A Bedlam of Stars: An Interview with Lance Olsen

George Salis: Your work explores the macroscopic and microscopic connections across time and space, between people and objects and more. Can you speak about the notion that everything is connected? And at what point does it become counterproductive, schizophrenic even?

Lance Olsen: I’m not sure it’s so much that everything connects—chances are just the opposite is the case—but rather that human beings are wired to link dots and generate interesting (possibly even illuminating) shapes. Which is to say we are pattern recognition systems. When we look up into the night sky, what we see is a bedlam of stars. What we create is a beautiful catalogue of constellations.

That’s what I’ve delighted doing in my fiction, especially over the course of the last twenty years or so in novels like Calendar of Regrets and My Red Heaven, but perhaps less in the key of astronomy than music. I love exploring the concurrent harmonies and dissonances among characters, historical moments, ideas, visions, images, even sounds. I love the complexities that develop, the designs that arise, thinking about how things align, don’t align, and don’t don’t align.

GS: Speaking of connections, there are some writers who consider their body of work as a single entity, whether it plays with variations on a certain set of themes or is in a sense a continuous rewrite to get at some truth or other. Do you consider your work as a whole in this way, or is each book entirely separate?

LO: Nothing could be farther from what I’m doing now than what I was doing in my first novel, Live from Earth, a magical realist love story, back in 1991, or the ones that immediately followed it. But from, say, the early 2000s on, I have sensed a number of obsessions surface that have stayed with me, if in quite different forms each time they emerge.

For instance, I’m fascinated by what the theorist Linda Hutcheon calls historiographic metafiction—fiction about history that underscores that all history, which is to say all memory, personal and cultural, is a kind of fiction. That is, as soon as events happen they start to become narrativized, and as soon as they start to become narrativized, they stop being events and become language, and as soon as they become language they become edited, manipulated. At that point we have to begin to ask ourselves who’s doing the telling, why, from what point of view, to gain or give what sort of power, what’s left out, who is silenced, who given voice. In other words, I’m drawn, not so much to history, as to the problematics of pastness.

I’m also preoccupied with artists and thinkers who are out of step with their times, out of step with the dominant cultures and conventional ways of thinking that surround them—people like Hieronymus Bosch, Robert Musil, Hannah Höch, Van Gogh, Nietzsche, who are utterly uninterested in commerce, utterly eccentric in the best sense of the word, utterly committed to the circus of their own imaginations in motion.

And, at a different level, I’m interested in narrative forms that resist hand-me-down frameworks, ask themselves and us: how can we tell the contemporary in ways that don’t simply naively discard or just as naively embrace the past.

GS: You’ve said that novels often come to you in shapes. What shape did Head in Flames manifest as, the fiery sunflowers of Vincent van Gogh?

LO: I once heard Robert Coover delivering a talk in which he advocated discovering the deep metaphor that guides one’s work at hand, then mining it through all the strata from overall architectonics to individual phrase. With Head in Flames, we’re back to that metaphor of music—perhaps as a cousin of Renaissance polyphony.

What I mean is that Vincent van Gogh, Theo van Gogh (Vincent’s brother’s great-grandson), and Mohammed Bouyeri (Theo’s murderer) speak throughout the novel in alternating narraticules afloat in white space, which here suggests that they are all afloat in monologue, silence, a kind of impending death. Each voice carries its own melody, its own vision of the world, which is incommensurate with the others. The result, I hope, is a study in concord and discord as they contemplate notions of selfhood, art, divinity, love, the limits of freedom and vengeance.

No voice is privileged, no perspective, so the whole arrives, not as solution, but as a series of questions. That, I suppose, is another obsession for me: how, at its most resonant, literature teaches us, not how to learn, but how to reside in a continuous state of tangled unlearning.

GS: Mohammed Bouyeri, Theo van Gogh’s murderer, is currently serving a life sentence. If Bouyeri read Head in Flames, what do you imagine he would think of it?

LO: What a fascinating question. Unfortunately, I have no idea about an answer. What I tried to do in Head in Flames was understand Bouyeri’s absolutist mind at the moment he murdered Theo van Gogh. I researched heavily, everything from the letter Bouyeri left pinned with a knife to van Gogh’s chest to articles about his background, books about the event. I visited the scene of the killing in Amsterdam. All of this was an attempt—yet another of my obsessions—to try (knowing one always fails, yet always keeps trying) to understand another human being. I assume, however, since that grim day Bouyeri has, as we all do, changed, reflected upon his versions of his past, modified his positions with regard to it. Who knows what Bouyeri would do now except Bouyeri … if, indeed, even he does. I suspect, however, he would like to kill me as he did van Gogh because perspectivism and tangled unlearning flies in the face of his radically monologic, autarchic ideology.

GS: Your latest novel, My Read Heaven, is a polyphonic collage focusing on Berlin. What is a city you’d like to write about but haven’t, and why that city?

