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People I Wanted to Be

Winner of the Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction, the Oregon Book Award for Short Fiction, and the PNBA Book Award

"In this offbeat, affecting follow-up to her debut collection . . . Ochsner assembles a host of oddballs whose touchingly resilient hopes and small leaps of faith fly in the face of almost certain disappointment. Ochsner knows that vindication and inspiration often come from unlikely places, and she can capture this contradiction gorgeously in a gesture." —Publishers Weekly, starred review

"In these remarkable stories, which draw from folklore and myths, Ochsner's flawed, wholly sympathetic characters miraculously stumble into small moments, shaped with a delicious sense of the absurd, which connect them to a world that's magical, merciful, and infinite." —Booklist, starred review

About the Book

Men, women, children, and occasionally even ghosts are searching for human connection in Gina Ochsner's exhilarating new collection of stories, People I Wanted to Be (Houghton Mifflin/Mariner Original, May 11, 2005). She moves fluidly between realism and the extraordinary, revealing emotionally resonant characters who are simultaneously disturbed by and at home within their surroundings.

Gina Ochsner is an acclaimed author whose work has been featured in The New Yorker and The Best American Nonrequired Reading. She has won more than twenty awards for her writing, including the Flannery O'Connor Award, the Oregon Book Award, and the PNBA Book Award. The stories in People I Wanted to Be are simultaneously fresh and mythical, displaying her rare talent for showing us how we can find warmth and solace in the face of trying times.

In tales that are rich with culture and beauty but filled with cold temperatures and temperaments, Ochsner takes us from the Republic of Karelia and Prague to Siberia and her home state of Oregon. She introduces an unforgettable cast of characters, including
    • a Russian couple visited by the playful and bothersome ghosts of the children they never had.
    • twin sisters raised to run the family's funeral home but unprepared for a death of their own.
    • a substitute teacher emerging from alcohol rehab to teach in the parochial school she once attended.
We also meet a Czech advertising illustrator whose sketches refuse to cooperate, a menacing dog who brings luck both good and bad, obsessive crime scene investigators, and many others. Gina Ochsner's stories are filled with unusual individuals who find themselves in strange circumstances, but their universal yearnings will be familiar to all readers.

The characters in People I Wanted to Be are either looking for something they don't have or trying to make their lives better. These illuminating stories suggest that transformation and small miracles are more probable that one might think.

About the Author

Gina Ochsner's stories have appeared in The New Yorker, The Best American Nonrequired Reading, Kenyon Review, Prairie Schooner, and many other magazines, and have received awards such as the Raymond Carver Prize and the Chelsea Award for Short Fiction. Her first collection, The Necessary Grace to Fall, won the Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction. It also won the Oregon Book Award for Short Fiction and the PNBA Book Award for short stories and was an Austin Chronicle Top Ten Pick.

A Conversation with Gina Oschner

How did you arrive at the title People I Wanted to Be?

When it came time to title this book, I kept asking myself what these stories are really about, and it occurred to me that these are all stories about people who want something they don't have or have something they are trying to get rid of. In every story the main character recognizes that he or she is in possession of a fundamental flaw, and I don't just mean an oddly developed sense of humor or something. I'm talking a real flaw, a gap in what that person is and what he or she had hoped to become. These people see themselves as they really are and wish desperately that they could change themselves somehow, if only for a day.

Why do your stories contain elements of magic realism?

As I began to imagine the lives of these people, some of them quite ordinary really, the possibilities for the extraordinary began to leak out at the edges. Originally, it wasn't my intention, for instance, to have a character like Jiri in "From the Fourth Row" encounter such absurdity at his workplace. And yet, the more I thought about the history of Prague and the colossal changes that have taken place in that part of the world in the past fifteen years, the more the bizarre and absurd, and, yes, even magical, seemed the fictive ingredients this landscape required.

Likewise, in the stories "A Blessing" and "A Darkness Held," some very ordinary folks brush up against the extraordinary as their human world collides with the divine. In both stories the characters encounter evidence of the divine or the supernatural in their lives. For Nikolai and Vera in "A Blessing," the supernatural arrives one day in the form of a Siberian husky who works small financial miracles. At first they can't believe their good fortune. But eventually this abundance of good luck overwhelms Vera, who is certain that they will have to pay double for every good thing they receive. In a "Darkness Held," Imogene, a woman scarred by her Catholic upbringing, is asked to substitute in the same parochial school she once attended. Her students, fourth-graders taught by the same abusive nun who once taught Imogene, force her to rethink her previous conceptions about God. Later they steer her toward a confrontation with God as he literally manifests himself to her in the schoolyard.

How and when did you become interested in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet countries and the people who live there as source material?

I think I've always secretly wanted to be an anthropologist. I am endlessly fascinated by people. And for some reason I am particularly intrigued by people who are from or have lived in Eastern Europe. There's an enclave of Russian immigrants, Molokans and Old Believers, who live near the town where I grew up. As girl, I observed them from afar and found their customs — their style of dress, for instance — and the secrecy that surrounded their faith and traditions mysterious. And these people, from what little I knew and could observe, seemed nothing like the "communists" we heard about on TV, the villains we learned about as children. So I think the disparity sparked my interest. After graduating from a small Quaker college, I moved to Ames, Iowa, where I worked at a Brazilian café. The atmosphere — the thick ceiling of cigarette smoke, the nonstop soccer matches on huge TVs, the salsa dancing — attracted a large group of international students and visitors who were in Ames studying at Iowa State's famous meat labs. Many of them were from Russia and the Ukraine. I would listen to them and the sound of those Slavic languages, which seemed to me so rich, so beautiful, and I decided to try to learn Russian. Mercifully, three F's in Russian did not dampen my interest in all things Slavic, though I was prohibited from enrolling in Russian 101 in the future.

Have you traveled to any of the countries you write about?

I traveled for a month to St. Petersburg and Prague and visited a small town in Poland not far from Krakow. In each of these places I tried to really observe what mattered to people and how they expressed in real and tangible ways what they hoped for or worried about. And I found that while humans as a whole may be inscrutable in some ways, really we are quite transparent and far more similar to one another than we may like to acknowledge.

Why are you so interested in writing about the dead?

Tolstoy said that we have to keep death in the living room in order to appreciate life. The characters that I write about who are fascinated with death — their own and others — feel that their lives are loose skins they've not quite grown into and that perhaps they are not quite suited for. These characters long to know what awaits them beyond the borders of the lives they now know. They think that knowing will diminish the terror that comes from not knowing. At any rate, it's characters colliding against one another and against their keenly felt limitations (mortality and otherwise) that are most fascinating to me.

You have four small children in your home. How do you find time to write?

I work in small increments. It has always been my firm belief that doing something, no matter how small, is better than nothing. So early on I abandoned the idea that I needed large chunks of time to myself in order to work. It was a hard mental adjustment to make, but ultimately one that saved my sanity, and I think, and I hope — I pray — has made me a better mother. As far as writing goes, I steal the time where I can. When I'm taking care of the house, I'm not really thinking about the laundry I'm folding or the dishes I'm washing. I'm thinking about story ideas and the people who inhabit those stories, and I wonder what they might wonder about, which explains why the clean clothes come out folded a little askew or the drinking glasses are a little spotty. I try to work small, writing anything that comes to me on small slips of paper, Post-it Notes, and the backs of grocery receipts. Later, when I have a pile, I lay them all out on the kitchen table and start shifting the pieces around like a mosaic until a coherent thread of a story emerges. It's a very nonlinear way to work, but it serves me well, as the cycle of my days and thoughts is anything but linear or smooth.

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