Fresh Ink is a monthly series of interviews with debut novelists that focuses on the journey to publication. Today’s interview is with Ramona Ausubel, author of No One Is Here Except All of Us, which was published February 2 by Riverhead Books.
I was so intrigued by this novel’s premise, about a Jewish family in 1939 Romania who reinvent their own history to escape the harsh reality surrounding them. The story explores the power of imagination, family and community for survival, and while writing it, Ramona also explored her own family history and how to retell it as its truths evolved over time. I hope you’ll enjoy reading about Ramona’s process as much as I did!
Length of time from book’s start to pub date: 8 years
# of agents you queried before signing: around 10
# of books written before this one: 1
# of revisions you went through: 17
We’re lucky that there are so many great resources for writers to learn about publishing these days. That being said, what’s the one aspect of the process you never could have predicted?
I couldn’t have predicted how personal it all is. These aren’t transactions, they’re relationships. It’s kind of like finding someone to adopt your child—you’ve really got to feel that these people love the particular creature you’ve made.
I loved reading your interview with Tea Obreht, especially the part where you talk about your grandmother’s stories and how “As long as a story is being told, it stays alive, even as it changes.” I can definitely relate, having had a similar experience with my own grandmother’s stories. You mention you initially tried to stick with the facts, then realized they weren’t the most important part of the story. Can you tell me what the decision-making process was like as you chose which facts to stick to, and which ones got new truths?
When I set out to discover my family’s story I was motivated by a desire to find my own place in the world. Like I was going to seek out my inheritance. But somehow, when I started writing, the facts didn’t feel like they belonged to me—they were in the past. The story was alive in the present, if only I allowed myself to tell it. Pretty soon, I couldn’t even quite remember which were the true versions of the stories and which were my own tellings. The novel had turned into its own world, and that world was what I needed to be faithful to.
You had several short stories published prior to your debut novel, and you mentioned that initially, you’d collected your family stories but didn’t realize they’d become a novel. At what point did you realize this would be the best way to tell the story? What do you think transformed them from linked stories to a novel?
I think I always knew that this would be a single work, rather than linked stories. I was really intimidated by the idea of writing a novel (I still think it’s about one degree away from impossible) so I wrote the whole first draft in a few weeks, not allowing myself a chance to talk my way out of it. I took a deep breath and wrote ten pages a day without worrying about consistency, or even about making sense. I just wanted to find the heartbeat. At the end of that whirlwind, I had made a huge, gigantic mess, but it was alive.
I’m always curious about writers’ educations because most started writing at a very young age and yet so many of us take different paths later in life. In your case you’ve written since you were young and received an MFA at UC Irvine. What is the most valuable thing you learned during your time there?
My teacher Ron Carlson once told me that writing is so difficult that if you’re going to do it, you might as well write the thing that only you can write. In other words, thank goodness Hemingway was so good at Hemingway—you’re off the hook. Now go get something down that will only exist if you write it.
In preparation for your launch, how did you approach marketing yourself? How much of it is a collaborative process between you and the publisher, and how much of it is just you?
It was very collaborative. I feel incredibly fortunate to have had the amazing team at Riverhead behind me. I’ve done everything I could think of—reaching out to bloggers, reviewers, bookstores, writers and readers, etc., but my efforts have been matched many times over by others.
What are you most looking forward to once your book launches?
I’m looking forward to celebrating with friends and family across the country, and I’m also looking forward getting back to some new stuff I’m working on once things quiet down. It’ll be really fun to be out there in the world with the book between covers, but the part I love the most is sitting there by myself making things up.
About No One Is Here Except All of Us:
In 1939, the families in a remote Jewish village in Romania feel the war close in on them. Their tribe has moved and escaped for thousands of years—across oceans, deserts, and mountains—but now, it seems, there is nowhere else to go. Danger is imminent in every direction, yet the territory of imagination and belief is limitless. At the suggestion of an eleven-year-old girl and a mysterious stranger who has washed up on the riverbank, the villagers decide to reinvent the world: deny any relationship with the known, and start over from scratch. Destiny is unwritten. Time and history are forgotten. Jobs, husbands, a child, are reassigned. And for years, there is boundless hope. But the real world continues to unfold alongside the imagined one, eventually overtaking it, and soon our narrator—the girl, grown into a young mother—must flee her village, move from one world to the next, to find her husband and save her children, and propel them toward a real and hopeful future.
Thank you so much, Ramona, for sharing such valuable insights, and congratulations on your debut!