Tea Obreht is the author of The Tiger’s Wife, a New York Times bestseller and National Book Award finalist. Here she talks with novelist Ramona Ausubel about her experiences writing No One is Here Except All of Us.
Téa Obreht: I’m always interested in how projects of this magnitude begin. It seems like a novel “about” one’s family, or projecting one’s family into a fictional sphere, almost always ends up being an endeavor of self-discovery. Tell me a little bit about how you came to it, about what inspired you to take this journey and why.
Ramona Ausubel: The project started out as a desire to record the family stories while my grandmother was still alive and well (happily, she remains so at ninety-one). I didn’t know it would become a novel until later, when, having collected dozens of individual stories, I was frustrated that the complete picture was still foggy. It felt like having a lot of scraps of fabric, but if I wanted to see the quilt, I was going to have to sew it myself.
Obreht: So much of this incredible book relies on fable, on the creation and acceptance of a particular reality in order to survive. At the end of the book, in a note to the reader, you even say “facts aren’t important” and that “the truth is in the telling.” What draws you to this idea of fable? What is its place in the modern world?
Ausubel: When I first started writing, I was trying to stick as closely to the “facts” as possible. Soon, I realized that facts were not what I really cared about. The reason it mattered to my grandmother to tell the story and the reason it mattered to me to hear it and tell it again was not that we were trying to reconstruct history, it was that we were trying to fold the characters, places and lives from the past into our world. As long as a story is being told, it stays alive, even as it changes. Each fable is a version of what could have happened, and between all those versions, maybe we come close to the truth. I think that, no matter how modern our world gets, we will always have a need to tell stories about the past.
Obreht: I was fascinated by the point of view shifts in No One Is Here Except All Of Us; it seems that the novel begins rooted in collective consciousness and then, as the experiment of isolation fails, and tragedy upon tragedy is unleashed onto the characters, this shared perspective splits up until, in an ironic twist, outside communication becomes the only way the characters receive fragmented information about each others’ lives. Why did you choose this particular narrative style? How did you settle on Lena as the primary voice?
Ausubel: It took many drafts to find the right point-of-view for this story. Lena is based on my great-grandmother and I knew she would be the protagonist, but I wanted it to be about everyone together as well, for there to be a kind of Greek chorus. Finally, I decided to give the story to Lena to tell, and to allow her to speak both for the village and for herself, to speak to the ideas of collective struggle and imagination in addition to one person’s loneliness and isolation.
Obreht: This novel was obviously inspired by family legends, but tell me more about your own life as a writer. When did you know you wanted to write? Who are some of your literary influences?
Ausubel: I have wanted to write for as long as I can remember. My mom recently came across the poems I wrote in fifth grade, and I was a little embarrassed to admit that not only did I recall writing them, but I had been so proud of them that I still had them memorized twenty years later. I still feel the same sense of excitement and satisfaction when a piece of writing starts to come alive.
Some authors and books that matter to me are Pastoralia, by George Saunders, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, by Michael Chabon, Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Gilead by Marilyn Robinson and Florida by Christine Schutt.
Obreht: You already have numerous illustrious publications under your belt, but No One Is Here Except All Of Us is your first novel. What were some of the challenges you had to overcome, and what surprised you most about the process?
Ausubel: I have written short stories that mattered a lot to me, but writing this book was different because I spent so many hours in the world of the novel--some days I spent more time there than I did in the real world. Though the characters are different from the relatives on whom they are based, I still feel that I got to know my ancestors in a way I never could have otherwise. Those old family stories became my own, and they became part of my everyday life.
In November, I became a mother. As I gaze down at my new baby, a tiny, beautiful little boy, I think, “I’m glad you’re here. I have so many stories to tell you,” and I realize that in many ways I have been writing this novel for him.
(Photo of Téa Obreht © Beowulf Sheehan)
(Photo of Ramona Ausubel © Twin Lens Images)