An Interview with Alix Ohlin

Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Something lingers beneath the surface in Alix Ohlin’s writing. In her new story collection, We Want What We Want (Knopf), a young woman returns home after a gap year to find her father dating her best friend, a woman tracks down her missing cousin in a cult ran by a bourgeois philosopher, and a man receives an inheritance from his tumultuous ex-wife intended for their daughter. The plausible and the extortionary blend in the worlds Ohlin builds.

TriQuarterly: Something that struck me about the stories in We Want What We Want is how they fit together, more specifically I feel like a common theme, I picked out of them was friendships and how they work. If they were platonic, familial, or even couples, or love interests, there is a sense of togetherness in friendships, which I feel is something that isn't necessarily written about as much.

Alix Ohlin: Thank you for seeing that in my work. Something that I think about a lot is the way in which there are all kinds of relationships that have the same intensity, the same kind of modulation, the same impact on our lives and our sense of ourselves as romantic relationships and yet kind of there can be a cultural discourse around the romantic that pretends that it's in a different category. But, in fact, the people that you work with, you spend a lot of time with, and who do you vent the most about or who has the greatest kind of effect on your life? It could be someone from work. And by the same token, some friendships can have this this almost chemical intensity of experience. The way that those friendships are refracted across our lives, what happens when you have a breakdown or a breakup of those kinds of relationships, I think to me it's like endlessly fascinating, and I agree with you, perhaps a little under-written. I'm definitely fascinated by those things as a writer and find myself drawn to those situations and trying to push deeper into the subterranean effects that those that those relationships can have in in our lives.

TQ: To expand on those ideas on a craft element, I think it's done really well through dialogue, or through extremely small details that tell a lot about the relationships between the two characters. Such as the inside jokes from the character’s childhood friend who is now living with her father, there are subtle ways that these relationships are alluded to, and that they speak, through it. I think there's this way that you have of narrating where it's talking around the thing, while exactly illustrating the thing with certain details.

AO: Thinking about it from a process point of view, I draft stories through scene. I don't outline, I don't necessarily always know where a story is going. And so the way that is sort of uncover the characters are the situations is put people in a room together, put people in a car together and see what happens and what can be revealed through dialogue and gesture. For me as a writer, I find that a more interesting and surprising way of figuring out what might happen. My hope would be that it leads organically to scenes that are that are revolutionary of something bigger as opposed to an expositional approach or something that front-loads, like “Here is the entire backstory of this character’s childhood,” or whatever. Just put the put her in a room with some kind of explosive situation and then see how she reacts. That's going to tell us a lot about who the character is and what might happen next. I like it because it feels more unexpected and I also enjoy writing into the moments of gesture, the moments of detail.

A lot of the writers, that I grew up admiring are “unexplainers,” is how I always think of it. People who are unafraid of allowing there to be some mystery in the work and who will allow the reader the space to try to figure out what is happening between people. Joy Williams would be an example, where what's happening is often very odd and she's not holding your hand to explain what it means to you as a reader. You're put into the position of trying to decide what the valence of a scene is or what is happening. I've always been drawn to that kind of feeling of enigma. That's partly why I do write in scenes and I don't write a lot of like heavy framing language, because I'm just not as interested in it myself. I don't find it as rewarding in my own process.

TQ: Along that vein, with these stories, there's a very much an overall sense of like other worldliness or strangeness. Through “The Brook Brothers Guru,” where there’s this cult mentality that has an eerie aesthetic to it. Or “Taxonomy” where the character Magick is literally performing magic and that's the most extra-terrestrial moment we have, but there are these strange situational things throughout the book, that is yet, somehow, still terrestrial

AO: That's an interesting observation. I feel like there's a lot of interesting conversation and work right now around the uncanny and I probably subconsciously absorbed a bit of it, and I think about when I first started reading Kelly Link, years ago, or someone like Laura van den Berg now, who is really drawn to writing about and through ghost stories and uses it as a way of excavating the unconscious mystery of the lives of her characters. My work is certainly more solidly positioned within a realist vein, but I definitely am interested in those moments that are a bit liminal or right on the threshold of some strangeness, some uncanniness, to see what you can what you can find there, to just get right close to the precipice of that strangeness that is still within the realm of ordinary life. That's a territory that I feel pretty comfortable in and pretty interested in seeing when I can explore there.

TQ: I would like to talk about “Taxonomy” a little bit, since it was first published in TriQuarterly (Issue 146). I'm really interested in the way that it plays a form, especially of actually utilizing the taxonomy and breaking down the animals to the species to break up the sections. Could you talk about utilizing this form?

AO: I love the idea of playing with form, but I think that it only works if you have an obvious strong reason to marry it to the content of the work. It shouldn't feel arbitrary or imposed. At least for me, I can only make it work if it feels fundamentally connected to the characters once I get into the story.

