Ramona Ausubel thinks strange thoughts: luckily, she puts them on the page for readers to experience, too. Her latest short-story collection, Awayland, features a mother so lonesome and heartsick that she dissipates into mist; a cyclops goes online for love; and a couple is so in love that they want to exchange not rings, but their own hands. She writes of a world of magic and weirdness and lovely, completely, utterly, achingly familiar truths.
And the literary world has taken notice: Ausubel has won the PEN Center USA Literary Award for Fiction and the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award, among many other finalist and long-list mentions. Her work has been an NPR Best Book of the Year, a People magazine Book of the Week, and a New York Times Notable Book, and has been published far and wide, including in the New Yorker, One Story, Paris Review, and other enviable outlets. She is, in short, a strong voice in today’s impressively vocal literary scene.
Ausubel is a local now, living between Denver and Boulder, but Westword took the opportunity to speak with her in connection to her visit to the University of Colorado Denver’s Creative Writing program on Monday, November 5. She talked about her books, about writing, about how we talk about fiction, and what it means to be writing and living in Colorado.
Westword: You're coming to the Auraria campus to read courtesy of the Creative Writing program at CU Denver. Can you talk a little about your own educational background in writing? Were events like this — personal contact with writers working in the field today — something important to you in your academic career?
Ramona Ausubel: I had known a few poets growing up, but I remember my first college creative writing class and feeling so grateful to be learning from a person who had written books. And they were really good books, and now he was reading my scrappy little poems! He took me seriously even though I was nineteen years old. In graduate school, my mentor, Michelle Latiolais (who grew up partly in Denver and went to DU!), had this belief and faith in me (and others in the program) that I think made us a thousand times better just based on her presence in our lives. Those teachers knew what I now know, which is that writers are writers whether they are twelve or twenty or 55 years old.
Talk a little bit about the inspirations behind your newest collection, Awayland. What moments in your life inspired these cracked-mirror encapsulations of your own experiences?
I grew up in Santa Fe, New Mexico, but left to live in California with my family before college and moved every one to three years after that and traveled a lot in between. I have always felt a little bit away. There wasn’t really such a place as home. All of the stories in the book involve characters at a distance from home. I also thought a lot about identity and the ways in which we can feel at a distance within ourselves. There’s a story in the collection about a Lebanese woman who left home during one of the wars there, and the place became almost mythic to her, and her entire identity is as a person who can’t go home. When she finally returns later in life, her body begins to literally disappear.
Much of your short fiction has been called "fabulist" or "magical realism," but do you adopt those terms for your own writing? Or do you think of them as reductive?
I think it’s fine to look for ways of talking about different kinds of work. I don’t ever sit down and think, “Today I will be a fabulist!” — but at the same time, I do look for ways I can play with magnification and volume in a piece of writing. That is to say, I want to make an idea or a feeling bigger, clearer, and sometimes this comes by way of exaggeration. There is a story in my first collection, A Guide to Being Born, about a town in which people grow a new arm every time they fall in love. I wanted to write about how love transforms (deforms?) us real people, and I found that I could do that by giving it a physical manifestation not present in our current reality — thank goodness!
Some of your work has been called "unsettling," for various reasons. It reminds me of the old apocryphal saying, "Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable." Is that part of your aesthetic in storytelling? Do you aspire to unsettle?
I am very happy with that classification. I often feel disturbed by the world, as well as in awe, and I need to write toward those corners of my mind. We’re all doing the necessary things of life — paying the car insurance, buying milk, trying to keep the lights on, taking care of people we love, and meanwhile we’re living these internal lives that are a jillion times bigger than those day-to-days. What it feels like to drop a crying child off at daycare. What it feels like to ask for your sister’s room in the hospital. What it feels like to see the mountains white with the season’s first snow. Those experiences, and all the endless others like them are vast, yet we are supposed to keep them contained and managed. We’re not supposed to weep or run through the streets howling, even if we really, really would like to. Writing makes a good backup.
