Lance Olsen is author of more than 30 books of and about innovative writing, including, most recently, the novels Skin Elegies (Dzanc, 2021) 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, two-time 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.
Curtis Smith: Congratulations on Skin Elegies. It was a really interesting read. Last year, you put out My Red Heaven (which was also wonderful). Did these books follow each other that closely—or were you working on them back and forth over a period of a few years? In terms of subject, the two books are pretty different—however, as I read Skin Elegies, I kept thinking back to My Red Heaven, and I started to think of them as companion pieces, at least in mood and tone and structure. Perhaps this is just me—but I’m wondering if you see them as linked in any way?
Lance Olsen: Thanks, Curtis. I really appreciate that. What the close pub dates seem to suggest may be an optical illusion. I was already working on Skin Elegies by the time My Red Heaven had been picked up, and each novel took me—typically in my case—about two and a half years to write.
While I didn’t work on them at the same time, then, they were definitely as you suggest siblings—not so much by way of subject matter (My Red Heaven is about one day in 1927 Berlin, Skin Elegies ultimately about mind-upload technologies), but rather by way of form. Both are what I’ve come to think about as constellation novels, novels built out of many narrative fragments that intimate, for want of a better word, an anti-teleological activity. That is, I’m interested in narratives that don’t easily narrativize the world, that don’t move from beginning to end in a smooth arc, thereby recapitulating previous narrative strategies. For me, every form signifies a philosophy, and I’m trying to imagine one that is more about the process than product, about reading as nomadic travel rather than touristic arrival.
In that sense they do feel to me like companion pieces to me, like two manifestations of the same vision at roughly the same point in time. My publisher—Michelle Dotter at Dzanc—felt the same way, which delights me, and so we ended up constructing covers for the books that use similar bold fonts and colors, with a particular emphasis on red and all it connotes, both good and grim.
CS: The whole structure here is so intriguing—we have these intertwining story lines taken from various places in our recent history—the Challenger explosion, the murder of John Lennon, the invention of the internet, the Fukushima disaster, Columbine, 9/11, and a host of others. May I ask how this came to you? Did you have the idea of weaving timelines and then pick these—or were these events kicking around in your head and then you decided to work them into this narrative? And what was it about these elements that drew you? Do they possess some common ground?
LO: I wanted to mine a single metaphor to see how it opened: human hands touching, which is to say human beings connecting, however fleetingly, however fragilely. In each of the stories in Skin Elegies, that happens at some point. As well, the stories struck me as capturing pivotal moments in our postwar cultural consciousness, moments that made us all a little bit more who we are in 2021.
I was also reading a good deal about mind-upload technologies—the attempt now underway both in Russia and here of life extension by housing our thoughts, our personalities, in some sort of supercomputer. In that sense, Skin Elegies in my mind is a story about refugeeism. What are the implications of this for our concept of self, the body, place, death? What does such longing on the part of some teach us about what we really think being human is all about at the end of the day?
As a result I wanted to construct a narrative architecture that suggests neurons firing, the ephemeral sparks that are brain function—in other words, what thought looks like from the inside out, which brings us back to that notion of a constellation novel: each narraticule blips in and out of existence, unconnected to the others except through image, association, deep-structure obsession.
CS: Pacing is difficult enough in any traditional novel, but here, you’re orchestrating all these different strands—and it works. I’m wondering about the process of writing a narrative like this—did you envision each strand from beginning to end and then splice them together? Or did you write them a section at a time and kind of ping-pong them off of each other?
LO: I had all the strands very vaguely in mind from the beginning. Yet the actual writing process was one big game of ping-pong. I love texts that work—how to say it?—more like music than like normative fiction. Here I’m thinking of works like Beckett’s Unnamable, or, in another key altogether, Anne Carson’s Nox or Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights—texts that gain their resonance, poignancy, forward momentum, not through a movement from A to B, but rather through leitmotifs, repetitions that don’t quite repeat, thematic melodies that modulate and complicate like a fugue. Such texts keep asking us to re-view what narrative is, how and why we feel the need to use it.
