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The Unknowable Middle – Ausubel on Crafting a Novel

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 Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty

The Unknowable Middle – Ausubel on Crafting a Novel 

An exclusive Authorlink interview

By Columnist Ellen Birkett Morris

November 2016

 


Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty
by Ramona Ausubel

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In her latest novel, Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty, Ramona Ausubel drew on her family history as an imaginative springboard to explore the lives of a once wealthy family who find themselves dispossessed.

“I was interested in exploring questions of what money can buy and what it can’t,” said Ausubel.

Ancestor’s on her mother’s side had once been wealthy and held in high social standing. Over time the money dwindled. Her grandmother’s summer house was turned into the writers and artist colony Ragdale.

“The real challenge of a novel is to set the characters against the ideas in a lived life. “
—AUSUBEL

Growing up, Ausubel would think about the trappings of wealth, like tattered silk dresses packed in an old steamer trunk. Over time the idea for a novel grew and developed.

The story begins with a family unmoored, as Fern discovers her family fortune is gone. When this loss of funds threatens to force her husband Edgar into the family steel business, Edgar embarks on an ill-advised affair with a woman named Glory, who he meets at the market.

“The real challenge of a novel is to set the characters against the ideas in a lived life. It was my job to give it physical motion, to reveal the characters through place, time and the other characters they meet along the way,” said Ausubel.

This fictional life is rich with unusual characters and interesting complications. Unsettled by her husband’s infidelity, Fern embarks on a cross-country road trip with a man who suffers from gigantism, who she meets when they perform a mock-wedding for the residents of a nursing home. She leaves a note for Edgar assuming he will take care of the children.  At the same time, Edgar leaves his wife to go off on a sailing trip with Glory, assuming his wife is home with their three children.

While their parents are indulging in an adventure, the children have an adventure of their own as they camp out in the backyard and attempt to recreate Native American history.

“The story is anchored by the magnetic center of the money . . .”
AUSUBEL

The book was made richer by brief interludes where the narrator would shift from the particulars of the story to points where a character would look at a landscape and you would dive deep into the evolution of the place and its social development. One example was a passage that explores the slave trade in an area of the American South.

“The story is anchored by the magnetic center of the money, what it has done to them, what people have done for it,” said Ausubel.

Her greatest challenge in writing the book was figuring out how to structure it. She settled on chapters which alternated between the past and the present. 

“It took me a long time to figure it out. It was so simple, but I couldn’t see it. The past is a really important part of the story and when I put in it in flashbacks it was hard to keep the momentum going and hard to figure out where I was in this map,” said Ausubel.

She said the alternating chapters allowed the reader to “create a conversation” between the moments that are portrayed.  

Ausubel said writing a novel is “an extended act of faith.”

“You need three things to become a successful novelist: talent, luck and discipline.”
AUSUBEL

“I’m always trying to follow what I’m most interested in, even if I don’t completely understand it. Having written other novels, I know now how long it takes to get there, how long you spend in the mysterious, unknowable middle zone. I don’t rush to the end.”

Her advice to writers comes from a well-known quote from Michael Chabon:
You need three things to become a successful novelist: talent, luck and discipline. Discipline is the one element of those three things that you can control, and so that is the one that you have to focus on controlling, and you just have to hope and trust in the other two.

“The people from my program who are publishing are the ones who are still working,” said Ausubel. “You have to be willing to take your work apart. Take that pretty good thing apart and make it better.”

She is currently at work on her next novel and will release a collection of short stories in 2018.

About the Author

Ramona Ausubel is the author of the novels, Sons and Daughters of Ease and PlentyNo One is Here Except All of Us, and a collection of short stories A Guide to Being Born.  Winner of the PEN Center USA Literary Award for Fiction and the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award, she has also been a finalist for the New York Public Library Young Lions Fiction Award, and long-listed for the Frank O’Connor International Story Award and the International Impac Dublin Literary Award.  She holds an MFA from the University of California, Irvine where she won the Glenn Schaeffer Award in Fiction and served as editor of Faultline Journal of Art & Literature.

About Regular Contributor
Ellen Birkett Morris
Ellen Birkett Morris is an award-winning journalist whose interviews and reviews have appeared in Authorlink, Prairie Schooner Online, The Louisville Courier-Journal, and reprinted in the reader’s guides to The Receptionist and Clever Girl. Her fiction has appeared in journals including Antioch Review, South Caroline Review and Notre Dame Review. Ellen is a regular contributor to Authorlink.