blackbirdonline journalSpring 2014  Vol. 13  No. 1
an online journal of literature and the arts
 print preview
 download audio

A Conversation with Ramona Ausubel
captured November 19, 2013

Matthew Phipps: Thanks to everyone who made it to this Q&A today, thanks to all the students from [classes] 295 and 200 and from the classes at the Governor’s school and thanks for being interested enough to come. Congratulations again to Ramona Ausubel, author of the award-winning book, No One Is Here Except All of Us, winner of many awards. I think we’ll just launch into it . . . And for those who aren’t familiar, would you talk a bit about the process of imagining and creating this novel, the family history behind it, how long it took, any sorts of obstacles or turning points along the way?

Ramona Ausubel: Sure. The first version of the book started when I . . . I had been writing poetry pretty seriously as a college student, and then I finished, and I got those first couple of crappy jobs. And in the mix of that, I was sort of trying to think about my place in the world and what I . . . where I came from, where I was going. And I decided that I wanted to interview my grandmother and get the stories down that I had been hearing all my life, that seemed so sort of fantastical and folkloric and—I realized though—were actually true and about people that were related to me, and they were only two generations back. It was not ancient history. Also I was broke. I called my dad, and I’m like, “Can you send me to New York and interview Grammy Ann? I need a plane ticket and maybe a couple hundred dollars to eat.” So he did that happily, and it was really fun. I spent two weeks with her, and I’d heard all these stories before, but I recorded them and I asked way more questions and I tried to plum things a little bit. And we also looked at all the documents. She’s got ships’ logs, and telegrams, and photographs, and all kinds of great stuff.

When I got back on the plane to Berkeley, where I was living, and I just felt like . . . I was rich! I thought, “This is fantastic material, this is a writer’s material, I’m going to write a novel!” I didn’t know anything—anything—about what that meant. So I took Fridays off of my crappy job, and I set to work, and I got all my notes, and I organized everything, and I started writing and . . . it was so boring because it was not my story at all. It was my grandmother’s story. It was good that I had written it down; I’m the only grandchild on that side, so I felt good that I sort of preserved it, but that was about as far as it went. But it was enough for me to apply to graduate school, which I did with those pages. And then I gave up while that application was in process. Then I got in, so then when I got there, I wrote short stories, and I thought the novel was completely gone for two years. And then I decided towards the end of my second year that that was my chance. If I was going to do that scary, big thing of trying to write a novel, it was really going to be good for me to do it with some company and with some teachers who believed in me and were going to be nice to me even if it sucked.

So I set out on that, and I wrote the first draft really, really fast in, like, five-and-a-half weeks. I just wrote ten pages a day, I didn’t ask any questions, I didn’t fix anything, there were typos all over the place . . . . It was a complete disaster. If a character occurred to me that hadn’t existed in the first hundred pages but I wanted now, I just pretended as if he had been there the whole time—just drop him in. Same thing if something got boring—plot line over, no going back and fixing. I just needed to see it to the end, just to figure out kind of what the heartbeat was, what I was interested in, where the story really was. So that happened. And then I put it down for a few months and then when I came back to it, then it was time to actually make a book out of it. And then that process continued and continued and continued for eighteen drafts. It took kind of a long time for me to figure out how it was going to work. Ninety-eight percent of the process was “stumbling block,” but then it was also really kind of fun to have that puzzle. I kept finding myself in what seemed like a room with only walls, and then a little invention, and a tiny doorway opened up, and I’d squeeze through and something new would open in front of me. That’s kind of the nutshell process of how it came to be. [Laughs.]

MP: That’s a comprehensive nutshell. Will you talk about finding the heartbeat of the novel, which I think is related a lot to the voice in which it’s told. . . . One of my favorite blurbs about this novel says, “If a book can be said to have a consciousness, the consciousness here is infinitely tender and soulful, magical and true. It’s the kind of God we wish for.” In terms of the voice, did you always know it was going to be told by Lena? How did you develop the different facets of the voice?

RA: I did not know that it was going to be told by Lena. Actually, for a long time it was—the whole book—was told in first person plural, so it was all “we.” There was no central voice, which readers generally found irritating or completely unreadable. But . . . I understood what they were saying, but for a long time, I couldn’t change it because I felt like that was what made it feel real to me. That was the thing that I cared about, that it was this group and this sort of uniform consciousness made out of individual people, but that it was about a group and that we are all “we.” That was it—that was kind of what the story was, so I couldn’t let go of that voice.

