The characters in Ramona Ausubel’s A Guide to Being Born, published in May, experience various passages that are strangely beautiful: some fleeting, some permanent, all life-changing. These moments manifest themselves in physical ways in some of her stories; in “Atria,” a pregnant teenager envisions the baby growing inside of her as a shifting array of animals. When she feels the baby’s kicks during her sixth month, she imagines it as a large bird of prey: “It spread and curled its wings. Hazel felt them strong and tickling. The nest it was building was a round of borrowed organs, her small intestine twisted up in a pink knot, the bird’s sharp claws resting in the center . . . Hazel bought yarn and began to knit three-pronged booties, which she had to invent a pattern for.”
Other characters grapple with coming to terms with loss. For the recently widowed professor at the center of “Magniloquence,” a sense of connection comes unexpectedly in a pitch-black auditorium full of other professors after the featured speaker fails to show: “Faustus looked into the dark and tried to make a list of reasons for existing. Kissing was on there, and so were hollandaise sauce and racquetball.” Eventually he approaches the podium and addresses his dead wife before returning to his place among the napping audience members: “He was glad to be able to fall asleep shrouded by the breath of so many others, and he did so curled up under the dessert table.”
In a similar vein, a group of grandmothers adrift on a cargo ship in the collection’s first story, “Safe Passage,” find comfort in each other: “‘Tell me the story of my life,’ someone asks. ‘Tell me what I was like when I was a baby.’ And they can do it. They get the details wrong—locations of birth, names of parents and siblings—but this does not matter to anyone. They chime in, answering together, bit by bit.”
Ausubel’s book is hardly a guide in the traditional sense. But even as her characters navigate terrain that at times veers into the absurd (an expectant father sprouts a chest of drawers, a girl plays catch with a ghost), they ultimately find solace in their relationships with one another.
The past two years have been busy ones for Ausubel; she also gave birth to her first child and published her debut novel, No One is Here Except All of Us. (As with her current story collection, it was selected as an Editor’s Choice by The New York Times.)
With its surrealist and fantastical elements, Ausubel’s fiction has been compared to that of Aimee Bender, Junot Díaz, and George Saunders. Below, Ausubel discusses her writing process, creating tension, and why the fantastical appeals to her.
Lisa Lynne Lewis: A Guide to Being Born has four sections, working backwards from Birth to Gestation to Conception to Love. How aware were you of these themes as you were writing these stories?
Ramona Ausubel: I wasn’t aware of them to start—I was just writing one story to the next. After a couple of years, though, I looked back at my stack of stories and saw the themes. At first I worried that it wasn’t a good thing! I thought I didn’t have enough range.
Michelle Latiolais [MFA program at UC Irvine] read them and said, “no, that’s what a book is supposed to be.” So then I went back and tried to connect them even more to each other. While each story looks at some sort of transformation, some sort of new birth, I also wanted the collection as a whole to have that theme.
LL: Indeed, several of the stories in your collection are about birth and parenthood. Now that you’re a mother, do you find yourself still drawn to these themes, or has that changed for you?
RA: Part of what I was doing when I was writing them was looking at the whole project of life that was on the horizon but I hadn’t reached. It was close enough that I could see it as a reality even though I wasn’t there yet.
It’s harder for me to write something if I don’t have enough distance. Right now, I wouldn’t be able to write about having a one-year old.
LL: In “Catch and Release,” a girl meets a man who seems to be the ghost of a Civil War soldier, and plays catch with him. Can you tell us a little bit more about how that story came about?
RA: For that story, I gave myself a project to write about things that seem unrelated: a young girl coming of age in a strange family, baseball, and something from history. It was an experiment to begin with, and then the character of the war general appeared. I got really interested in the juxtaposition of his story up against the girl’s story.
In writing, we talk about the idea of tension, and I think just having two disparate ideas gives you that. The exercise was a good way to approach things because I had these opposing poles and was stretching something between them.
LL: In a broader sense, your stories seem to center on loneliness; so many of your characters seem to be seeking—and finding—a sense of connection: whether with a parent, a Civil War hero, or a roomful of professors.
RA: I think about that a lot. We all experience moments of deep loneliness, even people who are in great relationships. But we’re not really good about talking about it or expressing it.
