausubel’s debut novel, No One Is Here Except All of Us, was a powerful, dreamlike fable in which the inhabitants of a small Romanian village reinvent their own history to stave off the encroaching horrors of war and holocaust. It was a novel full of storytellers and storytelling, of overlapping realities and interwoven myths, and it showcased Ausubel’s talent for invention and made her a writer to watch.
Since then, Ausubel has concentrated on short stories. She has been published in the likes of The New Yorker and The Paris Review Daily and has received special mention in The Best American Short Stories. Like her novel, many of her stories are built around fantastical notions, while at the same time remaining anchored in humdrum, everyday routines to explore real-life situations. Ordinary meets the extraordinary, and the fusion makes for captivating reading.
Now comes her first collection of short stories, A Guide to Being Born, and each one is strange but beguiling, some even unsettling and deeply affecting. The book charts the life cycle from birth to death, by way of motherhood. Oddball zaniness alternates with cool, calm observation and honest emotion. Ausubel gets the balance just right: when the madcap antics and ideas have dizzied us enough, we are brought back to earth with perfectly-realized thought or feeling: heartache, joy, longing, loneliness, despair. Linking most of these stories is love in all its guises, and Ausubel constantly delights with her take on it. Our lives can be as wild or as wacky as Ausubel’s fictive worlds, but in the end, as one of her characters puts it, “Everyone wants to be alone in someone else’s heart.”
The Rumpus: First of all, congratulations on a hugely enjoyable and wildly inventive collection of stories. The adage of “write what you know” seems very apt here. You became a mother last year, and the stories are clearly a response to motherhood. Was the whole pregnancy-birth-motherhood journey an experience too good to live and let go, that you felt compelled to use it as a creative source and fictionalize elements of it?
Ramona Ausubel: Thank you so much! It’s actually funny you mention my son, because I actually wrote all the stories in A Guide to Being Born a couple years before he was born. I had arrived in my mid-twenties and was newly married and suddenly having a child became a very real possibility. It sort of snuck up on me. Moms were grown-ups and they always knew what to do, but I did not feel either of those things yet, at least not completely. It all felt very outsized and unbelievable, from the physical reality of pregnancy—what’s more fantastical than a creature who has never existed before growing in your guts?—to the whole project of parenthood.
Reportedly, you love in ways you never imagined; you are suddenly not only able, but at least sometimes enthusiastic about superhuman levels of devotion to another human being. You are more vulnerable than it seems reasonable to be. And it’s a total mystery: no one knows what kid they’re going to get, or what it will feel like to be this new version of yourself. When I was pregnant with my son, people were always asking me if I felt ready, and I could not imagine how anyone would ever answer “yes” to that question. I wanted to be like, “Ready for what?” We pretend like we know what we’re up against, but actually, it’s a huge, huge mystery. The stories were born out of that mystery.
Rumpus: In the author’s note to No One Is Here Except All of Us, you mention that for research, you interviewed your grandmother about her childhood in a remote Romanian village. The stories recounted felt like legends and fables to you, to the extent that you later decided, “This was not a story I knew how to tell.” When you resumed work on it two years later, it was more your own work; you weren’t entirely sure which direction to go in, and yet: “My head was quiet, but something in my chest knew what to do.” Was a similar gut-reaction at work in the composition of your stories? Or better—and at the risk of being saccharine—did these stories come from the heart?
Ausubel: Isn’t it frustrating that the word “heart” has those over-sweet connotations? That’s part of why I feel compelled to write (and to read)—our language is inefficient when it comes to emotion, and we’re all living lives full of unimaginable beauty and sadness and strangeness, but we are hungry for ways to talk about those experiences. So yes, these stories definitely came from the heart. Unlike in the novel, I was writing pure fiction, so I never had to figure out how to make the leap into my own imagination. The questions that prompted the stories—how do we navigate the many transformations our lives and bodies make—were my own true questions, very much on my mind in real life, but I felt free to invent worlds unlike my own in which to explore them.
We often talk about writing in construction terms, as if a piece is engineered and crafted, which it certainly is, but I also think it’s impossible to overstate how much of that creation and the subsequent sculpting is done using instincts and gut feelings. The fact that I had all this “factual” information when I was working on No One Is Here Except All of Us meant that my brain wanted to be in charge, when what I really needed was a very different kind of knowing.
Rumpus: You describe your novel as being a book about “the bigness of being alive as an individual, a family member, a resident, a member of a tribe, and a participant in history.” Do your stories operate on as large a scale, or does the short story form require the author to, in some way, think smaller?
Ausubel: The stories are working at situations just as emotionally complicated as those in the novel, while other elements like time and space are much more limited. People often talk about the iceberg theory, that most of what’s going on is submerged and what we’re reading is just a small point, up above the waterline. Or to use another metaphor, short stories are like eggs—you can hold the whole thing at once, yet what is contained within is gigantic. And in a way, because the piece is smaller, readers are more willing to suspend disbelief and I think bigger risks are possible as a result.
Rumpus: These stories chart the cycle of transformation from love to conception to gestation to birth—only in reverse. The first pair of stories come under the title “Birth,” the second cluster “Gestation,” and so on. Why did you choose to present them in this way?
