Pleased to be Otherwise (Ploughshares Solos, 2013)
What catalyzed or inspired the writing of your single? What do you remember about writing it?
I stumbled across a brilliant book by Tom Bissell called Chasing the Sea, a memoir chronicling not only his time in Uzbekistan, but also the strange and tragic history and ecological disaster in and around the Aral Sea, which he noted, is vanishing at an alarming rate. His work and this idea that a sea could evaporate led me to some eerie pictures of ships sunk in that sand. I trolled the internet for more information, found some people who live and work in Moynaq, near what’s left of the Aral Sea. Those interviews and rapid-fire e-mail exchanges with some other Uzbek friends and my girlhood love for Evel Knievel and camels led to a quirky convergence called Pleased to Be Otherwise.
What’s your story about? How is it similar to or different from your earlier work?
The story, set in modern day Moynaq, known in medical circles as “the sickest city on the planet,” follows a 17-year-old narrator, Timi, who wants nothing more than to leave Moynaq, preferably on a high-end Honda or Yamaha bike. Timi’s father and a few other men in town have been charged by an NGO ( the Belgian Bactrian Society) to care for a small herd of camels as part of a sustainability experiment. When an American doctor arrives to work at the town clinic, Timi, who has taught himself English via his potent internetting prowess, volunteers to be his interpreter. Their friendship is helped along by their mutual love for motorcycles. But when the young doctor launches into his crazy Baptist God-talk, Timi is warned, with corrective nudges from his abusive father, that theirs is a Muslim family and crazy fanaticism will not be tolerated.
What are you working on now?
Right now I’m completing a novel set in eastern Latvia. I’m curious about language and life and how in Eastern Latvia during the Soviet occupation Latvian language was discouraged (in favor of Russian). I’ve made some journeys to that part of Latvia and find it incredibly beautiful. But again, my curiosity is provoked by the blend of Latvian people: “ethnic” Latvians, Russian-speaking Latvians, Jews, Poles, Ukrainians, and Roma. In that convergence of people is a wealth of knowledge, ideas, culture, belief, superstition, largesse and provinciality. I find Latvian culture incredible rich—particularly the folksongs, folklore, music and poetry.
What advice would you offer to an aspiring author who would like to publish a story as a single?
My advice to anyone wanting to write a single—or anything else—is to write what you love. Write what makes you feel passionate about life and people. Write what you don’t know and want to discover. Write what will break your heart.
Do you have a favorite prompt or revision technique? What is it?
I have a pile of old photographs from all over the world that I keep on my desk. I sift through them when I’m stuck. My favorite right now comes from the book One Day In Latvia, which depicts two young girls in a lace factory. One girl in the foreground sits behind her machine, her brow furrowed. She’s figuring out a difficult stitch. At the work table and machine behind her sits another girl. She’s peering around her machine to see how the other girl is solving the problem with the lace. The look of curiosity on her face is utterly arresting. I can’t help wondering about their lives and all the other girls working in this factory. I heard someone say once lace is merely a series of knots anchoring empty space. I think about each one of those girls at the machine as a knot holding firm some part of a larger story.
Gina Ochsner lives in Keizer, Oregon and divides her time between teaching and writing. She is the author of the short story collection The Necessary Grace to Fall, which received the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction and the story collection People I Wanted to Be. Both books received the Oregon Book Award. Her novel The Russian Dreambook of Colour and Flight was long-listed for the Orange Award (UK) and received the Grub Street Book Prize. Ochsner is the grateful recipient of grants from the Oregon Arts Commission, Oregon Literary Arts, Inc., The National Endowment for Arts, the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, and the Howard Foundation. Ochsner is an avid reader and collector of folk and fairy tales, myths and ghost stories. She can be contacted at: http://www.ginaochsner.com
from Pleased to be Otherwise
To look at the sea bed outside Moynaq is to gaze at thirst and sorrow, tanned and cured. 5km out onto the basin the wind herds the salt into low drifts that bank against the hulls of the grounded ships. I sit beside the rotting hulk of the Karakalpakia. The ship was recently featured in a Polish documentary about environmental disasters, and because of this still wears a fairly decent coat of paint. Other film crews make documentaries from time to time—there are so many film-worthy ships stranded and listing and boiling with rust in this dried basin that grows a little more each night as we sleep. Former Chief Irrigation Engineer Joop has shown me the satellite pictures of what is left of the once mighty Aral and honestly speaking, the two dark splotches look like collapsed lungs. It is from these lungs of water scientists gather data. Speculate. By 2012 they say the sea will be gone. Definitely by 2014. For sure by then. I once asked Former Chief Irrigation Engineer Joop if scientists can get a camera up there to take pictures, why can’t they figure out how to bring back the water? “This is why I like you, Timi,” Joop replied. “You fearlessly approach complicated and delicate issues with simple questions that in no way can be answered.” And then he coughed into his handkerchief, spattering it with a bright constellation of blood flecks.