Gina Ochsner is the author of the short story collections The Necessary Grace to Fall (Georgia) and People I Wanted to Be (Mariner), as well as a novel, The Russian Dreambook of Color and Flight (Portobello/Houghton-Mifflin-Harcourt). Her awards include the Flannery O’Connor Award, Oregon Book Award, Pacific Northwest Booksellers Award, and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and Guggenheim Foundation. Her stories have appeared in The New Yorker, Tin House, Glimmer Train, Kenyon Review, and Best American Nonrequired Reading. She lives in Keizer, Oregon, and teaches in the Seattle Pacific University low-residency MFA program. She was interviewed by Mary Kenagy Mitchell.
Image: What was your upbringing like? Was it religious?
Gina Ochsner: I grew up in Salem, Oregon, where my mom took us faithfully every Sunday to a Presbyterian church. It was in the high church style, with wood paneling and stained glass and choir lofts and two pulpits, one for the Old Testament reading and one for the New Testament reading. As a young girl I had a sense that church was a holy place, that God was present there—and I wondered how I could carry that presence with me wherever I went. I wanted a sense of something holy and old that didn’t just exist inside that building, but everywhere.
I made my musical debut on the hand bells there—until the hand bell incident. I was only in charge of two of the bells. Unfortunately, I was at the end of the table, and if one bell rolls, they all go. That was the end of the hand bell choir for me.
Around that time, a revival was happening at our house, starting with my mom, and I was picking up on it. I remember asking the minister, who wore big stoles and robes, if he knew God personally or just for business. I was about ten. I told him I wasn’t sure he was really “preaching from the word”—a phrase I’d heard around the house. My mom just about died, and the next week, out of sheer embarrassment, we went to a Pentecostal church instead. It was the opposite extreme. They did everything but serpent handling.
About that time my dad got saved and became a completely different person. Before, at church he would go to the men’s room to check on the football game. Now he was going because he wanted to. At the new church people were using a different language: “washed in the blood,” “slain in the Spirit,” “the mercy seat,” “Beulah land.” I was hearing this kind of phraseology for the first time, sitting next to my dad and wondering what he was thinking. I had been praying for him since I was five, and I have grown to believe that prayer works. Prayer releases something on earth.
Image: How do those two strands—that Presbyterian formality and that Pentecostal wildness—meet in your writing?
GO: They don’t meet; they collide. I am consciously working for imagery for how it happens—wood, for instance. In the story I’m working on now, there are two very different congregations: a Pentecostal one with a rough-hewn wood pulpit, a church built entirely of wood, all seamed and joined without nails; and another church where the wood has been prettified and gone over in different materials. Both beautiful, but very different. The songs and the language are different. I like to play with the collision of language registers and imagery.
Image: You seem particularly haunted by stories from Genesis. Did that start early for you? Do you have early memories of hearing those stories?
GO: I was given a children’s illustrated Bible by a great aunt in 1978, when I was eight years old. I would sit with it alone for hours. It may have dampened some of the mystery of those stories, because it supplied images for me, but I latched onto those pictures. I started with Genesis, and I’d study each of the days of creation, puzzling over the beautiful illustrations. I was struck by the extravagance of it. Ninety percent of creation is not necessary. You only need, what, two bushes and a couple of bees? Yet God does more. I was amazed by that. Or that image of Adam and Eve as they are cast out of the garden. They know why, and they know what is ahead of them: work and more work. I remember the confusion on people’s faces as the Towel of Babel is falling. We’ve inherited this jumbled inability to speak to each other, even if we speak the same language. Can two people truly understand each other? My favorite was Balaam sitting on the ass, facing the resplendent angel with a flaming sword. This God stuff is scary, I realized—a thought confirmed later when I read in Leviticus about how you have to shed blood if you want redemption. There is something elemental about it. Your own blood cries out inside of you. I felt I had to pursue this. I was also haunted by questions of God’s justice. By the time I was about ten, I got to Isaiah, which is a tough book. There’s a lot about justice rolling down like a river—but how does that balance with a God who loves? I was haunted by these questions, and the curse of living on this side of the veil is that we can’t ever fully understand.
