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Q&A: Acclaimed Author and Conservatory Alumna Alix Ohlin

Alix Ohlin

Montreal-born author, educator, and Conservatory alumna Alix Ohlin is shortlisted for both the 2012 Scotiabank Giller Prize and the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize for her novel Inside.

An accomplished writer, Ms. Ohlin’s work has appeared in Best New American Voices 2004 and Best American Short Stories 2005, and she is the recipient of numerous awards and fellowships. Now residing in Easton, PA, the Harvard graduate currently teaches at Lafayette College and in the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers.

Ms. Ohlin studied flute and piano through The Royal Conservatory in her youth. We caught up with her as she reminisced about her early arts and music education, and shared some tips for creative youth hoping to pursue a career in the arts.

How old were you when you started your musical training, and how did it come about?

I think I was pretty young, maybe kindergarten or soon thereafter?  My older brother and sister were taking piano lessons, and I wanted to be like them, so I asked to start. 

If you still actively play or teach, do you think your career has helped contribute to further musical growth, or vice-versa?

I took up the piano again around 7 years ago, after many years of being away from it.  I find it a great complement to writing—after hours of staring at a computer and labouring over words, it’s really nice to sit down and just play music.

Have you any preferred pieces to play?

I mostly play Mozart and Chopin.  Some of the pieces are ones I learned as part of the Royal Conservatory, ages ago---I practiced them so much at the time that I don’t think they’ll ever leave my fingers’ memory.

What role does music play in your writing?

One of my best received stories, “Simple Exercises for the Beginning Student,” is about a young boy who desperately wants to learn the piano.  Although the events of the story are imagined, the way he feels about music is based on my own connection to it as a child.

As a writer and a musician, what techniques do you use to stay motivated, and what advice would you give hopeful musicians or writers?

I’m a big believer doing a little bit every day.  I don’t think you can become proficient in either music or writing in one fell swoop, or through cramming at the last minute.  Both of them are habits that stretch over a lifetime.

Some of Canada’s greatest writers are alumni of The Conservatory: Joan Barfoot, Barbara Gowdy, Annabel Lyon, Ann-Marie MacDonald, and Anne Michaels to name a few. As you join their ranks, what effect has early arts and music education had on your success as professional creative writer and thinker?

I think back to my early teachers—including my piano teacher, Dorothy Gillis—with so much gratitude.  They opened my eyes to the beauty of music and art and literature and permanently changed the way I looked at the world.

How many of your colleagues (that you’re aware of) are musicians?

Many! Though most of them only play in private, as I do.

Can you share one fond memory of learning music using the Royal Conservatory curriculum?

My strongest memory of the Royal Conservatory is of going to the Maritime Hotel in downtown Montreal for the yearly examinations—doing the sight reading and hearing tests, as well as performing, in a hotel room.  It seemed like a very grownup, very official thing.  In some ways it was a bit scary but it always felt like a real achievement when I passed.

Finally… Flute or Piano? Why?

I always enjoyed playing both but piano is the one I’ve stuck with.  I’ve found that if you haven’t played flute in a while and you pick it up, your mouth and lungs are out of practice and it’s difficult to produce a nice sound.  The piano is a little more forgiving of those of us who are sometimes rusty.

To learn more about Alix Ohlin and where to buy her acclaimed novels, please visit her website.


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Montreal-born author, educator, and Conservatory alumna Alix Ohlin is shortlisted for two major Canadian literary awards in 2012 for her novel, Inside.