Under Texture: An Interview with Lance Olsen by Curtis Smith

Lance Olsen is author of more than 30 books of and about innovative writing, most recently My Red Heaven (Dzanc, 2020), Skin Elegies (Dzanc, 2021), and Always Crashing in the Same Car: A Novel After David Bowie (FC2, 2023). His short stories, essays, and reviews have appeared in hundreds of journals and anthologies. A Guggenheim, Berlin Prize, D.A.A.D. Artist-in-Berlin Residency, Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center, 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. More at: http://www.lanceolsen.com

Curtis Smith: Congratulations on Always Crashing. It’s a great read. Can we start with the publishing side of the book’s journey and how you ended up working with FC2 for this project?

 Lance Olsen: Thanks for having me, Curtis. It’s really great to be chatting again. I love FC2 so hard. It’s one of the few not-for-profit publishers run by and for authors still bringing out diverse, strange, defiant, explosive fiction that regularly challenges how we tell, what we tell, and why. I’ve had a long association with the press—from that moment in the mid-seventies, as an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin, when I first stumbled upon some of their titles in the stacks at the campus library (I was such a geek of a student; I used to roam them on Friday evenings looking for my entertainment) and was just blown away by the likes of Raymond Federman and Ronald Sukenick, all the way to my serving on its board of directors from 2000 to 2018. It’s in great hands now, by the way, with the inimitable Joanna Ruocco at the helm.

So I believed that Always Crashing would harmonize with what they were about and, if there were any group of fierce, meticulous, dedicated readers pit-bullishly committed to experimental writing practices that would get what I was up to, it would be the one at FC2.

CS: I believe this is your third novel in four years, correct? Is this just a strange bit of timing—or is your process becoming more and more efficient (and if so, can you tell us about that efficiency)? Were these projects completed one after the other—or did you juggle them over the years, putting one down then returning to it with a new perspective?

LO: When I was doing my MFA at Iowa, I had a workshop with Vance Bourjaily. It’s a shame his work isn’t remembered and celebrated as much as it should be these days. His novel Now Playing at Canterbury is a wonder. So one day, apropos of apparently nothing, Vance raised his head from the cigarette he was rolling and said: You know, everyone has a limited number of novels in them. Don’t put off writing them. And be careful which ones you choose.

That insight burned itself into my consciousness. I seem to have a not-small number of novels in me wanting to get out before I change tenses, so it’s important for me, no matter how frenetic life in the external world gets, that I work at bringing them to light at least four days a week. Appearances perhaps to the contrary I’m an extremely slow composer. I craft and recraft sentences, trying to texture them into shimmer. I approach my subject in manifold ways before deciding on the one I feel does the trick best. I’m forever restructuring and rethinking. And polishing is one of the great pleasures in life for me, so I take lots of time with that as well.

Which is to say if I turn out five or seven pages a week, I’m a happy guy.

All the same, given that there are fifty-two weeks in a year, novels seem to keep accumulating.

More important than all that practical stuff, though, is the greater and greater sense I’ve had over the last twenty years that writing for me is a space of contemplation. It’s a form of deep attention about being alive, about what it feels like to be awake here, now.

How, that said, could I be away from it very long before forgetting what I’m thinking and feeling about?

“I’m not making art,” Nam June Paik once said. “I’m making myself.”

That’s it exactly.

CS: I really enjoyed your last two novels—especially their structures and the chances they took. I found the same things to admire here—but perhaps since I’m so familiar with Bowie, this book hit in a different way. As I was reading it, I kept thinking about a passage from Slaughterhouse-Five where the Tralfamadorians tell Billy Pilgrim about their books—how reading them is like slipping into a pool where everything hits at once. I find that in your work—and especially here. It’s as if the removal of a linear spine leads to a feeling of freefalling through an experience. And while it might feel like a freefall, I’m certain there was a lot of planning to achieve this effect. Can you talk about this part of the book—its structure and how you arranged it?

 LO: Lately I’ve been considering how every form suggests a philosophy. We’ve been taught to look for the latter in a text’s thematics, which is to say how characters behave, what they say, how they interact and where and when. But there’s another level where philosophy lives that usually remains invisible because we haven’t been taught how to see and reflect on it: how a text is structured has something profound to say about its author’s vision.

