"Creative Exploration, Risk-Taking, and Fun" Alix Ohlin on Her Lifelong Love Affair with the Short Story
Alix Ohlin's hotly anticipated new collection of stories, We Want What We Want (House of Anansi), shows the Giller Prize nominated writer in fantastic form, with strange, beautiful, sharp stories filling the pages.
Packed with deeply human characters who long for change but are often unsure how to manage it, Ohlin's collection proves she can do darkly funny just as easily as she can tear your heart out. From secret shoppers and drug dealers to ex-partners and inappropriate parents, the cast is unforgettable, which each story teasing out thematic observations about longing, connection, and what we both love and fear.
We're thrilled to welcome Alix today to talk about We Want What We Want as part of our short-fiction focused Keep it Short series. She tells us about the surprise of seeing how stories come together for a collection with subconscious connections, what the title of the book says about its characters, and what she loves about short fiction — including how "it rewards openness, risk, hybridity, experimentation".
How did you decide what stories to include in the collection? When were they written?
I’m always writing stories. To me the form is an endless source of creative exploration, risk-taking, and fun. These particular stories were written piecemeal over the past five to seven years. I don’t generally stake out the boundaries of a collection in advance: I try to allow myself the freedom to range across subjects and styles, like a story in the form of animal taxonomy (“Taxonomy”) or a story about the lives of mystery shoppers (“Service Intelligence"). So I draft each piece on an individual level. When it comes time to bring them all together in one volume, I’m often surprised to discover how much of a thread unites them. In the process of revising for a collection I’ll set aside the ones that don’t seem to fit the general theme or tone. Some recent stories I wrote didn’t make it into this collection because they were more fantastical, or satirical, or seemed to come out of a different set of emerging preoccupations, and I shaved these away to make a book that feels cohesive. I wound up with stories that seem to be in conversation, to have overlapping themes and ideas, with characters who inhabit the same universe: a set of stories that are all telling one larger story.
What do the stories have in common? Do you see a link between them, either structurally or thematically?
The title, “We What Want We Want,” is a line of dialogue spoken by a character in one of the stories, and my wonderful editor Jenny Jackson suggested it as a kind of emblem, the thing all the character have in common. These are stories about people wanting change, escape, transformation, with varying degrees of appropriateness and success. I think wanting is a fundamental part of human nature and it’s not wanting itself that is at issue—it’s what you do with your desires that matters. Do you pursue them at all costs, do you hurt other people or yourself, where does your wanting end? How do you live with your wanting, how does it drive you? If your desire threatens to destroy your life, was it the destruction itself you craved all along? All these questions are endlessly fascinating to me as they lead to choices and consequences. In the stories a woman follows her cousin to the cult he has joined; a daughter loses her father and her best friend to their wanting; two sisters who each wanted out of their small town take actions that keep them home forever. Desires aren’t mistakes, but they are messy, and stories take root in that messiness.
Do you think your characters have anything in common with each other, from story to story?
Much of my recent work has revolved around pairs of women: a kind of excursion into doubling, whether in the form of sisters, friends, work colleagues, or other duos. These stories are foregrounding the complexity and depth of connections that are not explicitly romantic but definitely intense and emotionally combustible, especially in stories like “The Point of No Return” and “The Woman I Knew.” I’m interested in these relationships and the kind of kinetic energy they have, how identity is refracted through them, and also how they evolve over time. In other stories, a woman meets her daughter’s drug dealer; a man grows close to his girlfriend’s ex-husband. These stories investigate moments when a relationship gets turned on its head and what can be revealed there. I’m also interested in how in the 21st century, as definitions of family grow more expansive, there’s more space to think about these relationships, whether work relationships or families of choice, and how central they are to our lives.
What story collections were you reading for inspiration while writing your book? What did you learn from them?
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Short stories are the first—and still the main—place where I thought both “I want to do that” and “I think I can do that.” As a young writer reading Alice Munro and Mavis Gallant and Grace Paley, I experienced a flash of recognition—a feeling of being known, of being made less lonely, not just because of the experiences being narrated but because the writing itself was so resonant. And I continue to be surprised and delighted by reading short stories—recent books like Jenny Zhang’s Sour Heart, Bryan Washington’s Lot, Paul Yoon’s The Mountain have all given me that same feeling. The short story form has so much elasticity and writers keep coming along and doing new things with it, and I love that. The history of the short story is of one of aesthetic range and opportunity. It’s a place where a lot of writers can find purchase, can remake the form as their own—it rewards openness, risk, hybridity, experimentation. And there’s something about the compression of a story that gives it so much force. Peter Orner (himself an amazing short story writer) describes the short story as “complete, remorseless” and I love that, too. You can read a story in one sitting, less than an hour, and then it sings in your head for days after.
Who did you dedicate your collection to, and why?
This particular book doesn’t have a dedication but it does have an epigraph I’d love to discuss, from the Brigit Pegeen Kelly: “Child. We are done for / in the most remarkable ways.” This quote is from the poem “Dead Doe” in Kelly’s exquisite book Song. It’s a poem about a lot of things: apprehending death, how we process and revise experience through memory and imagination, how we see and make sense of the world. In this poem, death is a reality that gives weight and significance to life; it’s “the gap the tongue prods when the tooth is missing.” I’d love to think of my own writing as working in that gap. When I put the stories in this collection together and looked at them as a whole, it struck me how many were about characters grappling with the ends of things: the death of a relationship, of a loved one, of a cherished dream, even of the person they used to be. Confronting these endings can be sad but also illuminating, revelatory, even vital—remarkable, as the poem says.
Alix Ohlin is the author of five books, including the novels Inside and Dual Citizens, which were both finalists for the Scotiabank Giller Prize and the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Tin House, Best American Short Stories, and many other publications. Born and raised in Montreal, she lives in Vancouver, where she chairs the creative writing program at the University of British Columbia.