The Russian Dreambook of Colour & Flight: A Q&A with Gina Ochsner

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Peter Wild (PW): What is the world like where you are today? Aside from this interview, do you have anything grand or elaborate to do today?

Gina Ochsner (GO): The world outside my kitchen window today is a swirl falling fast and light and furious.  Snow. Incredible. Late season and beautiful and arresting. It won’t last, even as I type this, the snow melts and the cherry blossoms, pink camisoles in the miniature, undress the trees. The birds don’t know what to think.

Meanwhile, ever so quietly, it’s a conspiracy of crocus, daffodils and iris, pushing the mud aside with infinite patience and strength. Someone I’m sure has measured the strength of these little bulbs with these stalks that can move aside small stones and punch through packed mud. One stalk has even shouldered aside a small pot that is clearly in its way. All this is nothing short of a miracle and it’s happening steadily, daily.  It happens yearly. This is grand – this steady, invisible and visible, insistent life.  And it’s elaborate; I can’t quite wrap my little brain around it.  

PW: I read that you only tend to write two or three days a week. Is that still the case? And do you find (if it is still the case) that having breathing time around your writing time allows you the space you need to really get inside your characters?

GO: It IS true that I only write a few times a week and those times tend to be very short in duration—perhaps an hour or shorter. For awhile I worried that these short spurts spelled doom for me as a writer. Surely a writer must always be writing? But then I stumbled upon a brilliant interview in Associated Writers Chronicle with Jill McCorkle. She’s a wonderful short story writer and novelist and the interviewer asked her how many hours a day she wrote. She laughed, I think. The word hours must have struck her sideways. Because, as it turned out, she wrote in small spurts: forty minutes here, thirty minutes there, and in this way constructed magnificent novels.  She mentioned that had she held out for long blocks of time she would have become embittered because the large blocks of time simply never arrive on schedule. That’s been true with me as well. But ten minutes? Those open up all the time while I’m waiting in line at the post office (what a great place to people-watch!). Likewise, in doing the mundane, daily tasks of washing dishes, stirring the laundry, fishing for the mate to a lonely sock, I am working out with my hands a snarl with a story. The hands complete what my mind cannot. And so, yes, I am breathing around the story and the characters who will not be pushed or bullied by my hands on the keyboard. It’s always better for me to clean the house first, anyway. If things go sour with a story, and things always do at some point, I console myself with the knowledge that at the very least I matched seven pairs of socks, and that is no small thing. 

PW: You received a National Endowment for the Arts and used it to travel to Russia as research for The Russian Dreambook. What did you get up to while you were there? Was it all sightseeing and note-taking? Or did you take a room in a building that was gradually sinking into the mud?

GO: While in Russia I tried to people watch as much as possible. I was fortunate enough to be with the Summer Literary Seminars with a fiction workshop, but as often as possible, I would slip away and hang out at the post office (a very happening place) or the nearest internet café on Nevsky Prospect near the Kazansky Cathedral. A fellow faculty member confided that he had stumbled upon a real gem: the Arctic-Antarctic museum-just past Anachov’s horses.  And he was right; the museum was well worth the visit. The exhibits were inspiring :  on display behind lock and key was a well preserved biscuit from Scott’s last ill-fated Journey to the South Pole. Another display featured one of Ernest Shackleton’s boots, and yet another a lighted diorama showing the feeding cycle of arctic species from lichen to lemming to polar bear. But even more intriguing to me were the museum employees who watched over these relics. Once my ticket had been stamped, the two women, both quite elderly, set about dusting the taxidermied animals in all the exhibits. One animal held their complete attention:  a threadbare boreal wolf. With great care and obvious pride the eldest of the women climbed—very nimbly – on a step ladder and combed the wolf’s coat of hair. It’s an image I couldn’t shake and I knew after watching her that somehow she or someone like her would become part of a story. I had to wonder in a country as large as Russia, how many women were there like her working  in a museum, some quite fine and others not so fine?

