Ramona Ausubel, THE LAST ANIMAL

Ramona Ausubel, THE LAST ANIMAL

Zibby interviews author Ramona Ausubel about her playful, witty, and resonant new novel, THE LAST ANIMAL, which came from the idea of de-extincting woolly mammoths and evolved into a story about a single mom and her daughters grappling with creation, extinction, and family dynamics. Ramona reflects on her writing journey, from a shy, poetic child to a published author influenced by personal experiences and literary figures like George Saunders. Ramona emphasizes the richness of the writing process over the end goal of publication and shares her future projects, including a new novel, short stories, and a craft book. The interview also touches on Ramona’s participation in a panel at the book fair and her plans to enjoy the local Miami culture.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Ramona. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” Live from the Miami Book Fair in this little conference room with a lot of noise outside. Delighted to be here with you.

Ramona Ausubel: I’m so happy to be here. Thank you for having me.

Zibby: Your latest book has gotten so much attention. I’m so excited for you. Yet you have this whole canon of other stuff. Why don’t we start with The Last Animal and go from there?

Ramona: Sounds like a plan.

Zibby: Please tell listeners what your book is about.

Ramona: The very beginning of the book started when I was living in Berkeley, California. I had a newborn baby. She was sleeping on my chest. I also am a writer, so I was like, the baby’s asleep, I should open my laptop and do some work. I popped it open, and this story appeared about scientists working to de-extinct the woolly mammoth. I had this wave of feeling of both — here I have this new creature that has never existed before in the world lying on my body. She is mine to protect. I have no idea how to do that. There’s no manual. I just have to follow my instincts. Here we are, this species that — we just kill things off. We destroy things all the time tromping around. Then we also have the possibility of making something new or bringing something back. Is that hubris, ridiculous, and terrible, or is that something beautiful and real? I knew at that moment that that would be a novel, but I didn’t know anything about what the actual story would be yet. It kind of sat for a few years before I was ready to pick it up and find the story within that. It’s very much fiction. I am not a biological scientist. It’s about a single mom and her two teenage daughters who end up with the chance to try to work on this mammoth project. The girls are not on board. They are frustrated and feel like they would rather be at home doing teenager things than being dragged around to Siberia with their scientist mom. It’s a question of, if you love something enough, can you save it? Anything.

Zibby: Wow. Early in the book, the teenage girls prove to be a great addition to the voyage and end up stumbling on this baby woolly mammoth, elephant — I don’t want to get it —

Ramona: — Woolly mammoth.

Zibby: Woolly mammoth. They’re going through, and they’re like, wait, it looks like this might be the trunk. This might be this. Then they pull it out. Now they’re the heroes. The mom has become, also, a hero by association and all of that. What about this notion of, our kids can actually help our careers in ways we never would’ve expected?

Ramona: That’s a question we’re always having to ask because the narrative in the world is it’s going to set you back or it’s going to be something that you have to sort of battle for, both pieces, your job and your kids. They’re always going to be trying to pull from the same pot of time and love and attention. You’re going to be in that thing of scarcity all the time and having to make a choice. Whichever one you’re going to choose, the other one will be hurt by it. While there’s some truth in that, and there certainly have been moments for me when I have felt that, I also feel like I know as a writer that my kids, they are the source material. Our family, what it is to raise them, what it is to think about somebody going on past me, what it is to love something beyond any reason or material or language, there is so much of that. It’s a bounty rather than a scarcity. Even when I’m not writing directly about family, I feel like it’s still in there. It’s what I’m pulling from. That was my second baby, so I had a three-year-old at the same time. That is the thick of it where you’ve got the little one and then the even littler one. I’m like, how am I going to do this? They need different things at different times. My second book was about to be published. I felt like, it is going to work? Is it going to be possible? Will I survive this? I really wanted the answer to be yes. Part of the novel is that wish to find the story that says, yes, this all fits together. It all belongs. I get to be whole through it. I don’t have to divide myself up between my job and my family.

Zibby: That’s amazing. The book also raises all these sorts of questions of cloning. What’s going to happen in the future? Can you revive something? What is the relationship of animals and humans? It’s this whole broader thing of, what are we even all doing here? It’s this existential notion as well. It’s a lot to pack in a novel.

Ramona: It is a lot. It took a while to figure it out.

Zibby: Were there any massive departures from earlier drafts when you were first starting to work on it versus later drafts?