But then after hearing from some other people who live in New York City and have to make decisions about books. . . . As I started to send it out, I got some notes from agents who were like, “I don’t really know what to do with this.” And then I heard from one editor at Graywolf who said, “This is really interesting. We just have to talk about this voice, and we have to talk about this point of view,” and I received that note while I was in Morocco. I wanted, you know, very badly [for it] to have good news in it, and the only line that stuck was, “This is not . . . I don’t want to buy this book,” basically, so I rode around on a lot of buses for a few weeks and thought about it really hard and eventually I realized, “Okay, it needs to still be a ‘we’ book, but there needs to be a voice that holds it together and keeps it on the ground.”

So that was the next job. It took me a few months before I was ready to do that, and then this all happened on this trip I was on with my husband, where we were traveling around the world, so it was not the most convenient time to have to revise your novel, but I made us pull over in Egypt on the Red Sea and I’m like, “You snorkel, I fix the point of view.” And so I did. I sat in a tiny . . . our little hotel room was like this big . . . and I just sat there and I changed everything and sort of worked through. And as soon as I had that, it totally shifted the whole book, and I felt like I understood who it was about and I understood how it was going to work and then it was kind of just chores after that.

MP: So I want to ask one more question before we open it up to the room. You said that there are fantastical and fable-like events that occur in the story, even though it takes place in reality, and in some of your stories you make a pretty big break with reality, or at least there are big missing chunks of reality, so I’m curious about how you approach writing in realistic fiction versus maybe magical realistic speculative fiction?

RA: That’s a good question. Well, so the first thing is that I think I see the world as very strange. I think the real, actual world is super weird. And I think it’s amazing that we all agree that it’s normal most of the time, like the things we’re able to do—crazy surgeries, you can turn yourself into a completely different kind of person, you can get surgical cat stripes and things that are possible that are really, really truly possible. And that doesn’t even include the emotional lives that we all lead, which are so outsized and crazy, and the horrible things that happen to people, and the beautiful things that happen to people, and how huge it feels to fall in love with somebody, and how huge it feels to have somebody die, and that is happening inside of us all the time in just regular life, and we all go to the grocery store and say, “How’s it going?” and you say, “Oh, fine.”

To me that’s kind of what I’m always looking at, is that emotional size, so what I try to do is have the physical world of the story reflect that more and kind of rise to meet the strangeness of the emotional life. It all depends on what the setting or the context of the idea of the story is how far that goes. There’s a story about a place in which everybody grows another arm when you fall in love. That’s the craziest, probably; it’s the one where the physical world is the most reflective of the emotional world, but then I feel like there’s nothing fantastical, actually, really, in the novel. They just choose to believe something instead of something else, which we all do all the time, but it’s that they eliminate so much. The editing process of the imagination.

MP: Well, I know a lot of us in this room have been moved by your books and your stories. Anybody have a question?

Audience: I have a burning question. First of all, thank you for writing this. It’s an incredible book, and it spoke on so many levels. One of the things that I felt as I was reading it that seemed absolutely certain to me is that this was a novel that you were born to write, that this was a novel that was in your DNA. Did you know from the beginning that this was the story you needed to write, or was that something that you figured out along the way?

RA: I don’t think I did know. I knew that I cared about figuring these people out and figuring out something about the truth of the place and the time, but I didn’t know that I was going to follow through with it, up until the very end. I didn’t know if it was going to work—for eight years. That’s a long not knowing. I think that the thing that started to happen, though, with each subsequent draft, is that they mattered more to me, the place mattered more to me. I knew that I wasn’t going to be able to completely let it go, so even if it had never been published and no one had wanted it, it still would have mattered to me to finish it. And maybe that’s what you’re talking about a little bit, that it started to feel like it was really part of my life and it wasn’t a choice about whether it was going to happen or not. I couldn’t leave it. It was unleavable. I think finding that . . . but it doesn’t have to be the critical life’s work either. I feel like in each story or poem or whatever you’re working on, finding the thing about it that makes you feel . . . because I think we forget—we talk a lot about our readers and the outside world and what people think about your writing and feedback, and that is hugely important, and all of us need to care about that. But, you are the first person that matters, and make your own heart beat a little bit faster, and make yourself laugh. We forget. I think we think that, no, you have to be humble, you can’t think of yourself, you’re distanced, and it’s just about the work. And it’s not about the work, it’s about us, it’s about us who are making it, and being part of it, and I think that that makes it so much more interesting and richer for the readers, who then, eventually, you give it to. But, at first, it’s your little self in there: so do it. [Laughs.]