Image: You have four children, ranging from ten to twenty-two years old. How have they influenced your writing life?
GO: They have a sense of wonder about the world. Before I had them I thought I was in tune with what it is like to be young, but I had stopped seeing things in metaphor. When Connor, my second, was about five, we went to the Salem clock shop to get a clock repaired, and he saw the tall grandfather clocks lined up in rows, ticking and wagging their golden pendulums not quite in synch, and he said, “It is a forest of time.” Then he walked up to one and said, “It’s just the right size that I could curl up inside and go to sleep. It’s like a coffin. I wonder if it’s counting how many days people have left to live.” I said, “That’s great. Don’t tell your nana any of this.”
Each of my kids has said things that have returned me to a sense of wonder and awe, things that were totally unbidden, not set up by the writerly mother. For me, having children has rekindled the desire and ability to see the world metaphorically. There is much talk about how children diminish your time and divide your energies, and certainly they do, but there are things about nurturing and caring for young people who use language differently, in any way they know how, that continually replenishes the pond for me. To me it’s been better than an even trade-off. I am grateful to them, most of the time, when they open their mouths.
Image: Lately you have written a number of stories set in post-Soviet Russia and other Eastern Bloc countries. What attracts you to that setting?
GO: I’ve always been a traveler. I love to go places and see how other people live, what they think about, what they worry about. Quite by accident, to fulfill a linguistic requirement in graduate school, I decided to take Russian language classes. I loved studying the language and loved the formal study of grammar. My dad, who at the time was traveling quite often to Poland, called me up one day in spring and said, “I’ve amassed a boatload of travel miles. Let’s go somewhere.” I said I wanted to go to Russia, though I had only taken one year of Russian. My interest came about in part because in the Willamette Valley where I grew up there are so many Russian-speaking people. I’ve had a continual fascination with the Old Believers in Woodburn and the Molokans and Pentecostals.
We went in 1993, two years after the Soviet Union was dissolved. I think I had expected something from the 1960s. I hadn’t realized that you can’t go from a command economy to a free-market economy without a lot of upheaval. We got off the plane and two soldiers with Kalashnikovs on their backs escorted us a long way across the tarmac to the airport—and that felt like the sixties. But once we got through passport control and out on the wide streets of Saint Petersburg, it was chaos, with kiosks and vendors and new hotels being built. It is the collision of two worlds, old and new, that interests me. We were shown places where the Germans had almost broken through into the city during the nine-hundred-day siege, and buildings that bore the scars of history. Russia’s quality of is and is not fascinates me. I saw old soldiers there, pensioners retired from the army, in their regalia, selling off their medals for a dollar each to westerners. You could tell that this was a place not reconciled with its past. It never will be, and when you talk about Russia here and now, you have to also talk about the Russia of fifty years ago. World War II is still very present in the room when you sit down with Russians of age fifty and older. It is still very much in the collective consciousness as a reason why things are the way they are. The Afghan conflict is also huge for Russians. It is their Vietnam, the one they don’t want to talk about, what a disaster it was for the Soviet army and how many men died there. They are not counted or named. It was an unheroic war.
Image: What is your research process like?
GO: Fiction writers are always looking for ways to get drama and empathy to intersect, so when I travel and meet people, I try to spend time just listening. People will tell what they are comfortable telling, and they won’t talk about what they are not comfortable telling. In post-Soviet countries, so many people have stories about relatives who were sent to work camps, often for religious or political reasons, or about being sent to camps themselves, or about Jews and Gypsies being put in cattle cars and never seen again. Often, even once people were liberated from camps, they couldn’t get home because they were in remote, swampy areas without overland roads, surrounded by ice in the winter, and they didn’t have enough money for a helicopter flight.
