12.9.05

INTERVIEW WITH LANCE OLSEN

To Chiasmus visitors:


Welcome to the Chiasmus blog! To launch our on-line interactive- and reactiveness, we decided it would be cool to do an interview series with our authors. Feel free to respond and converse as you like--the interview is here in the blog for you to read and react to--so go ahead and react.


Here is our first interview, with Lance Olsen--author, internet master, and all-around good guy (really, he's got awesome all over him).


--Chiasmus staff


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CP: 10:01 employs much different formal moves than your previous novels. Was it the content you wanted to tackle or the limitations of the form of the novel or something else entirely that led you to choose the form for 10:01?


LO: I don’t like to repeat myself formally. The pleasure in writing for me is to try something with each book that I haven’t tried before. Otherwise, I find the process of composition feeling flat and faded fast.


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).


CP: It has been claimed that the novel's role in fiction writing has been the pursuit of historical accuracy or truth seeking. How does this idea resonate in current novel writing versus its significance in the past?


LO: Much mainstream fiction in the last decade or two has conceived of itself as an art of consolation and solace. It is concerned, that is, not with historical accuracy or truth-seeking, but with making the reader feel at the end of the day cozy, complacent, satisfied. Why might this be? Because the literary equivalent of Zoloft sells almost as well as the chemical compound does.


But the texts that have engaged me most through the years are the ones that impede easy accessibility, move us into regions of disturbance, make us feel the opposite of comfortable. It’s there that we can begin to begin to think and see in ways we may not have done before. It’s in the topography that lies just on the far side of our comfort zone where we start to sense change within ourselves, recalling that the our books, our lives, and our worlds can always be other than they are. This is the aesthetico-politico-existential purpose of vanguard writing.


CP: The fragmented form of 10:01 could be said to reflect the lack of linearity or causality in people's lives. With that in mind, would you consider the formal choices within the novel to present a more natural view than a more traditional narrative structure?


LO: Is standing on a street corner in Manhattan, or channel-surfing, or trying to navigate the web or a declining relationship, or hearing that a close friend died last night more like a mimetic novel or an experimental one? Experimental fiction is the real realism. Mimetic fiction teaches us, inaccurately, that life is an interlocking, coherent, fathomable whole that concludes in neatly wrapped-up revelation. Innovative fiction teaches us that lived life is just the opposite—that, as Celan Solen, one of my characters in 10:01, realizes, “Life flies at us in bright splinters. We turn them into significance.” And we should listen to what Celan Solen says, since his name is an anagram of the author’s.


CP: How did writing 10:01 change or utilize your methods of craft?


LO: I had never juggled as many consciousnesses in a single text before as I do in 10:01, and I found that a great delight and a great challenge. I wanted to keep each narraticule, each secret history, as brief and concentrated as possible. I wanted to generate the sense of a whole life, a whole way of perceiving the world, in as few words as possible—a few hundred in most cases. So for inspiration I turned to prose poetry, in which I immersed myself heavily as I worked. It’s an extraordinary form—flash fiction, only denser, more distilled, more in love with language.


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, 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.


CP: How do non-literary art and entertainment forms such as television, film, and the internet influence what you choose to write about?


LO: My generation of fiction writers is the first to have nursed on film, teethed on television. We were the ones who witnessed the web come into being and grow up around us over the last ten or fifteen years. It’s no surprise, then, that these media have had a profound impact on the way many of us structure our increasingly fractured, elliptical, inter-netted narratives, not to mention the sorts of secondary texts we appropriate and quote. If you listen closely, you can hear the sentences of many contemporary writers competing with the pop-cultural expressions of late-stage capitalism, with the latest action movie, with last week’s hot hip-hop album, with the jump-cut aesthetic of the most visually interesting videos on MTV.


On the one hand, of course, that’s liberating, energizing, deliciously appealing. On the other, it’s more than slightly disconcerting because it runs the risk of neutralizing the very thing that is special about fiction writing.


Addressing this question puts me in mind of David Foster Wallace’s 1993 critique in Review of Contemporary Fiction of what he calls “image-fiction,” of which he believes Mark Leyner’s work is the best instance: “Velocity and vividness—the wow—replace the literary hmm of actual development,” Wallace writes. “People flicker in and out; events are garishly there and then gone and never referred to. There’s a brashly irreverent rejection of ‘outmoded’ concepts like integrated plot or enduring character. Instead, there’s a series of dazzlingly creative parodic vignettes, designed to appeal to the forty-five seconds of near-Zen concentration we call the TV attention span.” Wallace concludes that such work is ultimately “both amazing and forgettable, wonderful and oddly hollow.” It is, when everything is said and done, “hilarious, upsetting, sophisticated, and extremely shallow.”


