Taking Care: A Conversation with Alix Ohlin
Alix Ohlin’s third collection of short stories, We Want What We Want, published last month by Knopf, explores many things, but especially women answering a call to save another person—an old friend with a mysterious illness, a party-girl sister struck down by a car, a cousin who’s joined a cult. The stories also experiment with time, sometimes spanning decades in order to show the patterns of interconnection within the characters’ lives. Most importantly, they all demonstrate the combination of intelligence, empathy, and humor that I’ve long admired in Alix’s work.
Alix and I first met as Fellows at the Michener Center for Writers, and it’s been my pleasure to count her as a friend ever since. Her remarkable stories have appeared in the New Yorker, Best American Short Stories, on “Selected Shorts,” and many other places. She has twice been a finalist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize and the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize for her novels Dual Citizens and Inside. She has taught at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania, and in the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers, and currently is the Director of the University of British Columbia School of Creative Writing in Vancouver.
Alix took a break from teaching an intensive ten-day-workshop to connect with me on Zoom. I was delighted to talk with her about short stories as her natural habitat, female relationships in fiction, and the role of caretaking in her stories.
The Rumpus: Early in your career, you told me that the short story is the more natural form for you. What is your relationship to the short story now, having written three novels and three books of short stories?
Alix Ohlin: Stories are definitely where I feel most myself as a writer. Some people intuitively go to a larger narrative arc, but my natural default mode is the short story. Even if I don’t have an idea, I can start with the first sentence of a story and have some degree of confidence that I can find my way through the darkness into the form of a short story. It never feels dutiful. It always feels like something I’m doing for the sheer joy of it.
I do also enjoy writing novels and have ambitions to work in that form. I don’t want to disparage my own novels. But the novel is really a space where I have to push myself formally, and where I have to give myself a lot more scaffolding to get through the project. I feel riven with self-doubt when I’m writing a novel. With the story form, I feel more freedom to experiment. And I also feel inspired by contemporary writers whose work is really exciting to me—Jenny Zhang, Souvankham Thammavongsa, Bryan Washington, to name a few.
Rumpus: Has the market for short stories changed since you started writing?
Ohlin: Yes and no. A lot of people have worked hard and successfully to publish the short story in ways that are advantageous for writers. Even the way that literary magazines have put stories online. Or the inventiveness of literary magazines who play with the physical experience of the short story, either sending one story at a time in the mail like One Story or publishing them in unusual formats like McSweeney’s. I’m interested in places like Chronicles of Now, which combines fiction about current events with articles and information about those events, and in how storied lit mags like Kenyon Review are expanding from print to embrace digital, podcast, and video. There’s also a lot of good work being done by independent book publishers. But I still think the market for short stories is just not the same as it is for novels. I’m not sure why. I would think for a hectic or short-attention span culture, the short story would be perfect. I still hold out hope that there could be more of an audience or more of a cultural conversation around the short story.
Rumpus: You said the short story gives you space to experiment. Have any of your story-experiments turned into novels?
Ohlin: No, not once! I hear writers say that kind of thing all the time, that they started this story and it just grew and grew until it became a novel. That has never once happened to me. I’m just too intentional a writer. I make a decision right at the beginning about whether it’s a short story or a novel, and everything I do on a technical level—the voice, the PoV, the structure, even the thematic content—is predicated on that initial decision. I think it’s because the novel is so scary to me. I’m so concerned about my ability to write it that I really have to decide that this is going to be a novel, that I’m not allowed to give up after twelve pages. I have to have some idea in my mind of the architecture for a novel-length project. For all three of my novels, I had a blueprint, another novel, that was a source of inspiration, structurally, to give me a path forward.
Rumpus: The way Dual Citizens came out of your admiration for Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels?
Ohlin: Yes, and you can see how Dual Citizens is constructed in a similar way, in the first person, compressing a fair amount of time in a fairly short book, and with short chapters. I think those short chapters were part of how Ferrante achieved the incredible agility and momentum that she does. She’ll plunk you down in one moment in time and then she exits it, and who knows where you’re going to pick up next? Sometimes it’s the next day and sometimes it’s quite a bit later. She never gives you the opportunity to stagnate in a particular moment. That was a huge influence on Dual Citizens.