Ausubel: If something looks the way you expect it to, it’s easier to just file it away without really considering it, so I always at least consider the unexpected option. In this case, I liked that opening with birth and going backwards created an immediate tension and a question in the reader’s mind before he or she has even begun. Some of the stories in A Guide to Being Born are about actual birth, but most are about another kind of transformation, and one of the things I wanted to get at is the idea that we are all in a constant cycle of being born in new ways throughout our lives. We are transformed when we fall in love, when we become parents, when we have to care for our children as adults, when people around us get sick, when we ourselves look toward the end of life. It’s a loop, and we run the course of it again and again.
Rumpus: The first story, “Safe Passage,” features a group of grandmothers sailing on a freighter towards an unknown destination. Spliced with their pooled remembrances of the past is a scene with one of the women in a hospital bed and her family gathered around her. This story is in the “Birth” section and yet the tone is unmistakably elegiac, the women’s journey patently a transition from one world to the next. Are you telling us that dying is a kind of birth or rebirth?
Ausubel: Death and what happens to us after we’re gone is the biggest question there is. Biggest by many, many powers. Maybe we simply disappear and maybe we go to a fluffy white cloud place, where all our childhood dogs are waiting along with everyone we’ve ever loved (and they all somehow get along), or maybe we come back as stinkbugs or sparrows. Until each of us gets there, the answer to the questions is None/All of the Above. When I was writing “Safe Passage,” I had the sense that Alice, the main character, found a kind of peace in her strange surroundings, and that she walked out into that peace (or swam, in this case) and there was something there, as opposed to nothing. As long as there is something, as long as there is matter, there is no ending. Birth into what, we don’t know, but, at least in the world of this story, death is a rebirth.
Rumpus: Your second, extremely poignant story, “Poppyseed,” is about a couple coming to terms with their severely disabled child, one with the body of an eight-year-old but a baby’s brain. The letters the mother pens to her daughter are touching, but they are offset by comical and unexpected scenes and situations: the father conducts ghost tours on a haunted ship, and the end—without revealing too much—involves a jaw-dropping act with “almonds” in a hospital. Is it fair to say this is your modus operandi: blending absurd situations or ideas with the (often painfully) real? Is all-out absurd not your thing?
Ausubel: I love absurdity, all-out absurdity, but that’s not where my own pen goes. I’m always trying to write about the real world, even though I sometimes choose to do so via exaggeration. My allegiance is to emotional truth, which doesn’t always easily fit into the box of reality. I think we’re all walking around doing the things that need doing and meanwhile we have these crazy, strange, huge emotional lives going on. That’s what I want to write about, that’s what I want to get right. And for me, the way to give the tangle and thump of the emotional truth a voice is to let the characters act on their feelings, let those inner worlds manifest in the outer world, even if their actions are bigger than we’re comfortable with. When we see the act, the feeling behind it immediately becomes real in a new way. I’m also sure that people are doing very strange things everywhere on earth every single day—stranger than anything I’ve written.
Rumpus: By incorporating fantastical elements there is also, surely, a tendency to get carried away. Do you ever have to rein in some of your ideas, trim any of that abundant excess?
Ausubel: I’ve done plenty of trimming and shoring up, and I’m sure sometimes it has been in the wilder parts of stories, but it has just as often been in the mundane sections. Because I’m trying to write about that emotional truth, there’s a natural gravity that keeps things from going to nuts. I’ve never been interested in reinventing everything—my brain gets the most interested when there is just one small change.
Rumpus: Absurdity is toned down but still present in the third, and for me, best story here, “Atria.” A girl’s teenage pregnancy (again, very real—at least realistically portrayed) is given a mind-bending spin when she starts to imagine giving birth to a series of animals. There is a subtle line about how the girl, Hazel, was also unplanned—”a very surprising accident followed almost immediately by her father’s diagnosis.” We then get a killer line: “While Mother grew fatter, Father grew smaller, and everyone felt certain that they were watching a direct transfer of life from one body to another.” Life mingles with death in these tales, and many characters have lost a soulmate and are soldiering on as single parents or abandoned lovers still smarting from the “pressing absence” of a partner. Is it fair to say you write bittersweet stories, flitting from laughter to tears?
Ausubel: I’m glad to hear you liked that story! Origin stories are always fascinating to me, partly because the stakes are so high—this is why you exist, these are the conditions that made you—and also because they are so purposefully constructed. If a person comes into the world by accident and her life is always shadowed by the death of her father, how much would that change how having a baby felt to her? The idea of new life is heavier in that case, and carries death right along with it. And then I thought about what it would be like to be pregnant so young, and without love being involved. It seemed natural to me that Hazel would have a hard time seeing her baby as safe and human and expected, but might instead transpose her unsteady emotional state over the fetus and begin to see something unusual there.
I have to say that when I was pregnant, though I did not expect to give birth to a three-headed giraffe, I was pretty awed by the amount of unknown involved in the project. I didn’t know who this person would be or who he would turn me into. Human, sure, but goodness, that still leaves a lot open.