PW: Your novel and the stories that make up People I Wanted To Be are far ranging in the sense that you seem to be able to wrest truth from pretty much any geographical locale. Are you very well-travelled?! And, more importantly, when a story begins in your head, do you start with a situation or a locale?

GO: I don’t know if I’m well travelled or not. As a girl I loved National Geographic (I still do) and my secret aim in life is to sail around the world. That hasn’t happened – yet – but I love hearing stories of other travellers and I’m especially taken with field reports and notes that NOG  and other aid workers send. It doesn’t take much to spark a story from the tales these people tell and other things I see or read. One man told me about his harrowing ride with a friend he’d made in Darfur. The big deal there is to have a vehicle. You are king of the mountain if you have anything with an engine strapped on it. This man and his new friend shot across the desert at over 120 mph, because if one has a vehicle, one only has a vehicle in order to drive it like a maniac. The man, who was religious, prayed the whole time and when it was over climbed out of the jeep on shaky legs. I don’t know if they are still friends. “Gina,” he told me, “he drove like the devil on ten ball bearings.” Now there’s a voice and there’s a character.   

I’m researching now various Roma groups in the US, Slovenia, Moldova and the lowlands of Poland.  There are many differences from vitsa to vitsa and some differences in rules of order and conduct in kompania to kompania but a few traits between groups in certain regions seem to prevail and this I find enormously interesting. It seems, for instance, that when family gather for a funeral that this is a good time to air grievances. Now, I think probably happens at funerals the world over. But the specific ways in which a fight will be picked, and who will fight with whom, the raising of skirts, for instances, which will contaminate the entire room – well, now says something about the culture. But in telling this kind of story I think it would be essential to find ways to connect to experiences all readers, or nearly all readers, would have in common. Namely, grief evokes strong emotion and grief in this lifetime is inescapable: I don’t know of anyone who is or will be exempt.      

So, to answer your question, you’re right I start with a voice of a person in a conflicted locale, usually. “Sadly, the potato is nowhere mentioned in the bible,” lamented one school teacher and pastor at a recent bible conference in Latvia. Slava had been searching for the perfect metaphor upon which to build his seven-minute sermonette, and I think had pinned all his hopes on the mighty potato.  But so far, he’d not found a scripture verses to bolster the metaphor, and scripture is a most necessary ingredient in any Baptist sermon. Slava was nearly inconsolable. Someone tried to steer him toward the mustard seed but he contended that the mustard seed had been worked to death.  And he was might sick of it, to tell the truth. ” There’s a story there, I’m quite sure. So, circumstances. I start with those and people caught in odd places and follow them because the person IS the story, and locale is the lens that more clearly magnifies who they are.   

PW: Something else you seem to like (apart from other locales) is the macabre treated as the mundane – the character of Mircha, for instance, in The Russian Dreambook – a man who throws himself off a building in the opening pages and ‘survives’ as a dead man throughout the rest of the book, mildly irritating the other characters. I get the impression that the fantastical intrigues you – is this the case?

GO: Let me tell you a story. My grandfather awoke one morning, ate his breakfast, and drove the work van to the auto parts depot to pick up parts for the family business. While he waited in the depot he told the parts clerk that his chest felt funny and he sat in chair. A few minutes later he had a heart attack and died. After the funeral and graveside service, all the family members who had gathered went their separate ways. I returned to school. But one day, probably a full year later, I was walking down the street and I saw him walking ahead of me. For most of his life he had had a funny stiff-torsoed hurty-gurty walk; nobody walked like Grandpa and I knew instantly that it was him. And then there was his head: bald except for a fringe of white hair at the back, a sort of half- halo slung really low. I yelled “Grandpa, wait up!” He stopped suddenly. And then, at the sound of my feet approaching, he started walking again, this time fast. At the corner her disappeared around the side of a brick building. We live in a smallish town, there aren’t many buildings and few alleys to speak of. No interesting places in the downtown area to hide. But he disappeared. I didn’t give any of this much thought. Grief and longing do funny things to people, I knew that. But then it happened again.  I was driving down the freeway, a busy three-lane highway. It was raining, really coming down, the rain falling sideways almost. For whatever reason, I glanced at the car travelling beside me. It was Grandpa sitting behind the wheel and he was looking at me. Well fine then, I thought. Go ahead and stick around. Because the thing was, we all missed him terribly and he had gone so quickly nobody had a chance to say goodbye. 