LO: I had the opportunity to live in Berlin for a year and a half. I visit there several weeks every year. And I’m utterly taken with the place as an idea. It’s a city especially conducive to dérive because it doesn’t possess the orienting axes of, say, a Paris, or a New York, or even a Salt Lake City, where I live and teach now. Rather it’s a gallimaufry space where on a single block the gentrified nineteenth-century dwells next to the crumbling eighteenth dwells next to the frayed East German dwells next to the clean Bauhaus dwells next to a McDonalds, a trendy café, an untrendy Indian or Vietnamese or Turkish bistro, a currywurst stand, a chunk of leftover Wall (now graffitied and encrusted with bubble gum), a five-story bunker built by Albert Speer that couldn’t be blown up after the war because it was so massive, and was thus transformed (after an earlier iteration as Germany’s hottest site for techno raves and gay sadomasochistic festivities) into an art gallery. And I’m continuously struck by how in many ways the entire twentieth century happened there with a dark vengeance. The U.S., by contrast, is devoted to making invisible its atrocities, its amoral heart, as quickly and thoroughly as possible.

Right now I’m working on a novel with all the New Yorks that make up New York a good deal of the backdrop. A Jersey boy, I grew up just across the George Washington Bridge and spent much of my misspent childhood there. New York won’t play the extensive role in my novel-in-progress like Berlin did in My Red Heaven, but my engagement with it points to one of the great pleasures for me in writing a novel: getting to visit and revisit a special place and re-encountering it, re-seeing it in a way that I can only when studying and writing about it.

GS: Rather than spending, say, 30 years on a massive project, as William Gass did on The Tunnel, you have many shorter works that could be said to fall under the tradition of minimalism. Do you consider yourself a writer who works in that tradition and what benefits are there to minimalism versus maximalism?

LO: I’m afraid I don’t really think about such things very much. I admire to no end so-called maximalist novels like Gass’s The Tunnel or, say, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest and, more recently, Charlie Kaufman’s Antkind, flawed as that last one may be. And I admire to no end so-called minimalist ones like David Markson’s The Last Novel, or, in very different modes, Anne Carson’s Nox and David Clark’s hypermedial projects. I’ve written relatively expansive novels like Calendar of Regrets, and relatively condensed ones like Dreamlives of Debris.

What’s important for me is to keep in mind that every form suggests a philosophy, and ask myself: What form will best embody the philosophy, the vision, the intent of the novel I need to write.

GS: To some degree, you are antilinear when it comes to a novel’s structure and the reading experience in general. Why are readers so averse to anything other than a linear experience, especially when our waking and dreaming lives are not linear if examined closely. Sure, we are born, we live, we die, but in between all of that is a consciousness that fluctuates and hopscotches across memories, present urgencies, and expectations and future hopes with just about every morsel susceptible to remixes, prevarications, and metamorphoses, as Elizabeth Loftus demonstrated in her landmark psychological studies.

LO: Well, I think there are lots of reasons for this. From the time we’re kids, we’re trained to read linear rather than antilinear narratives and—this takes us back to that idea of form suggesting philosophy—that teaches us at a deep-structure level that life is an interlocking whole that has a beginning, middle, and end. Another way of saying this: we’re suffused with designs that argue by their very being in the world that said world is rational at base. Think of most commercial books, whether thriller or memoir, whose basic movement is through tribulation and sin toward resolution and some kind of redemption. They’re selling comfort. They’re selling an argument many of us want in desperation to believe, despite the evidence.

And when we stumble across a radically disjunctive novel, many of us feel uncomfortable.

Alas, I’ve never been drawn to linear narratives. Instead, I’m attracted to states of reading unease, products of the difficult imagination, that feeling of being put back on my heels and made to re-think and re-feel. Works that do that invite us to imagine the world of the text, the world of the self, and the world of the world as spaces that can be reinvented, rewritten, and thereby changed—which is to say such texts by their very structure carry a revolutionary political argument.

GS: You mention how “the past ghosts us,” and that the novel can bring that past to the forefront of memory. In this case, how is a novel more useful than, say, a history book or even a documentary?

LO: A history book can only speak about the past from the outside, through facts and figures, can only speak through documentation. They are notorious for not interrogating their own assumptions about the past. Novels, on the other hand, relish all five senses and have the ability to inhabit an individual consciousnesses for hundreds of pages on end. They can take risks. They can imagine. They can extrapolate. They can focus on those who history has forgotten or marginalized. And, maybe most important, they can trouble the very concept of the past, who gets to tell it and how.

GS: What is a novel you think deserves more readers?

