Most Writers Are Nice, First Drafts Are Terrible
A Q & A with Ramona Ausubel
Ramona Ausubel is a graduate of the MFA program at the University of California, Irvine. She is the author of A Guide to Being Born: Stories, and No One Is Here Except All of Us. Her work has been published in The New Yorker, One Story, The Paris Review Daily, Best American Fantasy, and elsewhere.
Name a childhood hero.
Name a work you wish you’d written.
Love in the Time of Cholera. Ha.
Name some of the original working titles of your work before it was published.
The only one I remember is The Constellation Makers (for what became No One is Here Except All of Us).
Name a writer in history of whom you would like to have been a contemporary of and why.
Part of me wants to assemble the most perfect 1920s Paris party or hang out in San Francisco with Jack Kerouac. I get really excited when I see a famous person (even a famous person I don’t care about and who’s name I don’t know—isn’t that that guy from that show?) and I’m sure I’d be vowing to never wash that arm again if Gertrude Stein brushed past, but (and forgive me if I sound like a PBS public service announcement) I feel like the books have already allowed me to live in those distant and remarkable worlds. If Flannery O’Connor invited me to sit on the porch for an afternoon I certainly wouldn’t turn her down (I’d bring pie) but her stories are so completely terrific that there’s nothing missing. I’m good as long as I’ve got her words.
Name a trait you deplore in other writers.
Ungenerousness to other writers. All of us received help all of us will need it again. Luckily I haven’t encountered very many of these kinds.
Name your five desert island films.
Best in Show, The Princess Bride, The Jerk, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Labyrinth.
Name a book not your own that you wish everyone would read.
Mrs. Bridge by Evan S. Connell
Name a book you suspect most people claim to have read, but haven’t.
I want to say Ulysses or As I Lay Dying, but probably we’re all lying about something much lamer.
If you could choose one of your works to rewrite, which would it be and why.
I think writing is made in space and time and any perfection we strive for belongs to that moment (a moment sometimes being, say, 20 years long). If I were writing either No One is Here Except All of Us or A Guide to Being Born again I would probably do things differently, but I also probably wouldn’t have thought of those books now. They belong to writer who wrote them then, and now I’m off to something else. I like that about literature—it doesn’t replace itself every five minutes. It actually shows age and allows us to see how our own points-of-view change.
Share the greatest literary secret/gossip you know.
Here’s the kind of gossip I’m good at: Oh my god, Karen Russell is so nice. Anthony Doerr is, like, really nice too. You know who’s super nice? Aimee Bender.
Name a book you read over and over for inspiration.
Mrs. Bridge again! It’s a doozy.
Name the writing habit you rely on to get you through a first draft.
Five to ten new pages a day for as many weeks as it takes to finish. It’s a disaster but it gets me to revision, which is like a serene tropical island compared to the first draft (for novel-writing anyway. I don’t suffer quite so much while writing new stories).
Name a regret, literary or otherwise.
I sent work to a couple of prospective agents too soon and embarrassed myself. But at the same time, if I’d waited, one of them might have said yes to me and then I might not have ended up working with PJ Mark who I love so dearly that I can’t regret my green-ness. In high school I got really into the Everything happens for a reason, theory of life and though I don’t say this out loud all the time anymore or write it on the cover of my journal with a drawing of a raver girl spray-painting a flower on a wall, I’m still an undercover believer.
Name your greatest struggle as a writer.
First drafts. No question.
Name a question you get about writing to which there really is no good answer.
Who are your influences? It is both a great question [see Jaime Clarke’s excellent series “Influenced By” in The Believer] and an impossible one. I can tell you some books I love and some books that seem related to what I do, but the idea of trying to single out a short list of works from the stew of every book, movie, news story, TV show, conversation with a human, song, etc. that has entered my mind over the years I was writing is totally overwhelming. Plus, my best writing comes from murkier levels of consciousness which have yet murkier influences.
Name a question you wish you had been asked.
What’s the funniest/most heartbreaking book you’ve read lately? Making Nice by Matt Sumell. Thanks for asking.