Every day, or as close to every day as she can manage juggling a busy teaching schedule, Alix Ohlin sits down to write. For the last several years, she’s been hard at work on Inside (Knopf), a novel, and Signs and Wonders (Vintage), a short story collection, both released this month.
They are already generating noteworthy buzz. Canada’s The Globe and Mail newspaper hailed its native daughter as a “writer who should be famous,” and earlier this month O Magazine featured Inside as book of the week on its website.
Inside tells the story of three people whose paths cross over a period of 10 years. Each of them is driven to help someone in trouble. In some cases, years later, a person who gave help now finds him or herself in need of it.
“It’s about the imperative to help other people, why helping has value, even though we may not always succeed,” explains Ohlin, associate professor of English.
For Inside, Ohlin enlisted the help of Jenny Boyar ’08, who graduated with an A.B. degree with majors in psychology and English. Boyar worked with Ohlin as an EXCEL Scholar, researching the lives of therapists and actors, who both play a role in the novel. She also conducted interviews and read textbooks for professionals in those fields. Her findings helped Ohlin add greater texture and authenticity to Inside’s characters.
The stories in Signs and Wonders are mostly about relationships between people: men and women, parents and children, workplace colleagues, and friends, “all the intense and sometimes fraught connections that make up our ordinary lives.”
While Ohlin doesn’t use her own materials in the classroom, she does treat her classes like a circle of writers. She shares works by other writers, hoping they will excite and inspire her students the way they did her. She also shares her own process.
“It’s important for students to know that everybody experiences doubt and struggle in writing, as I do,” she says. “It takes many drafts and a lot of revising to come up with something that you’re happy with.”
If students are intimidated about taking a class with such an accomplished writer, they shouldn’t be. Ohlin views all of her students as writers; she just happens to be a little further along.
“I can share what I have learned in a practical sense along the way,” she says. “I didn’t take any writing classes as an undergraduate [at Harvard University], but I try to teach the way I would’ve wanted to be taught, which is to break writing down into a set of concrete skills, and then give students the freedom to experiment with those skills as widely as they can.”
Each student is a unique writer, with an individual voice, experience, and talent. No two classes are ever the same, which Ohlin loves.
“I feel very lucky that now, as a professor, I can share my passion for writing with students,” she says. “It’s very exciting to help them discover what they want to say and how to say it.”
Ohlin previously published a novel, The Missing Person (Knopf, 2005), and the short story collection Babylon and Other Stories (2006).
More praise for Inside and Signs and Wonders: