portrait Lance Olsen

interviewed by Derek Alger

Published in Issue No. 151 ~ December, 2009

Lance Olsen (http://www.lanceolsen.com) is the author of 10 novels, including Head in Flames (Chiasmus, 2009), his most recent work. His other novels include Anxious Pleasures: A Novel After Kafka (Shoemaker & Hoard, 2007, Nietzche’s Kisses (Fiction Collective Two, 2006), Girl Imagined by Chance (Fiction Collective Two, 2002), and Tonguing the Zeitgeist (Permeable Press, 1994) which was a finalist for the Philip K. Dick Award.

Olsen’s short stories, essays, poems, and reviews have been published in
a variety of journals and anthologies, such as Fiction International, The Iowa Review, Village Voice, BOMB, and Gulf Coast. He is the Fiction Editor of Western Humanities Review.

The hypertext version of his novel 10:01, created in collaboration with multimedia artist Tim Guthrie, was included in the Electronic Literature Organization Collection (http://collection.eliterature.org/).

Olsen teaches innovative fiction, fiction writing and narrative theory at the Univeristy of Utah. Previously, he taught as associate professor and then full professor at the University of Idaho, where he was director of the MFA program for two years; the University of Virginia; the University of Kentucky; on summer and semester programs in Oxford and London; on a Fulbright in Finland; and at various writing conferences, including The Writer’s Edge (http://fc2.org/edge/edge.htm).

He graduated with a BA from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and went on to earn an MFA from the Iowa Writers Workshop, and an MA and PhD from the University of Virginia. He currently serves as Chair of the Board of Directors at FC2, or Fiction Collective Two, founded in 1974, and considered one of America’s best-known ongoing literary experiments and progressive art communities.

An N.E.A. fellowship and Pushcart prize recipient, Olsen and his wife, Andi, an assemblage-artist (http://www.andiolsen.com), divide their time between the mountains of central Idaho and Salt Lake City.

Derek Alger: What do you mean by innovative fiction?

Lance Olsen: For me innovative fiction is the sort that asks us: what is fiction, what can it do, and how, and why? Or perhaps another way of saying this is that innovative fiction is a possibility space where everything can and should be imagined and attempted.

DA: You have a new novel, Head in Flames, which just came out.

LO: It’s a collage novel composed of chips of sensation, observation, memory, and quotation shaped into a series of narraticules told by three alternating voices, each inhabiting a different font and aesthetic/political/existential realm.

The first belongs to Vincent van Gogh on the day he shot himself in Auvers-sur-Oise in July, 1890. The second belongs to Vincent’s brother’s great grandson, Theo, on the day he was murdered in Amsterdam in 2004. And the third belongs to Mohammed Bouyeri, Theo’s murderer who was outraged by the filmmaker’s collaboration with the controversial Dutch politician Ayaan Hirsi Ali on a ten-minute experimental film critiquing Muslim subjugation and abuse of women.

I was interested in investigating, not only the circus of those three minds in motion, but also broader questions concerning religion’s increasingly dominant role as engine of politics and passion, the complexities of foreignness and assimilation, and what the limits of tolerance might look like.

DA: You’ve written about historical figures in novels before, specifically Nietzsche’s Kisses, the story of the great philosopher’s last night on earth.

LO: That’s right. Head in Flames is my second novel set in a specific past or pasts. What I discovered in Nietzsche’s Kisses, and continued to cherish in my latest, is the multitude of ways fiction can do what history can’t: smell, taste, touch, hear, see the private details of an historical instant.

I like that famous John Hersey quote: “Journalism allows its readers to witness history; fiction gives its readers an opportunity to live it.” Well, not just live it, but think about how history is a specific and complex subset of fiction, how it is constructed, and edited, and by whom, and for what purposes.

DA: I might add you’ve also written about Kafka, or maybe I should say, his characters.

LO: In Anxious Pleasures. Yeah. That novel appropriates and rethinks from the family’s and others’ points of view Kafka’s profoundly haunting, sadly comic novella. I wanted to engage with the lacunae in The Metamorphosis–borrowing and transfiguring lines, scenes, and characters from the original; adding new ones; composing with Kafka’s plot, universe, and suppositions, while simultaneously composing against them. Anxious Pleasures thereby becomes, I hope, not simply a collaboration, but also a celebration, a complication, an exploration, an evaluation, an education, an interrogation, an augmentation, an elaborate and devoted erasure, and, ultimately, a kind of remembering that is also a kind of forgetting that parallels and appraises the Samsa family’s own slow forgetting of their beetle-backed son, our own culture’s almost-forgetting of Kafka himself at the beginning of the twentieth century.

I fell in love with Franz back in 11th grade. I distinctly remember opening The Metamorphosis and reading the first line and realizing fiction would never get much better than that. Anxious Pleasures, I think, is my little love letter to Franz, a means of thanking him, showing him how much the future cares.

DA: I’m not sure we can create a specific beginning for you, but let’s try.

