Q + A with Giller nominee Alix Ohlin

The author of 'Inside' on being a Montréaler at heart and that weird 'New York Times' tempest

Photography by Stephanie Noritz

Maclean’s book reviewer Brian Bethune will be interviewing all five of the Scotiabank Giller Prize nominees. Here’s the second in the series with the author of Inside, Alix Ohlin.

Q: Therapists and storytellers: your character Grace for one seems to be as much interested in stories as healing. Her first interest in university was literature and only then psychology. Does this sound like something you might have considered somewhere along your life?

A: I myself never considered going into that field, but it is something that I’ve heard other people say, and I think for me the bigger idea was that whether we’re writers or not all, of us are telling ourselves stories about our own lives all the time, and part of therapy is when the story that you’re telling yourself about your life is not working and you have to sort of reconfigure that and find a different way to conceptualize the narrative of your own life. So to that extent, I think that literature and therapy do have a lot in common.

Q: Though Grace keeps running into realities in which theory just crumbles to dust in front of her.

A: Right. Right, that also happens a lot.

Q: What are your thoughts about literary prizes—you’re up for the Rogers-Writers’ Trust as well— especially after you landed in that weird New York Times inspired tempest. Do you feel like you’re in the middle of some war that involves tens of people, as one of the commentators said?

A: I’ve done my best not to get too caught in the controversy and, you know, just to keep my head down and my focus on my own work. I just think of it almost as something’s occurring very separately from me and has to do with other people’s reactions and opinions, and I really just want to protect my relationship to my own writing.

Q: You had synaesthesia when you were a child?

A: Yes. I did.

Q: And it still plays a role in your books?

A: Well, I wrote this little essay about it, and I think it’s actually something that is fairly common among children, and that it tends to dissipate or go away entirely as you get older, but the idea behind my essay is that some of these ways of seeing the world, the blurring of, say, the visual and the aural, or of the relationship between the way you look at a work of art and the way that you read a book that there can be fascinating overlaps, connected to the kind of imaginative work that goes into writing a book.

Q: It made me remember that numbers had colours when I was a kid. The single digits.

A: Right, see? For a lot of people, yeah. And I heard from a lot of people after I wrote that essay that, you know, for me it was like days of the week had colours, and a lot of people wrote to me and said that months of the year had colours, so in a way it’s almost a shame that those things go away when you get older and you become more entrenched in your thinking.

Q: You’ve written about personal geography. Does Montréal still seem like home to you?

A: Montréal always feels like home to me. I feel very rooted there, and I feel that growing up in a place like Montréal, which is so particular and so vibrant in its culture, has affected me and the rest of my life. Even though I’ve lived in a lot of other places and have spent a lot of time in the U.S. I still always identify as a Canadian and as a Montréaler, in particular.

Q: What does coming from there or setting things there do to your language as a writer? Do you move between them, even in your own mind, when you’re there?

A: It’s interesting: when I first was in graduate school and I was writing short stories that would be read by other students – mostly Americans – in my classes, I felt very reluctant to set things in Montréal because I felt that there were all these things that I could not expect them to understand, like using the word dépanneur instead of convenience store, because there is this linguistic fluidity in Montréal, and so I found myself setting a lot of stories in a generic suburbia that was sort of like the suburb that I grew up in and yet spaceless and nameless, and it felt really wrong, in a way. So for me, part of writing this book was to try to go back to writing about Montréal in a way that felt truer to the way that people speak there and the kind of memories that I have of the place, including the fact that these people move back and forth between English and French.

Q: You don’t write novels of place. I mean, a lot of Inside is about modern rootlessness.

A: It is an international book in the sense that it has a lot of different locations in it and people who are moving back and forth. There’s a line in the book about how some people are destined to leave and keep leaving and other people are destined to stay home, and that’s some of what I was getting at in the book as well. I mean, I myself have wandered a lot, I’ve lived in a lot of different places, and so the stories of people who are like me in that sense are something that appear in the book.

Q: I was thinking about it as a kind of anti-novel-of-place, that where you are is not determining you the way it is in some novels, or you don’t feel the weight of the place, you feel the urge to get out if something in it is bothering you. The Rwanda section seemed like the whole novel writ small: saving individuals emotionally and saving them literally, or failing to.

A: That was exactly what I was trying to do. I mean, the book is really about helping and about rescue and the importance of those attempts in some ways. Whether or not they succeed they’re essential to our humanity, so writing about the Rwanda section was a way of writing that theme in a larger and international way to help kind of reflect and underscore the way it exists in individual senses elsewhere in the book.