There is something special about people who have lived in post-Soviet countries. Belief is not a passive thing for them. Theirs is an active faith that is tested constantly, even now. For them, belief is something that is born in their physical bodies, through suffering, and also metaphorically in their spiritual bodies.
I try to be careful in asking questions and just observe and listen. People will say incredible things. I try to be as true as I can to their experience without adding too much. I am still learning how to do that, and I don’t always get it right. I try to establish something of a relationship—to make more than one or two visits. I want people to feel I am trying to document their history, not just borrow it for my own purposes.
I am working on a new project with some women from the Netherlands. We’ll be talking with Romani women in Moldova and recording their songs and poems and tales and family histories, and translating them from Usari into Romanian so that they can be preserved.
My research process is very hodge-podge. I use a combination of sources: interview, email, internet, lots of books about the Khrushchev and Brezhnev eras, the economy and politics. I’ve learned a lot through Youth with a Mission and other NGO workers in the field. I’ll use details from their monthly reports. “Here is how cold it is in Novosibirsk today: the hands of the clock froze in the train station.” Or: “We know its spring because the snow is melting away to reveal all the dog turds. Spring is near! Can you smell it?” For The Russian Dreambook of Color and Flight, I spent a lot of time emailing and video-chatting with friends in Perm, where the novel is set, who work with street children. I had written that there was a metro, and they explained that there could never be a metro in Perm because the ground has been over-mined and is too unstable. Digging a metro would create sinkholes. In general I was able to find people who were willing to talk to me, but when I asked one friend about the air base there, his face went pale and he said he couldn’t talk about it, and if I didn’t want to put him in jeopardy, I shouldn’t keep asking him such questions.
It was interesting to see what the process of asking questions turned up. I’m interested in the things that we can’t talk about. One woman in the book has the horrific job of perpetuating lies about the war in Afghanistan in textbooks for children, which is how she herself was taught lies about earlier wars. All the while she believes her husband, who is said to have died in Afghanistan, might reappear at any moment.
Image: There’s a Muslim character in the novel, Azade, a grandmother whose family was deported to Perm from Ossetia. Were you at all afraid to write from that point of view?
GO: I read a lot about the Muslim faith, and at first I was afraid. I thought I had no right to create a Muslim character because I didn’t know anything about what her faith would be like beyond a superficial level. But when I started reading more and talking with Muslims from Uzbekistan, they assured me that, as with any faith, there are people who are very active and involved and those who are nominal or conventional about it. “Oh, we don’t even know the prayers,” one woman told me. So that set me free.
I knew that there were a lot of women writing about Muslim faith, and I didn’t want to be trendy. I wanted to create a character who is deeply nostalgic for a place she doesn’t know. And aren’t we afflicted with that every day? This isn’t our true home. We are sojourners here, and we are nostalgic for the next place. Maybe that is how she feels. That made her real to me. And then, Azade is the bearer of fairytales, the one who keeps telling the old stories, and that makes her close to my heart.
Image: You’ve also published two story collections. What do short stories let you do that novels don’t?
GO: I love the capaciousness of the novel. The novel allows for discovery and development in many directions. Implicit in that is the promise that there will be payoff, that all the tangled roads will come back and there will be a sense of resolution or connectedness. A short story makes no such promise. Things can be very disconnected, as with a modular or mosaic-style short story, which is all image and makes no promise that things will be linked up, and yet can create a terrific sense of meaning and drama. The payoff is different. And the short story is so compressed. You simply don’t have the time to develop each thread, and the form doesn’t necessarily expect you to, so you can throw in some very wild alligators. The short story is a mischievous form, and when I am writing one I feel like a monkey swinging from a chandelier.
Image: Childlessness and the longing for children are frequent themes. Why does that recur for you, do you think?
GO: There’s a particular heartache to feeling as if there is something that should have happened and didn’t. Maybe there is something you could do differently and it would happen. Maybe you did something wrong and didn’t even know it, that is preventing it. The possibility of children is one more riff on the old question, “What if?” If you open a particular door and walk through, you’ve turned your back on another door. That choice leads to another choice, yes or no, and life is a string of yeses.
