SEVEN QUESTIONS FOR THE WORKING WRITER: ALIX OHLIN
Alix Ohlin is the author of The Missing Person, Babylon and Other Stories, Signs and Wonders and the novel Inside, which was shortlisted for a Scotiabank Giller Prize and a Roger’s Trust Fiction Prize. Her work has appeared in Best American Short Stories, Best New American Voices, and Best American Non-Required Reading. Her story “The Brooks Brothers Guru” was recently published as a Ploughshares Kindle Single: http://tinyurl.com/oeljv9o
Alix Ohlin! Do you ever publish your work without compensation or for a nominal fee? If so, why, and how do you feel about doing it?
I have done this a few times, usually because I want to support the person or organization asking for work from me, and it feels like a form of good literary citizenship.
Does your craft alone provide you with a livelihood?
No, and yes. I don't make a living from publishing books. But I do teach writing, and I consider that to be part of my craft—it arises from my writing life and feeds back into it, so my livelihood and my identity feel inextricable.
If you have to hold a day job to supplement your income, or just make a living at all, does it leave you enough time to write?
I'm fortunate with teaching, in that I can write in the summers and during the winter break. It's maybe not quite as much time as I would like, but I also really need the structure and community and everything else that a day job provides.
How do you know for sure when something in your work still needs another revision?
I always feel like my work needs more revision. I endlessly put it down, let it sit for a while, pick it up again. I have worked on stories after letting them languish for five, ten years. Very rarely there's a "Eureka!" moment when I feel that I've solved whatever particular puzzle that draft presents. More often I feel like I've exhausted all my possible ways of re-imagining the draft, and am craving the shiny excitement of the as-yet-unwritten thing.
When revising something in your work, how do you know for sure when it’s truly time to stop?
Sometimes I get to a place where I feel like I'm revising laterally—going sideways rather than forward. I'm writing new scenes that are just alternate versions of previous scenes, writing new backstory that simply replaces what was already there. Revisions can also get increasingly minute and typographical: putting in commas, taking them out. At a certain point you just have to let go.
Do you feel that being a writer was a choice or a calling for you?
I'm uncomfortable with the word calling, or any phrase that hints at a kind of mysticism or romanticism that is assigned to the writer's life. I became a writer because I love to read books, because I had the privilege of a family and an education that nourished that love, because I was stubborn enough to refuse to do anything else. Is that a choice or a calling or some entirely different thing?
BONUS ROUND FOR PURE PLEASURE: What book did you probably read too young and it therefore haunted you forever after?
I found a copy of Couples by John Updike on my parents' bookshelf at a tender age. My mother caught me reading it and just said, "I think you should read some other Updike instead of this," which was so gentle and kind. I don't know if the book has haunted me, but I've always had a hard time reading Updike and it's probably related.