So another year passes. Grandmother dies. I think she just couldn’t live without him. By this time I had left the state for more schooling. I had enrolled in a creativity writing class and our instructor, Ray Young Bear asked us to keep a dream journal. It didn’t matter if our dreams were stupid or ordinary (I dreamed I showed up to writing class bucknaked five times. “Oh, that’s so ordinary,” the whole class pronounced in unison). But one night I had a dream that was so vivid I wrote every thing I saw and heard and it filled page after page of this journal. Grandpa appeared and this time he and Grandma were playing poker. All her life she had loved card games, so it was no surprise that in this dream they were seated behind a cardboard table with bowls of unshelled peanuts. And in the dream Grandma was cheating terribly. Grandpa stood and now he walked without that listing gait, he walked like a man whose back no longer hurt, and he stood before me with tears in his eyes. I bolted from the bed, my heart in my throat. I told Ray about this dream and about the sightings before the dream. He was the only one I could tell who wouldn’t laugh at me. “What do you think this means?”  I asked him.

“Your grandfather is unsettled. He wants to tell you something”

“What should I do?” I asked.

Ray smiled. “Listen to him.”

Sure enough a few nights later Grandma and Grandpa appeared. Again they sat behind the card table playing, but when Grandpa saw me, he stood to his feet. With his elbow he gestured toward Grandma, whose hair had been restored to the brilliant red colour it had been until just a few weeks before she had passed.   

“I know she was a difficult woman—believe me—I know. But she’s not entirely happy here. And it’s because of you. You must forgive her,” Grandpa said.

Well, that’s a long story to get to a small point. I think that the macabre and the mundane shake hands everyday. I think the invisible and visible worlds overlap seamlessly and it’s only when the overlap becomes discernible that people perceive the two as a “collide.” But, because stories and telling stories is all about drama, or collisions, piloting the macabre beside the mundane will always be for me a sure way to ignite a spark. 

PW: The Russian Dreambook centres upon a visit by a small group of wealthy Americans to the All-Russian, All-Cosmopolitan Museum where your character Tanya (herself the author of the aforementioned Dreambook) works. The way in which the Americans react to the museum and Tanya herself – are you making a subtle colonial point at the expense of your countrymen (and countrywomen)? 

GO: Time to confess. I am the ugly American everyone fears, loathes and ridicules. I am that graduate student a little too curious about other peoples’ suffering to the point that she may not understand how her very presence increases the suffering of those around her. Oh, ouch. So if I am taking any potshots at American tourists, then first and foremost, I am throwing a tomato at myself. I wish I could blend in more seamlessly, and believe me I have tried, but with phrasebooks falling out my hands and the wrong tokens for the wrong pay phones and turnstiles falling at my feet, and the ill-timed awkward questions falling out of my mouth, the gaffes and goofs in Russian Dreambook exhibited by the Americans crop up out of my own experiences.  Also I wanted to explore, however briefly, the various motivations behind benevolent giving.  Money and the giving of money so quickly introduces confusion and frustration between people. Or so I’ve heard. 

PW: Your novel is quite a ride. I can see little bits of Marquez and little bits of Angela Carter and little bits of Flannery O’Connor – who would you say is an influence on your writing?

GO: I’d say the biggest influence on writing for me – the writer whose work made me want to become a writer – is Milorad Pavic. When I picked up Dictionary of the Khazars, I realized from the first sentence, which is actually a warning to the reader, that I’d never seen a book like this before and I’ve never seen anyone attempt anything quite so ambitious ever since. I will probably spend the rest of my life trying in some way to write up to his level. It won’t happen, but I will happily die trying.