I come back to loneliness a lot in various versions. You can be lonely in different ways, including feeling distant from your own history. In “Catch and Release,” there are pieces missing in the girl’s history and parts that have been told to her that aren’t truthful, so there’s a sense of not knowing what’s real.
In “Snow Remote,” there are teenage twins whose father is distant from them. The story he tells them about their dead mother diverges from the truth. He tells them that it was a great and wonderful marriage and then she died, when in fact he paid her to keep the pregnancy. It’s about that moment of not really knowing how you came to be.
LL: Have any of your characters stayed with you? Have you had the urge to come back to them in future stories?
RA: They definitely stay with me—I worked on them over nine years, from when I started the stories and when the collection was published, so I’ve come back to them over a whole block of my life. But I haven’t yet had the urge to pick up any of these specific characters and keep writing about them. I kind of feel like they’re more alive in their own unique universe now. I feel protective of their stories: I do love them, and I feel happy the world is making a place for them.
LL: Did the characters change over time as you came back to them?
RA: I write first drafts very, very quickly, usually over the course of a few weeks, and then I come back to them many more times. Up until the end, I’m up for making big changes.
“Atria” was one of the first stories I wrote, but it changed the most over time. I came back to it years later and re-ordered it and made some pretty big changes. The layer of the story about Hazel’s absent father was much smaller to begin with and became increasingly important. Also, Johnny from the 7-11 became more fully-formed. Sometimes it takes a while for me to realize, “Oh this is the story.”
LL: Your stories all have elements of the surreal and the fantastical. Is this present for you in your story drafts, or does this emerge for you as the writing progresses?
RA: It’s always present right away. While I want to be writing about emotional truth, I like to get there with some sort of magnification or exaggeration. It gets the electricity going in my mind. I start thinking, “What if we got to see that even bigger?” The surreal elements come about that way, usually as part of the idea process.
LL: Which authors do you think of as influences, both in terms of those you’ve worked with and those you’ve read?
RA: The authors I think of as my influences change all the time, depending on who I’m reading right then. A few that I’ve come back to often: Ron Carlson, Christine Schutt, Geoffrey Wolff, Brad Watson, Doug Anderson, and Michelle Latiolais were my teachers and influenced me hugely both with their amazing work and their amazing teaching. George Saunders is a dear favorite. There are plenty of obvious classics: Raymond Carver, Ernest Hemingway, Flannery O'Connor, Gabriel García Márquez, Leo Tolstoy. I studied in Prague in college and read a ton of Franz Kafka and the Czech absurdists like Bohumil Hrabal and Václav Havel. It’s good to be both an absurdist and a president. I try to be at least a little bit influenced by every single thing I read.
LL: You’ve published a novel and a collection of short stories, and I’ve read that you used to write poetry. Do you currently have a preference?
RA: I haven’t written poems seriously since I started writing fiction, but I still read a lot of poetry—it’s incredibly important for me. You can hold a whole poem in your head at once. I often start a day by reading a poem to focus on the language.
For me, writing gets squeezed in whenever it can. I turn off the Internet and then read a poem or a chapter or a short story to get me back to the world of writing. It gives me something to aspire to that day. After that, it’s just working away . . . you try, sometimes you screw it up, and then you try again.
LL: What are you working on now?
RA: I’m working on a novel that takes place over the course of one week. Everyone in the family is at the breaking point: the mom runs off with a giant, the dad tries to sail off to Bermuda, and the kids try to live as Plains Indians. It’s still in the early stages.
I also have a new bunch of short stories about people far away from home. The stories take place all over the world and back in time as well, with mummies, Vikings and other characters from history.
Ramona Ausubel received her MFA from the University of California, Irvine. Her first book, No One is Here Except All of Us, was named one of the “Best Books of the Year” by the San Francisco Chronicle and The Huffington Post. Her story collection, A Guide to Being Born, was long-listed for the Frank O’Connor International Story Prize. Ausubel was raised in Santa Fe, N.M., and now lives in Santa Barbara, California with her family.
Lisa Lynne Lewis currently writes for Literary Mama, and has also been featured on Modern Love Rejects. Lewis spent many years doing corporate communications; along the way, she also freelanced for magazines including Better Homes and Gardens and Redbook. She has an MFA from Mills College and an undergraduate degree from U.C. Berkeley. She lives with her family in Southern California.