Image: Throughout your books, there seems to be a family resemblance among some of your male characters: kindly, easygoing guys who are dominated by women, unable to cope with the practical demands of life, and who love to fish. I wonder how those characters arose for you and why you think they recur. I also wondered if you are a fisherwoman yourself.
GO: I don’t fish. My husband has a very dear friend who is a consummate angler. It’s what he lives for. Once we visited him in his trailer home, and he had all his fly-tying gear set out, these beautiful feathers and things. I watched him at his vise and I said, “Wow, Trevor. You’re like an artist.” He said, “And you haven’t even seen me fish yet,” with a big wink. That got me curious about what is behind this love that consumes his life. There is nothing in his refrigerator. There is no heat. Every dime he has goes into these little ties. People are consumed by their passions, and that is not necessarily a bad thing. That itself is a beautiful thing.
You’re right that I have a lot of male characters who are lovable goobers. They find themselves in strange positions that baffle them. How did I get here? How did this angry woman get here? She’s yelling at me again. What did I do? I am curious about the world of men, about how men add things up and think things through. I suspect my husband and I see and interpret the world very differently, and I’m fascinated by that, though of course at times we frustrate each other. I am trying to write my way toward a discovery. I don’t want to patronize them or write a cliché. I want the men in the stories to be believable. In Russian Dreambook, it was clear to me that Yuri needed to be very likable, and almost like a child, because he comes back so messed up after his brief stint in the conflict in Grozny. Russia is a world of women. The women are the workers. They worked during wartime, and they worked when men did not come home from war. They work at what were men’s jobs, and when they come home from the factory, they do the cleaning and cooking and childcare. It’s a problem, because the men who did survive and stick around, I think, feel emasculated.
Image: You write about the body in a way that is very funny and earthy and also very poignant. It feels almost theological to me. I’m thinking for instance of the communal toilet in Russian Dreambook, and the extended meditation on what each character’s use of the toilet reveals about his or her inner state. Are you conscious of a theology that underlies the way that you write about the body?
GO: We are made of such humble stuff. It seems appropriate to address it humbly. People curse and cry and bleed and shit, as opposed to defecate. I want to use words that are less elevated because that seems to fit the body. I suppose it would be different if I were writing about a different time period and setting, about people in a drawing room playing billiards. I might write more about manners and gesture. But really, I don’t know any other way to do it. Always the goal for me is to write about the body in a way that is honest and loving. I wrote a story about a Hungarian couple who own a mortuary, whose daughter dies, and they embalm her. I didn’t write that story because I had just read Jessica Mitford’s book on embalming in the United States and thought it would be fun to use all that vocabulary. It was that I saw a boy grow up in a mortuary home. We had lost several family members, and each time we had the bodies prepared and laid out at the same home. This boy was always there in the back, always in the same suit, with his arms outgrowing the sleeves. I realized they were grooming him to take over the family business. And I wondered, what must he know? What must he have seen? That’s where that story came from—not from a desire to be sensational.
Our spirits and our bodies are in a painful cohabitation. To go back to my favorite word, they collide. Regardless of the great longings of our spirits to live in a state of prayer, for instance, we will be confronted minute by minute by the demands of our bodies. Anyone who lives with chronic pain can attest to this. There is never a moment when you are not aware of your own body, in some cases cursing it.
I’ve watched my father-in-law grimace through unbearable back pain and wondered about how he’s able to “manage”—such a word—that pain. Or my mother, who when I was a child impressed me with her great physical strength as she lifted large bags of fertilizer and wheeled heavy loads of dirt. She was indefatigable. Now rheumatoid arthritis has rewritten her body, making the simplest tasks nearly impossible: opening a jar, unfastening a hook.
Image: Your characters suffer in their bodies, often because of material poverty. They have hard lives. Can you talk about the way the poverty works in your writing? What does it do to your characters?
