In 2007, I attended the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley, a week-long writers’ conference that includes workshops every morning, and panels and readings every afternoon and evening. It’s inspiring and fun, and also totall...
In 2007, I attended the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley, a week-long writers’ conference that includes workshops every morning, and panels and readings every afternoon and evening. It’s inspiring and fun, and also totally exhausting, because there is so much to read and learn and do. I highly recommend this kind of fatigue.
At Squaw, Ramona Ausubel and I were assigned the same workshop. At that time, Ramona was a student at UC Irvine’s MFA program, and I befriended her that first morning because I liked her clothes (priorities, people!). I soon discovered that aside from being stylish and amiable, she was also an insightful and generous reader. And then, on the last day of workshop, it was her turn to submit, and she turned in a kind-hearted, dazzling, and odd story, the kind of story that makes you think, “Wow, what a voice!” Sharing my work with Ramona, and getting to read her work, was one of the highlights of my time at Squaw. Years later, I would still recall her story’s whimsical tone, and the world she created: like our own, but stranger, and more absurd, but not any less cruel or complicated or joyful. That story, “Catch and Release,” is in her beguiling and elegantly written collection of short stories called A Guide To Being Born, which is, simply put, a pleasure to read. It’s been so much fun to see my talented friend publish and receive acclaim for her work. She deserves it.
Ramona answered a few questions via email. I am sure she was wearing something fabulous as she did so.
The Millions: For some reason, I didn’t expect these stories to be so funny. There’s this wonderful, amused tone to much of your work, whether it be a bunch of grandmothers who, upon mysteriously finding themselves on a ship, call out, Does anyone have a compass? and then, I’m from the DC area!, or a teenage girl’s mother eating a “low-this high-that salad.” It made me wonder how you regard the comic in fiction, and how you balance it with more serious subject matter. Can you talk a little about this?
Ramona Ausubel: For me, humor is totally necessary, in the way that a certain organ is necessary, yet you have no idea how it works. I don’t think about humor logically, as in, I don’t see a dark place in a story and think, “I could use some comic relief here.” It’s much more instinctual than that, and actually I think that’s a feature of humor in general. We need it, even, or especially, in the hardest situations. Sometimes it’s an escape, but just as often it’s a way of actually feeling the sad or hard thing, which might be too big to wrap one’s brain around otherwise. Plus, when you get your reader to laugh, they become involved in the story in a new way, they are a participant, and I like that. I like it when everyone’s got their hands in the mud-pile together.
TM: This collection is separated into four parts, Birth, Gestation, Conception, and Love. How did you conceive (ha!) of this organization, and why did you decide to move backwards, from birth to love? Can you discuss the formation of these stories into a collection?
RA: It’s always amazing to me how long you can go along, not realizing your own obsessions. I first wrote these stories as individuals and not as a book, and then I looked back at the stack and the themes jumped right out at me. There was a moment where I actually felt deflated by this, worrying that my range seemed limited or something. Then someone said to me, “No, that’s what a book is.” After that, I decided to really push the question of what it is to be born again and again throughout one’s life, and that’s where the ordering and sections came in. I wanted to get at the idea that we are in one long cycle, and at the same time we are each in a constant state of transformation and mutation.
TM: There are some interesting echoes throughout the book. Grandmothers find themselves on a ship in “Safe Passage,” and then