LO: Oh, my goodness. There are so many. Next fall I’m teaching a graduate seminar called Experimental Forms at the University of Utah. In it we’re reading Samuel Beckett’s The Unnamable, Anne Carson’s Nox, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee, Patrik Ourednik’s Europeana: A Brief History of the Twentieth Century, Graham Rawle’s Woman’s World, Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights, and Steve Tomasula’s VAS: An Opera in Flatland, in addition to a number of poetry collections and hypermedial projects. Any of those would be a great place to start, if one is unfamiliar with one of those titles.

GS: You served as chair of the Board of Directors at Fiction Collective Two (FC2) for over 15 years, a publisher akin to Dalkey Archive Press and Sun and Moon Press. What was that experience like and would you agree that the current system of publishing is fundamentally broken in some way, even if it’s as simple as the dichotomy of art and profit? Dalkey’s founder, John O’Brien, said in an interview, “My belief is that serious literature, with some obvious exceptions, should be looked upon the way that classical music, ballet, opera, or almost any avant-garde art form is looked upon: they are all in danger when reduced to marketplace value, and they are all in need of outside financial support.”

LO: It’s no secret that New York publishing concerns itself primarily with the bottom line and with corporate authors rather than with challenging literature. It’s in the game for quantity, not necessarily quality. A lot of creative-writing programs hold up these same ideals. Put that together with the fact that many people are more interested in becoming published writers than serious readers, and, well, you see where this is going at a cultural level.

That said, what’s of course thrilling is the literature for the most part produced outside of New York’s comparatively parochial publishing culture which is controlled by a handful of houses. It’s so good to see the proliferation of small, independent presses dedicated to fiction that might not sell a lot, might not have a huge readership, but is just crazy-interesting, energizing, brain-itching stuff.

That’s what I loved most about serving as chair of the Board of Directors at FC2. The idea since its inception in 1974 has been to embrace an alternative publishing ecology based in collectivity, volunteerism, and goodwill, in building a press run by radically innovative authors for radically innovative authors, where the bottom line is always of secondary concern. The founders set the press up as a literary experiment they paid for out-of-pocket. They believed would last maybe three or four years. But now FC2 is in its forty-seventh year. That’s an emblem, for me, of hope we can feel for the future of fiction in the U.S.

I’m so proud to have played a small part in furthering that, so happy FC2 is in great spirited hands as it moves forward.

GS: Theories of Forgetting featured at various times a 3D experience via a museum exhibit focusing on a character from the book, with attendees unaware of the fictional nature of the exhibit. In general, your work is quite innovative and not complacent with traditional forms. How much more can we as writers squeeze out of the novel as a form? What is its lifespan and what, if anything, could replace it in the future, 4D novels, 5D, 10D?

LO: Yes, that’s right. There’s No Place Like Time is a three-dimensional novel, a novel you walk through, on which my wife, Andi Olsen (a video artist), and I collaborated, where the participant enters a galley (we’ve shown this in Europe and across the U.S.) that purports to be a retrospective of Alana Olsen’s career. Alana, however, happens to be a character from my novel Theories of Forgetting. One can gain some sense of the whole here.

What’s both exciting and astonishing to me about the novel is that it’s one of the few forms, historically speaking (as opposed, say, to the sonnet or the well-made play), that has never had an idea of what it is or what it should be. Indeed, one story we could tell about its development could include Petronius’s Satyricon, Cervantes’s Don Quixote, Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, Joyce’s Ulysses, and Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow—wildly diverse texts that share only an exploratory impulse, a perturbation and continuous self-reflective re-invention of the genre, a commitment to instability and unlearning as modes of being.

As long as those qualities remain part of what it means to be human, the novel as an ongoing investigation into its own formlessness will, I suspect, remain alive, poor, and transformational.

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Lance Olsen is the author of more than 25 books of and about innovative writing, including, most recently, the novels Dreamlives of Debris (Dzanc, 2017) and My Red Heaven (Dzanc, 2020). His short stories, essays, and reviews have appeared in hundreds of journals and anthologies, such as Conjunctions, Black Warrior Review, Fiction International, Village Voice, BOMB, McSweeney’s, and Best American Non-Required Reading. A Guggenheim, Berlin Prize, D.A.A.D. Artist-in-Berlin Residency, Pushcart Prize, and two-time N.E.A. Fellowship recipient, as well as a Fulbright Scholar (Finland), he teaches experimental narrative theory and practice at the University of Utah. His website is here.

George Salis is the author of Sea Above, Sun Below. His fiction is featured in The DarkBlack DandyZizzle Literary MagazineHouse of ZoloThree Crows Magazine, and elsewhere. His criticism has appeared in IsacousticAtticus Review, and The Tishman Review, and his science article on the mechanics of natural evil was featured in Skeptic. He is currently working on an encyclopedic novel titled Morphological Echoes. He has taught in Bulgaria, China, and Poland. Find him on FacebookGoodreadsInstagram, Twitter, and at www.GeorgeSalis.com.

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