Rumpus: These stories are titled A Guide to Being Born. But how are your stories born? Do you come up with a quirk, and then flesh it out from there? Or is your starting point more thematic?
Ausubel: The starting point varies between stories. For some, it’s a situation that strikes me. I thought, What if you were pregnant but didn’t believe the baby would be human? And I followed that idea until it became “Atria.” I don’t know where it came from, but I thought of the title to “Welcome to Your Life and Congratulations” and then wrote the story afterwards, following scene by scene, not knowing where it would end up.
No matter where the idea comes from, what I’m always looking for is a fizzy feeling in my chest. It’s the writing version of a crush. I need the right combination of known and unknown, a puzzle for which I have enough pieces to begin, but not so many that I can already see how it will be put together and am therefore bored before I start.
Rumpus: In a similar vein, do you map each tale out in advance, setting out all the components, and then join the dots, or do you make things up as you go along?
Ausubel: I’m a huge make-up-as-I-go-along writer. I cannot outline, no matter how much I’d like to be able to. Part of that is what I was saying before about not getting bored. I think it was Mark Twain who said something like, “If I knew what I was going to write, why would I write it?” Of course, once I have figured out what the story is, there’s plenty of work ahead, and then I do plenty of restructuring and joining of dots. I’m big on messing with the order and thinking of all the component parts like blocks that can be put together in many different ways. I wonder if this is a trait I would have developed had I been writing in the times of typewriters or pens (I hear those are still around, but I can’t compose with them), or scrolls. I love the cut-and-paste. When I’m stuck, that’s one of the first things I try.
Rumpus: To what extent would you consider yourself a comic writer? There are some wonderful comic touches in these stories, without the stories being entirely comic. I’m thinking of the bored audience of academics in “Magniloquence” that ignores the dreary speakers on stage to play spin-the-bottle on the floor instead. Or the couple who make love to The Golden Girls in “Snow Remote.” At other times, we get more laughter in the dark.
Ausubel: I find myself looking for humor on a very instinctual level. I once heard someone say that an itch is just the smallest possible pain, which I don’t think is actually true, but I like that idea, and I think of humor in sort of the same way. It’s a tiny volcano, but beneath the joke is the whole mountain range of sadness or hurt or hope. Sometimes the full scope of the situation is too much to feel, too overwhelming, yet a sliver of comedy can slide right through and stab you. I love that. I also love that it’s physical. A reader who cries or laughs is no longer watching from the sidelines. Whether I succeed, my goal in each story is to make sure no one leaves without a little dirt on their hands.
Rumpus: Who are your literary idols and influences? There is now quite a crop of writers who blend surrealism with realism, from Aimee Bender to Karen Russell, and of course George Saunders. One of your stablemates at Riverhead, Manuel Gonzales, is also going down such a road.
Ausubel: Surrealism is a good road! I love stories that give me the world in a new way, and all the people you’ve named are favorites. Manuel’s book, The Miniature Wife, is so, so wonderful, and I’ve been a George Saunders fan since the early days. I read my first Karen Russell story while floating on a boat in Greece and I’ve never forgotten it. There are stories like John Cheever’s “The Swimmer” that push quietly into the fantastical, and I love writers like Márquez, who spread out all over that land.
But I also think some “realism” can be as strange as anything we think of as being magical. Raymond Carver’s worlds are as bizarre as any of Aimee Bender’s. Both of them are using microscopes to exaggerate human experience. The stories always come down to emotional truth, whether it’s four people drinking themselves into nighttime or a man evolving backwards. It’s all exaggeration and it’s all absolutely true.
Rumpus: Is it easy knowing when to stop writing a short story? Some writers start a story imagining it to be a novel but later decide it is better kept short. Others realize their story has legs and expand it into a novel.
Ausubel: It hasn’t happened to me that a story turns into a novel, though the reverse is sometimes true. In the new series of stories I’m working on, a couple started out as longer pieces but were much more interesting when cut way down. In general, the way I know I’m done with something is that a) I’ve gone over and over it fifteen or twenty times, over months or years, and done everything I can think of again and again; b) I’ve gotten lots of good eyes on it at various times and really paid attention; and c) my heart is elsewhere. If I looked at the stories in A Guide to Being Born in six months, I’m sure I would be able to see possible changes, and if I looked at them in ten years, I might go in yet another direction. But I think it’s important to remember that art takes place in time. We’re all working on things while also being alive in a particular moment. At least for me, one of the things that makes a story work is the chemistry is has with my lived-life. Once my head and heart are pulling in a new direction, it’s time to let that story stand.
Rumpus: Your writing suggests you are brimming with ideas, spoilt for choice. Am I right?
Ausubel: Man, I wish it always felt that way! Sometimes ideas do come in a heap, and I have to write as quickly as I can to catch them before they flutter away. Other times I have to be very patient. For a few months after I finished No One Is Here Except All of Us, I was pretty spent and it took a while for ideas to start brewing again. I would guess that most writers have a moment of concern that what they’ve just completed will be the last thing they ever write. It’s hard, when you’ve been so deep in something, to face that blank page again. But things do begin again.
Featured image of Ramona Ausubel © by Teo Grossman.