Rumpus: And like the Neapolitan Novels and Dual Citizens, most of the stories in We Want What We Want focus on a pair of women. Did you start thinking about that duality because of Ferrante or was it the opposite—that you were drawn to her because of the female relationship in those books?
Ohlin: It was probably a bit of both. I really did admire that emotional core of the Neapolitan Novels but I don’t think I would have gravitated to it with that intensity if it had not struck a pre-existing chord. I didn’t set out to write about pairs of women consciously, but looking back, it’s definitely a pattern in my work. For a long time I’ve been interested in testifying to the complexity of relationships between women and in the narratives we tell about friendships or sibling relationships in women’s lives. There’s a lot of emphasis on either family backgrounds or romantic relationships in the history of the novel. What had been written about less was the intense chemistry that accompanies a close relationship between two women. It can almost be like a romantic relationship even if it’s not physical. It can be like falling in love. It can be like an infatuation. It can be like a long marriage that has ups and downs—and a breakup can be devastating. And then a return to the relationship can be incredibly rich as well.
And so much of what is going on there is that two women can be using—and I don’t mean in a transactional or manipulative sense—using the relationship to find their own individual identity. Something I noticed a lot while writing Dual Citizens was pairs of teenage girls walking down the street dressed exactly the same. A very particular set of style decisions would have been made. Two crop tops, two high-waisted jeans, two pairs of Converse sneakers. Clearly they are together trying to figure out their sense of aesthetics, perhaps their sexuality, their degree of rebelliousness, who they’re trying to be. And they’re working it out as a duo. And when it breaks down and you separate, that’s such a complicated moment. It’s almost the way you have to break away from your parents if you are going to become an adult. There’s a lot of richness and ambiguity to the whole process. It’s a really interesting territory to write stories about or from or within.
Rumpus: How was it different writing “Something About Love,” where you change the gender, so it’s two straight men who become friends, and one cares for the other?
Ohlin: I don’t think about the fact that I’m writing a man and set out to write differently. I just try to be true to whoever that person is. In writing that story, I was thinking, these are two people who have each been through a lot of trauma, and although it’s really unlikely that they would become friends, it makes sense for each of them. There are a lot of conversations about toxic masculinity going on right now, and about how men aren’t encouraged to achieve healthy intimacy. I wanted to explore how these gentle male characters are capable of establishing an emotional connection. That’s what I like best about that story. It’s a strange but loving story about a relationship between two damaged men.
Rumpus: Then, in “The Woman I Loved,” there’s a completely different kind of relationship. It seems like a story about two women, but I think more than that, it’s a story about a woman and a book, specifically a book about female sexuality that was written by a man. Does that ring true to you?
Ohlin: Yes, for me, that story was definitely the story of a woman and a book. I wrote it in the thick of #MeToo discussions, when people were talking about what to do about the relationship you have to art by creators who have proven to be problematic. Although this story isn’t directly about James Salter or his work, I was thinking about my own relationship as a reader to books like Light Years or A Sport and a Pastime.
When you and I were coming up, those books were really passed around. People would talk about Salter as a stylist all the time. He is a beautiful writer, and he writes explicitly about sexuality. But the books are misogynistic, in my opinion. The way he writes about women, and women and sex? “Problematic” is not a strong enough word.
What do I do with that? What do I do with the knowledge that this was part of my coming of age as a writer and surely it was part of my coming of age as a woman, too? What a tension. What a challenging situation. I’m less interested in indicting Salter, or any other writer, than I am in interrogating my own position, and thinking it through in the form of a story.
Rumpus: Another theme that runs through your work, including We Want What We Want, is that of caretaking and rescue. What continues to draw you to that theme?
Ohlin: I do write often about the ethics of caretaking, what it means to be a caregiver or caretaker. It’s even interesting to me, right now, how “giving” and “taking” are part of those words. What are you giving to someone when you try to take care of them and what might you be taking away? It’s an endlessly fraught situation even in the best of times or with the best of outcomes. I think a lot about the ripple effects of trauma. There’s the person to whom it is happening, who’s at the center, but then there are all the people around that person who are also affected, often in ways that are only apparent to them after the fact. It’s so intersecting. People don’t suffer alone. They suffer in a web of relationships.
