Every Inheritance Has a Shadow
A Conversation with Ramona Ausubel, Author of Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty
In Ramona Ausubel’s new novel, Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty (Riverhead, 2016) a family of great wealth is splintered by the sudden loss of their riches. Each character is whisked away on an adventure of sorts, an excursion that tests and grapples with the reality of love after the reality of money has vanished. The narrative toggles back and forth between Edgar, Fern, and their three children, creating a tapestry of a family stretched, torn, and pulled taut.
Early in the novel, Edgar wonders about how his feelings are perceived by those without money. “As if his feelings were purchased and not true,” he thinks. When reading Ausubel, one is overcome by the emotional truth of her prose, the tenderness with which she conceives her characters and their world, however far away it might be from our own. There is nothing purchased or borrowed in these pages, only people and their human desires deeply felt. The only embarrassment of riches to be found is in the sentences themselves.
Hilary Leichter: Many of your short stories, and your first novel, No One Is Here Except All of Us, are rooted in a fabulist, fantastic tradition. They are propelled by a magical kind of thinking. What was it like writing this realist novel? Does your approach change based on the world you are trying to create?
Ramona Ausubel: So far I’ve always set out with each new piece of writing without expectations, as much as possible. If something magical makes the story bigger or truer or more interesting, then it goes in, but if I can get closer to the heart in a more realistic world then that’s where I stay. My main feeling is that the world we live in is incredibly weird, almost unbelievably so, and that any strange thing I add is simply an amplification of what’s already there. I did want to push the edges a bit in the new novel — there’s a giant and a lot of bad decisions made in their own kind of magical thinking — but I found more friction this time by staying within the bounds of reality.
Leichter: Some of my favorite sections of the book were with Fern and Edgar’s children, Cricket and her two younger twin brothers. For various reasons and plot turns, they are left to their own devices, and they build a fantasy of their own making. Cricket becomes a sort of Wendy and Peter Pan amalgam, and they even play-act Native American prairie life in a way that echoes the problematic portrayal of Tigerlily in Neverland. Wendy, Michael, and John had money, too. Even Oliver and Orphan Annie end up rich. What’s the connection between childhood imagination, or fantasy, and wealth?
Ausubel: I thought about this a lot while writing. So many of the books I loved as a kid were about orphans (it’s hard to go on any truly great adventures if parents are around!). There’s this clash between the “civilized” adult world and the wild, free, and sometimes dangerous kid world. Part of what makes the children free is that they don’t have all that stuff — the kids in Sons and Daughters move into their backyard where they have only the resources they need and not more. Fern and Edgar too have gone off on possession-less journeys, as if the self — whether young or grown — can’t be discovered within the walls of a structured and stocked American life.
Neverland is made to be left.
And of course, it’s all fantasy. That American dream is fantasy, but so is the stripping of that. The kids rely on a completely invented idea of Native Americans, built to represent a life in opposition to what they experience and built for the pleasure of visiting that imagined land and also so that when they return to their own life they find it full of comfort and safety. Neverland is made to be left.
Leichter: Much of the book is a beautiful reflection on motherhood as it relates to personhood, to art, to existing as a sole entity and also in relation to another being. Fern’s mother Evelyn is a sculptor, and in these pages motherhood is also a sort of chipping away, as much as it is a filling up. The mothers in the book have varied levels of success when it comes to figuring out a solution, an answer. Is there an answer?
Ausubel: I wish there was an answer! I began this book with several knots, from the idea of money to the idea of motherhood (and gender expectations in general) to the freedom and fear of childhood. One of the parts of the process that I most loved was trying to represent the complication of each of these ideas differently across a number of different characters. In my own experience of motherhood I have felt most of what the characters feel — elation, entrapment, unnameable joy, deep exhaustion. Motherhood is, as I suppose most kind of love also are, a study in contradiction and heartwork. I am so grateful that my job includes space to think and write about this vast experience. It helps to name these things.
Leichter: I love that word — heartwork! Would you describe writing a novel as heartwork, too? Or does it involve a different muscle?