Audience: I have a question. In our second year MFA fiction class, the topic of magical realism came up, in regards to it. We were conducting a mini workshop, as it were, so some consensus of whether or not that genre or theme fit the book . . . and there were some: “Well, it seems to be more of a manmade magical realism, possibly.” What would you say to that? Would you use that genre or put it somewhere else?

RA: I sometimes do use that genre when I am describing it because I think it helps people to understand what I am trying to talk about a little bit. Although . . . there was a story in the Smithsonian a few months ago about a Russian family, who had left the city in the ’30s, and had lived—this man, and his wife, and their children—in the middle of nowhere, deeply nowhere, nothing else at all: no contact with civilization. And they lived there completely on their own, and I think they had one book that eventually disintegrated. Their pot rusted and fell apart, and they didn’t even know how to hunt when they started. The son eventually learned to hunt, and they didn’t have any shoes, and he’d go out in the Siberian winter . . . and at one point all their plants died and they had three seeds that they rescued—that was it, that three entire seeds; and they had to have somebody stand there with candles lit around them to get the plants to grow. That’s as much magical realism as pretending the river is your border. The things we actually accomplish in the world are way crazier than anything I’ve come up with. So I think that, sure, maybe this is magical realism, but so is life. Maybe is my answer.

Audience: Do you feel that that strain of magical realism is essential to the way you tell your stories? Or do you feel that’s just your personal take on how to tell them?

RA: It depends. I always feel like an exaggeration makes me more interested in the story that I’m trying to tell; even if it’s just going to a bigger, weirder place. But it doesn’t necessarily feel like it has to include something otherworldly for it to exist, and it just depends story to story. Some of them definitely do depend on that, and some of them don’t at all. And some of the newer stuff I’m working on feels like it’s less about the physical strangeness than something in the outside world that feels especially strange. I think I’m a little bit weird . . . and I think that that’s always going to be there. [Laughs.]

Audience: We spent a lot of time in our class talking about the structure of the book, and trying to figure it out, and trying to . . .

RA: Maybe you guys know more than I do. [Laughs.]

Audience: Well, I don’t know, we were just like, “Okay, how did this work, and how did she structure . . . ?” So we were hoping you might talk about that, thinking about . . . it sounded Biblical, it sounded . . . we didn’t know. We were like, “Well, does it mimic the Jewish Bible?” We didn’t know. We were trying to do all this investigating into what it—what it could be. So, we were wondering if you might talk about that a little.

RA: Sure . . . well you guys probably really have ideas that I haven’t even thought about. The Bible thing came in—it didn’t occur to me . . . I was talking to Matt and Jeff the other day . . . and it just actually didn’t even occur to me: Genesis, the beginning of the world, until draft sixteen, which is crazy that I went that long without realizing what was in front of my face. So, once I figured that out, though, then I really did want that to be there, the early stuff in the beginning that actually has some of the language of Genesis. But, yeah, otherwise I also knew that because of the family story, this story was going to split into three, and that Lena was going to go one way, Igor another, and the village another. So, I knew it would be sort of this, like . . . everybody together for the first section, and then there would be these different tracks. And I wasn’t sure how they were going to weave together until I got there. But I wanted it to be this enclosed beginning of the world, and structurally a little bit claustrophobic, and then pop open.

Audience: Since we’re on the craft side of the book, we discussed the first person point of view, and the fact that your first person point of view sees things that typically you don’t allow a first person. Usually, you only can see what they can see, and Lena is able to see parts of the story where she’s not present. And so when you switched your point of view and your voice, and moved into that, did you deal personally with discomfort? Because it feels okay to us as we discussed it as a group. We were all like, “Whoa, is this okay?” and we were all like, “Well, it feels okay.” But, we’re taught really that we can’t do that.

