Interviews | April 18, 2017

An interview with Alix Ohlin: relationships, growing up and privilege

Alix Ohlin’s short story “Money, Geography, Youth” was published in the winter 2016 issue of the Missouri Review. Ohlin is the author of two novels, The Missing Person and Inside and two collections of stories, Babylon and Other Stories and Signs and Wonders. Her work has appeared in Best American Short Stories, Best New American Voices, and on public radio’s Selected Shorts. She teaches in the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers, and at Lafayette College.Photo Alix Ohlin

Samantha Brown: Your story explores two different types of love, experienced by best friends who grew up together. How did you approach that?

Alix Ohlin: The idea of counterpoint—two storylines that could be independent but intertwine to create a kind of narrative harmony—was central to this story from the start. On its own, Vanessa’s story is ordinary; she’s an unhappy privileged kid who has a summer romance with a guy from school. Kelsey’s story is a bit more unusual, as she’s become involved with a much older man who can offer her financial security as well as affection. By weaving the two storylines together, I was hoping to deepen each storyline and give it more texture. I wanted to show how each of the two young women has complicated motivations and needs and is struggling to figure out her future. And in the end, the story is really more about their friendship than it is about the romantic entanglements.

Brown: How did the piece develop into the three points of view instead of just Vanessa’s or hers and Kelsey’s?

Ohlin: I thought it was important to include the point of view of Graham, Vanessa’s father, because I didn’t want him to be just a cardboard villain—some stereotype of male midlife crisis taking up with a younger woman. I hoped to make him at least somewhat sympathetic and vulnerable. His version of what’s happening is necessarily limited, but so is Vanessa’s and so is Kelsey’s; by offering three different perspectives, I hoped to allow readers to form their own judgments of a complicated situation.

Brown: Apart from the conflicts over the characters’ relationships, this story explores Vanessa finding her place in a world she’s just traveled halfway around and her questioning of her future. Was her experience similar to you own?

on the beach III by monika

on the beach III by monika

Ohlin: I didn’t have a gap year in Africa or share any of Vanessa’s other experiences, no. But I think many people go through times in young adulthood in which they come up against disappointment, or failure, or things not turning out exactly as you’d hoped. Vanessa was sort of a typical well-behaved middle-class high school student who did what was asked of her—performed well on standardized tests and that kind of thing. After high school, given more autonomy to decide who she wants to be, she flails. That’s a pretty common experience too.

Brown: Both girls seem to have issues with their respective relationships with their parents. How did you see this shaping their romantic involvements and ultimate paths?

Ohlin: Both Vanessa and Kelsey come from pretty dysfunctional families, but Vanessa’s family dysfunction was more hidden because they had more money. Kelsey comes from a family that has no cushion and can offer her little support. Certainly this shapes what their lives become. Vanessa has the freedom to enter into this dreamy love affair with her high school friend. If it doesn’t work out for her, she’s going to be fine, at least financially, and on some level she knows that. Kelsey’s situation is very different, and her decision to marry Graham is a way for her to wrest control of her future. She doesn’t have the luxury to mess around the way Vanessa does.

Brown: The story’s ending note suggests that Kelsey may experience some grief for not getting to experience the type of love Vanessa has. Why did you choose to end with her thoughts?

Ohlin: To me this story is not about young love the way that Vanessa is experiencing it—long, lazy summer days going hiking and watching TV in bed. It’s a story about privilege, and Kelsey is the person in the story who doesn’t have it. She’s the one watching it from the outside, understanding what Vanessa’s privilege looks like in a way that Vanessa herself will never see.

Brown: What character did you most enjoy writing and why?

Ohlin: I don’t know that I could pick one of them. The parts of the story I especially enjoyed writing were moments of unexpected collision—the scene where Vanessa and Barry first meet up and she throws up on the beach, and the scene where Kelsey gets sort of aggressive while tasting cakes are two of my favorites. These are both types of scenes (young lovers on the beach, lovers picking their wedding cake) that are usually shown as being romantic, and it was fun to write them against the grain.

Brown: Do you have advice for any aspiring authors or TMR submitters?

Ohlin: My best advice is to read stories and emulate the parts of them you like. This story was written in response to a short story by the British writer Elizabeth Taylor, whose work I read a couple of years ago and fell in love with. Reading is always the best inspiration for me.