I have been looking into schedules. Even when we read physics, we inquire of each least particle, What then shall I do this morning? How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time.
On the first of each month,
a guest writer
how he or she spends the day.
December 1, 2017: Ramona Ausubel
Summer fattened everybody up. The family buttered without reserve; pie seemed to be everywhere.
One of my favorite openings. And you’ll find it in Ramona Ausubel’s third book, Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty, published last year by Riverhead. When the novel opens, Fern and Edgar and their three young children are vacationing in Martha’s Vineyard, which they’re able to afford thanks to money Fern has inherited. Fern is “a mother and a wife and herself all at once.” Edgar is an aspiring writer. On page four, the phone rings, and there’s no more money.
It was just nine years ago, in 2008, that Ramona published her first story, “Safe Passage,” in One Story, Issue #106. Which is how her agent found her. Four years after that, in February of 2012, Ramona’s first novel, No One is Here Except All of Us, was published. But she began writing that first novel in 2004, and it took five and a half years just to get to a first full draft, then two and a half years and seventeen more drafts before publication in 2012. In 2014, her first collection was published, A Guide to Being Born, which opens with “Safe Passage.”
Which catches us up to 2016 and Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty. This new novel opens in 1976 but goes back and forth to 1965. Ramona says the structure took a long time to figure out.
I wrote the current 1976 story first and I knew that would be the through-line, but … I’d do a draft where I separated each character’s journey into its own document and worked it through, then I’d splice them back together and play with the order. That went on for a long time. Meanwhile, I had the backstory tucked into those sections mostly as memories. It was really complicated and I kept trying to find the perfect spot for each recollection and it was a maze and a puzzle… Somewhere, somehow I realized that it was possible to choose simplicity, to choose clarity, to choose to allow the oxygen of chapter breaks and that lovely negative space as we shift from one year to another. And … it turned the structure into part of the story, an invitation to read something into the order, the story we see from the past at the particular time we see it up against the moment everyone is currently in.
As is evident from the opening lines, part of the pleasure of this novel is the writing itself. Take a look at some of the lines I underlined.
For its cleverness,
“Men could stand to be reinvented. Men are due for an update,” [Glory] said.
For the way it caused me to stop and imagine more than was actually on the page,
[Glory] leaned over and kissed him well, like it was enough, not a short and irritating detour on the way to the good part.
For an example of how to take a physical trait–tallness–and make it mean something,
He was hugely tall and it was as if he did not have enough self to fill that whole body.
For the efficiency of the word cuffs,
Fern sat on his lap and smelled his scalp and made cuffs around his wrists with her hands.
For its beauty,
The emptiness of night, the darkness, seemed like the only honest thing.
For its honesty,
If the marriage ended Fern knew it would not matter what the lawyers drew up: Edgar would get out with dignity, she would get out with children.
For this metaphor,
[U]nless one bought her way out of it, motherhood was a small room with high walls and no door.
For this simile,
She remembered the early days of her and Edgar, of walking around with her new last name like it was jewelry.
In this last excerpt, Evelyn, Fern’s mother, is holding her just after she’s born. Look how the quick summary works to establish class and expectation, and also to question it all. Plus, see how it involves the reader who must make the leap from “this very same moment” to “women having children.”
In the girl’s scrunched face Evelyn saw the entire path: pigtails, dollhouse, riding lessons, foxtrot, engagement, white dress, all in service of the repetition of this very same moment.
Ramona has published three books in six years, and if she had it to do over again, she told Writer’s Digest,
I wouldn’t have worried so much. I got lots of rejections and disappointments, and for a long time, I thought that meant it was never going to work.
Come back on DECEMBER 1st to read how RAMONA AUSUBEL spends her days.