Moments in Time: An Interview with Lance Olsen by Curtis Smith

Lance Olsen is 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, N.E.A. Fellowship, and Pushcart Prize recipient, as well as a Fulbright Scholar, he teaches experimental narrative theory and practice at the University of Utah. More at: http://www.lanceolsen.com.

 Curtis Smith: Congratulations on My Red Heaven. I thought it was amazing. The book takes place in Berlin on a single day in 1927. I’ve long been captivated by this time and place in history—its promise, its looming menace, its art and writing. I’m guessing you share this fascination. Can you address what about this era made you want to dive in so deep?

Lance Olsen: Thanks so much, Curtis. I’m tremendously glad My Red Heaven worked for you. I’ve always been interested in those interwar years for two reasons. First, because they represent an extraordinary explosion of aesthetic and existential possibility in Germany. All the fences were seriously down. So many astonishing artists and thinkers, from Nabokov to Einstein, knew it and were thriving there. Yet at the same time, as you suggest, from our vantage point there’s this terrible irony in their obliviousness. Second, our own political situation became increasingly grim as I was writing My Red Heaven. I found myself wanting to bring into conversation parallels between those interwar years and our current calamities with respect to attacks on the media, growing racism, the need for forty-two percent of the country to embrace a lying bully as their leader. I wanted to invite us to think about how wrong things can go at such a subtle, methodical, relentless pace that one barely notices the dissipation of a robust democracy until it is already past midnight.

CS: Then there’s the allure of Berlin itself, no matter the time period. I think of Lou Reed and David Bowie and Wim Wenders. I’ve never been there, but part of me feels as if I understand a bit of it—for better or worse—through its artists. Have you been there? If so, did you feel a specific vibe that made its way into this book?

LO: Thanks to two fellowships, I had the opportunity to live in Berlin for six months in the spring 2013 and again for a year during 2015 and 2016. I still return every spring for a month or six weeks. While everyone complains about the gentrification going on there—which is absolutely the case—the truth still remains that Berlin is an infinitely cheaper cosmopolis than, say, London, Paris, or New York. The result is it still nourishes a vibrant, iconoclastic arts scene. Just yesterday, in fact, I was talking to a former student who recently moved to Germany to start a punk cover band called Kate’s Bush. I asked him what songs he did. “Oh,” he said, “we don’t sing or anything. We dress up like Kate Bush at various stages of her career and shout insults at the audience.” That’s the DNA of Berlin in one wonderful image. I hope some of that energy, that fruitful, ardent disorder made it into My Red Heaven, both in terms of the novel’s heterogeneous structures, and of incommensurate visions of the characters who walk the novel’s streets

CS: A passage from the back cover states that you drew inspiration from Otto Freundlich’s painting of the same name. Can you take us back to your first encounters with this painting? What drew you in? Did you know immediately that you wanted to write something in response or did that notion take some time? Can you take us into your thoughts when that light went on?

LO: I stumbled on Freundlich’s abstract Cubist painting at the Pompidou in 2015. It was completed in 1933, the year Hitler became chancellor. For some reason, that painting all at once became emblematic to me of the cultural boil of the Weimar Republic. It also gestures toward a collage aesthetic in its collection of apparently disparate forms on a surface that simultaneously unifies them and underscores their multiplicity. I found myself asking myself what it might look like if such an aesthetic were translated from painterly into a narrative architectonics. Each chapter of My Red Heaven takes the shape of a narraticule set in the consciousness of an historical or imagined figure—among them Robert Musil, Käthe Kollwitz, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and Rosa Luxemburg—living, working, and/or simply passing through Berlin’s remarkable intellectual and creative opportunity zone during, as you say, a single day in 1927: June 10th. The idea became to create a broad canvas—in many ways Berlin is the novel’s disorienting and disoriented protagonist—that explores the resonant complexity of a specific moment in time and place.

CS: We come across so many interesting characters—many familiar, a few I had to Google. I’m wondering about the process you used when putting this together. Did you come up with a list of characters then string them together, arranging their interactions beforehand—or did you just start writing and watch as one story spilled into the next and then the next?

LO: All of the above. My Red Heaven was a long time in the making—the better part, I want to say, of five years. I started off reading a lot about the history of the period. A character I came across would fascinate me, and that would nudge me to go deep into his or her background. Somewhere in that exploratory goulash I discovered myself writing what is now the first chapter about the cabaret performer Anita Berber. Researching her taught me about her relationship with Otto Dix, whose consciousness controls the second chapter. Study, in other words, unfolded into character and plot. Character and plot unfolded into more study. And then there would be these glittery gusts of serendipity wherein an unanticipated fact would buoy up somewhere and generate a whole new movement in the writing process. One example: thumbing through some photos of the period on Google, I came across a shot of people standing in a long line with their dogs beside them. That introduced me to the skyrocketing canine tax in Berlin—a reality that forced many citizens to euthanize their animals to save money. All at once, there was the launch of chapter three.

CS: There’s a lot to admire here in terms of structure and form. We have short, lyric chapters that bounce from character to character. Then other chapters that take on different forms—newsreels, poems, lists, scripts. Other chapters include photographs and play with the space upon the page. Can you take us back to your early thoughts here? When did these different forms come to you? What are you hoping the reader takes from these different stances?