I've written stories in the form of footnotes and I have one that was written in the form of a scientific paper and things like that. I've always enjoyed that play with form and the idea of the found material, of the verbal, that is in our everyday lives. There's a great story by Namwali Serpell called “The Book of Faces,” that's all written in the form of Facebook status updates. She plays with the whole idea of what's on the surface and what's underneath and also the familiarity of those cadences of the way Twitter jargon or Facebook jargon just becomes part of the rhythm of language if you spend time on those on those sites. I think that is really playful and interesting and it incorporates the way that there are many different registers of language that we are all fluent in, even if we don't think of them as being different kinds of fluencies

With “Taxonomy,” I've always loved, physically, the way that those groupings are spelled out in in a scientific taxonomy of animals. They go through all of the like the genus and the kingdom and all of the different categories down to the specifics of an individual animal. I was reading a reading a book of animal taxonomy is, and so it kind of seeped into my unconscious. I started to kind of play with it on the page and to think about those ways of categorizing animals are really about charting descent, and then charting what is what is shared and then what is not shared. So what is general and what is specific to these different groupings of animals. Then, to me that became so suggestive of family relationships, which go from general one generation to the next, which have some degrees of things you have in common and then things that you don't. What I was really drawn to in this story is the idea of families that are connected by halves. The main character is a father and he has remarried after a disastrous first marriage and his second wife has a certain relationship with his daughter, and then he is plunged into a situation that returns him to the earlier marriage and then there's all of these half siblings. It's a story that's full of half siblings. I was interested in using the form of taxonomic classifications, as a way of discussing how do you classify these branching relationships from your past, from your present, from your children's half siblings, to those half siblings’ half siblings. Within the story I hope that these sort of branching categories become a way to explore questions of “What do you what do we do to each other?” What do we do to people to whom we only feel semi-related? Of course these questions are not just true within families, they are true to anyone. Our are chosen families, our colleagues, our anyone, but in this story they're specifically to a family in which people only ever feel partially connected, or partially identified to somebody else.

TQ: I love the phrase of “What do we owe each other?” which I think is a through line of this collection. Would you care to talk about how these stories evolved from initial publication to making them into a cohesive collection, and where you see them fitting into their own world in the book?

AO: I write a lot of short stories. I love the short story form and I don't, as a rule, think about myself as building a collection along the way. I usually write the stories very individually and then it's only later in the process that I start to think about questions of connection or community or how things are speaking to each other.

What's interesting to me about that is often all kinds of themes or connections or leitmotifs exists that I was not consciously aware of at the time. The nature of writing is that your writing always betrays your preoccupations, even if you don't plan for it to do so.

For these stories, I would say that when I put the collection together, there were some stories that I had written along the way, that I shaved away because they felt quite different in tone or theme. I also write occasionally some flash fiction, or I had written some stories that were really much more kind of fabulous that I felt like they just seemed like a totally different kind of work. I grouped these stories together and then my editor at Knopf, Jenny Jackson, has a really sharp eye. She's the one who went through them, and she actually helped me to pull out a couple of others that she felt didn't quite match, and then she picked out the line from “The Brooks Brothers Guru,” “we want what we want,” as the title. I think once she did that, it did what a title is supposed to do, which is, it makes the question of desire and the question of inter-relationship with those titular “Wes,” it really makes it pop throughout the collection. The title became a signpost for the book as a whole, in a way that I think is helpful and I’m grateful to her for doing that. It’s a testimony as to why it matters to have a good editor.

TQ: Another through line that I found, and I really appreciated, was how age and class were approached within these stories. There are a quite a few characters who are in their early college years, but treated very much like as adults, and like they are people who have their own sense of ability, sense of self within the world.

In the same vein, nearly all the characters are either working class or a true middle class, but approached with a sincere literary merit, like their stories have worth. There are different ways to approach it, but I think class is often brushed over or utilized in this kind of divisive way.

AO: I think a lot of the people that I that I write about come from a lot of different places. Some of them are people I grew up with, or people that I know, or from within my own kind of family or extended family, to try to write from and within a perspective that feels organic to who the person actually is.

One of the things that I have always strongly believed is that every person's story is complicated. As I’m sitting here now, I’m in the house that I grew up in in the suburbs and I have a very strong memory of being an angsty fourteen-year-old and thinking, “How can I be a writer when I’m from the suburbs?” I felt that it wasn't like romantic or important material. Now, as an adult I feel totally different about that. These kind of, however, you want to turn them, ordinary people's lives, everybody's life is super complicated and interesting to me. There's nobody's life that wouldn't make good material for a short story, so that's the attitude that I go in with. I think there's endless fascination for me in the in the lives of the people that I’m writing about

TQ: The acknowledgments page has the line “Short stories are my first and greatest love.” I'm sure this is a very common question regarding your work, but how do you approach going through stories versus writing novels or other forms of writing?