RA: Right. That also didn’t occur to me for a long time, luckily. Just ignorance is bliss. No, I was just working along and felt like: of course those stories have to be there, so there was no question about whether I was going to eliminate them. So I just continued going and figured it’s going to work itself out. I don’t know how this point of view is working out, but we’re just going ahead and we’re going to see what happens. And I think that’s also part of why I kept that first person plural for so long because that gave me access to everything. But then, when I realized that Lena needed to know and that she had to know what happened—so she did, and we don’t know exactly how she knows that, or whether she knows it so precisely or whether it’s her own way of understanding it, having gotten some facts later—all of that is sort of unclear. But this is the story that she needs to know and the way she needs to know it. And so I felt like it ended up being more about her way of telling it, than . . . that was mattered more than the sort of technical understanding she had.

Audience: So did you get resistance to that at first?

RA: You know I didn’t, not at all. Yeah, no one—not one single person ever said anything about it, and I sort of wondered: anybody, no? . . . All right, cool. [Laughs.]

Audience: The dictator’s death scene is the one that popped up because it’s obvious. Can you talk about that?

RA: That scene was not in there. There were a whole bunch of parts about Hitler that I wrote in the first few drafts, and then I realized [they] were not really what the book was about. So, I took everything out, and then it was only in the last little while that I added that chapter back in and worked on it some more. Now I feel like it totally belongs there, but for a long time I wasn’t—maybe I just wasn’t sort of confident about how it fit and what it said about the book, and how Lena’s relationship . . . I didn’t know that it was going to be a dream. It was just said as fact for a while, which was just too weird, and all the bugs and everything, and I was like, “Well, no, it needs to be her perception of it, knowing just a little bit about what happened.” What I liked about it, and why I kept it, is that it felt like it gave this little actual nail into reality. Right? After all this going away, and all this not knowing, and time is gone, and we don’t really know what’s happening in the war, and it’s all sort of theoretical. And then, we get this little ping of “Oh, by the way, this is where we are,” without it being like too much newspaper text.

Audience: You mentioned time. I was wondering how you measured time throughout the novel because, obviously it passes, but how did you keep track of it with yourself?

RA: Well, I tried to ignore the question for a lot of time; you will see a theme developing here. Ignore that stuff; don’t worry about it until it’s time to worry about it—that’s my tactic. I would rather not know. Like I do as little research as I can to begin with, so that I don’t find out too much and find out that what I’m trying to do is impossible. Because it is—writing a novel is impossible. So I went with whatever: just let her be . . . she’s pregnant? Okay, she’s pregnant. I guess she must be old enough to get pregnant, and I guess . . . you know, all those things. And then later, actually with Sarah [McGrath]’s help, we tracked it all out and made sure that everything made sense, and like—about how long is passing, and what’s going on here, and then she’s, by the end . . . So it technically works. And then I also wanted to make sure that there weren’t too many markers, so that people were . . . that was out of your head as much as possible; especially since the villagers, themselves, are disconnected from time. I felt like I wanted that to be true for the readers, in some ways, also.

MP: This is Sarah McGrath, who edited the book with Ramona at Riverhead. Welcome. Thanks for joining us. Thanks for coming.

Audience: I have a quick question about your research. You were saying about your trip to New York to visit—was it your grandmother, you said? That must have been so exciting. After that, how much of your process included research? And did you give yourself permission, since you were doing something sort of fantastical and magical realistic, to insert things that may not have been historically accurate? And how did you know, “Okay, here I need to do research, and here I can take some poetic license?”

RA: That is a really hard, sticky place. And I think there’s a lot of different directions to go, and I usually try to do a little bit of research to get the feeling of something. I looked at a lot of pictures from old newspapers and stuff so I had a sense of what things looked like, and a lot of Google Earth . . . “Okay, where are we, geographically? What kinds of trees are there?” But it was mostly about getting a sense of it, and not so much about anything I was planning to put in or make true or correct or anything. And there were moments of being like, “What kinds of radios do they have in 1939?” So I did check that stuff. But I didn’t want to . . . I wanted this to be my 1939, so I didn’t want to get too stuck on what was really real, and how it would’ve worked and where the trains went exactly. I feel like the poetic license is the bigger piece for me, and that reality can conform to my version.

Audience: That sounds like a good road to take.

RA: Yeah. But I mean, who knows? There are other writers who the research is the most interesting, exciting part; that’s what they’re there for. They do years and years of research before they even start to write anything. I can’t think that way, so . . .