GO: It is reductive. It puts them in survival mode. They may long to be gracious and loving and patient and kind, but good people are not good when they feel desperate. They come to think that a loaf of bread makes a difference. Technically, as a writer, I am looking for tension and drama, and what is more dramatic than that moment when a person who knows that a loaf of bread makes all the difference decides to take it from someone else, knowing that now that other person won’t be able to eat? Poverty recasts the same old question: what is important to people and how far will they go? Every person answers that question differently, case by case. It makes stories of people giving out of their lack all the more beautiful and profound: the family that did hide the Jew in the barn; the man who did bring food to the prisoners, though it almost cost him his life, or did. I am interested in that conversation between the spirit and the body. Your flesh can be willing but the body is weak. Today I will be outspoken about loving Christ, but if they torture me will I make it? I don’t know. In Russia, there are people who have actually had to think about that.
Image: What writers have enlarged your sense of what fiction can do? Who do you feel indebted to?
GO: Milorad Pavic´ kicked down the doors for me in terms of architectures and forms and virtuosity of language. He is known as a maximal lyricist, and even by that standard, he is maximal. He turns narrative on its head again and again. Likewise, Italo Calvino is masterful with that. Paul Poissel’s The Facts of Winter is beautiful and magical and strange, and I have never seen anything like it. I am indebted to Bohumil Hrabal for his gorgeous lyrical storytelling, simple and clean and so heartbreaking. It made me think: this is why I want to write. Someday I want to write like he does. Ota Pavel is another. His memoir of growing up in Czechoslovakia is called How I Came to Know Fish. He talks about the war, but very obliquely, in terms of how it affected the fishing or deer hunting that year. He is very connected to the earth. He understands events by looking at other people’s responses: “That was the day all the clocks were all smashed.” Or: “That was the day the Germans threw my mother’s beautiful nude statue out the window.” He makes horrific things sort of funny. There is a lot of holocaust literature, and it is hard to read. The events being described are so horrible, and so I appreciate another way of talking about the horror, talking around it. It’s not so much averting the gaze as looking askance to see it better. Writers like these make you think there are no boundaries. The only boundaries are the only ones I set for myself because I didn’t know any better. But you don’t have to start the story at the beginning. Heavens no, you can tell it backwards or inside out.
I am indebted to so many. Chekhov, for his economy and compression and use of detail. The little gestures say everything with him. He doesn’t need forty pages. He only needs four. And he does in four what most of us can’t do in forty.
Image: Your work often includes magical realist elements. Most American fiction doesn’t seem to go in for magical realism the way that Eastern European and South American writing do. Why do you suppose that is? Or do you think that is a fair assessment?
GO: It’s fair, but I find it so strange. We have a magical heritage. We have Poe and Hawthorne. I don’t understand why it isn’t more readily acknowledged as valid. Maybe the strangeness or mystery of unwarranted magic offends the American reader’s sense of reality. Maybe the suggestion that reality could be that mischievous and uncontrolled is unacceptable. American writers grow up hearing, “Write what you know. Write what can be seen.” That precludes any inclusion of the invisible, the magical, the strange, the miraculous, the supernatural. Yet so many of our various traditions, going back to Genesis, entertain the idea of an invisible world overlapping this one, one that every now and then we see. A donkey talks. A hand writes on the wall. I’m very much a fan of writing that allows the supernatural to brush up against the ordinary. It isn’t always appreciated, because it implies that something more is out there that we can’t see, and if that’s true, then you have to start asking who, what, why? And then you’ve opened up a can of worms.
Image: You mentioned Poe and Hawthorne. Are those the American writers you feel the most connection with? Are there others?