Rumpus: Even this morning, I heard an interview with Kristen Radtke about Seek You, her book on loneliness. She said that loneliness is contagious, that there are three degrees of loneliness. So, that if one person self-isolates and withdraws from society, there are these rings of people who feel that as a rejection. They’ve also lost someone from their network and are also lonelier.
Ohlin: Yes, that makes so much sense. Even on a craft level, I was just talking with my students about this idea by Charles Baxter about the “request moment” in fiction. He has a whole collection of stories called There’s Something I Want You to Do themed around request moments, when someone asks something of someone else. In a craft talk he gave, he talks about Hamlet as a story that begins with a request moment. The ghost of Hamlet’s father comes to him and asks him to seek revenge, and Hamlet spends the rest of the play dithering about what to do. We’re always told that characters need to want something and to act, and Hamlet’s a fascinating play about a person who doesn’t know what he wants or how to act. The play, Baxter points out, goes against this convention that you need an active character to create a compelling story.
Because the thing about a request moment is that it’s predicated on a relationship, not an individual, and is therefore dynamic. There’s automatically an interlocking set of agencies, power systems, and social obligations, so it’s never just one person’s story. It immediately becomes a story about two people or more and how they relate and how the choices of one person will affect others.
Rumpus: In the story “The Point of No Return,” there is definitely a request moment. But there were two moments in that story that particularly intrigued me, the point where the character, Bridget, decides to go and try to save an old friend—someone she has a very slight tie to—and the point where she decides to stop.
Ohlin: Yes, I’m never interested in a story either in condemning or lionizing a character for a decision. You could critique Bridget for both of those decisions, the decision to insert herself into her friend’s problem and then her decision to absent herself. They’re both flawed and imperfect.
Rumpus: It’s all very sticky and rich because there’s no good answer.
Ohlin: Yes, exactly. The messiness of those decisions is a good place for stories because there’s no easy way to resolve them. I’m usually drawn to stories that don’t have an easy path forward or where you hopefully can’t see the resolution coming because there is no obvious way for the situation to come to a neat and tidy end.
Rumpus: One thing I admired about that story is how spare those key moments are. You don’t give us a lot of Bridget’s thought processes. How do you decide when to provide the characters’ motivations and when to leave that off the page?
Ohlin: I think I make decisions based on the execution of it rather than any rule that I set in advance. Sometimes I write into the character’s interiority and then I don’t think it’s convincing or I feel that it’s sentimental or that I’m over-editorializing for the reader. I see that the story would be more suggestive and mysterious if I created more space for readers to reach their own conclusions about what’s happening.
That’s one thing I admire about a writer like Joy Williams. She often presents a situation that’s askew from what you might expect and she doesn’t spend a lot of time trying to leave bread crumbs of the characters’ thought processes. She just drops you there and you have to find your way and make your own adjustments.
Rumpus: Also from the perspective of characters trying to help or save each other, I think of stories about addiction in We Want What We Want and Signs and Wonders, especially “The Detectives” and “Casino,” set in the Lehigh Valley, in Pennsylvania. In those stories, were you responding in part to what was happening there while you lived there?
Ohlin: I’m not a native of Pennsylvania and I didn’t grow up in a small town, but I did have that experience of living there for a long time. So of course it became part of what I absorb as a writer. It became part of the tapestry of my work. The Lehigh Valley is an area that has been through so many challenges, the loss of industrial manufacturing, the opioid epidemic, and it’s trying to reinvent itself now through health care, arts tourism, and the casino complex that I wrote about in “Casino.” Some of it is working quite well, I think, and in other ways the area is still in flux and a lot of families are still struggling. This is the backdrop of some of my stories in both Signs and Wonders and We Want What We Want and I struggle with how to represent it properly and with care.
Rumpus: That goes back to what we were saying about the difficult questions that come up with caretaking. Because writing is how you intersect with the world.
Photograph of Alix Ohlin by Emily Cooper.