Books·Q&A

Alix Ohlin explores the desire for an ending in short story collection We Want What We Want

We Want What We Want is a finalist for the 2021 Atwood Gibson Writers' Trust Prize for Fiction.

We Want What We Want is a finalist for the 2021 Atwood Gibson Writers' Trust Prize for Fiction.

Alix Ohlin is a Vancouver-based writer and the current chair of the creative writing program at the University of British Columbia. (Emily Cooper)

At first glance, the characters in Alix Ohlin's book We Want What We Want may look like a collection of a person's worst instincts. But the truth is, as the author points out, they're just human. They idly stalk their distant family members on Facebook. They gather bits of gossip about coworkers. They make questionable romantic decisions in search of security.

We Want What We Want is Ohlin's sixth book, and a return to the short story form that she loves. The collection is one of five works of fiction to be nominated for the $60,000 Atwood Gibson Writers' Trust Prize. The winner will be revealed on Nov. 3.

Raised in Montreal and now based in Vancouver, Ohlin is the current chair of the creative writing program at the University of British Columbia. Her previous two books were novels — Inside and Dual Citizensboth of which landed on the Scotiabank Giller Prize shortlist. 

Ohlin spoke to CBC Books about the years-long process of writing the stories in We Want What We Wantand why the short story form is so special to her.

How did you come up with the title, We Want What We Want

My original title for one of the stories and the collection as a whole dated back a few years. It was Quarantine: which at the time I wrote the story in 2017, it had all kinds of interesting associations to me about isolation and loneliness. By the time the book was ready to come out in 2021, that title had a completely different set of associations. So I changed it.

It was my editor who plucked the line, "we want what we want" from a piece of dialogue that was inside one of the stories. I hadn't thought of it as a title. But as soon as she brought it up, it brought the whole collection into relief for me. 

Can you tell me more about why it struck you, why it felt like such a good title?

As soon as my editor mentioned the theme of wanting and desire, I started to see it as a throughline that runs throughout the stories. The characters are driven by some wish, perhaps not even fully articulated to themselves, to change their lives, to seek something new, to find the next chapter, or to find intimacy or connection or clarity.

The characters are driven by some wish, perhaps not even fully articulated to themselves, to change their lives, to seek something new, to find the next chapter, or to find intimacy or connection or clarity.

A lot of what's happening in the stories is people pursuing their desires, even to their own detriment, like wanting to remake themselves or wanting to seek out a connection with someone else and making messy choices and consequences as a result of their desires. It's a messy place in our lives, but messy places are good for stories. So it makes sense that a lot of these characters are caught in that moment of wishing and wanting. 

Tell me about the timeline of this book. When did you write these stories? 

This is a collection of stories that I've written over quite a few years. I love them as a form. I think that the story form is very elastic. It's a playground for experimentation for me. I write stories all the time. I'm not a natural novelist, although I also write novels. Short stories don't have the same pressure on them as a novel does. It's a place where I feel very free as a writer and where I can have a lot of fun. I wind up with a lot of short stories and there's a lot of range to them. Sometimes they are quite different in form or style or tone.

I think of a story collection almost as a family, where the stories are distant cousins, or perhaps people who have married in or have other kinds of connections.

 

When I get to the point of assembling a collection like this one, I look back on all this work and try to find areas of commonality or stories that seem to fit together. I think of a story collection almost as a family, where the stories are cousins or distant cousins, or perhaps people who have married in or have other kinds of connections. But they all belong together in some sort of cluster or constellation. Then, I set aside the stories that feel too different. Ultimately, I hope to add up to a collection that does feel like it has a coherence to it. It's an aesthetic whole. 

LISTEN | Alix Ohlin discusses her fiction:

Alix Ohlin isn't quite a household name, but she's already been nominated for Canada's most prestigious fiction award as many times as Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood and Miriam Toews. Ohlin received her second nomination for the Scotiabank Giller Prize for her new book, Dual Citizens, in which she explores the intensity and messiness of relationships – familial and otherwise.

What threads pull these stories together? 

 The book has an epigraph from a poem by Brigit Pegeen Kelly, who is a poet that I love and admire. The line is:

Child. We are done for
in the most remarkable ways.

It's a poem about a lot of things. Kelly was a very spiritual poet. But this poem is a lot about apprehending death and how experiences of loss and endings can give weight and significance to life and to beginnings and middles. A big part of what I saw when I looked back at these stories was characters who are grappling with the ends of things — the death of a relationship, of a loved one, of a cherished dream, even perhaps the person that they used to be — and confronting these endings. 

It can be sad, but it can also be quite illuminating for them. It can reveal something about their lives. It can teach them something about how they want to go forward in life. When the poem reads, "We're done for in the most remarkable ways," there's that turn: that suggestion that being done for, reaching the end of things, can nonetheless or even because of itself lead us into remarkable places in life.

That, for me, is a theme that runs through the collection: What do you do when you come to the end of one part of your life? Who do you become? What do you owe the people around you? What choice are you going to make when things pivot or alter or change? 

What was the toughest story to write or the easiest story to write for you? 

I would say the first story in the book, which was originally called Quarantine and is now called The Point of No Return. It's about two women and their lifelong friendship, how it waxes and wanes over many years and how their lives turned out in some ways similarly and in some ways, radically different. I had this idea of a woman who has a perceived allergy to electricity. She is allergic to the modern world. I had that idea in my head for a long time, but never knew what I was going to do with it or what I wanted to say about it. Then one day, I realized it wasn't a story just about her. It was going to be about her relationship with another woman and what she and this other woman could teach each other, what they could learn about their identities by spending time together or not spending time together. 