Audience: While you were writing, how close did you want to keep the story to your grandmother’s story?

RA: Pretty not close, pretty soon. At first it was very close and then that was boring and I got stuck because that was all I had. And I didn’t know—the people who I was basing it on are not alive, so I couldn’t really go any farther than I had gone. That was it. The road ended. I knew that there were these points that I was going to get to. I knew that the character was going to be adopted by her aunt and uncle. I knew that she would be on the loose in Eastern Europe with her children, not knowing where she was and surviving on tree bark, which happened. And I knew that the Igor character would get taken to Sardinia and have a beautiful time. And the child that dies, that happened too. So there were things that I knew I wanted to get to because they were the parts of the story that I had the biggest questions about, so I wanted to figure them out. But that was about it. Otherwise everything else felt like it needed to be mine; otherwise it wasn’t going to be alive.

Audience: I have another question. Sounds like—and maybe I’m just reading this into your comments, which I tend to do—but it seems like with every question you come back with, you got that piece of information, but it seems like there was a level of intuition, that you got enough information for you to intuit a place and an experience and a plot that told this story. And so from your grandmother’s story, you knew the loss of the baby, you knew that there was going to be a stranger from the beginning. Did you know how it was going to end?

RA: I did kind of know how it was going to end. I didn’t know about the part—about coming around to Igor and Solomon; I didn’t know how that was going to work. But I did know that she was going to end up in New York and that she was going to have a bag of feathers. That was also a factual thing that I—that’s true. My great-grandmother showed up in America and all she had was a bag of feathers. That is amazing. I had to not—I was going to use that. I didn’t know exactly how the road was going to get her there, what was going to happen, but I’ve always been really grateful for that, for knowing the ending, because that is scary. And when you’re in the middle, and you have to make all these choices, and like, “Wait, where am I going? I could go absolutely anywhere.” That’s hard. So I knew my target, which was really great.

Audience: So is your grandmother still living?

RA: She is, yes.

Audience: And what does she think of this incredible thing?

RA: I think she’s really happy about it. I think she is—I think it must be a little bit weird for her to have this story be in the world in such a changed way, but she’s been a really good sport about it. She’s a very good-humored person. And I think she’s proud that it happened, too. She also is a professional worrier. So there’s just a lot of things to worry about when you’re publishing a book and she’s just enjoyed that. “What if you can’t find an agent? What if no one wants to buy it? What if it’s a huge embarrassment? What if there are horrible reviews?” She’s just very happy.

Audience: We talked a little bit about character, and you said that the baby dying was part of the true story, but really probably the most heart-wrenching moment in the book for me was when she, Lena, walked away from Solomon. And I mean that was incredibly meaningful. And then you know, even later, questioning if she had to do that. And so, was that also part of the real story?

RA: No, that was mine.

Audience: That was miraculous.

RA: Oh, thank you. Thank you. Yeah, that was just . . . I felt like everything else had been lost, and it seemed to me that it was important for her to leave alone somehow. That that was what it—sort of everything had to be stripped away and she had to be completely alone and then she had to not be alone again at the end. And it felt like—for a while I kept him, very early, early on they left together, and it just didn’t feel true or right. It just didn’t feel like that she had gotten to the part she needed to get to for the ending to mean what it meant to me. And also just the question of beginnings and endings and inventions, and the story that the farmer tells gets him a child, and the whole switching of children, and it felt like all of themes had organically developed that I wanted. And I wanted them to be seen all the way to their ends and that just felt like what that was.

Audience: The fact that she sacrificed so much, you know that whole maternal sacrificing so that he could actually have this good—just everything into play. I mean it was beyond—I mean, being a mom, that just, like, really tore. And I’m sure it affects a lot of your readers in that way.

RA: Yeah, and that’s something I’ve thought about. I didn’t have a child when I wrote the book, and I do now, and I wonder if I would have been as brave. I wonder if I would have had to save everybody. We’ll see how that progresses.

Audience: Your other pieces, like short stories that you talked about writing? Are those also inspired by family members or real-life events?

