In a recent post about Rhett Miller and the Old 97s, we mentioned Alix Ohlin as a writer with no known connection to Hobart. Alix subsequently wrote in to advise us, first, that she is also an Old 97s fan and, second, that she does in fact have a connection to Hobart -- the one we created by mentioning her.
Thus Alix hit upon the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle of the Hobart Blog: The moment this blog identifies an author as not being connected to Hobart, it will have, instantaneously and inevitably, connected that writer to Hobart.
After pondering this, we asked Alix if she would agree to an interview. Who knew what else we might learn? And so here begins the first of what we hope will be a series of semi-regular short interviews of some of our favorite writers.
Sean: Hi Alix. Thanks for doing this. So, the first question will be easy, then the questions won't get any harder, and before we know it the interview will be over.
What are you reading right now, and how are you liking it?
Alix: Sean--okay, here goes.
I've been reading my way through the novels of William Boyd, whose literary thriller Restless was one of my favourites last year. What's so impressive about him is that every one of his books is so different--Any Human Heart is a first person narrative, told through journals, that spans the twentieth century; Armadillo is a comic noir that folds sleeping labs, insurance adjustment, and Serbian immigrants into its mysterious plot. Each time I read a book by Boyd, I'm surprised at what he's come up with; and I've never encountered a book by him I didn't like.
On the non-fiction side, I recently finished Tom Bissell's impressive Vietnam book, The Father of All Things, and am enjoying Marina Warner's No Go the Bogeyman, which dissects the endless allure of the grotesque in literature, art, folklore and history.
Sean: We at Hobart believe it's only a matter of time until you are asked to contribute a "Living With Music" list of favorite songs to the New York Times' blog Papercuts. This means we have possibly our only chance to scoop the New York Times. Can you give us a briefly annotated three-song playlist? Also, while we're on this topic, listening to music while writing: Yes or no? Why or why not?
Alix: Jeez, this is the most pressure-filled question a writer has to answer. You just know people are going to read the playlist and think, "I can't believe she likes that song" or "that's so 2006!" or whatever. But, I am brave enough to try it anyway. My current heavy-rotation songs are:
1. "Just Like a Woman" -- Calexico & Charlotte Gainsbourg. This is from the "I'm Not There" soundtrack, which I've been listening to a lot lately. Charlotte Gainsbourg sounds less like she's singing and more like she's whispering the lyrics into your ear at a smoky bar.
2. "Going to a Town" -- Rufus Wainwright. Political commentary sung like a torch song. Shouldn't work, but it does.
3. "Debe" -- Ali Farka Toure and Toumani Diabate. This is from the album "In The Heart of the Moon," a collaboration between two great African musicians. It's a few years old but I just got it this past summer and I listen to it almost every day. I find it calming--very uplifting and sad at the same time.
As for listening to music while writing--no, I don't. Theoretically that's because it would be too distracting, though that doesn't prevent me from checking email (and answering interview questions, and scrolling through my iTunes library, and, and) while I'm supposed to be working. Maybe I need to take another look at my own rules.
Sean: Just don't join Facebook or sign up for Scrabulous. That's my humble advice. Writers often talk about the difficulty of keeping themselves away from available distractions. Why do you suppose it should be so hard to get down to work? Because writing is so difficult? The fear of pouring yourself into something that won't pan out? Something else, perhaps?
Alix: Thanks for the warning about Facebook and Scrabulous. Even without those sites I manage to find a million other ways and places to waste time. I'm a frighteningly reliable email correspondent and way too well-informed about the latest Britney news. Why is this? Laziness, distractibility, brain torpor, insufficiently strong coffee...the culprits are legion. But yes, I think fear probably plays the biggest part. After all, no project is ever as brilliant as the still-dreamt of, unwritten thing. And as soon as you get going, you fail. Or at least I do.
As a way to combat this problem, I sometimes have a "decoy" project, the important, serious thing I'm supposed to be working on. And then I take a break from it and write a story just for fun, as a break. And the story almost always turns out better than the main project. This helps me, though it may also result in my having written a lot of somewhat silly stories, and no second novel in sight.
Sean: Let’s go back for a minute to the endless allure of the grotesque.
In your story collection "Babylon," and your novel "The Missing Person," a spectral otherworld often seems to bleed into or direct events in the so-called real world. When Lynn goes back to Albuquerque, for example, "The Missing Person" starts to read like a dream (for me, anyway). Angus, her eco-radical lover, seems both literally and figuratively dreamy, and the events in her life just get weird. The mother's boyfriend, and those creepy paintings.
Do you see these themes in your stories? How much is this a matter of choice, and how much naturally emerges as you are writing? Does reading about, say, the endless allure of the grotesque make you think, "A man with one arm. I need a man with one arm . . ."
Alix: I do need a man with one arm. I was just thinking that.
But truthfully I don't intellectualize my own style as I'm working, especially in the early stages, which I imagine is the case for most writers. If things come out somewhat quirky or absurd or off-kilter, it's because that style feels organic to me--I'm at home there--in the same way that a lush naturalism or over-the-top fabulism would be organic to someone else.
Which is not to say that I don't strive to attain certain effects. In her book, Warner talks about three usages of the grotesque: we raise monsters for the visceral catharsis of confrontation; we calm ourselves with protective lullabies; and we turn horror into mockery and dark humor. My style isn't particularly grotesque-filled but I do believe in probing the dark, hitting that painful vein, and finding some rich combination of fear and sorrow and humor there.
Sean: The collective need to transform horror into mockery and dark humor -- that would explain the popularity of the Daily Show.
We’re on the last question, so let me say thank you again. This has been a lot of fun.
I wanted to end by asking if you could tell us your favorite advice about writing that you give to your students? Is there, for example, something wise or inspirational about writing that you say on the last day of class, that you hope they’ll never forget?
Alix: Thank *you* so much for the interview! It's been my pleasure.
I'm not very good at giving inspirational speeches to students. It always makes me feel like I'm impersonating a football coach in a movie or something. And I also sort of believe that to be a writer, this foolish, impractical, highly individual thing, you need to have such intense stubborn desire that no inspirational speech will affect you, nor discouraging criticism deter you. So it's almost beside the point.
That said, I do sometimes talk about one of my teachers from graduate school, the brilliant Scottish writer James Kelman. Kelman hated the American workshop system and when class discussions got too technical he'd throw manuscript papers down on the table and yell, "This is shite! Shite!" then storm out of the room. He believed passionately in the personal and political urgency of art, and that's what he wanted to be talking about. Anyway, at the end of the year, I went to talk to him about this novel I was thinking of starting and wasn't sure about, and he looked me in the eye and said, "Make art. Be bold. Take risks. Don't wait another second." And that is pretty good advice to pass on to students, although I do think it sounds better in a Scottish accent.
-- Alix Ohlin is the author of the novel "The Missing Person" and the collection "Babylon and Other Stories." She lives in Easton, Pennsylvania, and teaches at Lafayette College.