I'm a big believer in allowing things to brew and exist in your mind for a long time before you finally set them down.

One day, I sat down and I wrote the story pretty much in one sitting. It was fantastic and felt easy. It flowed and appeared in a complete form on the screen of my laptop. But I think it did because it had been percolating in my head for such a long time. I'm a big believer in allowing things to brew and exist in your mind for a long time before you finally set them down. 

Social media is part of your book. What makes it a mesmerizing topic for you as a fiction writer? 

I didn't necessarily set out to write stories about social media. I don't have some comment or trenchant opinion to offer about social media. I'm particularly not interested in demonizing it or in dismissing it. What I do think is true is that social media is part of the fabric of contemporary life, and therefore to write stories in which social media plays no part felt increasingly inauthentic to me. A lot of these stories are about people who come into each other's lives at brief moments and then go away again or then return. So much of our experiences of estrangement and connection with people are mediated on Facebook, on Twitter, on Instagram, and so much of what we're doing in terms of forming judgments of other people and judgments of our own lives, it's all happening online. 

Social media is part of the fabric of contemporary life, and therefore to write stories in which social media plays no part felt increasingly inauthentic to me.

It felt like an interesting thing to track. I have this one story about two women and their friendship starting when they're young, in their 20s, and going all the way through middle age. At the beginning, they're hanging out in person, then they live in different places and communicate via letter and phone call, and then eventually through social media accounts. There's a freaky moment for one of them when the other one completely disappears from social media and she doesn't know what it means.

I think you can't dismiss the emotional complexity that we have with us. We even have emotionally complex parasocial relationships with strangers or celebrities because of social media. It goes back to this intensely human urge to connect with other people. The fact that we do it through computers now doesn't mean that those aren't authentic and equally complicated. I'm interested in thinking about how those narratives on social media are embedded within the narratives that we tell about our own lives and the narratives that I can tell about characters as a writer. 

Is it easier to construct an ending for a short story or for a novel?

I don't know if it's easier or harder. I just think they're different. For a novel, there's more pressure on the ending because there's a larger narrative apparatus that leads up to it. If the ending doesn't feel satisfying to the reader and they have spent 500 pages within this work, then it's a crushing feeling of disappointment. So that's huge and something to think a lot about.

With short story endings, I think you have a more opportunity to do something that feels less resolved or stranger or more unsettling. That said, there's still a certain amount of pressure on it because of the compression and brevity of the form — if it doesn't land right, then people come to the end and they're like, "I don't get what you were trying to do or what I was supposed to take from it."

Sometimes ending on a strong and arresting final line can make the reader sit up and pay attention or can bring the whole thing into focus. There's a line from the poet Stanley Kunick. He said, "End poems on an image, and don't explain it." I often think about that in relation to the short story. I love the experience as a reader of coming to a short story and there still being a feeling of lingering mystery and having the space as a reader to puzzle through and make meaning for myself out of what I just read. Sometimes I hear from readers who wish that I had offered something more resolved or final, but I guess some of that is a question of personal taste. 

Every writer wants people to read their work. Is that something that's important to you when you're writing?

I do very much want people to read my work, but I try not to think about it at all when I when I'm writing or I would just be completely incapacitated. I know I'm a writer because I am a deeply introverted person. I'm very shy and very private. I am not a performer who naturally gets up on a stage and sings a song, for example.

For me, it's very much a process of excavation. I would be super embarrassed if anybody saw me doing it or knew that I was at home in my pyjamas looking like a mess doing it. I try not to think about what's going to happen to a finished book, otherwise I would just be too freaked out to do it at all.

We're in the middle of literary awards season. Your books are often nominated for these big prizes. What is that like for you? 

I feel very grateful for it. I especially feel grateful when it's a collection of short stories, because it's so hard to get attention for story collections. I'm happy when there's like an extra boost that the book is given. I also think there's a nice culture, at least in my own experience, being on these prize lists. It's been an opportunity to connect with the other writers. It's not some cut-throat competition. Every time I've been on a prize list, I have bonded in an extremely lovely way with the other writers and felt real solidarity with them. Some of it is kind of strange, these experiences that you have on the prize list, going to receptions or events. As writers, we're often clustered awkwardly in the corner of the room because we're not used to being out in the world. 

Alix Ohlin who is nominated for the 2019 Giller Prize for her book "Dual Citizens" arrives on the red carpet before the gala ceremony in Toronto, on Monday, November 18, 2019. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

What does success mean to you as a writer? 

I'm always trying to challenge and evolve my own definition of success. It's one of the exciting things about writing is that it's never static, it's always changing. For me, success has to do with trying to figure out who I am as a writer and who I am going to be next. You're never going to write the same book twice. I'm always asking myself, what risk am I able to take? How am I going to change or do something that challenges myself as a writer? I always think, how can I be stranger? It might sound weird, but if you don't allow yourself to be strange, then you don't get to anything that feels particular or specific to yourself.

I think if I start something and I'm bored by it myself, or I know where it's going, then that predictability is a bad sign.

Success has to do with feeling like I have that permission that I can give to myself to evolve as a writer and to look to the next project and to discover it and allow it to be something that, for me anyway, is going to feel quite different from anything that I've written before. 

How do you know when something has become strange enough?

If I start something and I'm bored by it myself, or I know where it's going, then that predictability is a bad sign. It's hard for me because I'm someone who, in my actual life, I love predictability and routine and structure. I could eat the same thing for breakfast every single day for the rest of my life, and I would be fine. But in my work, I don't want that. I want a feeling of mystery and of scary groping in the dark and not knowing how the project is going to turn out. If I know too much in advance, then I think it's the wrong thing. 

This interview has been condensed for length and clarity.

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