Alix Ohlin on imperfection and scheming raccoons
Alix Ohlin's novel Inside was a finalist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize and the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize. The book follows Grace, a Montreal therapist who develops complicated feelings for a suicidal man.
Below, Alix Ohlin answers eight questions submitted by eight of her fellow writers in the CBC Books Magic 8 Q&A.
1. Drew Hayden Taylor asks, "If you were to have a dinner party, which two characters from everything you've created would you like to have sit at your dining room table and chat with?"
I'm not sure I'd want to invite any of my characters to dinner! This is not because I don't like them, but because, by the time the books are done, I feel I've spent a lot — and I mean a lot — of time with them already. That said, as a child I do remember writing some stories featuring a scheming raccoon and a character named Super Pickle. Those are characters I'd be curious to meet in real life.
2. Helen Humphreys asks, "If you write in a room with a window, what is the view out of that window?"
I write in a lot of different rooms, and I never look out the window when I'm writing. If I have the option of a pleasant view I close the curtains. I try to narrow my world to the screen or the page. I want the imagined universe to take over.
3. Vincent Lam asks, "At some point in the writing of a book, have you ever had a real low point? Can you tell us about that, if you feel comfortable doing so? What did you hold on to to get out of that place?"
For me there are more low points than high. Every day I sit down to write and battle with self-doubt and anxiety. Can I write this book? Should this book be written at all? There are two ways I cope with this. The first is that I try to write a little bit every day. This, to me, takes the pressure off any individual day's work to be brilliant; I know I'll be back tomorrow, trying again. The second is that I read. Other people's beautiful, thrilling books remind me of how wonderful writing can be, and why I became a writer in the first place.
4. Charlotte Gill asks, "What is your Kryptonite?"
Other than the aforementioned self-doubt and anxiety, probably the Internet. Being online is so dangerous because you're sitting at the computer and it feels as if you are working when in fact you are doing nothing at all.
5. Sharon Butala asks, "Do you ever feel trapped by your writing life and wish you could escape?"
Sometimes I have felt this way. But, in truth, I don't feel that way very often or for very long. Stories have been a part of my life forever, my own and other people's. I'm driven to write not for self-fulfillment or happiness but because in some fundamental way it is how I experience and interpret the world.
6. Drew Hayden Taylor asks, "Do you think you or your books would have been successful, say... fifty or a hundred years ago? Or has the style of writing changed too much in the passing decades?"
Language has evolved, it's true, but I don't know if my particular style wouldn't be readable to people a hundred years ago. I think it more likely that some of the features of contemporary society in my work — the presence of technology, say, or the kinds of lives women lead now — would give them greater pause.
7. Charlotte Gill asks, "If you could ghostwrite the biography of a famous person, alive or dead, who would you choose?"
8. Greg Hollingshead asks, "Auberon Waugh (by way of Randall Jarrell) has described the novel as a story that has something wrong with it. What do you think of this statement?"
I think imperfection is part of the novel and that is one glorious aspect of it. Novels are big, baggy creatures and they can house quite a few flaws while still being wonderful works of art. Sometimes the flaws are even part of what makes them good art. They're like human faces — each one so different, so unmistakably individual. If there were such a thing as a universally agreed-upon "perfect" novel, then one person would have already written it and the rest of us could go home. Fortunately for writers and readers, this hasn't happened and never will.