Wednesday, May 18, 2005


Brief Encounter: Alix Ohlin

From time to time House of Mirth will feature Brief Encounters--which is to say, concise exchanges with authors, editors, translators, poets, critics, and various other high-wattage luminaries. The series commences with Alix Ohlin, whose novel The Missing Person was published by Knopf earlier this month. (You can read my review from the Los Angeles Times Book Review here.)

James Marcus: Could you say a few words about how the various strands of the novel--the AWOL brother, the Earth-First-like campaign, the enigmatic paintings, and the various familial fissures--came together? Did you start with one, or juggle them simultaneously?

Alix Ohlin: I started with the main character, Lynn, and her story--which is really the story of an adult child coming to see her parents as real people, with flaws and virtues and complex histories, rather than as idealized (or demonized) versions of herself. Then I started to think about environmental issues, and I realized that there we have a similar idea on a much larger scale--we have to grapple with the actions, however flawed, of previous generations, and their ecological effects on the earth. So I decided there could be two plots that ultimately would play off each other in interesting ways. Wylie, the AWOL brother, is the connective tissue between the different worlds in the book, and the paintings are a way of providing tangible mystery between Lynn and her dead father.

That was my original idea, but I'm not sure how much it's there in the final version. The finished book turns out to be more about dealing with loss and change--though still on the two levels, within the family and in the landscape.

Marcus: Your parched and panoramic portrait of Albuquerque is one of the best things about the book. Have you spent much time out there? In any case, why did you decide to set the story there?

Ohlin: I grew up in Canada, but my mother is from New Mexico, and in the summer time we would often drive four or five days across the US (with no air conditioning!) to visit my grandparents, who lived in New Mexico. It was such a fascinating place, so different from where I was growing up. After college I moved to Albuquerque and I lived there for four years, working at various odd jobs and writing bad, sensitive short stories that never got published. I set the book in Albuquerque as a way of remembering that time to myself, and the city really did take over the book. I had no idea, when I started, how much a presence the place would have.

Marcus: The more your protagonist Lynn learns, the less she knows. Or to use your more elegant formulation: "The world was densely populated with things I did not know." Does this situation change in any fundamental way by the end of the novel?

Ohlin: I don't think so. I think that's kind of the point. Lynn starts the book out as a bit of a shallow know-it-all; she's very brittle and judgmental and thinks she knows more than her brother and her mother about the way things are--both in their family and in life. The events of the summer that are recounted in the book prove how wrong she is. For her, to grow up is to learn how much she doesn't know, and to accept it with some humility.

Marcus: You're very canny about the "elaborate diplomacy" of family life. But does Lynn's family strike you as typical in its many-splendored dysfunction?

Ohlin: I guess some of it is a little exaggerated for comic effect. But other parts of it I think are true in lots of families--especially the way that Lynn and Wylie, the siblings, are alternately vying for the titles of good child and black sheep. And the way that both of them, along with their mother, are constantly feeling misunderstood by one another--and yet craving that understanding so much. The elaborate diplomacy that keeps them acting nice to each other over dinner isn't just about refusing to acknowledge their conflicts, in my opinion. It has to do with the fact that they also love each other and want to be a perfect family, even as they are realizing every second how totally imperfect their relationships with one another are.

Marcus: Finally: what are you working on now?

Ohlin: I'm working on a collection of short stories, which will also be published by Knopf, sometime in the next couple of years. I've also just started a new novel, but it's really just the germ of an idea right now. It has no eco-terrorists in it, and no desert landscape--that's about all I know so far.

Nice job Mr. Marcus. Having read your review of the book, and knowing you were going to interview Alix, I've been looking forward to it. Always more enjoyable when the interviewer has actually read the work!


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