LO: I would never have become the writer I am without all the complexities, conflictions, and complications we call modernism. Early on, I realized My Red Heaven was growing into a love letter, not only to Berlin as a state of mind, but also to modernism itself as an aesthetic and existential mode of discovery. That’s why my novel slant-rhymes with works like Joyce’s Ulysses, with Woolf ’s Mrs. Dalloway, not to mention various other structures and visions in literature and the other arts from between the wars, both in Germanic and, more broadly, in European and American cultures. I guess I have always found kindred spirits among those who are out of step with their times—with artistic, intellectual, temporal, and often geographical refugees.

CS: And I’d like to follow that up with a question about how structure works hand in hand with the book’s mood and tone. Perhaps it was just me—but I felt as I neared the end, there was an encroaching sense of chaos and menace that came through not just the characters and the history we all know awaits them but also through the use of forms that were themselves disorienting. Novels have their own pace in terms of plot—but I felt a real escalation of stakes through your uses of such interesting structures. Was this part of your intent?

LO: For me, form has always been more than form. We usually and understandably locate meaning at the stratum of thematics (character actions; sensed presence of the author), but form suggests philosophy as well. I wanted to tell a cluster of narratives about a culture that comes apart at the seams over the course of a novel whose form also comes apart at the seams—or at least attains the look and sensation of inevitable collapse. Too, I’m intrigued by that flashpoint wherein words marching invisibly down the page from upper right to lower left, comprising a kind of transparent window into storyworld, unexpectedly become performative elements closer, say, to brushstrokes, or snippets of cloth and newspaper in a Picasso collage.

CS: I was also fascinated by the book’s connective tissue. The narrative is fragmented, but then we have butterflies and a dancing bear and a car accident and other items that link the scenes. Can you address how these elements evolved? What criteria did you have for them? What do you hope they’d bring to the book?

LO: From the outset, the question for myself became: Okay, so you want to have a novel that in many ways is structurally unfamiliar, unstable, drifting into wreckage … but how can you simultaneously achiever a sense of wholeness, balance, even beauty? The answer lay in how I’ve always adored novels that function as modes of music. We’re back, of course, to modernism, and such works as Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and Eliot’s Waste Land, but also to the postmodern turn, and ones like Beckett’s Unnamable and Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow —novels, in other words, that are woven together, not by unified plot or character, but rather through a symphony based on nuanced repetition. That’s what I wanted to do with My Red Heaven: pleach fragments through a series of phrase echoes, images like the butterfly you mention (actually Rosa Luxembourg reincarnated), color (many chapters deploy variations of red), and even the same characters seen from radically different perspectives:  Werner Heisenberg’s consciousness dominates one chapter, for instance, contemplating physics and birds’ nests, while in the next he is just this unremarkable, nameless guy in a shabby olive tweed jacket patting himself down on a train platform, whom Vladimir Nabokov catches sight of as the train he is on pulls out of the Alexanderplatz station.

CS: Let’s shift gears from the macro to the micro. On the sentence level, I really admired the book. It’s full of wonderful descriptions and great rhythms. I’m always interested in a writer’s evolution on the sentence level. At this stage of your career, do you have a specific mindset/set of guidelines for yourself when it comes to your sentences? If you could go back and visit your younger self, what hard-earned advice in this area would you share?

LO: I really appreciate that, Curtis. One of the reasons I adore fiction is that it can do two things no other art can: deep consciousness and extended, textured language. I love working and reworking sentences, feeling my way farther and farther into rich metaphor, syntax, rhythm, the idea of punctuation as musical notation. Like so many authors, every morning I start off by rereading and revising what I wrote the day before. Over and over and over again. Sometimes I’m lucky enough to inch through an entire paragraph, maybe two. Finally done with a full draft, I start from the beginning and duplicate the process, this time at a faster clip to take in larger swaths of the novel as a reader might. What, then, would my advice be to my younger self? Don’t just type, as Truman Capote said in his critique of Jack Kerouac; write. Go slow. Learn to love every syllable, sound, and beat. William Gass: “I am unlikely to trust a sentence that comes easily.” I would also tell myself to imagine every sentence as a micro-fiction and try to make something special, something surprising, something delightful, happen in each one without shouting.

CS: What’s next?

LO: I’m working on a novel that takes me as far away from modernism and the concerns of My Red Heaven as possible. It’s that abrupt shift into a new set of aesthetic and existential concerns that keeps me awake every day. This new one, a kind of speculative literary fiction, explores and troubles mind-upload neurotechnologies, and therefore questions about the relationship of brain to mind; identity; memory; refugeeism (this time not only geographical and temporal, but also somatic); and where the human ends and something else will someday in the not-too-distant-tomorrow begin. It takes as its structure a bundle of neurons firing. I’m not quite sure what I mean by any of those sentences at this point, which why I sound so happy.

Curtis Smith has published more than 100 stories and essays, and his work has appeared in or been cited by The Best American Short StoriesThe Best American Mystery StoriesThe Best American Spiritual WritingThe Best Short Fictions, and Norton Anthology New Microfictions. He’s worked with independent publishers to put out two chapbooks of flash fiction, three story collections, two essay collections, four novels, and a work of creative nonfiction. His latest books are Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, Bookmarked (Ig Publishing) and the novel Lovepain (Braddock Avenue Books).

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