Ausubel: Oh, that’s the muscle all right. Obviously the brain is handy and much required but it can also get in the way. Learning to write for me was all about building instincts so that I can feel when I’m getting what works. No one can say, “The third paragraph in a story about a woman artist needs to be short and send a hard punch.” It’s something I know by feel. In all the drafts of re-reading, I come to new understandings of the texture and depth of what I’m trying to do and know a little more each time how to press the piece onward. I also think about an interview with Marlon James where he says the best writing advice he ever received was to “risk sentimentality.” Especially when I’m working in a highly stylized story, it’s not just my heartwork that matters but the characters’. If no one is feeling, then we have to go for a walk and find a new way in.
Leichter: The narrative toggles back and forth in time, but the entirety of the book takes place before and during 1976. How did you go about choosing an era, and what was it like writing a period piece?
Ausubel: I knew I wanted the book to be set mid-century, somewhere in the space after the strictures of the 1950s but also out of the thick of the unleashed 1960s. I wanted the presence of that unleashing, but not to be right in it, and then of course I wanted the hangover as the revolution fades and everyone ages and looks up to see that a lot of things have changed and a lot of things have stayed the same.
I wanted the hangover as the revolution fades and everyone ages and looks up to see that a lot of things have changed
Leichter: Tracing the money of Fern and Edgar’s families becomes a kind of access point for some of the ugliest parts of American history. What kind of research went into the book, and did you have real families in mind when you were creating these particular characters?
Ausubel: I come from a family (on one side) that was once very wealthy and high on the caste system but slowly became less and less wealthy, and by the time I came along the riches were gone. I grew up with the tattered old silk dresses from grand European voyages that included huge leather trunk and porters and first class everything. I had all these stories of a life that felt both fantastically cool, and also in the stories was generation after generation of depression and, as time went on, more and more questions about the origins of the money (great sums aren’t built from kindness and justice). I wanted to write toward the idea that every life is a life of want. That there is no such thing as an easy existence. That every inheritance has a shadow.
Leichter: “Every life is a life of want” is a such a great motto for writing fiction! Your characters have so much longing, even when they have difficulty articulating what it is exactly that they are longing for. I’m also thinking of your short story “Tributaries,” where falling in love causes people to sprout extra hands. I think that desire is such a difficult and important emotion to put on the page. How do you set about creating characters with lives of want?
Ausubel: Desire is the center of everything. We want because we are lonely, regretful, hopeful. We want because we don’t feel at home in our bodies or our lives. Want is this pivot point between whatever happened before that we’re trying to move away from or closer to and the question of whether we’ll get there. I have a four-year-old son and when he gets really upset about something he can’t have (usually ice cream or to sleep with some beloved object with a lot of sharp edges) none of my motherly logic calms him down but if I say, “Do you wish you could just curl up with that dangerous garbage truck and dream next to it the whole night through?” he softens right away. Desire is powerful even if it doesn’t make any sense. Everybody deserves to wish the wish.
Leichter: Fern talks about struggling to make a single friend, always feeling too much different or too much the same as everyone around her. Many of the characters are constantly code-switching or flat out fictionalizing as a way to connect. Edgar wants to pretend himself into a different origin story, and Mrs. Nolan invents a Native American heritage for herself. Cricket plays at being a mother, and an orphan. Fern participates in a mock wedding, and the wedding becomes a door for an escape, a mock marriage. Identity is problematized. Are we all just playing at being ourselves, at being someone else? Is it just an attempt to connect, to belong, or is it more fraught than that?
Ausubel: We are all always inventing everything and the mix includes an awful lot of fiction. Part of this is because we are not creatures of pure logic. We feel, we are emotional beings and this is always with us and I’d argue that it drives our storytelling more even than the facts and figures. We draw borders, let in or keep out immigrants, marry, make babies, build whole lives (real lives, concrete and measurable lives) based on the stories we tell ourselves and each other. And as we go through our lives I think we’re always looking for signs and doorways to the next thing. We are looking for the story and we’re very hungry for it and a lot of times we might be willing to go farther into fiction than we might like to admit. Miss Nolan is stealing and mangling something that doesn’t belong to her, and it’s both innocent and not at all. We’ve seen a few of these stories in the news this year of people claiming a heritage that isn’t their own and while these are more extreme examples, I think we’re all in stories of our own making and stories that have been told for generation and handed down to us and that these are both the best part of our nature and the worst. We are freed and entrapped by our own storytelling.