What worries me about that sort of writing is this: while image-fiction may attempt to position itself as a satiric laying-bare of the late-stage capitalist moment, it also all-too-easily aids in perpetuating the very impulses it claims to resist and dismantle.


CP: Why did you choose to place 10:01 on the internet for free?


LO: “Writers are a glum lot,” Ann Beattie commented in a recent Poets & Writers interview. “They usually expect the worst—but now that it’s here, now that corporations control from afar, and money is the bottom line, and editors are almost as expendable as writers, what are we to do but make trouble by persisting as long as we can?”


One way of making trouble, of persisting as serious avant-garde writers, is to refuse to think of art in economic terms, refuse to equate quantity sold with quality inborn. This is nothing more, I suppose, than an extension a certain D.I.Y. aesthetic that tracks back through various websites, blogs, indie music labels, and important alternative presses like Chiasmus through the early-twentieth-century Russian tradition of the samizdat (those hastily published books designed to exist below the dominant cultures’ radar), all the way to the political pamphlets like Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” passed hand to hand in the street in the eighteenth century and before.


That is, it’s nothing more than a manifestation of an essential artistic impulse to keep confronting, complicating, interrogating, and even perhaps for brief periods of time short-circuiting through myriad heterodox approaches the bird-brained, user-friendly narratives produced by our dominant cultures that would like to see such narratives told and retold until they begin to pass for something like truths about aesthetics and the human condition.


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go to www.cafezeitgeist.com to see more of lance olsen.

7 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

how fucking refreshing. a writer speaking about real writing rather than a talking head jacking off about the mainstream, so-called novels, and barnes and nobel book tours.

WE NEED MORE OF THIS.

bravo.

6:51 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

EXACTLY...if writers could RESIST the commodifying effects of the "book" getting "bought" and the writer being "sold..."

i keep thinking about the harry potter fiasco.

i mean, single mom done wrong makes good, hurray and everything, but man.

what about art that used brain cells?

economy is the enemy.

making is redemtion.

7:59 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

do you really think...and i mean this sincerely...that all best-selling books are crap? i mean i'm thinking of things like the kite-runner, which, i suspect, educated lots of formerly ignorant people about afghanistan's personal reality in ways that they would never have educated themselves about...i don't even think the prose is that beautiful, it's rather flat and not formally innovative in the least, but it did hit at the heart of a certain "reality," did it not? isn't there room for mainstream as well as nontraditional storytelling?

8:37 PM  
Anonymous Lance said...

You're absolutely right: it would be operatic to suggest all best sellers and/or mainstream fictions are crap.

I adore work, for instance, by the likes of DeLillo, David Mitchell, and Thomas Pynchon.

But I am suggesting that most best sellers and/or mainstream fictions are designed to entertain and comfort.

Everything will work out in the redemptive end, they say. Every story is the same story because every person is the same person. There is nothing new under the Ecclesiastes. Tomorrow will be better than today. Don’t worry; be happy. Be sad for a little while, obviously, but then be happy. Characters are plump people. Plot is pleasant arc. Language is plain transparence. The body is boring, politics passé, gender stable, realism real, the page a predictable arrangement of paragraphs descending. Go to sleep.

10:49 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

HEY--i love BOTH the last two comments!! i'm not educated enough to really join in, i don't know what half that stuff means, but it was a GREAT exchange...me, i'm probably between the two. i don't want to be comfortably numb (am i getting you right, lance?), but i liked the books that other person named (kite runner) because it kind of broke down my ignorance about afghanistan...and this is a good time to have ignorance broken down about the middle east, right? but what i LOVE is books that really ... UNDO things. ideas. politics. definitions. words and ideas that we think are stable...like love, patriotism, sex, death, other big stuff.

heh i really liked reading this.

shy.

6:47 PM  
Anonymous the other woman said...

hey i just read 10:01 and it seems SO MUCH LIKE REALITY to me. it's as if we have been trained as the audience of films to behave in our regular lives like audience members and actors. is that partly what 10:01 is about? if so, i wish novels could do this kind of thing more often, becuase it seems closer to how things are and less...over-romanticized. most novels today seem like "things" meant to make us feel better. i think that's partly what you are saying in your interview. i don't want fake entertainment which makes me feel better. i want something new to make me think.

i'm a musician, but narrative still turns me on.

thanks lance olsen

5:43 PM  
Anonymous Lance Olsen said...

Hey, thank YOU. I love your observation: "it's as if we have been trained as the audience of films to behave in our regular lives like audience members and actors." That's it exactly!

10:41 AM  

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