One of the wonderful things the history of the novel has taught us is that, unlike other genres (think sonnet; think most film), it is a genre that doesn’t really know what it is and yet is committed to finding out, that is always trying to figure and break out of its own generic constraints.
CS: In this book and My Red Heaven, we have very distinct historical backgrounds. Are you a history buff by nature? What do these moments in time offer you and your characters?
LO: I guess I’m wired to be a researcher. You know how they say you should write about what you know? I have discovered more enjoyment in writing about what I don’t know and want to learn. One’s first novel is often thinly veiled autobiography—mine, Live from Earth, certainly was—but after that one often feels freed up to enter new possibility spaces. Well, freed up or anxious at the very idea. For me, that translated into an excuse to probe more deeply stuff I didn’t know much about but was interested in—in this case the intersection of history, neurology, and computing.
Much of the time that research impulse resolves into an interest in historical events that we all know superficially. I’m intrigued by how one might situate those events in particular people rather than foggy generalities, situate them in particular subjectivities, who—like most of us—weren’t central to the event described to experience history, as it were, from the inside out: through the senses, through the emotions, which is to say precisely how academic or journalistic renderings simply can’t.
I’m also profoundly engaged in the question of pastness as problem: who tells yesterday, from what vantage point, to what ends? History is an intricate, troubled subset of fiction, in the sense that one controls it through various narrative choices and conventions. So the question for a fiction writer is: How can we re-write and re-right history by employing modes that illuminate our biases and blindnesses, which always-already suffuse our understanding.
CS: I also admire the way you use the page. There are a number of sections where the use of white space feels almost as important as the printed words. Where in the process do these constructions come to you? What do you want them to bring to the reader’s experience?
LO: Normative fiction tends to use the page as a transparent window through which to fall into the story. I want to make the page into an event, into part of the complex languages we read when we read. So I want paginal form to express the thematics as much as, say, the prose does. I was especially curious in Skin Elegies about investigating white space as silence, which is to say a metaphor for breath, which is to say a metaphor for death. How might that be deployed effectively? Page and prose, then, aren’t as a rule separate for me. They grow together organically.
At a different level, I’m invested in making the strangeness of reading—it really is an incredible idea: using squiggles on a page to empathize with other humans across space and time—strange again.
CS: I love how this all came together—for better or worse—and I was wondering, after writing the rest of the book in a fragmented back-and-forth, what was the experience of writing this culminating section. Was it difficult? A relief?
LO: I actually had no idea for most of the writing that there would be a final section which, as it were, contextualized what had gone on up to that point in the language of a lecture delivered in the far future. About halfway through my first draft, the idea arrived one morning as I was sitting down at my laptop, cradling a cup of coffee. It felt like one of those wild illuminations that taught me what my unconscious had been thinking about all the time, but just hadn’t told me yet.
That last section is in a completely different voice from the rest, so it seemed to me as I wrote it that I were beginning a whole new novel, which is to say for a while it was a real struggle to locate my sea legs. As it gradually came into focus, though, I kept wondering how I could have missed the fact that this would have to be the end.
CS: What’s next?
LO: Well, speaking of history and music, I’m working on a novel about David Bowie called Always Crashing in the Same Car. It’s a collage novel fusing and confusing fact and imagination that seeks to be a prismatic exploration of Bowie through multiple voices and perspectives—the protean musician himself (with whom I first fell in love as a teen), an academic trying to compose a critical monograph about him, friends, lovers, musicologists, and so on.
At its core beat questions that have fascinated me forever: how we read others, how we are read by them, how (if at all) we can tell the past with something even close to accuracy, what it feels like being the opposite of young and still committed to innovation.
Set during Bowie’s last months—those when he was working on his final album, Black Star, while battling liver cancer and the consequences of a sixth heart attack—yet washing back and forth across his kaleidoscopically costumed life, Always Crashing hopes to enact a poetics of unfinalizability—of art, of love, of truth, even of death, that apparently most finalizable of conditions.
Curtis Smith’s latest book, The Magpie’s Return, was named as one of Kirkus Review’s top Indie releases of 2020