RA: Mostly not. There are a couple of stories—there’s one story in the book that is about a bunch of grandmothers who find themselves at sea. That one I did write when my own grandmother was sick and dying, and I wanted to write a place for her that felt real to me. But mostly there are other just totally imagined things that I—sometimes they’re just some little thought. I was thinking one day how weird pregnancy is. I think about that a lot, actually. And what if you didn’t feel sure what animal? What if you were not sure it was going to be a human baby? That could happen. And people have dreams. You hear pregnant ladies talk about this all the time. “Oh, I’m dreaming that it’s going to be a seal.” I felt like—and I was sure (this was when I was in graduate school) and I was positive that someone had already written this story. And I worked on it, I wrote it, I wanted to submit it to workshop, but I was really scared that I was going to embarrass myself, so I wrote to my teacher, like: “Michelle, am I—can I just tell you what this story is about? Will you tell me if I am basically saying, ‘I’ve got this really good idea for a story about a young white boy who goes down the Mississippi on a raft and makes friends with an older black man.’ I think someone may have already written that.” She said two things, she said, “First of all, not to my knowledge, and second of all, it’s not subject, it’s treatment.” So I think about that all the time and I try to remember that. That even if you are writing Huck Finn again, you’re writing a different version, it’s yours. And don’t worry about what other people are doing. Which is easier said than done.

Audience: I have a question about the editing process and revisions. But first of all, welcome, Sarah, and thank you for coming. So you said eighteen drafts. I’m just curious about when did you know it was finished? And also, Sarah if you could say a thing or two about how much back and forth did you have, what the process was like?

RA: I think I knew that it was almost finished when I was starting to think about other work. And I was feeling like I had come to the part where—I had come back from that long trip I was talking about and I was almost done and I wanted to be done and I’d done this whole point of view shift, but I needed to finish all the things that were sort of pending and there were some characters that I wanted to pay more attention to. So I spent like five months working really, really hard all day into the night, and we lived in a little hut, it was like 200 square feet, so that this was a possibility. And I think I knew that that was going to be the last draft, on my own at least. And whether it sold or not, that it was time for me to be doing something else then. And otherwise . . . I mean I could have kept going. I’m sure if I looked at it now, there would be changes that I would make. Which is sort of an endless—and you probably know all about that.

Sarah McGrath: Yeah, even as an editor, I do that. Like I’ll go back and read something and like, “Oh, I would change that now!” But I always say to people, you know, it’s done when you’re putting in and taking out and putting in again the same punctuation. You know, editing is different, very different from book to book and author to author. And even working with the same author, each of those books with that person, the process can be very different. And some people need, you know, line editing, like let’s work on the sentence level. And Mona doesn’t need that. I think mostly what we did was like what you said, about subtracting the ages and stuff. Like her vision was there, her language was there. I often say to the author, you know, my edits, you can take them or leave them, but what I’m offering you is a map of my reading experience, so you know this is what I felt here. Is this what you wanted me to feel here? And I felt this here, but that’s not what I wanted to feel here. Maybe you wanted me to feel something different, and if you were going for something else, do that differently. But she [Ausubel] was a total pleasure.

RA: It’s such a great gift—you guys know this from being in workshops too—to have somebody tell you what you’ve done. And just to hear that, it’s so helpful. And all of a sudden the story is this big and then somebody says something and you realize it’s about to expand to get twice as big and bigger. They’ve sketched out room for you to get so much more than you were before.

SM: The best kind of editing experience in my mind is not when I’m like: take this out, or move this here, and then they do what I said. It’s more like, you know, I say, “Well, what if you did something like this?” And they say [gasps] “Yes! And then I could do this and this and this and then they would work together like that!” It’s that kind of—I say one small thing, and then it opens up another door.

Audience [to McGrath]: Can you talk about what it was like for you—We talked about the point of view before you came—the narrative point of view—and what it was like. Because Ramona was saying when she first tried it, the “we,” she changed it all to first person and then, at least in my mind, I was thinking how interesting that people minded the “we,” but they didn’t mind the first-person omniscient, which I thought people would mind. So I was just curious what it was like for you to read that and if you had any nervousness about it?

SM: Things like that, I know people have said, “I never want second person.” Then you read it really well done and . . . “I love this.” It’s really been like what you said your teacher says, you know, it’s more about the treatment. If you can pull it off, then do it. But sometimes, you know, someone will write a great story and the narrative perspective doesn’t feel right, and then, you know, we’ll talk about whether it should be different. But if it’s working, go with it.

