Ramona Ausubel is a prolific writer of both novels and short stories. In her most recent short story collection Awayland, she structures the book around four different lands: Bay of Hungers, The Cape of Persistent Hope, The Lonesome Flats, and The Dream Isles. In her mystical and fantastical voice, she uses these geographical areas to explore themes like relationships, leaving, and motherhood. In this Q&A, Ausubel talks about why she returns to the theme of motherhood in particular, how her writing style changes with the format, and what she's working on now.
Many of your stories focus on the themes of motherhood and pregnancy. What about these topics draws you to writing so many stories about them?
It still feels like a fairly fantastical premise: my body knows how to grow a human being who I will then know and care about and worry about for the rest of my life. That’s a pretty wild prospect! And within that lifetime there will be ten trillion big and tiny moments that I see, feel, hold onto, and many times won’t be able to express. Especially as women we are supposed to be polite and keep order, to maintain a happy exterior both for ourselves and our children, when what’s inside is much more tangled.
Your last short story collection, A Guide to Being Born, also dealt with similar topics around pregnancy and motherhood. Did you intentionally return to this topic because you had more to say? Or did you realize you were still writing about these themes after the fact?
It was a little of both. I worried that I should be done with the topic, except that the best thing I know about writing is to follow my own fascination. This is the only pathway to the deepest, truest stuff. When I was in graduate school I worried over repetition with a teacher and she said, “It’s not subject matter, but treatment.” This also goes back to what I was saying about the training women receive not to take up too much space and to keep things in order. Have I said everythign I have to say about motherhood yet? Nope. I’ll keep writing what’s most honest, even if spills over the edges of the container.
Awayland features several characters traveling to places and discovering new things about themselves. What is the connection between travel and self-awareness?
Being in a foreign place can’t help but make a person more aware of her own expectations and self. Some of the characters in the book are far away from home because they are escaping something, some are far away because they wanted that feeling of being out of their known world. I am really interested in that desire, which is about seeing and experiencing big and beautiful things, but also about being a little uncomfortable, knocked free of routine.
You write both novels and short stories. For you, how is writing a short story different from writing a novel?
I’ve always said the pain to pleasure ratio is more in my favor with short stories. That said, I’m working on a new novel now and though I still feel plenty of existential dread. (It is an exercise in faith over such a very long time!) I feel less anxious than I have in the past. I love the way a novel gives me space to weave through an idea again and again, to see a character over a different kind of time. I love the way a short story can be like a magic trick—all lights and dazzle.
Your stories often play with form, like the first story in Awayland, “You Can Find Love Now,” which features a cyclops creating a dating profile online. What inspires you to use different forms to tell your stories? Does the form or the story come first?
In that case the form came first. I knew that the humor and heart would come from a character pushing up against this very specific form. When I’m starting a story I try playing around with various elements until I get a combination that fizzes. Sometimes form is one of those elements. What if someone entirely outside of the norm tried to fit himself into this very narrow box? What if the form remain fixed despite the aburdity?
There are a number of mythology and fairy tale aspects to the stories in Awayland. Why is it that in our modern culture we’re still fascinated by these timeless stories?
These are the stories I’ve come back to all my life. I love that they are shared by so many people, that they feel immediately familiar. It also makes for a really fun structure to play within. A lot of these storie are meant to provide a lesson—sometimes these lessons feel surprisingly true even today, while others feel odd or outdated if you look closely. That provides much tension.
Writers are often told to stick to one genre, but you take a more fluid approach. Your stories range in genre from realism to science fiction to magical realism. How does not confining yourself to one genre help you in your storytelling?
The great writer Jim Shepard says to “follow your weird.” This is the writing advice I hold closest. I also feel that it’s my job to be a good listener to my stories, to tell them the way they are best told. Sometimes that means there is a physical de- or reformation in the world and sometimes that means the world looks exactly the same but the new shape is in someone’s heart. I try to never ram an idea through that isn’t right but to make space for the truth to come through, no matter what that requires.
As a writer and lover of short story collections, do you have any favorites you’d like to share with us?
Yes! A few story writers that always knock my socks off are Marissa Matarazzo, Matt Sumell, Michael Andreasen, Samantha Hunt, Manuel Gonzales, A.M. Homes, Kirsten Valdez Quade, Claire Vaye Watkins, Lauren Groff, Helen Oyeyemi and so many others. Oh, man, I could go on all day!!
Will you tell us a little but about what you are working on now?
I’m working on a novel about a family that is trying to reintroduce the wooly mammoth. It’s about science and fantasy and expectation and what happens when things do not go as planned.
Ramona Ausubel is the author of the novels Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty and No One Is Here Except All of Us, winner of the PEN Center USA Fiction Award and the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award, and finalist for the New York Public Library's Young Lions Fiction Award. She is also the author of the story collection A Guide to Being Born, and has been published in The New Yorker, One Story, The Paris Review Daily, and Best American Fantasy.