Alix Ohlin, 40, moved around a lot in her life before she came to rest two years ago as a professor of creative writing at Lafayette College in Easton, Penn. But she was born and bred in Montreal, the city that’s home to many of the characters in her novel Inside, shortlisted for the 2012 Scotiabank Giller Prize (and this year’s Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize). “I feel very rooted there, in a place so particular and vibrant,” she says in an interview. “Wherever I go, I always identify as a Montrealer.” The city, though, took a while to enter into Ohlin’s writing. In grad school, she was reluctant to set a story there, for fear her classmates, mostly American, wouldn’t understand the references. “I used a generic suburb instead, sort of like the one I grew up in, but it felt really wrong. One of the purposes of this novel was to go back to writing about Montreal in a way that felt truer to the memories I have of it, including the way people move back and forth between English and French.” But Inside is far from being a novel of place, Ohlin agrees. “There’s a line in it,” she points out, “that reads that some people are destined to leave a place and keep on leaving.” The book moves from Montreal to New York to Iqaluit to Los Angeles. And to Kigali in Rwanda—the one place in Inside where Ohlin herself has never been—during the 1994 genocide. In a story about therapists and patients, the latter scarcely more psychologically damaged than the former, the Rwanda section is, in some regards, the entire novel writ small. “The book is about rescue and the importance of attempting to help—whether or not the attempts succeed, they’re central to our humanity—and the Rwanda section was a way of writing that theme in an international way, to reflect and underscore how it unfolds in individual lives elsewhere in the novel.” Here is Alix Ohlin on reading (and writing), followed by an excerpt from Inside:
Prince Edward Island in the 1870s. A mansion on Long Island during the roaring twenties. Mars in the early years of colonization.
I’ve never been to any of these places, of course, but each of them feels like home to me. They were as much a part of my childhood as my actual house in Montreal, because they were the settings of books I loved. Anne of Green Gables, Jay Gatsby, the troubled explorers of The Martian Chronicles (to name just a few)—these people populated my universe, kept me company, made me laugh and cry. I’ve spent most of my life reading, blinking with confused surprise when I look up to discover that I’m sitting in a chair, somewhere in the 21st century.
Writing for me is first and foremost an act of gratitude toward the books that have shaped my life and helped me make sense of the world. It is a way of participating in an ageless conversation, across culture and time, about what it means to be alive. The writer Iris Murdoch once said that the subject of her work was “the otherness of other people,” and to me this has always rung true. Literature gives us access to the interior lives of people different from ourselves, no matter where or when they live, in their fascinating, mysterious, even frustrating complexity. It’s nothing short of miraculous.
When I first began writing, I would sometimes copy out, by hand, passages from books I particularly admired. I wanted to feel what it might have been like to build those sentences, clause by clause, word by word. I remember doing this with Herzog by Saul Bellow, a writer pretty remote from me in subject matter and style. It wasn’t that I wanted to write exactly like Bellow, or the other writers I chose. I was trying to catch the music of their language, to understand how it led to such wit and perception and depth of humanity. I do this less often now, but a friend recently reminded me of another book I love, David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress. I went back and looked at the opening line: “In the beginning, sometimes I left messages in the street.” I had to write it down, because it is so enigmatic and simple and sad. A sentence like that can break your heart: what an amazing thing for words on a page to do.
People sometimes ask me whether I get lonely, spending so much time by myself working. But I hardly ever do. I have all these books on my shelves, waiting to be read and reread. And I know that there are writers like me all around the world, hunched at their desks, each of them crafting singular, beautiful universes, telling stories about what it means to be alive.
At first glance, she mistook him for something else. In the fading winter light he could have been a branch or a log, even a tire; in the many years she’d been cross-country skiing on Mount Royal, she’d found stranger debris across her path. People left behind their scarves, their shoes, their inhibitions: she’d come across lovers naked to the sky, even on cold days. In spite of these distractions, the mountain was the one place where she felt at peace, especially in winter, when tree branches stretched empty of leaves and she could see the city below her—its clusters of green-spired churches and gray skyscrapers laid out, graspable, streets rolling down to the Old Port, and in either direction the bridges extending over the pale water of the St. Lawrence. This winter had been mild, and what snow did fall first melted, then turned to ice overnight. Now, at the end of January, it had finally snowed all night and all day, at last enough to ski on. Luckily her final appointment that afternoon had cancelled, leaving her free to drive up before the light was gone. She slipped around the Chalet and headed into the woods, losing the vista of Montreal below, gaining muffled silence and solitude, the trees turning the light even fainter. One skier had been here before her, leaving a path of parallel stripes. On a slight downhill slope she crouched down and picked up speed as she moved around a bend.
Turning, she saw the branch or whatever it was too late. Though she tried to slow down, she wasn’t quick enough and ran right into it and was knocked out of her skis, falling sideways into the snow, realizing only when she sat up that what had tripped her was the body of a man. Her legs were on top of his, her right knee throbbing from the impact.
The air torn from her returned slowly, painfully, to her burning lungs. When she could breathe she said, “Are you all right?”
There was no answer. He was flung across the trail with his head half buried in the snow. Beyond his body the ski marks stopped. She thought he must have had an accident, but then she saw his skis propped neatly against a tree.
She got to her feet and gingerly stepped around until she could see his face. He wasn’t wearing a hat. “Excuse me,” she said, louder. “Are you okay?” She thought maybe he’d collapsed after a heart attack or stroke. He lay sprawled on his side, knees bent, eyes closed, one arm up above his head. “Monsieur?” she said. “Ça va?”
Kneeling down to check his pulse, she saw the rope around his neck. Thick and braided, it trailed beneath him, almost nestled under his arm, and the other end rested on a snowbank—no, was buried underneath it—and on the other side she could see that the branch it had been tied to had broken off.
She hurriedly loosened the rope and found the beating rhythm in his neck, then opened the first few snaps of his coat in the hope that this might help him to breathe. His face wasn’t blue. He was around her age, thirties, his short, wavy, brown hair riddled with gray. Still his eyes wouldn’t open. Should she slap him? Administer CPR? She pushed him gently onto his back. “Monsieur?” she said again. He didn’t move.
She skied quickly back to the Chalet and called 911. In her halting French, all the more fractured because she was out of breath, she tried to describe where in the woods they were. When she returned, he was lying where she’d found him. “Sir,” she said, “my name is Grace. Je m’appelle Grace. I called for help. Everything will be all right. Vous êtes sauvé.”
She put her ear next to his mouth to hear his breath. His eyes were still closed, but he heavily, unmistakably, sighed.
Later, at the Montreal General, she realized that both pairs of skis had been left behind. The emergency workers had loaded the man into the ambulance and she had followed it, weaving through the traffic along Côte-des-Neiges. She wasn’t even sure why. Because the Urgences-santé men had looked at her expectantly, assuming she and the man had been skiing together? Because one of them had said, in commingled English and French, “The police—ils vont vous poser des questions at the ’ospital,” and she had nodded obediently, like a schoolgirl?
It was partly curiosity, to know what had driven him to such an act; and partly pity, because anyone driven to hang himself would have to be suffering deeply and terribly. And it was partly that she of all people had been the one to throw herself across his path.
Canada’s most distinguished literary prize awards $50,000 annually to the best Canadian novel or short-story collection published in English