Audience: I have a question about your writing—I know we talked about the process—but I was wondering if you have any rituals that you specifically do when you write, because I know I always have to sit on the floor and have to write with a smooth pen [Laughs.]—but I was just wondering what you do.

RA: Well, I can’t write with a pen, is one thing. I feel like my brain is programmed by typing. And it’s sort of disconcerting; it actually bothers me a little bit, because it feels like I’ve been taken over by a computer. But I can’t. Even when traveling, it’s really inconvenient to have to carry a computer, it’s much better to have a journal. But I take notes, I can write, you know, a list in handwriting. So, I have a computer. Otherwise, especially since having a little person in my life who makes my life less mine [Laughs.] . . . I’ve learned to be a lot more flexible. So when my son was born I did quite a bit of writing actually while he was nursing. I had my laptop here, and would reach over him. [Laughs.] And he ate for like an hour and a half, which is a block of time, and then he’d fall asleep and I could keep going for a while. But then he got bigger and started to protest that plan. So I had to figure out how to put him down when he slept. So now I just kind of write in every corner I can, and I also have some childcare, so. But basically, I need to read something first. I always read something before I start writing. And I just try to read something good, even if it’s just a few pages. And then I try to turn the internet off, and pay attention and just do that day’s work. And not question how it’s going, or whether this is a story I really should really be paying attention to, or whether this entire plan is a terrible idea, maybe I should just go to med school. [Laughs.] None of that needs to enter. It’s just: get to the end. And I always try to stop knowing a little bit about what I’m going to work on the next day. So just leave a tiny door. Yeah, those are the basic things.

Audience: When you said read something first, did you mean every time you write or just before you start a project?

RA: Oh, every time I write, pretty much. I mean occasionally, I can’t. If I only have an hour or something, then I don’t always. But I try. Yeah, I think having something really good that someone else is doing, in my head, is a big help for me.

Audience: Do you stick with one book for a month, like reading a little bit at a time, or do you read a different source like every day of the week?

RA: It depends. Sometimes I read a book slowly over time like that. But if I’m doing that, I’m usually reading more than one thing at a time. But there are more books that I’m reading more quickly because maybe they’re more story, plot kind of books, and less the thing that I need when I’m writing, which is the language. That’s the part that makes me the absolute happiest. Like I’m reading Kathryn Davis’ new book. Do you guys know her? She’s a totally weird writer. Her writing is really weird and her sentences are incredible and it takes rereading all of it every time to even figure out what’s going on. But I love it; it’s like medicine. So I read a little bit. Right now I’m reading a little bit of that every day before I write. And that feels like—that’s sort of the thing I need. It has nothing to do with stories, nothing to do with what I’m working on. And in fact, that’s purposeful. I definitely avoid things that are similar to what I’m writing when I’m writing it. Yeah, but it’s always sort of, have that kind of . . . the writing book and the book that I’m reading just for reading. Yeah.

Audience: I was gonna ask, you mentioned that day’s work. Do you have, like, goals that you set for yourself? Do you have a to-do list that you want to check off? Do you give yourself a task?

RA: I sometimes do. Sometimes it’s sort of a word count target, although that’s mostly when I’m working on, really, a first draft and I’m just trying to make the road go under me. But right now I’m working on a section of my new novel that is about one set of characters, and I’m just trying to get all their bones down this month. So, it’s not going to be a ton of pages, and I have a lot of stuff about them already, but I’m just trying to just focus on them because there’s a bunch of other characters and plot lines. And then, in December, my plan is to move over to another character and kind of see if I can figure that story out a little bit.

Audience: Are you talking about scenes with these characters or just character sketches?

RA: No, scenes with those characters. And I have a lot of bits and pieces from the stuff I’ve been working on for the last couple of years, so I’m trying to pull it together and figure out—now it’s to the part where I’m making it make sense in time and what day of the week is this, that kind of thing. So I do try to focus. And also, life happens alongside. So I try to be realistic about what’s going on and choose my projects. I don’t like to not complete what I say I’m going to complete. Sometimes, I set really high goals, like I’m going to finish this novel. I finished this one—I wrote the first draft in five and a half weeks, and last year I did sort of a similar thing with the new book because I’m just really terrified of the first draft, so I have to get to the end because otherwise I think I’m going to die. [Laughs.] So, in that case, I have to set the bar really high and definitely meet it in order to survive. And then after that it comes down to human scale.