In Always Crashing, I wanted to investigate (let us call it) Bowie’s chameleonics through a chameleonic form that refuses to settle, fold its hands in its lap, and behave. I read the Bowie biographies, lots of the scholarly work on him, watched the documentaries. I took in as many interviews with him as I could dig up. I lived thoroughly inside his music for years. I took copious notes. And, by the time I launched into the writing itself, I knew the form had to be a mode of collage because collage—disparate voices, disparate perspectives—is the essence of that black box we have named David Bowie.

I wasn’t quite sure what those voices and perspectives would turn out to be, and that not-knowing was one of the countries in which I located real joy each morning as I woke to write. I couldn’t wait to see what I would discover.

CS: How long had this particular book been simmering? A few of the writers I’ve interviewed have talked about holding out until a novel reaches some sort of critical mass—and then they give in and start to write, knowing the next year or more will be dedicated to this new project. Can you recall what was the novel’s first glimmer—and, if you held out until it reached some critical mass—what was the trigger that finally got the project moving?

LO: In a very real way Always Crashing began when I turned thirteen. Thirteen or fourteen. What I mean is that that’s when Bowie crept onto my radar in the form of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, which was released a few years earlier, in 1970. But I really tumbled into his work as an undergraduate when the Berlin trilogy—Low (1977), Heroes (1977), and Lodger (1978)—appeared. That was the time he collaborated with Brian Eno, who has a mind-blowing sense of sonics. The compositions on those albums are astonishing, especially the experimental soundscapes on the B sides.

With Let’s Dance (1983), Bowie calculatedly went mainstream, full-metal-jacket corporate, and I immediately lost interest in him. By the early nineties, as he fumbled into Tin Machine, so had most of the culture at large.

But he caught my attention again, our attention again, I want to say, at the launch of the new century when he once more reinvented himself by asking the question: What does it mean to be the opposite of young and still committed to musical innovation?

That’s when I started reading those biographies, and quickly realized each imagined a different Bowie. Each was in fact a kind of spiritual autobiography of the person who wrote it rather than some sort of “authentic” rendering of the subject. That, in conjunction with some phenomenal texts, like Anne Carson’s Nox and M. NourBeSe Philip’s Zong!, I was coming across at the time, got me thinking intensely about the impossibility of truth recovery, how history—cultural or personal—is always a problem, never a final state.

How does one start to write about a superstar who made his private life into mystery while making his public identity into Heraclitean, deliberately deceptive Flux Engine?

That intrigued me.

How does one write a novel about not-knowing?

CS: There are sections here composed of brief, nonlinear fragments—and others where we have pages-long, flowing sentences. You bring in albums and books, other musicians and authors, and we shift between different perspectives and points of view. We have facts and speculations and imaginings—and as I read, I kept thinking this must have been really fun to write. I know some books are harder than others—but this one, to me at least, felt like it had a lot of joy. Was this the case?

LO: Totally. Writing for me has ever been a mode of various blisses—of language, of empathy research, of disruption of the everyday, and on and on. Always Crashing was pure plain gladness to navigate.

That isn’t to say, however, there weren’t stretches where I slammed into one narrative brick wall after another, didn’t understand what to do next or why. That isn’t to say there weren’t stretches I had to wrestle with some pretty horrible fears and anxieties of my own. There’s one extended scene, for instance, where I tried to imagine the worst thing that could ever happen to me, and in detail: the agonizing death of my wife, Andi. It was excruciating … and liberating … and wildly valuable for me to go there.

What I mean to suggest, then, is that pain can be another mode of bliss, despite what our culture has indoctrinated us to believe—a deep-dive into your psyche to battle with your monsters, and learn (and, above all else, unlearn) myriad things about yourself and your relationship to the world. Hence writing as that contemplative space I mentioned.

CS: So let’s get down to Bowie. For me, he was like the Beatles or the Stones in that I associate certain periods of my life with certain albums. I’ll never forget the first times I listened to Ziggy or Low—or the first time I saw him in 1977 (and how different he and his show were when I saw him in 1983). Then I fell in love again as an adult with Reality and Heathen. On the personal level, what was your relationship with him?

LO: Like I say, I adored his music for much of his career. Adored, too, how he refused to become, like so many rockers, one predictable entity (think: Rolling Stones or, a little later, the Ramones and AC/DC), but rather had this creative dynamism to his vision that energized me tremendously.

