Awayland Creates a Geography of the Imagination
By Columnist Ellen Birkett Morris
A mother fades into the mist, a lonely Cyclops tries online dating, a young boy looking for direction takes a job in Turkey and ends up comforting a grieving widow, mummified animals robbed from Egyptian pyramids offer their “thanks.” In her latest book, Awayland, Ramona Ausubel offers up a collection of strange and beautiful stories. The stories take us to other worlds, forcing the reader to examine their beliefs and offering insights into the universality of human experience in a way that is fresh and captivating.
Ausubel talks about the creation of these stories:
AUTHORLINK: Tell me about the title and how you came to it.
I started Awayland with that feeling of longing—both for a home and to keep moving . . .
AUSUBEL: I have moved a lot and traveled a lot and for my entire adult life have not known where my home is. It feels, in a way, like movement is my home. I started Awayland with that feeling of longing—both for a home and to keep moving—in mind. The characters are each at some kind of distance from their places or themselves and I wanted the title of the book to invoke a physical geography to that emotional state. Where do we live? We live in Awayland.
AUTHORLINK: These stories seem rooted in a mystical mythic universe. Where did this approach come from? How do you manage to make the stories both fantastical and universal?
I find it feels more true to me to allow some deformation in the outer world to reflect that complexity of the inner worlds.
AUSUBEL: I think this might just be how my brain is wired. The stories I’ve loved most are the ones that acknowledge the mysterious around us (fairy tales, myths, magical realism, etc.). Our inner lives are wildly complex, overgrown places and rarely conform to strict logic, so I find it feels more true to me to allow some deformation in the outer world to reflect that complexity of the inner worlds. I’m always writing about what I see all around me even if in doing so the story takes a fantastical leap.
AUTHORLINK: What authors and stories influenced your writing of these stories?
AUSUBEL: In some ways I always feel like I cannot truthfully name my influences because it means I would be fully aware of everything that has come into my head over the course of the years I worked on the stories. Every podcast, every novel, every story. That being said, here are some authors whose books I kept close while writing these stories: Samantha Hunt, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Manuel Gonzales, Marie-Helene Bertino, Michael Andreasen, Matt Sumell and Marisa Matarazzo.
AUTHORLINK: How did you know you had a collection? Did you write these with building a collection in mind or did you find you had a set of stories that belonged together?
AUSUBEL: I always have short stories going because writing a novel is such a long process and I need the joy and satisfaction of a story sometimes. I knew I had a collection a couple of years in when I started to see the themes developing and then wrote with the whole in mind afterward.
AUTHORLINK: Talk to me about the four sections of the book and why you decided to divide them this way.
AUSUBEL: My first collection is also divided in such a way because it was something I found created a wholeness to the different parts. I wanted to say to the reader that these pieces are all in relationship to one another, all part of a larger question. I also liked how the section titles worked to underscore that idea of geography, of a landscape with physical and emotional features. I wanted the book to be its own geography, for “Awayland” to be a kind of place. I liked the way the section titles made them into visual landscapes.
AUTHORLINK: You’ve also established subtle links between stories can you discuss that?
AUSUBEL: Some of the small links include islands and storms (the Cyclops talks about his father causing storms in small islands and in “High Desert” the protagonist’s daughter drowns in such a storm). The two women in “Freshwater From the Sea” and “Mother Land” turn out to be sisters. There are other tiny gestures, like the places on some of the t-shirts the museum visitors wear in “The Animal Mummies Wish to Thank the Following” depict places that appear elsewhere in the book.
AUTHORLINK: You also write novels. What do the writing of short stories and novels have in common? How does their creation differ?
I used to think I’d only write stories if I could, but I have come to really love both forms.
AUSUBEL: I used to think I’d only write stories if I could, but I have come to really love both forms. About novels I love the space to explore a series of ideas and characters over a time. About stories I love that a big risk is possible, a magic trick that would fade or dissipate over three-hundred pages but in ten or fifteen can burn brightly.
AUTHORLINK: What were the greatest challenges when writing these stories and how did you overcome them?
AUSUBEL: The challenges are many in writing any book and for me, the answer is always the same: keep coming back, keep trying to fall in love with the material. When I’m stuck I tell myself not worry about the whole, but to simply to do the next most interesting thing.
AUTHORLINK: Tell me about your research for this book.
Otherwise I read and pay attention to my regular everyday life and something is always sprouting on the page . . .
AUSUBEL: I travelled around the world for most of a year, and many of the stories came out of that trip. Otherwise I read and pay attention to my regular everyday life and something is always sprouting on the page because of that.
AUTHORLINK: Talk to me about your revision process when working with your editor at Riverhead. What sort of changes did you make? Any tips on revision for apprentice writers?
AUSUBEL: These stories were very far along by the time they got to my editor at Riverhead and many had already been through an editorial process at magazines and journals, so the process wasn’t terribly long. My favorite part was working with my editor on the larger geography and linking the stories in a few subtle ways.
I write first drafts quickly and then revise for years because I love the way a story keeps revealing layers . . .
I write first drafts quickly and then revise for years because I love the way a story keeps revealing layers and layers the more I know it and work on it. I love having a story loop through my life again and again. Nothing is fixed, every part is a moving part.
AUTHORLINK: Discuss what you are working on now.
AUSUBEL: I’m working on a new novel about a family of scientists who are working to reintroduce the wooly mammoth. It’s about science and the imagination, as well as the human commitments we make and break. And of course, things do not go as planned.
About the author: Ramona Ausubel is the author of Awayland, as well as two novels: Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty (Riverhead Books), which was a San Francisco Chronicle and NPR Best Book of the Year and a People magazine Book of the Week and No One is Here Except All of Us (2012). Her debut story collection, A Guide to Being Born (2013) was a New York Times Notable Book. Winner of the PEN Center USA Literary Award for Fiction and the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award. Ramona is a faculty member of the Low-Residency MFA program at the Institute of American Indian Arts and Visiting Professor at Colorado College.