AO: I really love the short story as a as a form, and I feel the most confident when I’m writing stories. The first writers I fell in love with as a reader were short story writers. I always loved reading novels too, but I think it was in reading short stories that I first felt like that was something that I could imagine myself doing, for whatever reason. There are some writers, who are drawn to sprawling, multi-generational narratives in large novels, or who are drawn to poetry, and in that kind of compression and brevity. For me, the short story always felt like a space where I could move into and feel comfortable in. It aesthetically felt familiar to me from the very first time. I encountered in it a feeling of recognition, and I don't know why but it's always been the case for me.

I’ve explored other kinds of writing and I’ve written some nonfiction. I’ve written several novels and I’m proud of them, but, for me, the kind of writing that is involved in drafting and novel will never feel as free as I do when I write a short story. A novel has to be so heavily scaffolded, even if you're writing something that's not particularly plot driven, in order to sustain any kind of idea, characterization, context, it has to be built in a way that takes a really long time, both in the planning and the drafting and in the execution.

And for the short story, for me, anyway, I just feel that there's more room for experimentation. There's more room for trying something and seeing if it works, I can just be more brazen, almost. Something like “Taxonomy,” for example, of that kind of formal experiment of working with classifications, I would never say I’m going to write a whole novel in the form of a taxonomy. That's not to say it wouldn't be possible, but it's not likely that it would be something that I would try to do. Whereas, easily for a story I’ll just say, “Well, let me try this experiment.” And I’ll invest a certain amount of time and energy in it, and if it doesn't work out it doesn't work out.

I feel like I can ask more of a reader, in a way, of the story, so it makes me a bolder writer. I can ask the reader to indulge me with these taxonomic definitions, or I can ask a reader to accompany me through a very unexpected situation, like the cult story, and hope that they'll come along for the ride over the course of twenty or thirty pages. Whereas I think if you invite the reader into the world of a novel, it's just a different kind of contract.

I find a lot of elasticity in the short story. I don't draft or outline them very heavily. I just kind of plunge in and see where I can go. It's, for me, as a writer, where I am most free. I don't want to suggest that I don't revise, or anything like that, but in the initial conception of the story, I feel like I have a lot of latitude and that feeling is very pleasurable for me. I think readers will feel the pleasure in the work, at least I hope.

TQ: That’s an interesting way of approaching any larger project, where with most people reading, you have to want to commit to it. I love that sense of asking the reader to work with you on that. I think that's a fair trade off.

AO: I hope so. It depends on the reader, right?

TQ: What are you working on next and what are you reading?

AO: I'm working on a couple of different things and I’m always writing short stories. The last few ones I do, for the first time, imagine as being connected in a way that I haven't necessarily done before. They're all very much concerned with climate change and environmental issues. It's something I’ve always been interested in writing about and I’ve had occurrences of it in my work previously, but right now, it feels so inescapable and so urgent that it's been impossible not to think about it. We were just talking about like the oppressive weather in British Columbia, where I live, there's drought and wildfires and it's so imminent, it's so present. I've been writing a lot of stories that try to come at those questions from different angles and in different ways of trying to think about, how do you tell the stories in a way that actually readers will come along with, or readers will be able to experience with you?

It's a hard question for me. How do we shape stories about the environment? How do we shape stories about the Apocalypse that we're that we're in the middle of? I don't have good answers yet, but it's something I’m trying to think through in in my work.

I have a similar kind of novel project. Most of my novels you could probably see as a series of linked stories. Like I’m always kind of back-dooring my way into a novel because I’m more of a short story writer. The novel project is an episodic novel about an interrelated group of people who are all sort of experiencing the ends of things, broadly defined. A lot of different kinds of ends. Moments of coming to the end of something, and then what they find there, what they do, or how do you respond to that. 

I just read truly one of the best books I’ve ever read. Shirley Hazzard’s The Transit of Venus, which is one of those books that people have been recommending to me for years. We know when people recommend a book, the more people who recommend a book to you, the longer it takes for you to get around to reading it. But I’m glad I did. This is this novel about two Australian sisters and follows them across several decades, but that summary does not do justice to the book at all, or to the quality of the language in it. It's quite dense but it's also startlingly funny and poetic and kind of pointed and sharp, all at the same time.

I think this has happened to a lot of people throughout the pandemic, it has sometimes been hard for me to read. It’s been hard for me to lose myself in a book or to let go of my anxiety about the world long enough to escape into story. So, I appreciated the density of Hazzard’s language, because it forced me to slow down and to read each sentence carefully, and to allow the allow the language to work upon me. It really has reignited my reading-self and I love it when that when that happens.