Ramona Ausubel is the author of the acclaimed novel No One is Here Except All of Us, and the forthcoming short story collection A Guide to Being Born.
Q: How much of No One is Here Except All of Us was inspired by family stories, and how much came from your imagination?
A: When I began writing, what I had was mostly the family stories, which, of course, were already part fact and part fiction by the time my grandmother told them to me. For a long time, they took up most of the space on the page, but as I got to know the characters better and began to see the story grow and change, the original stories became less like a skeleton and more like seeds from which a wild new plant was growing. There are still “true” stories in the book—for example, my great-grandfather really was captured by Italians and taken to Sardinia where he spent the best years of his life while my great-grandmother and their children escaped the pogroms with their lives. The facts are sometimes the most unbelievable parts.
Q: How did you decide on the book's title, and what is its significance to you?
A: The title appeared as a sentence in the first draft. On the one hand, it’s literal—the villagers do away with the idea that anyone else exists, therefore there is no one there except them. But it also evokes the simultaneous feeling of loneliness and togetherness, of community and loss. And I think the question about God is in there, too—this force which is both ever-present and never-present.
Q: Some have described the book as having elements of magical realism. Would you agree with that description?
A: I’ll never turn away magic. Any magic is always welcome in my house! I think this is always an interesting question. Certainly, the characters in the book, in their attempt to reimagine the world, take an idea to beyond a logical extreme. In that way, reality is stretched. But is it magic? We humans do this all the time. We decided that certain pieces of paper can be exchanged for goods. We draw borders and follow political leaders and go to war and all kinds of other huge acts, based completely on ideas we have agreed upon, but which are not written in stone. I think the whole world is made of magical realism.
Q: Did you travel to Eastern Europe in the process of writing No One is Here Except All of Us?
A: I did travel to Eastern Europe. The village where my grandmother grew up and where the book takes place is in the Carpathian Mountains in what is now Ukraine. I was many drafts into the book already by the time I went, so I had a very clear image in my mind of the place. The real place was completely different, much bigger, rebuilt by the Russians after the war, and at first I felt as if my imagined place would be wiped out by the real one. After walking around the town, I went down to the river, and I discovered that it was exactly the same as the one I had imagined. The water, the willows, the earth were as true in 2009 as they had been in 1920, as true in my mind as they were in reality. It was beautiful to find the point at which all those lines crossed.
Q: What can you tell us about your new short story collection, which is set to be published in a few months?
A: I’m really excited to see these stories make their way out into the world. The book is called A Guide to Being Born, and it explores the many transformations we make in our lives, the many times we are born, as we move through childhood, love, parenthood and death. Look for it in May!
--Interview with Deborah Kalb