Ramona: A very important one was that not just the early drafts, well into the book, I think until, really, the last big draft, there were four members of the family. The dad was alive, but he was kind of just a shadow of the mom. He was never the point. He was important because he helped her get her start. He was much older than her, so she was always sort of — even when he was alive in the early drafts, she felt a little bit less than. She felt like the kid running behind trying to catch up. He had no real purpose for a long time. I realized quite suddenly, I was like, oh, his purpose is to be in absence. The reason this book is going to work is because he is no longer there. The three women are trying to figure out who they are now with him gone. It’s about grief, the immediate grief of losing somebody, the long-term, more existential grief of what we are doing to the planet and what our future here will look like. It felt like everything came together completely in a way that it just hadn’t until I realized that he was not physically alive anymore. It only took me a couple of weeks to pluck him out and to figure out what his death meant. It was so simple. It almost felt like my subconscious had known all along that that was where we were going. It hadn’t clicked yet.

Zibby: You wrote really beautifully about that grief from all the perspectives. Did you do that from a place of personal experience?

Ramona: My dad is, wonderfully, alive, so I have not had that grief yet. Yes, exactly, knock on all the things. Yeah, from other experiences and from watching people, watching my mom lose her mom and friends lose parents. The way that those absences feel, they shift, but they never go away. We are sort of taught it’s going to be super, super, super sad at first, and then it will get quieter as you go. You learn to live with it, but it doesn’t ever go away. It’s something that is also instructive and becomes part of our cellular makeup in our bodies and in the way we make choices in the world. I feel like it’s really important, actually, not to push that away and not to walk away from it and not to do the thing of, it hurts, so I have to shut the door. What if you welcome that in and actually work with it and through it?

Zibby: Ramona, how did you become a writer? Go to the beginning just for a minute.

Ramona: In some ways, I feel like the very beginning is that I was a super shy and awkward kid. I had a couple of really close friends, mostly one best friend, and that was it. I didn’t know how to be out loud as myself at all. Then we had a poetry unit when I was in the sixth grade, and I was myself out loud on the page. I remember so vividly feeling like I said something real that actually belonged to me. It made the leap into someone else. These classmates of mine, who otherwise found me so — probably, they didn’t even know who I was. I was a non-thing. They got it. They felt the thing. They were like, whoa, that made sense to me. I’m like, I found the key. It’s magic. From then, I knew that I would write. I didn’t know how a career worked or anything, obviously. I was twelve years old. That feeling stuck. I studied poetry in college. Then I had this idea to write a novel. The only thing that made me think that it was a novel is that it was very long. It had a lot of narrative stuff. Having been a poet, I did not have any idea what a novel really was or how it worked at all.

After college, I took — I think it was the second year after I had graduated. I had a terrible, horrible job working as a personal assistant for these two very mean women. One of them was a little less mean than the other, actually. I hated that job so much. I took Fridays off to write. I felt like, this is it. I have to turn this into something that gets me out of this situation right now. I applied to graduate school in fiction with the concept that this was going to be a novel thing. I had just enough pages to apply and fortunately, get in. When I got in there and turned a story in, everyone was like, the prose is really lovely. It’s really good. It’s interesting that there’s no plot. I was like, plot? What? Oh, no. I put that novel down because I was like, I think that I need to learn about how fiction works before I can do this. I wrote short stories for the two years of the workshop, figured out how to write, figured out what a story was, what my version of a story was. Then I picked that novel back up. Actually, I divided it in two because I thought that it was going to be both my grandmothers, sort of based on their stories, two very different views of the twentieth century, the poor Romanian Jews and the once-very-rich Midwesterners. It was a little big, so I divided it in two. That ended up being my first two novels.

Zibby: Look at that. Two for the price of one.

Ramona: I know. Although, it’s definitely two for the price of two.

Zibby: I know. I’m kidding. Talk more about those novels, then your short story collections, everything. Sorry, I hate to take you back. I know you’ve talked about these a thousand times, but I’m really interested. The first one started in 1939 in Romania. That’s more historical fiction. Now you’ve gone to almost, not speculative, but what-ifs? How did you approach that versus this?

Ramona: Some of the approach that feels key to me is that I don’t know what I’m doing at the beginning, so I don’t have the idea that it becomes historical fiction. Though, that does have a fantastical element too. I was more guided by the fantastical piece than by the idea that it was historical. Though, obviously, it’s set in 1939. It was based very much on stories my grandmother told me. I’m her only grandchild. She’s still alive. She’s 103 and a half.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh.

Ramona: She’s amazing. She’s like a mutant superhero.

Zibby: That’s awesome.

