Ramona Ausubel’s debut novel, No One Is Here Except All of Us, feels worn and lived in, like an old church or synagogue, something you could step inside of. The title solicits our participation from the get-go, a kind incantatory chant that spotlights the solitariness of reading (No One Is Here) while reaffirming the activity’s capacity to console and connect (Except All of Us). Fitting, since the ensuing story presents the act of storytelling as place of refuge in the face of tragedy. The atrocities of WWII assume the dimensions of myths and fables, outlandish and flat, but also more resonant and true because of their outlandish flatness.
But the novel’s not exactly magical realism, nor really historical fiction. Unlike a lot of fiction covering the same terrain, the Holocaust isn’t just a plot device. There are no cartoonishly maniacal Nazis or explosive descriptions of violent battles. Important events like the Battle of Britain flash intermittently in the background, on the radio or as newspaper clippings. All the historical facts and details end up being immaterial, nothing but verisimilitudinous static. They are, though, like the details in a myth, never meaningless.
Even though the book’s built on bits and pieces of family lore (the story began as Ausubel’s attempt to chronicle her great-grandparents’s experiences during the Holocaust) and takes place during a specific moment in world history, the story ends up being much more than the sum of its parts. It doesn’t ultimately matter, for example, that the narrator is loosely based on Ausubel’s great-grandmother; or, that the novel came together at UC Irvine’s MFA program. Those sort of anecdotes are good fodder for book jackets and interviews like this, but they do nothing toward explaining why No One Is Here Except All of Us is moving or interesting.
The story takes shape through an accretion of lists and voices, a litany written in the third-person plural narrated by a Greek chorus of one: the novel’s young protagonist, Lena. It’s 1939, and a tiny Romanian village clings to the last remains of its blissful ignorance. When the village is finally faced with the inconceivable realities of the outside world, the villagers improvise: they decide to leave reality altogether. They exit stage left, discarding their various roles as banker, husband, widow, or daughter. Children are housed with new parents; years pass in the span of a few days. The world is ad libbed, beginning again from day one—a story without a plan for its end, even if it remains tragically obvious how it’s going to end.
The villagers, in their commitment to both creating and believing in their invention, reflect reader and author alike. It’s an incredible leap of faith, as preposterous and vital as made-up stories. The world is rewritten, a blank, book-like space that can accommodate all of its inhabitants’ whims and desires, a space where all of us—fictional characters, Ausubel, and reader—can meet.
In other interviews, you’ve talked about how the germ of the story started out as a desire to record your great-grandparents’s stories. At what point did you realize that the form of the project needed to be a novel? How much of those stories are still in the novel?
I gave up after a year or so of work, satisfied in the idea that at least I had gotten the family stories down for posterity. Something about the story kept nigging me and I realized that I wanted to find my own place in it and to do so would require just that—putting myself into the work and the world. My imagination became part of the source material. Many of the family stories are still tucked in there. For example, my great-grandmother really did wander the mountains for years with her children surviving on tree bark and stolen potatoes while her husband was having the time of his life as a POW in Sardinia. As my characters turned their barn into a temple by putting stars on the ceiling, I began to feel that the “true” stories were my stars, but the big emptiness between was where the real matter lay. That was the place where imagination could get to that facts could not.
Unlike most books that take place during World War II, No One Is Here Except All of Us seems to pointedly eschew historical events. They’re only heard in passing—on the radio or in brief newspaper headlines. How much research did you do and how did that research end up affecting your writing?
I did pretty much all my research at the end of the process, maybe fifteen drafts in. I needed to be sure that the book was driven by the heart (brains are good, but you have to tell them what actually matters!). Once I had my story, I settled it in a landscape of history, geography and folklore. I did read a bunch of books, but I found that it didn’t need much of that stuff—just a gesture and readers could fill in the rest. All I have to say is “WWII” and “Jews” and you’ll carry that half of the story for me.
The book is told from a specific POV, but also manages to be strangely omniscient, able to see and relate things that your narrator, Lena, would obviously have been unable to see. How did you arrive at Lena’s voice and how did that voice then shape the narrative?
For a long time, the book was written in the first person plural (we), and there was no single narrator. While it made the novel hard to read, it allowed me to develop this big collective consciousness, which felt like the heart of the story to me. I wanted it be about an over-soul as much as any one character’s experience. I was surprised to discover that handing the story over to Lena did not take the teeth out of that voice—she was as much a part of the “we” as anyone else. We are all we.
That voice starts addressing “you,” who we learn towards the end of the book is not just universal but specific (it’s Lena’s daughter, Chaya). Why did you decide to start using the second-person, and at what point did you know that that second-person would be specifically addressed to Lena’s daughter?
The novel begins with bigness and oneness and a voice that includes everyone. It felt important that the story finish with something very specific: one body, one voice, one relationship. The villagers keep track of their world through prayers and this baby is, if not the answer, at least the echo of those prayers. What began on one side of creation is born on the other.
One of the great things about the book is how you’re able to buoy these incredibly gut-wrenching tragic moments with this ardent hopefulness and compassion. What was the hardest section of the book to write?
Thank you so much! It was really hard to write the death of the baby out there in the woods. I think it’s one of the most hopeless moments, the most lost. It’s also where Lena begins to try and swim back up towards the surface, so I hung onto that while I was writing in order to keep going. Before writing this book, I never thought about how long a writer lives in a fictional world (especially for a novel, and especially if you’re a writer like me who takes a million drafts to get it right). We write to work out some of those darkest and deepest questions, but that doesn’t make it easy. Luckily there is plenty of strangeness and humor in the novel’s world, too, and those sections were like little islands for me to rest on. My advice to novelists: write yourself some nice places to hang out—you’ll be there for a while!
Sam Freilich lives in L.A.