An Autobiography of My Passions

Danila Botha In Conversation with Alix Ohlin

 
Alix Ohlin is the author of three incredible novels, including 2012’s Giller and Roger’s Writer’s Trust Fiction Prize shortlisted Inside, and two beautiful short story collections, Babylon and Other Stories, and Signs and Wonders. She is also the chair of the UBC Creative Writing program, where she is an associate professor who teaches fiction writing, screen writing and environmental writing. Her latest novel, Dual Citizens (House of Anansi) is emotionally acute, with brilliant characterization and unique descriptions. It was such a pleasure to interview her.

Alix Ohlin is the author of three incredible novels, including 2012’s Giller and Roger’s Writer’s Trust Fiction Prize shortlisted Inside, and two beautiful short story collections, Babylon and Other Stories, and Signs and Wonders. She is also the chair of the UBC Creative Writing program, where she is an associate professor who teaches fiction writing, screen writing and environmental writing. Her latest novel, Dual Citizens (House of Anansi) is emotionally acute, with brilliant characterization and unique descriptions. It was such a pleasure to interview her.

 
 
Alix Ohlin. Dual Citizens . House of Anansi. $22.95, 256 pp., ISBN: 9781487004866

Alix Ohlin. Dual Citizens . House of Anansi. $22.95, 256 pp., ISBN: 9781487004866

Danila Botha: In an interview I read with you, when Inside was published, you said, “Everything I’ve ever written is the result of gradual, daily, slow and steady accumulation of words. I start something, I hold on to it, and I don’t let it go.”

Tell me about the writing process for Dual Citizens. It has such a beautiful fable like quality - the beautiful Montreal and rural Quebec imagery, the descriptions of small town college life and New York. Where did the story start when you started writing it? What were your influences, literary or otherwise?

Alix Ohlin: Thank you for the kind words. I usually start a book not knowing what it’s going to be about, and only through the process of writing multiple drafts does the story take shape. For Dual Citizens, I began with the idea of a love story between sisters. I wanted to write something that presented the relationship between two women as the major scaffolding for their identities and their lives, doing justice to the primacy and complexity of that bond. At the time I’d been reading the Neapolitan novels by Elena Ferrante, which place a female friendship at the centre of a world with multiple intersections—the novels are about the friendship between Elena and Lila, yes, but also about politics, and class systems, intellectual and sexual coming of age. I was fascinated by Ferrante’s style, how expositional it is and how much time she covers so rapidly, sketching the backdrop of the times and then swooping into very specific, very emotional scenes. There’s so much energy in her work and I was drawn to respond to it in my own writing.

DB: That’s so interesting. I loved the opening scene, and the precariousness of the pregnancy and the sister dynamic. Music is always such a huge part of my process; when I read all your beautiful wolf imagery, I could hear the Neko Case song Star Witness as the soundtrack.

AO: It’s funny you mention Neko Case, because I listened to her album Middle Cyclone a lot during this time. The last track on that album, “Marais La Nuit,” is basically a twenty-minute long field recording outside her farm in Vermont featuring frogs and night sounds. The whole album is suffused with the natural world and I loved the wildness of it, crickets and birds and wind. When Robin plays piano in her barn in Dual Citizens, it’s an homage to that, as well as to the piano playing in “Sonny’s Blues” by James Baldwin, one of the best stories about music and siblings and sorrow ever written. A lot of details in the book are homages to movies and music and art that have been important to me. It was fun to write a testament to those things, sort of an autobiography of my passions.

DB: “An autobiography of my passions”: I love that.

AO: On the way to writing about them, I wrote all kinds of detours and digressions in Lark’s and Robin’s lives—at one point there was a whole section in Robin’s voice, which I took out; at another point there was a lengthy exploration of the ethics of artificial intelligence—and then pared them back eventually to the form the book takes now.

