Alix Ohlin flickers onto the computer screen, a composed image of a youthful woman, dressed in neutral colours, seated primly at her desk in her office at Lafayette College in Easton, Penn., where she teaches writing. Author of a new novel, Inside, she has been both attacked in a review one blogger called "horrifyingly aggressive" and celebrated with two recent nominations for some of Canada's most prestigious literary prizes.
Nevertheless, she projects sweetness and light, seemingly oblivious to the chatter in literary circles; a study of the interplay between exteriors and imagined interiors – the very thing that preoccupies her in her latest novel. "I just try to stay focused on the writing as much as I can," offers the 40-year-old author, who was born and raised in Montreal, when asked how she assimilates the disparate reactions her book has provoked. She swings her dark hair from her face, and smiles in the polite, inscrutable manner of a new neighbour who wants to make a good impression.
In August, The New York Times published a review of Inside that was remarkable for its unrelenting excoriation of her work and talent. "Insufferable schmaltz," wrote William Giraldi, a professor at Boston University and novelist, going on to say that Ohlin's language "limps onto the page" and that she excels at the "bland earnestness of realism." The review set off a firestorm on social media as people defended her work, questioned the way negative reviews should be written – some felt its "sneering" tone was aimed at Ohlin personally as a female writer interested in depicting relationships, love, marriage and divorce – while others supported Giraldi's points.
And then, about six weeks later, Inside was put on the shortlist for the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize and on the longlist for the Scotiabank Giller prize.
Do the nominations feel like vindication?
"I try not to connect the two things too much," the Harvard graduate demurs gracefully. "I'm very happy to be on the lists. But the whole process of reviewing and jury process, everything involved, is sort of mysterious to me. I don't think I will ever understand how it really works and I think it's probably healthier for me not to think about it too much or try to decipher it too closely."
She is Miss Manners of the literary world, prim and proper in her schoolgirlish demeanour, and purposefully, almost strategically, contained.
Asked how she dealt with the negative review, she says, "I didn't actually read it. I usually read most of them and try to read them fairly quickly and set them aside … [But] my agent and editor both said that the [New York Times] review was extremely negative and that there was nothing to learn here so don't read it, and I was like, okay!" she continues brightly. Talking over Skype, she offers the eye of her computer a look of calm innocence.
Did she read any of the Twitterverse reaction? "No," she shakes her head. And she didn't post the review on her website. "No," she confirms with another smile.
Lonely isolation from the world may sometimes be the writer's occupational complaint, but for Ohlin it has been her salvation, at least in this instance. For someone whose new (and second) novel is about the complex interior worlds of her characters and the desire and limitations of the human instinct to help others, she has tried to keep her psychological interior as clean and pristine as a hospital room.
It's a place where she has long found comfort, growing up in a bookish house in the Montreal middle-class suburb of Point Claire, the third of four children born to a father who taught film and English Literature at McGill University and a mother who stayed at home. A quirky, intense child, she had mild synaesthesia, a neurological condition in which stimulation of one sense leads to an involuntary and unexpected experience in another. She later grew out of it, she says, but as a child, when she heard a police or ambulance siren, the shape of a large, black keyhole would appear before her eyes. Days of the week had certain colours. Tuesdays were blue. Wednesdays were green. "I think Wednesdays were green because it was my least favourite colour and there was something on that day I didn't like – probably gym," she says.
Her first novel, The Missing Person, set in Albuquerque, was published in 2005. Some of her short stories had been selected both for Best New American Writers and Best American Short Stories in 2004 and 2005, respectively. Her second collection of short stories, Signs and Wonders, was published simultaneously with Inside.
Set primarily in Montreal and Los Angeles, with episodes in Iqualuit and Rwanda, Inside is the story of three people whose lives intersect over the course of a decade. Some relationships begin as professional ones between patient and psychological therapist, others through empathy and some through marriage and subsequent divorce.
"Having a relationship or a great friendship or a marriage or a relationship with your children that works is miraculous and we should pay attention to that and acknowledge how rare it is, those true moments of connection," says Ohlin.
Over the Internet, through the ether, here she is connecting, too, or trying to anyway, and yet it's clear that while she is willing to talk – and even reveal some of the peculiarities of her own interior – she doesn't care what others think.
"The most mature thing I have developed as a writer is to not rely on external validation. Because sometimes you're recognized [with accolades] and sometimes you're not. And in between those things, there are five or six years when you're just by yourself with a computer and there's no one else there … Ultimately, all writers have is a private relationship with their own work."