Ramona: She’s an incredible person. We had a lot of conversations about her early childhood in Romania and then coming here and just all these little seeds of tales that felt like, that’s really real. She got a bad cough when she was a child there, and the prescription was to ride back and forth across the river in a carriage. It was like, this is what you need to do to get rid of a cough. You’re going to go very quickly across this river in this carriage three times, and the cough will be healed. That was a real thing that happened. Also, the idea of survival in extreme circumstances. I started with that. In the beginning, it was much closer to trying to follow a more real progression of events based on what I knew. It was okay, but I wasn’t doing anything new or anything that mattered. These are stories that you could find elsewhere. At some point, I realized that I needed to take a step away from trying to recreate the past and move closer to trying to recreate some kind of truth instead and find something that was mine to say and a way that this story would be alive in the present instead of in the past. That’s when I had the idea that the — it takes place in this tiny little Jewish village in the oxbow of a river. They’re almost an island and separated from the world. They realize that the war has arrived, that there’s no physical escape possible, and so they decide to imagine that nothing else exists to start the world over again and just shut themselves off. There’s this leap of imagination and faith that instructs the rest of the story. Of course, the real world is still going on around them and eventually catches up with them. It became a book then instead of just a sort of document of family stories.

Zibby: That sounds like a movie. Was it made into a movie?

Ramona: It was not made into a movie, no.

Zibby: It’s reminding me of something. I’ll think of it. Well, it should.

Ramona: Let’s do it.

Zibby: Okay. Then your next novel was much more a contemporary commentary on wealth and everything else. Talk about that.

Ramona: That was based on stories from the other side of my family. This one went further into the — it’s funny to say it goes further into the fictional when the first one is about people who pretend that the world doesn’t exist. That’s definitely fictional.

Zibby: Wait, say the names again because I don’t want to get them wrong. I’m really bad with titles.

Ramona: The first one is called No One is Here Except All of Us. The second one is called Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty. On my mom’s side, there was once lots of money, mostly from steel, but also before that, from cotton and all those old Kentucky kind of money. The money is gone and has been gone for a few generations. I grew up with these stories of this bigness of feeling like we are — I don’t know. We come from something that takes up space, which is very much the opposite of the other side. There are museum wings with family names. There’s a real physical presence in the real world, but I don’t belong in that anymore. It doesn’t belong to me. I wanted to write toward that question of what it means to move away from that thing that we’re taught in this country to move forward. What happens when we are receding from that instead of moving toward it? Also, what is the weight of the way that money was earned, slaves and industry and all of these things that we know to be deeply, deeply not right?

In the novel, the loss of the money happens very quickly, where in my real family, it was mostly because people were artists. There was a lot of great art that got made. Money gets spent when you’re making art. It is not replenished. In the novel, I wanted it to be quicker because it felt like it needed to be sort of sudden and shocking and send the mother and father off on different paths to try to reconcile themselves and their identities and who they want to be going forward. They live in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Each of them believes the other to be home, so they think they’re the only one that is left. In fact, both of them have left, meaning that the children are alone in trying to sort of camp out in their backyard and figure out how to be, how to exist, how to take care of themselves. It takes place over the course of a week. Each of them goes on these separate journeys. The mother drives across the country with a giant. The dad tries to sail to Bermuda with a pretty lady. The kids are making it work at home just the three of them.

Zibby: I feel like that’s a thought experiment I would like to have too. If I were to disappear, how would the kids all function in the house without me?

Ramona: It would be fascinating.

Zibby: Yes. Maybe I should put a little camera, test it out. Oh, my gosh. I feel like my kids are just getting to the age where I’m like, I feel like you guys are good, right? You know what to do.

Ramona: You know how to cook some food.

Zibby: Well, maybe not that, but you can call me. Make a bowl of Cheerios or something. Make.

Ramona: Survival is possible. How old are your kids?

Zibby: Eight, ten, and then I have sixteen-year-old twins. How about you?

Ramona: Mine are nine and twelve, so same zone.

Zibby: Which is good. No more worrying about the crawling worries and panic. Okay, you guys can figure this out.

Ramona: Yes, definitely.

Zibby: Then you wrote a bunch of short stories. Then you had this novel. Now what is coming after this? Because you haven’t done enough, I have to ask you about another thing.

Ramona: It is true that because a book comes out — the book publishing process, as you know, is slower than I think people realize. When a book comes out, it feels like I lived there in that land quite some time ago. Now I get to share it. It’s wonderful and great, but I definitely feel like my writing heart has moved to new places. I’m happy to answer that question. I have three things. I’ve got a new novel thing. It’s very blobby and these little balls of goo that I’m holding onto. I don’t at all know what they’re going to turn into, but it is something. I taught a novel-writing class last semester, and I wrote alongside my class. I have what came from that. I’m looking back at it now and trying to figure out what it might turn into. I try to write one short story every season, not to do with the season, just as a way of — three months is plenty of time to write a story in and amongst all the other things I’m doing. It also keeps me moving. I really like that. I’m still doing that. I’ll probably, in another year or so, have a full group of them. Then I’m also working on a craft book about getting unstuck. It’s 101 doorways to get through to the next part of the book. I’m really excited about that. I’m hoping that will happen too. I feel like I’m sort of living in three different little new worlds.