PW: The flyleaf to the book says that you have ‘written a very Russian novel about Russia’. Before you began weren’t you in the least bit daunted to try your hand at a Russian novel? (After all, when someone says they’re sitting down to read ‘the Russians’, it usually means they are getting as serious about reading as it is possible to be – does the same apply to writing?) 

GO: At first when I began Russian Dreambook I thought I would write a series of travel postcards in the form of recipes – the supremacy of schi over borscht, say.  Or maybe I’d compare borscht made in the various regions of Russia (to put carrots in or no carrots?) because life happens in the kitchen and it would be in the making of a soup that an entire village would be evoked through history, superstitions, tradition and whole slough of well-known and beloved jokes (i.e. “Stirlitz had a thought. He liked it. So he had another one.”) But I soon realized I didn’t know soup well enough and I would need at least twelve years to fully appreciate Central Russian and Siberian cuisine. And then I remembered some scraps, notes on Post-its I had been keeping, little observations about the sky and clouds and colour. And I remembered that woman combing the mangy coat of that wolf she loved so much. And I thought about another character from a story in People I Wanted to Be, a man who loves to fish and can think only of getting to the river. I wondered what would happen if these people worked together and lived together. I wondered about all the things that compel  people to fall for one another and all the factors in their lives that prevent them from finding happiness together. Enter Olga, and the rheumatic grandmother, Azade and Mircha – what a charmer – and pretty soon the story began to breathe on its own (well, with a few furious bouts of CPR at critical junctures).

PW: The trip to Russia we touched on earlier was combined with a trip to Latvia to research another novel. Did you finish that? Is it likely to surface some time in the future? 

GO: I’m nearly finished with the Latvian novel: Thicker Than Water. Every chapter has been sheer delight and discovery. So much has happened in Latvia and IS happening in Latvia. And I’m so grateful to the new friends I’ve made there who have opened their homes and their lives to me and told me their stories: what happened to their grandparents during the war, what it was like to be a student at university when the Soviet Union fell, how history had been taken from Latvians and handed back altered in school texts and newspapers and how Latvians always have found covert ways to retain their own versions of history. I was very lucky and very honoured to have had the chance to meet the renowned poet Knuts Skujenieks. He survived seven years in a Soviet prison camp for dissidents, poets, and other dangerous people. He told me the secret to survival was to maintain a sense of humor. That and writing poems. He wrote two every day and found clever ways to smuggle them out of the camp. “But that’s my secret,” he said smiling. “Now I’ll tell you a joke. It’s a good one from Radio Yerevan. What’s the difference between capitalism and communism? I’ll tell you: in capitalism man exploits man; in communism it’s the other way around.”

PW: Do you find the time to read when you’re writing? Have you read anything recently that you’d recommend?

GO: I have been reading some marvellous books. Like Pavic’s Dictionary of the Khazars, these are the books that make me want to be a better writer and better person: The Fish Can Sing by Halldor Laxness. He’s so playful in his manner of storytelling and a quiet magic that leaches up through the rocks and ice and slowly overtakes the story. For its incredibly ambitious and engaging architecture, a sheer tour d’force in storytelling and a handbook on meta-fiction, I recommend Italo Calvino’s If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler.   But my favourite book of all time is Bohumil Hrabal’s Too Loud a Solitude. If you’ve not yet read it, you must stop reading everything else and – right now, as in this very moment – run out and find a copy. 

PW: Last but not least – are you having a well-deserved rest at the moment or are you knee-deep in your next project already?

GO: I’m too excited about Thicker than Water to rest at the moment. The ending is in sight so I’m not wanting to quit just yet. I’m planning more research to Moldova and Latvia, so I’m not sure what all will happen next. Life is so short and so precious I want to appreciate every moment and every person in it. 

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The Russian Dreambook of Colour and Flight by Gina Ochsner is published by Portobello books priced £15.99 – pick one up when you’re getting holding of Bohumil Hrabal’s Too Loud a Solitude why doncha?!?
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