GO: There are several American writers working now who I admire very much. I love the work of Ingrid Hill, who has been in Image. There’s somebody who works in magic realism and seamlessly navigates both worlds. It isn’t a contradiction to her to have the visible and invisible together, the unexpected event, the reversal of time, memory replayed, a dream that hijacks a dreamer. That’s also true of Diane Glancy. I love her playfulness—and there is a carefully considered and defended theology behind it. I like Pinckney Benedict, Z.Z. Packer, Kelly Link. And of course Flannery O’Connor. You can’t shake a stick without running into her influence on North American letters. It’s strange that it has taken a while for people to wise up to that. There was a time when it was not trendy to recognize her influence. People would talk about Faulkner, and Eudora Welty, and they wouldn’t mention O’Connor, but now they do.
Image: Why do you think it took so long?
GO: She was fearless. She shot straight from the hip and did not back down. She had that unswerving moral gaze which included judgment. That makes people anywhere uncomfortable. But she opened up the world to me. I will be indebted to her forever. I first read her in a college course. We had been reading Wuthering Heights and Dante and Chaucer, and here came “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” The grandmother and the misfit—talk about a collision. I was bowled over by that line of the misfit’s: “Jesus thrown everything off balance.” He comes right out and says what is bugging him, and why in his eyes evil is good and good is evil. He doesn’t accept that Jesus raised the dead. He says Jesus shouldn’t have done it. And then the ending. I puzzled over that for probably two years. I give that story to students now and they either love it and are amazed, or they are appalled and look at me differently for the rest of the semester.
Image: O’Connor is widely beloved and admired among writers, believers and nonbelievers alike, which seems surprising, given how prickly and uncompromising she is about her faith. Why do you think that is?
GO: Alongside her religious questions, she also wrote about class and race and customs and manners in a way that I think changed people’s perception of what literature written well can and should do. I think that’s why people who wouldn’t call themselves religious glean so much from her stories.
A character like Julian in “Everything that Rises Must Converge,” who thinks that because of his education he is so far above his conventionally racist mother, reveals a lack of loyalty and a lack of love that anybody can relate to. The same is true of Joy in “Good Country People,” with her wooden leg and her intellectual superiority, who is a fool in the matters of the heart. O’Connor can create such credible characters that people find meaning in her stories even if they don’t recognize that there is also something spiritual happening as well. The wooden leg is a metaphor. It is a conversation with the woodenness in her heart and her inability to feel love.
She wrote fearlessly right into the heart of a lot of things. Mrs. May, the farm owner in “Greenleaf,” comments at length about her tenants and the social gradations between different types of black people and “white trash.” That a character would lay it out there and actually say there is a hierarchy makes it so that now we can talk about it instead of writing around it. You can’t address the wound if you don’t open it up and pour some salt on it. And that’s what O’Connor does.
Image: You have been doing more teaching recently, through the Seattle Pacific University MFA Program. Does teaching and having to articulate ideas about the craft of writing affect how you write?
GO: Teaching does blend well into the writing life in that I’m making new discoveries all the time. I just bumped into Italo Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millennium, a gorgeous, slim little volume of lectures. Reading it was like having scales pulled from my eyes. In one chapter he talks about lightness—lightness and prose, lightness and the speed of thought, and how to achieve that in your work. The next chapter is on quickness. He begins with a strange fairytale about Charlemagne, who falls in love with a younger woman. She dies, but he remains madly in love with her, and he has her corpse in his bed. The bishop, who suspects some enchantment, fishes around in the dead girl’s mouth and pulls out a golden ring, and sure enough, that is the source. He puts the ring on his finger, and the king falls in love with the bishop. This won’t do. To avoid embarrassment, the bishop flings it into Lake Constance, and after that the king spends all his days mooning over the watery shores, and dies there. Calvino says that the speed and economy of the fairytale ought to be instructive to all of us. We are so burdened with the need to explain, the dreaded back-story and the info-dump of exposition. Teaching allows all kinds of discoveries like that.
Image: What are you working on now?
GO: I am working on a novel. I am in the home stretch, I am happy to say. I feel the horses turning for home. It is Latvian, and prominently figuring in the story are cast-iron miniature horses, an outdoor biffy, a boy with enormous ears, and a magic river. We’ll see where it goes.