Speaking of disturbing the comfortable, talk about your last novel, Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty. Word count aside, how does the experience differ — writing a novel versus writing a collection of shorter works?
Writing a novel is so nuts. It feels like inventing a machine that has to fly, and you must keep it aloft through nothing but your own faith and hours in the chair, and it might fall out of the sky at any moment, and you’d have just scraps. Isn’t that so cheerful? But seriously, it’s really hard. At the same time, I have genuinely learned to love novel writing because it also means I have this huge swath of pages on which to build the ideas and questions. Sons and Daughters is about class and whiteness and family identity — so, you know, small and easy questions! I wanted to build that book like a canyon, strata upon strata, so that there was no one story but all these layers of history and time and ways of seeing.
What writers inspired you as a young reader? What books linger in your memory as favorites?
I was not a strong reader as a child. My favorite book for like three years was about a lovelorn talking hedgehog called Olga Meets Her Match. I remember recommending it highly to my mother. I’m sure she was very impressed. I was read to a ton, and I think the fairy tales, Winnie-the-Pooh and other classics are very much still in the mix in my head. The first book I loved as a teenager was The House on Mango Street, by Sandra Cisneros. I read that book over and over (and wrote terrible imitations). Now that I have kids, I’m getting to re-read all the books I loved as a kid and many new ones. We read Charlotte’s Web last year, and both my husband and I cried at the end, just as I’m sure I’ll do when we read it again in a few years.
And whose writing is inspiring you these days? What story have you read recently that makes you wish you'd written it?
There are so, so many amazing books being written right now. Isn’t that great? Right this minute there are novels and short stories coming into being that I’ll be grateful to read. That makes me happy. There There, by Tommy Orange, is mega-super-gigantically terrific. I just finished a really weird and fun novel called The Made-Up Man, by Joseph Scapellato (out next spring), about deceit and performance art and Prague. And The Red Clocks, by Leni Zumas, asks: “Five women. One question. What is a woman for?” and it’s heartbreaking and very funny and brilliantly constructed, and I’m just plain thankful that it exists for me to read.
You recently relocated to the Denver area. Does place play any major role in your work or how you imagine it? I know you've talked in the past about world travels with your husband being a source of inspiration for previous stories. Do you think Colorado will worm its way into future work?
I hope so! I’m so glad I live here now. There are already some details that I’m holding on to, like the night I woke up to a noise outside the house and felt sure we were going to be robbed or killed — but, no, it was the glass-bottle milk delivery man dropping two fresh, cold half-gallons plus a free bottle of chocolate milk just because. Or the fact that a friend’s neighbor came home to a mountain lion in her living room this summer. Or a dad at my son’s school who limped to drop-off one day because he’d gotten “a little frostbite” from a solo winter climbing expedition that went twenty-something hours instead of the fifteen he’d planned. Colorado! I’m already such a fan!
So what's the thing about Colorado that's been most welcoming since you arrived? From a noted magical realist such as yourself... . Aside from free chocolate milk showing up on your porch, what do you find magical about the real Colorado?
Oh, so many things. Until moving here, I had been in California for seventeen years, and I worried that I would miss the ocean too much, but I find that the mountains are that same center of gravity for me. I live in Louisville, and every day, I get to drive to Boulder and look out at the Flatirons, and they are never the same. Today the foothills were dark and shadowy, and the high peaks were bright white, and it looked like a stage set, not possibly real. I also just love the spaciousness, the distances I can see on any given walk. We went to Strawberry Hot Springs in Steamboat last winter and there’s nothing better than a hot spring on a snowy freezing day. I can’t wait to keep exploring.
Ramona Ausubel will read and sign books courtesy of the University of Colorado Denver's Creative Writing program at 6:30 p.m. Monday, November 5, in the Tivoli Student Union, Room 640. Books will be available for purchase at the event, which is free and open to the public.
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