LO: For my life, you mean? I was born in Englewood, New Jersey, but spent my first few years with my sister and parents in a jungle compound in Venezuela. My father was a captain on an oil tanker. He was was helping set up a refinery there.

Recently my sister and I tried to share memories of events that had occurred during those years. But just the opposite happened. I ended up recalling events which I’m sure happened to me that she is just as sure happened to her. I couldn’t recollect some events she said I partook in. She couldn’t recollect others I swear she had partaken in. Who’s to say? We’re left with memories. My sister and I agree that they are deeply flawed, but we don’t know how.

Those sorts are the moments that intrigue me in the world and words–the ones, as it were, that occur off the record.

History always impedes our rewriting of history at the same time the narrative of the past is always being rewritten–by individuals, by the state, by advertisers, by victors, by victims, by historians.

After Venezuela, and for the bulk of my childhood, it was the bland climate-controlled malls of northern New Jersey, and a small leafy suburb called River Edge, and the reedy ratty banks of the Hackensack River.

DA: Where did you go to college?

LO: The University of Wisconsin. When I arrived in 1974, the authorities were still lobbing tear gas and many of the students were still rabidly engaged politically and party crazy and the sixties didn’t feel quite done. I began majoring in journalism because I thought that’s what you should do to be a writer. But I was, I think, deliberately bad with facts, and learned that Dylan Thomas during his days as a journalist was the same, and so I decided to take that as a hopeful sign. I enjoy watching facts misbehave in interesting ways. So it was a foregone conclusion that I would drift into fiction writing eventually.

DA: What prompted you to attend the Iowa Writers’ Workshop?

LO: I’d heard it was the place to go to learn how to write fiction. Plus I was in no rush to leave the academy. I loved and love that strange, often vibrant zone. Too, I didn’t know much, but I did know from an early age that I wanted to leave the northeast to see what the rest of the cosmos looked like. Hence, weirdly, Wisconsin. Hence Iowa.

DA: What was the experience like?

LO: The Workshop’s unspoken aesthetics endorsed a conventional mode of mimesis. The sort some call supermarket realism. However, a few student writers doing weird stuff found each other on the far side of the classroom. We challenged and supported each other over pizza and scotch and ice cream. The culture of the Workshop was competitive and commercial–not my idea of an especially good time–and so, save for that small group of writers I hung out with, I tended to keep to myself, write, and stay away from the merely competent stories and poems that one can so easily learn to produce at such places. And, as everyone knows, there’s nothing to do in bitter-wintry Iowa City except write, and write, and write some more.

While there, I finished two novels, both bad, both still blissfully unpublished, and some short fictions that began to find homes here and there. I learned galaxies, usually in opposition to the dominant assumptions held in the red-brick hallways of the English-Philosophy building where the Workshop was housed at the time.

DA: And then it was off to Charlottesville, Virginia.

LO: The University of Virginia for my MA and PhD in literature because…because…well, there was this moment in high school when I thought I had everything figured out? You know the kind I’m talking about. Since then, it’s been a long slow drift into ignorance.

What I mean to say is that it took me until Iowa to learn just how much I didn’t know concerning the history and forms of literature, the theoretical underpinnings, all the texts I had always wanted to read, both literary and philosophical. I cherish the life of books, the idea of sitting in a room with friends and/or students and/or simply by myself and contemplating how language and narrative mean and don’t mean and in what contexts and what those narratives can teach us about the world and ourselves and those not ourselves. What a glorious thing.

DA: Tell us about your ‘ole Kentucky home.

LO: My first job was at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, a fairly conservative department filled with very nice people. While there, my wife and I bought a cabin far out in Appalachia. We spent weekends and vacations there among the stills and moonshine and fundamentalists and rattlesnakes squiggled in the road. My wife, Andi, is an assemblage artist who works with, among other things, bones. We would go on bone-hunting expeditions through the nearby woods and across the nearby farms. Over the years, I’ve really fallen for bones.

DA: That was a big break ending up at the University of Idaho.

LO: I knew nothing about Idaho before beginning to prepare to head out there for the interview. I recall Andi and me taking down an encyclopedia and looking up the state. The map had a lot of green splotches on it, which struck us as a good thing. It turned out to be an astonishingly beautiful place. We still spend our summers and holidays in a cabin we keep among the mountains and glacier lakes.

DA: Your novel 10:01 was a notable accomplishment.

LO: What’s always intrigued me about the communal event of film watching is how, when you’re partaking in it, you’re surrounded by an ocean of others, each with his or her own secret history. I’ve always suspected that those secret histories are much more emotionally and intellectually appealing than what’s usually blowing up on the screen. That suspicion suggested the form and led me to write the print version of 10:01, which is set in an AMC theater on the fourth floor of the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota–that is, smack in the heart of the American Dream. The narrative drifts in and out of the minds of forty-some-odd moviegoers, one mouse, and one cat during the ten minutes and one second before the feature begins, nestling into various narraticules behind what appears to be The Narrative (i.e., the about-to-begin movie), but isn’t.