DB: Your characterization is always so beautiful and so sensitive. In Dual Citizens, Lark and Robin are both such strong, interesting personalities, and have different responses to their childhood – Lark wanting to be as invisible and without need as possible, yet still being stable and dependable; Robin wanting to have the freedom to do whatever she wanted to, yet still remaining a mystery. It was amazing to be able to feel for both of them in every situation. Was it difficult to present the story from both sides, especially when their needs conflicted with each other? Was one easier to write than the other, or did you always conceive of every storyline with both of them connected?

AO: In my mind, despite their very different personalities and ways of seeing the world, Lark and Robin represent two sides of the same coin. They both grow up with a mother who rebels against the conventions and expectations of her era, even though they don’t respond to her example in the same fashion. They’re both drawn to forms of artistic expression—Lark to film editing, and Robin to music—and they both chafe against a similar set of impossible demands and conditions that the world imposes upon women. Lark has some formative experiences with dominating and intellectually extroverted men and she retreats from that dynamic, preferring to be invisible and to express her creativity behind the scenes, in the editing room. Robin hates performance, which she associates with being looked at and controlled by other people, and she walks away from a career as a pianist that would have felt to her like ceding autonomy. They both wind up choosing to be outsiders. They don’t always agree with each other’s perceptions and actions but the wellsprings are the same, and this is part of what keeps them connected throughout their lives.

DB: That’s beautiful. I was moved to tears when I was reading (your books always have that effect on me, especially this one) particularly the scene after her accident where Lark thinks that she hallucinated seeing Robin because their lives were so separate. Their relationship is so engaging and so intense, both in its intimacy and in its distance. Was it hard to keep them apart when their dynamic was so special?

AO: I’m not a big outliner of novels, preferring to allow the characters and themes to emerge organically. That said, the one structural idea I had for this book was that it would imitate and subvert the three acts of an old-fashioned love story: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl. But instead of boy and girl it would be a love story between sisters, and their relationship would rupture and then resume. The loss of Robin in the middle part of the book is the hardest for Lark to bear, because her sister is the companion of her soul. Without Robin she is completely alone in the world. But it’s perhaps necessary for them to be apart for a while in order to come back together on terms that work better for each of them. Another thing that interests me in art, and in life, is the idea of pattern—how we find meaning in the repetition and reversal of things that have happened before. In growing apart and then knitting their lives back together, Lark and Robin reverse the pattern of their childhood—the sister who used to be the caretaker finds herself in need of care—but they also repeat it too, as they make a family together. The combination of both patterns at once was emotionally and thematically satisfying to me and I hoped it would be satisfying for the reader, too.

DB: That’s so insightful and fascinating. I’m very interested in the way that mothers are presented in the novel, from their mother Marianne, who is fascinating and independent and larger than life, but also self -absorbed, to Olga, Robin’s professor, who was cold but inspired Robin artistically, to Robin’s piano teacher Mrs. Gasparian, who made both sisters feel safe and talked to them like they were adults. There’s a certain emotional distance about all of them, sometimes a sense that they’ve sometimes disappointed her, but yet they give her things to think about or to define herself in opposition to, they give her insights and push her out of her comfort zone. Was this a conscious commentary about our expectations of our mothers/mother figures? I’d love to hear thoughts on this.

AO: Certainly I’m invested in the idea that there are all kinds of ways to be a mother and to be mothered, that many different people can care for us and fulfill our variegated needs and none of this caring is limited to biology or to the containers of our families of origin. I liked the idea of opening up the concept of mothering to a wider range of experiences and personalities. When I was an English major in school I was assigned to read Harold Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence, a touchstone of literary criticism which theorizes that poets grapple with their complex and fraught relationships with the writers who came before them. A feminist critique of this book was that all the writers he cites are male and that the relationships he charts are fully patriarchal.

Ever since I encountered both the original book and the critique, I’ve wondered what an anxiety of influence would look for women. What do women writers and artists take from the generations before them, what do they learn from and rebel against and so forth? How do they define themselves as artists in a culture that even today often glosses genius and eccentricity and artistic achievement as male? We still see a privileging of male identities in all kinds of art forms, including in film, where the director (a position dominated by men) is treated as the auteur of the work while the contributions of others (including editors, positions historically more welcoming to women) are downplayed or ignored.

