Alix Ohlin

WHAT ARE YOU WORKING ON?

Alix Ohlin

At the time of this interview, Alix Ohlin is looking out into a dull, rainy afternoon, her desk surrounded by half-unpacked boxes as she begins the slow process of filling up the bookshelf in her new office. She has travelled west across the continent along with her husband, child, and dog to take up a new position as Chair of the UBC Creative Writing Program. Prior to UBC, Ohlin taught at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania and in the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers in Swannanoa, North Carolina.

Though new to the West Coast (Ohlin was born and raised in Montreal), she makes a few wry jokes that reveal she is already observing some tropes in the stories of ‘Raincouver’. This coming summer Ohlin will have an opportunity to immerse herself in the department’s annual writing residency when she will be teaching fiction workshops over an intensive two-week period to students in the department’s MFA program.

Ohlin’s body of work includes the novel Inside (Knopf) and her story collection Signs and Wonders (Vintage) along with The Missing Person, and Babylon and Other Stories. Her work has also appeared in prestigious publications such as Best American Short Stories, Best New American Voices, The New Yorker, and on public radio’s Selected Shorts.

Here she discusses her inspirations, writing process, and why taking creative risks is important as she begins her tenure at UBC.

Q
Is there anything from your writing education that has stuck with you and that you would like to share with younger writers just starting out?

A: When I was in graduate school I took a class with the Scottish writer James Kelman, who was opinionated, impassioned, and iconoclastic. Once, I went to his office for writing advice and he very seriously showed me the spot on the floor where he took his naps. (Actually sleep is very important for brain functioning so he had a good point.) At graduation, I asked him for more advice and he said: “Be bold, make art, don’t wait another second.” That’s the best thing I can think to pass on.

Q
Over the long history of UBC’s Creative Writing Program, there have been many legendary writers who visited the Vancouver campus — as lecturers, writers in residence, or guest speakers. Are there some writers you would love to bring to campus?

A: More than I can count. Zadie Smith is such a brilliant writer and thinker and I’d love to bring her to UBC. I recently heard Junot Díaz speak and he was unbelievably inspiring and engaging. I’d bring Mavis Gallant back from the dead if I could — I’d love to hear what she had to say on a campus visit.

Quote

You have to accept that for a long time the work is not going to be as great as you originally hoped it would be, and you just keep showing up and tackling it and bit by bit it gets better.

Alix Ohlin
Q
What is the most difficult part of world-building in fiction writing?

A: I tend to think more in terms of people-building than world-building. As soon as a character comes into focus for me, I can see the world they live in. Without that beating heart of character, not much happens for me in a story.

Q

In your recent New Yorker story, Qaurantine, you write: “They swore to keep in better touch, but didn’t. Once Angela was back in Vancouver, her social-media accounts took a turn from organic cooking and home decorating to alternative health and New Age spirituality.” Would this by any chance mirror any of your own experiences transitioning to life in Vancouver?

A: Not yet, but I just got here! Check with me in a year and I’ll be doing chelation therapy.

Q
Are there any habits you’ve established that help you with the editing process? How do you know when you’re done?

A: I think stubbornness and patience, both which I have a lot of, are important to editing. So is approaching the work with humility and self-forgiveness. You have to accept that for a long time the work is not going to be as great as you originally hoped it would be, and you just keep showing up and tackling it and bit by bit it gets better. I personally never feel quite done or satisfied with anything I write but eventually, you have to let it go.

Q
What part of teaching writing do you enjoy the most? Will you be teaching on campus as well as in the program’s graduate online program?

A: I love finding common ground through writing and reading with people from all different kinds of backgrounds. Writing can be lonely work and teaching has always given me a sense of community that I really value. I’m looking forward to teaching on campus as well as online.

Q
Your novel, Inside, was a finalist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize and the Rogers Writers Trust Prize — how did receiving this recognition make you feel? Did it help your writing career in any specific ways?

A: I think it connected me to Canada and my background here in ways I never could have anticipated. My professional life up until Inside was almost completely centered in the US. Without the recognition, I doubt I would have wound up in Vancouver, so it really was life-changing.

Quote

I hope they’ll learn — from their teachers, from each other, and from themselves — that their writing has great value.

Q
What would you like writers coming into the Creative Writing Program at UBC to know in terms of the support they’ll receive when they become students?

A: I’d like them to know that the program will strive to give them the tools to write the work only they can write. I hope they’ll learn — from their teachers, from each other, and from themselves — that their writing has great value. I hope they’ll feel safe and supported so that they can take the creative risks they need to grow as artists.

Continue reading Alix’s story, A System from the North.

Discover a wide range of genres and explore the diverse faculty teaching in the UBC Creative Writing Program.

Find out more about the UBC Faculty of Arts.

Story Credits

Special thanks to our story partner: Alix Ohlin, Chair of the UBC Creative Writing Program, Faculty of Arts

Story team: UBC Brand & Marketing — Margaret Doyle, Digital Storyteller; Paul Joseph, UBC Photographer; Lina Kang, Web Coordinator; Adrian Liem, Manager, Digital Communications; Mark Pilon, Graphic Design; Mormei Zanke, Assistant Writer.

Published: March 2018