In a thoughtful and personal interview, BookBrowse reviewer Kim Kovacs talks with Ramona Ausubel about the inspiration for her debut novel, No One Is Here Except All of Us.
An Interview with Ramona Ausubel
It seems like you hit a mental roadblock after researching your family history, mired in facts that wouldn't form into a novel. In an interview with Penguin you said that you "got closer to the truth once I put my notes away." Can you tell us more about that?
I had interviewed my grandmother, gathered photographs and letters and objects and spent time in the library doing research, but when I started to write, I felt completely stuck. I didn't have nearly enough information to write a real history, yet the information was enough to feel limiting. Finally, I realized that historians were taking care of the history - I only had to write my own story. This was to be my version of the old village where my great-grandmother had lived, my own way of understanding that time. The "real" place was gone - no one can ever know what it was truly like to live there again. But by imagining my way in, I hoped to find another version of it, alive for a second time.
After being so overwhelmed by your research - which even led you to take a two-year hiatus from this story - what prompted you to resume working on the novel?
The story had continued to knock around in my head, and when I found myself working there was a wonderful teacher who agreed to read pages as I produced them, so I plucked up my courage and began again. I wrote the whole first draft in a few weeks, and it was a terrific mess, but it existed. At least I had something to work from.
What was your grandmother's reaction when you first started this project? Did you approach her as a relative wanting to know more about the family history, or as a novelist thinking about writing a book?
At first I was definitely a relative wanting to know more about the family history. Even if the book had fizzled out, the fact that we spent many hours pouring over the albums while she told me stories mattered profoundly to both of us. That was one of the best things I've ever done. I think we were both pleasantly surprised that the book version of those stories came together.
This book is based on some of your great-grandmother's experiences, but much of it comes from your imagination. What did your family think? Was there criticism about what was included, left out, etc?
My grandmother describes sitting around the living room as a little girl while her mother and aunts told stories for hours and hours. Their job was to fold the past into the present by talking about it, and it mattered much less that they got everything right than that they kept it alive. I think my grandmother embraced my novel as one such tale. When I was finally finished with the book, I got up the guts to ask my grandmother what her parents, on whom the story is based, would have thought of it. I had always imagined them with their red pens, correcting all my mistakes. She brightened up and said, "They would be so flattered that you care!" I felt much better after that.
How difficult was it for you to move on after you finished writing this novel? Did you find yourself missing the characters or continuing to mentally "write" them, or were you ready to let them go once their story had been told?
As I've been working on new things, I miss the old familiar territory of this novel. However, after nineteen drafts, I'm also glad to be done! I do find myself remembering things that happen in the novel as if I had actually experienced them. I've spent so much time in that world, it feels first-hand. That's one of the great pleasures of being a writer. You get to spend your very real days in invented places.
Are you working on another project now, and if so, can you tell us about it?
I have a collection of short stories in the works called A Guide to Being Born (also forthcoming from Riverhead). All of the stories circle the ideas of parenthood, birth, and other such transformations.
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