Audience: You talked a little bit about discovering how big a book is when you get someone else’s perspective on it—what a book is besides just the story. I see this novel engaging with bigger ideas like love, family, loss. At what point in the writing process does it become a book about those ideas and more than just a story that you’re getting through?

RA: Yeah, that’s a really good question. I think for me it usually happens pretty early on because that’s the part I’m most interested in, that’s the part that I feel like is exciting. The hardest part for me is getting everybody through space and time. The actual to-do of a prose piece, where there’s plot—they start off in the coffee shop and they need to finish an argument at the hotel—is like okay; here we are. What is their inner everything? And what is their blood doing? That’s the pleasure. So I feel like the meaning stuff comes in right at the beginning for me, and then I have to figure out how I’m going to organize life.

Audience: What do you do with ideas or parts that you have to cut that you’re attached to? Do you go back or just trust?

RA: I have a folder of cuts for everything I’ve ever written and I don’t think I’ve ever gone back to any of it yet. Everything, not if it’s a word, but if it’s a whole sentence, I’ll put it on that cuts sheet. And who knows? Maybe someday I’ll just think of something and I’ll be so grateful that it’s all there. It just also makes me feel much better and it’s so much easier to make those cuts—“It’s okay, we’re just copying and pasting somewhere else, you don’t have to worry about this.”

SM: The ability to cut is a really important one. Sometimes people fall in love with a scene—it’s such a great scene—but it doesn’t actually work. And so, if you have a place to put it where you’re not throwing it down the garbage chute, it makes it easier.

RA: I actually sort of enjoy the part where you get to be cutting. That means, first of all, you’re getting somewhere with it, you know what doesn’t belong, so that means you must know something about what does belong. And, it’s like, you just do it—oh, I need to cut this? I’m already done with that job. It’s so easy.

SM: Much easier than adding.

RA: So much easier. So yeah, it’s kind of fun.

Audience: When writing and you don’t know where it’s going to go, do you ever get overwhelmed with not knowing?

RA: Yes. All the time, every day. [Laughs.] Yes. It’s really overwhelming. It’s really overwhelming to have every choice and every possibility in front of you. And I think that’s where the “just this day’s work” thing comes back in for me. You’re just trying something. Every day you’re just trying something. And you can’t ruin it, you can only make it necessary to go back and try again. So just see. And I remember when I was working on this novel, the very beginning I had the family and they were all together and I didn’t really know what was going on, and I knew that the kids were—I can’t remember whether in the beginning which kid had been adopted when, some of that stuff changed along the way—but they were all sitting around, this bad thing was going to happen, one of the children was going to be adopted—like what are they going to do? What do we have here? Inventory: we’ve got cabbage soup—we’ve got, okay, cabbage soup—washing the hands in the cabbage soup, I guess that’s what we’re doing, okay. [Laughs.] I feel like just sort of looking at what’s around you and your inventory, and how are we going to use it, how are we going to use everything? If you’re going to pay these characters and these objects to be in your story, they all need to be doing something, and working. And so, use them. Use them for weird, unusual purposes.

MP: I guess we can close maybe. Can you talk about—and I know that it’s still a project in flux—but some of the objects that you’re working with for your next novel?

RA: Sure, well, I’m working on two things. One is a novel and one is another collection. But in the novel the objects that I am working with—well, there’s a giant, and wherever he goes waitresses give him free cream pies. [Laughs.] So that’s a thing that’s happening a lot. And with him is the mother of this family, and she’s—her husband has just asked her to sleep with the husband of the woman he’s sleeping with to even things out. And so that’s why she’s running off with this giant and their little cross-country adventure involving the free cream pies. So those are some of those objects. The husband meanwhile is sailing to Mexico to be a revolutionary, is his plan. And each parent thinks the other is with the children, and so they are orphaned in their backyard in Cambridge. And they have a TV, that’s what they have. So they decide to live as Indians in the backyard. And so that is really—I feel like the objects, those touchstones—the tipi, the boat, and the giant—basically are the things that I started with. And I figured out, the more I go, the more I figure out what those things mean and then sort of the perversions of the history, and what the ideas the characters have about those objects and what they mean to them. Yeah. So we will see.

MP: Sounds great.

RA: Yeah, no one has seen it, so who knows?

MP: Well, thank you both for being here.

RA: Thank you.  end  

return to top