Embracing the Gap: An Interview with Alix Ohlin

by Tess Wilson, for The Fourth River

Alix Ohlin is the author of two novels – Inside and The Missing Person – and two collections of short stories – Signs and Wonders and Babylon and Other Stories. More of her work can be found in Best American Short Stories and elsewhere. Although she was born in Montreal, she currently resides in Pennsylvania, teaching at both Lafayette College and in the Warren Wilson MFA Program for writers.

The Fourth River: What’s your writing process like? How do you go about telling your stories?

Alix Ohlin: All writing begins and ends in failure, and that embracing failure is the most important step a writer can take. I always have this vision in my head – this idea that “Oh, this book is going to be amazing!” – but the distance between what I wanted to do and what I wanted to accomplish is vast. And I can work on the draft as much as I possibly can but, inevitably, it never gets close to where I wanted it to be. You never finish, you just abandon and move on to the next thing. So, for me, another crucial part of the writing process is reading, because it reminds me of what great writing can be and can do. When I look at my own work, all I can see are the flaws and all the things that didn’t come through. But when I look at someone else’s work and see what they were able to do, I try to write back to that, or write an imitation of that, or write out of love of that.

TFR: Does your process change depending on the length of your project? Do you work differently when writing short stories instead of a novel?

AO: I don’t know if it actually differs that much. But for me, the short story is very conducive to experimentation, taking risks, or trying on a voice or a strategy that I haven’t done before. With a novel, there’s a different degree of commitment to the idea. You can’t really escape it because you’re going to be there for a few years. So, if you don’t like the second person voice that you’ve decided to try, you’re really in trouble.

TFR: Do you think of your collections of stories as entire bodies of work from the start? Or is every story a different, unique project that eventually comes together with others?

AO: That’s an interesting question. I was talking to a few of your classmates about a linked story collection workshop and that, to me, is so interesting because I have never conceived a collection as a body. I always think about one story at a time and I’m always seeking range. There’s a sort of pressure on the story collection to resemble the novel. So, thinking of it as a linked collection is a way of proclaiming it as a full-length piece. What happens is that, when they get collected in one book and get reviewed, people find all these links – thematically and stylistically – that were not obvious to me when I was in the thicket of producing them. I think we’re more limited than we realize. We’re boundaried by our voice and our experience, so what seems like a huge range to me probably seems less so to other people. Because no matter how much I’m experimenting, I’m not Kafkaesque, I’m not writing in a fabulist style. All of my stories are basically realism with a raw touch of humor. I’m swimming in a particular stream.

TFR: In your lecture, you discussed the presence of silence in art, and that conversation led to some discussion about the internal versus the external. In your work, a lot of the action lives in the internal. How else do you incorporate into your work this respect for the power of silence?

AO: I think one of the things that interests me as a writer, and as a person, is the idea of gaps. There are a lot of gaps in our relationships with other people – our parents, our friends, our lovers. Even when two people are intensely drawn to one another, they have trouble connecting, speaking the same language, wanting the same thing. For me, silence is a way of indicating how limited and frustrating our interactions can be, though we still search for them.

TFR: That reminds me of your story “A Lesson in Entropy.” So much happens off the page.

AO: That is definitely a story where a lot is happening that is unspoken. There’s a major tidal wave that overtakes the main character, and I didn’t want it to be cheesy, or to have an easily articulated epiphany. The character’s vision of her own sexuality changes drastically, and to have a moment when she says, “You know what? I’m going to leave you and go off with her!” would be so reductive. To put it in the margins, in the subtext, gave it more subtlety.

TFR: You’ve lived in Canada and the US. How has place – the places you’ve lived or visited – played a part in your work?

I think place has been a part of all of my writing, but not just one place. It shows up more in the sense of the migratory, the wanderer. I’m someone who has lived in a lot of different places, and in my most recent book, Inside, there are a lot of characters who are always leaving home. It’s the way we live now – not everyone stays in the place where they grew up, I think that’s happening less and less. But place is still a huge part of our lives.

TFR: Inside and Signs and Wonders were both published in the same year – on the same day, in fact. Was that your idea? Your editor’s?

AO: That was my editor’s idea. I had both books ready because they were sold at the same time. It’s a very crowded marketplace and my editor thought that, by publishing two books at the same time, maybe I would get more attention as a literary fiction writer and that people would be more likely to review them together and be able to say, “This is a writer with a real body of work.” It was a strategy that he had used successfully before with Jim Shepard. And I think it did succeed. There were a lot of dual reviews and a lot of people looking at both books at the same time. In some ways I think it was a little confusing for people – “Well, is she a story writer or a novelist? Which book should we pay more attention to?” – but I think that’s more of a flaw in the way we write about books than anything else. The way that novels are written about in particular is pretty limited. The media discourse around novels is usually to perceive the book through the scrim of biography. “You write about x because you have experienced x.” Or, “This is your nationality, your ethnicity, your personal life story, so let’s find a way to collapse the writer into the book.” So, I think having the two different books and a lot of different kinds of characters made it impossible for people to do, which I liked.

TFR: On your blog, you mentioned that you made a playlist for Inside. What was that experience like?

AO: So much fun. So, there’s this site called Largehearted Boy, which is a music site. But the guy who runs it, David Gutowski, is a huge fan of fiction and is incredibly well-read. He asks writers to make a playlist for their work. It’s actually a metaphor I often use to guide my own process – comparing the work to a piece of music. Is it a large piece of instrumentation? Is it a torch song with a single female voice? Does it end on a major chord or a minor note? I think music speaks to narrative structure. It’s a great exercise for a writer.

TFR: For writers, inspiration and how it comes to us is subjective. For some, it strikes. For others, it’s nudged. How do you find inspiration?

For me, there are things that are reliable – or more or less reliable. I often go to galleries and museums. I’m very open to visual art. And because it isn’t verbal and isn’t something I practice myself, I think I have a more innocent reaction to it. I don’t look at it from a craft perspective, and so I think it tends to spark that child-like response in my brain that is really important to us as artists. Inspiration is a two-part process. My undergraduates are all about romantic inspiration – “I’ll be like Jack Kerouac and write a whole book on a roll of paper!” – and that is such a harmful myth for writers. The myth is that you wait for inspiration to strike and you become pure vessel who almost has no conscious work at all. I always compare it to being an athlete. You train, you want to have muscle, you have to prepare your body. The day-after-day, butt-in-chair time that we spend as writers is important work because it gives you the writerly muscles you need so that, when inspiration does strike, you have the skills to put it down on paper.

You can view an excerpt from Alix Ohlin’s public reading at Chatham University by visiting our website.

Tess Wilson is a Kansan who has transplanted herself into the hills of Pittsburgh while she pursues her MFA in Creative Writing. Her poetry can be found in Inscape and NEAT, and she is serving as an Associate Editor at The Fourth River. She is a big believer in dirt, sterling silver jewelry, dogs, and breakfast.