Adaptation: An Interview with Ramona Ausubel
June 7, 2012 | by Samantha Hunt
My conversation with Ramona Ausubel took place in the ether between upstate New York and California, from a small desk in my bedroom to her home in Santa Barbara. I wore something slobbishly inappropriate and kept one eye on my three kids as I typed. A tired Ausubel was herself caring for her newborn infant. So I cannot tell you about her curly red hair, her slippers, or the tone of her voice. I cannot tell whether you can smell the Pacific from her house. You will have to imagine these details, an appropriate exercise for thinking about an author whose debut novel is so wholly original it climbs new heights of imaginary prowess.
While the world might be sick with our busy-making and e-mail interviews, Ramona Ausubel’s debut novel, No One Is Here Except All of Us, offers an antidote. Impossibly she has set her story in both a fabled land where magic is plentiful and in the brutish depths of World War II. Though the novel is concerned with identity and community, there is nothing quaint in Ausubel’s confluence of the domestic and the historic. History seeps through cracks in stories and prayers the characters tell as they reimagine the borders and rulebooks of a small town. The patterns of home replicate into the patterns of the planet, but a reader finds nothing small in these small acts. —Samantha Hunt
Did you play telephone operator as a child? There’s little pleasure when the passed-along phrase or story doesn’t get altered, right?
Exactly. It’s so enjoyable to watch something get transformed right before your eyes—or ears. It feels like the thing itself wanted to change.
Are you a storyteller when not writing?
I love the safety of writing, the fact that I can privately sculpt something until the timing is right, the build up, the end. I was incredibly shy as a kid, which I’m not so much anymore, except when it comes to telling long stories out loud. I envy those people who always have a great story about something, like their recent attempt to buy Mike Tyson’s old bedroom set. Although, if that happened to me, I’d probably tell you about it.
What did your research for No One Is Here Except All of Us involve?
At the very beginning, my research involved spending a bunch of time with my grandmother in New York, looking at pictures, listening to the family legends. When I first sat down to write, I just kept coming up with second-rate versions of stories she was brilliant at telling, so I gave up. Two years later, I picked the book up, but I did so without notes or research of any kind. I had realized that if I was going to tell a story, then it was going to have to become my own. My imagination was my only source for many drafts. Fortunately, imagination and empathy are pretty amazing sources, especially when the goal is to try to understand what it might have felt like, rather than to catalogue precisely what happened.
Once the book was pretty well formed, I had the opportunity to visit the region where my family came from. I wanted to have a sense of the place—the way it smelled in the morning, what the trees looked like on the horizon, the sound of the river.
When reading about the war and the history leading up to it, my goal was to understand the ghost of the war, more than to know all of the ins and outs. I also read the Old Testament again and some Jewish folklore. I have sometimes found that it’s easy to do too much research, for all that outside information to be burdensome. I’d classify my ideal research strategy as “homeopathic.”
Meaning “like suffering”? Or meaning some sort of natural remedy dosed at home?
Those are also good ways to interpret it, although I was thinking of homeopathic more in terms of dosage, the minimum amount of a missing element needed for the body to take notice. I want to know just enough that I feel comfortable invoking history, religion, et cetera, without knowing so much that those elements start to take over my brain and limit the freedom of imagination.
W.G. Sebald has a character in his novel The Emigrants named Dr. Henry Selwyn. He is wonderfully forthcoming and loquacious, telling the story of his life in great detail but, after saying so much, he finally admits that when it comes to World War II, there are no words for it. It’s an overwhelming moment. In No One Is Here Except All of Us, how did you navigate notions of silence and speaking for the dead?
My immediate family left Europe after the First World War, but the story of the novel takes place during World War II. I made this move because I wanted only to gesture toward the war, for the events to be almost entirely off-stage, so I counted on readers to bring the weight of those events with them to the story. I think we all carry the impressions of World War II much more clearly than we do for World War I.
Still, the idea of writing about a time and place I have no personal experience with, especially one so unbearable, was more than a little intimidating. The way I chose to think about it was that, inevitably, each of us fails to communicate a thing so huge, so terrible, but perhaps all our voices together begin to describe the truth. I am just adding one more small voice. Also, time is going to pass—we will move farther and farther away from those unspeakable events. After September 11, everyone put never forget bumper stickers on their cars. I don’t think they were worried that the facts of the event would be forgotten, but the feeling. The way to keep from losing a feeling is for each person to find his or her own way in.
I’ve taken to thinking that the rash of fake memoirs that have been published means that in some imagined battle between history and fiction, fiction always wins, that hydra-headed fiction is more truthful than the story of history. But there is a danger in saying, facts aren’t important, yes? In writing No One Is Here Except All of Us, did you feel burdened by history? What of the opportunities reenvisioning old stories might present to, say, Holocaust deniers, who are, in essence, also storytellers?
I like the image of that hydra. You are getting at a really interesting and tricky question. On the one hand, an event happens in one moment. Then and only then is it complete and exact. After that, it’s always a reconstruction, no matter how carefully we try to stick to the facts. At the very least, the event has been altered by point-of-view, by editing out the irrelevant-seeming details, by trying to describe the way it felt to witness the event. But there’s a difference between giving an altered reconstruction and willfully denying evidence because one doesn’t want to believe it. You’re right—the realm of storytelling is pretty wide open, and there’s no way to keep the crazies out. I’m not sure there’s anything to be done about that. For me, I suppose I might have felt more burdened by history if I was trying to replace the previous memoirs, history books, novels, and oral tellings of the Holocaust rather than simply add another voice.
Your narrator, Lena, portrays a certain innocence yet, when the world is remade, she is dealt a cruel hand by her birth parents. I’m reminded of Ursula K. LeGuin’s story “Those Who Walk Away from Omelas.” Community can have a nasty streak. In writing No One Is Here Except All of Us, what did you come to think of tribes?
That is such a haunting story. It’s true that we often take refuge in the idea that no one else is fixing the awful things in the world, either. And tribal wars are probably the most devastating kind. In the novel, the villagers decide to keep track of their new history by writing down everyone’s prayers. Perhaps this book is my own prayer that between all of us, we find a way to feel the bigness of everything, and go on.
How do you write? Where and with what? Are there certain things you require in order to write?
These days I have a three-month old baby, so I’m learning to be very adaptable. I find that the only thing I really, really require in order to write is a computer, since I cannot compose in longhand. It’s like my brain won’t turn on unless I’m typing. After that, it’s a real mash-up. Ideally, I try to write for two hours or so a day, though sometimes I’ve gotten lucky and written for eight. I wrote the whole first draft of this novel either in bed, where I could trick myself into feeling like I wasn’t working, or in the library. Once, I interrupted a vacation on the Red Sea coast in Egypt to resuscitate the book from certain death—evidence that good ideas sometimes come at inconvenient times. It was actually really lovely. I would sit on the balcony of our tiny room with the miniature laptop, enjoying the locally branded and amazingly named Gordoon’s gin and Boreo cookies. Basically, writing is key to the way I exist in the world, so I’ve learned not to make too many rules—that way, I take it with me everywhere.
A three-month-old baby and a brand-new book? I am raising my glass of Gordoon’s to you.
Samantha Hunt is the author of the novels The Seas, which in 2006 won a National Book Foundation award for writers under thirty-five, and The Invention of Everything Else.