Zibby: I need your craft book. Could you send out a few doorways in advance? I don’t need a hundred. Just five. Three. Three would be good.

Ramona: All you need is one.

Zibby: Where are you based, by the way?

Ramona: I live in Boulder, Colorado.

Zibby: Amazing. Do you like hiking, skiing?

Ramona: Hiking, skiing, yep.

Zibby: The whole thing?

Ramona: The whole thing, yes. It’s funny how hiking is the last frontier for kids. The hardest thing to get them to do is the easiest thing for me to do. You’re not flying downwards. Gravity is not pulling you. Now they can do it. We went for a really great, really long — I mean, long for us — eight-mile real hike this summer.

Zibby: That is long.

Ramona: Everyone loved it. I was like, we did it. We’re here.

Zibby: You have raised hikers.

Ramona: Yes, exactly. We ski and do backcountry, cross-country skiing and all those things.

Zibby: That’s wonderful. What a nice life.

Ramona: It is.

Zibby: What advice do you have for aspiring authors?

Ramona: Oh, man. I think the biggest thing and the thing that I always come back to and remind myself of every time is that it’s not about — we think of the publication as this glimmering, beautiful prize at the top of the hill. It is lovely for a moment when you get there and you’re like, I did it. I have the thing. I can hold it in my hands. I can share it with people. That is amazing. I don’t want to minimize it, but it is so brief and so small compared to the actual relationship that you get to build with your own work and your own mind and your own way of noticing your life while you’re writing. That is so much longer lasting and so much richer and so much bigger than any of the accolades or pops of champagne that happen. It’s there no matter what that publication process does or doesn’t look like. It’s there if no one buys the story or the book in the end. It’s there when you get a crappy review or don’t get a review. That relationship is real. It’s irrefutable. Just live there. Live there as long as you can. Don’t rush to the end.

Zibby: That’s wonderful. Do you have any books that are your go-to books?

Ramona: I feel like it changes over time. Justin Torres’s We the Animals is something I go back to. It’s a really different book than I have ever written. It’s not that I’m ever aspiring to that as a — but it’s so tight and so pure that I feel like I can read a few of the vignettes, and I’m like, oh, yes, that is what writing should be and can be. George Saunders was a really early and important influence. The permission of, yes, you can write in your own voice and yes, you can try something really weird and mean it, I feel really grateful that he exists for those things. Louise Erdrich is another. There’s not a particular book because she has written prolifically and so well. Every book, amazing. I don’t even know how that is possible. That’s that similar writing as yourself, writing about your place in your world and feeling free to move around. She has a lot of work that follows similar characters in a similar place. Also, there are always surprises. I always want to be surprised by myself. I never want to write the same book again. I always want that feeling of not knowing. As I’m starting this new blobby novel thing, I’m like, hey, this is hard. I don’t know how to do this at all. I will admit that yesterday sitting on the plane on the way here, I’m feeling a little like, can this be easier, please? Is there some magic key? How is this book going to work? I also know that that’s the pleasure, is that I’m going to find my way through the total darkness. I’m going to actually learn something. I’m going to write something that I’ve never written before. The harder it is, the more possible reward there is in it too.

Zibby: Wow, I love that. What are your plans here at the Miami Book Fair today? What’s your panel? What are you doing?

Ramona: I’ve got a panel right in a little bit on female characters with Jeannette Walls. Oh, no, I’m not remembering the other person’s name.

Zibby: That’s okay.

Ramona: You can edit that out, maybe. I don’t know. I’m going to go to some things. I’m going to also, probably, try to run to the ocean. Not run. Take an Uber, get there, and then jump into the ocean. It feels really good to have some moist air. My hair is very curly, and it’s extra widening every minute that I’m here.

Zibby: I was like, I’m not even going to blow-dry my hair today. I give up. It’s not even worth it. It’s not worth the ten minutes of the hotel hairdryer.

Ramona: No, the weeny, little — no.

Zibby: Forget it.

Ramona: I’m going to embrace the size of the hair that will happen. Maybe take a mojito.

Zibby: I did that last night. We’re on the same page. It’s all things Miami. Thank you so much. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” Such a pleasure to meet you. Congratulations on everything. I can’t wait to read everything still to come, the blob.

Ramona: Thank you so much, Zibby. It’s been great to be here. I really appreciate it.

THE LAST ANIMAL by Ramona Ausubel

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