Novels mine psychology in a way that films can’t. Films are all about surface and speed, novels depth and taking one’s time. What other art form allows you to live inside another person’s consciousness–a theater full of other people’s consciousnesses–for days or even weeks on end? Much of the satisfaction I experienced in writing 10:01 was using one genre (the novel) to explore the limits of another (film).

DA: The hypertext version of 10:01 was published by The Iowa Review Web in 2005. Can you elaborate about this?

LO: About halfway through writing the print version 10:01, the idea arrived of creating a complementary and complimentary hypermedia one–a version that isn’t simply a digital adaptation of the print one, mind you, but a rethinking that through its hypertextual form and function opens onto questions about how we read, why we read, what the difference is between reading on page and reading on screen, between reading and watching, about which text (the one made of atoms or the one made of bytes) is the more “authentic,” and so forth. Tim Guthrie, an extraordinarily talented assemblage and web artist, had approached me about a year earlier with the suggestion that we collaborate on a project someday, and 10:01 seemed the perfect occasion to do so.

The more closely one reads and compares the print and digital versions, by the way, the more unlike one will likely see they are. In the gap between them, I hope, exists a third virtual version that’s the most textured.

DA: Tell us about Fiction Collective Two and your involvement with it.

LO: FC2 is an independent press founded in 1974 (it was originally called Fiction Collective, and then restructured and renamed in the early nineties) that is dedicated to bringing out novels and collections too adventurous, challenging, and heterodox for the commercial publishing milieu. The thing that separates FC2 from most presses, besides its aesthetics of experimentation, is that it is built on a collective model–that is, it’s run by and for authors. I’ve known about and respected the press immensely since I first stumbled across its books as an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin. I remember distinctly coming across Raymond Federman’s and Ronald Sukenick’s work in the University library one Friday evening, completely by chance, and how both authors’ projects claim, with every line, that anything is possible.

In 2000, FC2 brought out my short-fiction collection, Sewing Shut My Eyes. The next year the publisher at the time, R. M. Berry, approached me about replacing Ronald Sukenick, who was suffering from an increasingly debilitating disease, as Chair of the Board of Directors. I was deeply flattered and jumped at the chance to help in some small way to shape the landscape of innovative fiction. I now oversee operations.

In the current publishing climate, where the large houses are ever fewer and more dedicated to publishing novels that want to be films when they grow up, I’m a huge advocate of literary activism: aiding other writers, that is, in any way one can–writing reviews of their work, starting up a literary magazine or blog, launching a press, setting up a reading series, simply getting out the word about writing one adores, you name it.

Fiction’s future is going to be increasingly anonymous, collaborative, and ephemeral, and fiction itself is going to survive only through a grass-roots, networked, activist paradigm.

DA: I can’t help but ask how you ended up in Finland of all places.

LO: Oh, well, I applied for a Fulbright to teach one course on postmodern fiction and one on science fiction at two universities, one Swedish and one Finnish, in a city called Turku, about an hour north of Helsinki. The whole experience was magic, from the students and my colleagues to the opportunity to travel throughout Scandinavia (I’m half Norwegian, half Swedish) and make, as it were, a family circle, while becoming better acquainted with northern-European architecture by the likes of Alvar Aalto. That paired-down, clean, airy style is gorgeous to my eye and went a long way toward influencing the sentence structure of my novel Girl Imagined by Chance, which I was writing while there.

And, of course, the landscape and light were miraculous, too: how, during deep winter, the sun would rise late in the morning and start graying out by not much after two; how, during deep summer, it would never go down, but hover a blurry yellow ball low on the horizon, even at three in the morning.

DA: You published Rebel Yell: A Short Guide to Fiction Writing. What succinct advice would you give for writers in the new millennium?

LO: Back to my comment about mere competence to commence: anyone can turn out a merely competent story or poem or novel, but why settle for the McDonald’s of writing, the literary equivalent of Britney Spears’s marshmallow music? Push yourself. Take chances. Remain curious. Remain crazy. Don’t do the same thing twice. Try to fail in interesting ways and see what happens. Ask yourself: what forms and what fictions are appropriate to our own sociohistorical moment? Don’t rewrite yesterday. Always write what you want to read, not what you think others do. Don’t compromise. Realize, along with Roland Barthes, that literature is the question minus the answer; if you’ve got an answer, chances are you’re not a writer. Realize, along with John Cage, that you shouldn’t be frightened of new ideas; it’s the old ones that should scare you. Realize, along with T. S. Eliot, that only those who risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go. Reach out and support other writers. Understand this writing thing isn’t a competition; all of us can win all the time. Think of yourself as part of a conversation about the big stuff of life and narrative that extends across time and space, and ask yourself where your voice fits in, how you can help other voices be heard. And if you plan to write for fame or fortune, do something else…immediately.

DA: We should close with your enthusiasm for teaching.

LO: When you’re in that classroom, man, and all the pistons are firing, and you’re helping your students become who they are, and they’re helping you become who you are, and you and they are engaged in the stunning act of community, of being a tribe of questioners, of intellectual and creative explorers…well, there’s no other space quite like that in our culture, is there? I mean, don’t get me started. I could go on forever.