A lot of these ideas about women and art are in play in the novel. For Robin, it’s Mrs. Gasparian’s early recognition of her talent that sets her on the path to music. Lark’s decision to become an editor in film and television, and her feeling that this work is worthwhile and well-suited to her, is inextricable from the women who serve as intellectual and emotional guides in her life.

DB: I love the way you play with nominative determinism, and the idea that Lark and Robin feel that they were given the wrong names. (The scene where Lark talks about Robin’s musical gifts and their names is so revealing.) I found them both, but especially Lark so remarkable. I’d love to hear about how their names came about.

AO: I wanted the two characters to have a taxonomy that would show them as two of a kind, permanently related, even when their paths diverge. So the bird names were part of that.

I had written a long piece, in a book of essays that was never published, about birds in Shakespeare, called “Ariel and Audubon.” It was about the charisma of birds, how they serve as stand-ins for all kinds of values we assign to art and artifice. So as emblems, birds seemed appropriate. I’m also drawn to irony and I thought it was sort of funny for shy Lark, who isn’t a lark of a person at all, to be saddled with a name that doesn’t suit her by a teenage mother who thought it sounded cool and rebellious and artsy. In terms of cultural backdrop, I think the names are generationally accurate, as Lark and Robin are born at a time when names were starting to become less traditional. For Marianne, their mother, giving two girls non-church names probably felt almost scandalous, whereas nowadays, people name their kids from all kinds of traditions or no traditions at all. I know kids named Fox and Oak and, I don’t know, Blue Ivy. Lark and Robin grow up in the space between those ends of the spectrum.

DB: I love way that the women’s narratives are always centred in the story, so that the men, from their fathers, who we never actually see, to Gordon (who I found hilarious) to Wheelock (who even in Lark’s mind, she never refers to by his first name) and Bernard, who sort of floats in and out of Robin’s life (along with other undefined relationships) are just part of it, and not the whole story. Was this always conscious?

AO: Keeping the women’s stories and relationships in the foreground was definitely a conscious choice for me. I was thinking a lot about the connection between the history of the novel and the marriage plot, a narrative that follows the progression of a romantic relationship through various stages of turbulence and ends with a wedding that represents some kind of consummation and the presumed formation of a new family unit. It’s such an influential set of tropes. And I wanted to write a story in which it’s the women whose bond takes precedence, who experience rupture and turbulence, who form a new family unit by the end. I fully enjoyed writing the male characters in the book—Gordon in particular is dear to me, I’m so glad you thought he was funny—and I hoped to make clear that Robin and Lark would have important connections with those characters, but that the fact of their finding male partners was never going to represent completion for them or the end of their story. Their story is about something else.

DB: What are you working on these days? I love your short fiction so much, too. More short fiction? Another novel?

AO: I’ve been finishing up a collection of short stories, which will hopefully be published by House of Anansi in 2020, and just starting to daydream my way into a new novel.

DB: Oh, that’s great news. Thank you so much for agreeing to do this interview. I’ve been such a huge fan for years.

AO: Thanks for all the thoughtful questions, Danila! I really appreciate your attention to the novel. It was a pleasure to do this interview with you.

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Danila Botha is a fiction writer based in Toronto. Her first collection of short stories, Got No Secrets was published in 2010, and was named one of Britannica’s Books of the Year (Canadian short stories). Her first novel, Too Much on the Inside was shortlisted for the 2016 Relit Award and won a Book Excellence Award for Contemporary Novel. Her most recent collection of short stories, For All the Men (and Some of the Women) I've Known was a finalist for the 2017 Trillium Book Awards and was  shortlisted for the Vine Awards for Canadian Jewish Literature, and most recently, the ReLit Awards. Danila teaches Creative Writing at the University of Toronto, and at Humber College’s School for Writers. She is currently working on her second novel and on a new collection of short stories.