I also adored how Major Tom in particular and outer space in general became Bowie’s signature metaphors, not for freedom and possibility, as one might expect, but rather for existential estrangement, loneliness, contingency, and the bottomless dread of drift, from “Ashes to Ashes” to “Moonage Daydream,” “Starman,” “Life on Mars?,” “Dancing Out in Space,” “Born in a UFO,” “Lazarus,” and “Blackstar.” That sense of being the man who fell to earth, of being a stranger in a strange land, I think, resonated acutely with his listeners. It sure did for me.

But it’s also the case that Bowie, just like the rest of us, was a seriously conflicted human being—generous yet manipulative, self-examined yet self-destructive, kind yet abusive, a widely rich reader and autodidact yet someone who pretended to be just one of the aw-shucks guys. There’s something so beautiful about that for me: humans being bumbly humans. I get so tired of writers and readers who spend their time judging characters rather than embracing the contradictions that live within us all, trying to comprehend rather than umpire.

It was such treasure to write Bowie into complication, shape a resonant, multidimensional paper person, an enterprise that ultimately invites questions how we read, how we are read, how all texts, biological and otherwise, are at heart unfinalizable.

CS: I talk to my students about music—and without getting all boomerish, I feel bad because consuming music is so different now. For our generation, I think it was a much more immersive experience—we’d listen to an album side, contemplate the covers, read and discuss the lyrics—and not that I hang with many young folks, but I get the feeling that’s not the way it is now. I hope I’m wrong. How have you made the transition to this streaming present? Do you still have your albums and CDs? Does the possession/holding of those physical things change the listening experience at all?

LO: The worst thing I ever did in my life, I confess, was sell off my vinyl collection in the early century because I thought the idea of the record was dead.

What was I thinking?

The second worst thing I ever did was to throw out my cassettes and CDs and move to streaming. Something really does buy the farm in one’s experience of hearing, holding, seeing. It’s very much in my mind similar to what happens when reading in a digital format, or listening to audio books. I feel bad for people who can’t fathom the gratification of holding books, delighting in the very bookishness of them, the bodily relish, the sensual glee, don’t know what it is to unplug and give written words your deep attention.

One of my colleagues and good friends here at the University of Utah, the gender theorist Kathryn Bond Stockton, wrote a fantastic cerebral memoir in 2019 called Making Out, in which she argues that our relationship to books is sexual—that we, in a sense, make out with them (even as we, in another sense, make out—which is to say attempt to interpret—what is in them), allow them to enter our bodies, our minds, and change them, relish in an erotic relationship with the page, the paragraph, the sentence, the syllable.

It used to be like that with music, too.

Said the guy who must at this point in our interview sound to many younger readers and listeners like the last pterodactyl on the planet, and good riddance, except I would quickly counter that the hyper-attention, the distractive present, our modes of entertainment based on speed and surface, are the real culprits killing us.

Well, that and environmental catastrophe.

 CS: What’s next?

LO: Three things. First, I’ve selected essays I’ve written over the course of the last quarter century or so that form a book of love songs to the innovative texts that have meant the most to me, helped me become who I am as a writer, thinker, human. The amalgam is titled Shrapnel (I’ve Probably Said Too Much Already). Anti-Oedipus Press will bring it out this December.

Second, my next novel, Absolute Away. It takes the form of a triptych narrative. The first movement tells the story of Edie Metzger, the very real little Jewish girl who bit Hermann Göring’s lip so hard it bled at a Nazi book-burning rally in 1933. The second focuses on that August night in 1956 grown Edie died in the Oldsmobile convertible driven by Jackson Pollock. The third limns various lives and various Edies that might have happened had she lived—her gender, past, and consciousness becoming protean as the possibilities proliferate. Dzanc will publish it next spring.

 Finally, and inconclusively, I’ve just started a novel about the so-called outsider artist Henry Darger, with whom I’ve been captivated for years and years. I have no idea where I am or what I’m doing or where I’m going or why, a state which couldn’t make me happier.

 Curtis Smith’s last novel, The Magpie’s Return, was one of Kirkus Reviews Indie Picks of 2020. His next novel, The Lost and the Blind, will be released in September.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s