An Interview with Lance Olsen

 Adrian Belmes

61WoIMGIF0L._UX250_Lance Olsen was born in 1956 and received his B.A. from the University of Wisconsin (1978, honors), his M.F.A. from the Iowa Writers Workshop (1980), and his M.A. (1982) and Ph.D. (1985) from the University of Virginia. He is author of thirteen novels, one hypertext, six nonfiction works, five short-story collections, a poetry chapbook, and two anti-textbooks about innovative writing, as well as editor of two collections of essays about innovative contemporary fiction. Olsen is a Guggenheim and an N.E.A. fellowship recipient; winner of the Berlin Prize, Berlin Artist-in-Residence grant, and a Pushcart; and former governor-appointed Idaho Writer-in-Residence. He has taught at the University of Idaho, the University of Kentucky, the University of Iowa, the University of Virginia, on summer- and semester-abroad programs in Oxford and London, on a Fulbright in Finland, at various writing conferences, and elsewhere. Olsen currently teaches experimental narrative theory and practice at the University of Utah.

Lance Olsen caught me off guard. I say this as the highest compliment. When I first witnessed him reading at San Diego State University’s Living Writers series, his candor struck me as absolutely refreshing. He only further amazed throughout the evening, happily fielding questions about his most recent publication, Dreamlives of Debris, and melting my comprehension with the informational galaxies of his responses. Dreamlives is a structurally unique novel reworking the Minotaur myth through the eyes of a haunted little girl named Debris. That is only a bare summary, as I do not think there is single sentence explanation can really do it justice. I knew I had to get in touch with him and probe a little deeper.

Olsen was gracious enough to accept my request to chat a moment on Dreamlives, the amorphous nature of literature, and the relationship between an author and their text. That interview is presented here in full.

I recall you mentioning during the Living Writers series that you went into Dreamlives of Debris with the intention to write a book that was itself labyrinthine. The lack of page numbers, for one thing, certainly makes it easy to lose yourself in it. You urged people to abandon the left to right, cover-to cover tradition of plowing through texts and encouraged us to independently develop a new model of engagement. What is your purpose in challenging the seemingly inherent concepts of how literature is performed? How do you feel about the concept of literature being a collaborative effort between the author and reader?

One difference between art and entertainment has to do with the speed of perception. Art deliberately slows and complicates reading, hearing, and/or viewing so we are challenged to re-think and re-feel structure and experience. Entertainment deliberately accelerates and simplifies them so we don’t have to think about or feel very much of anything at all except a certain adrenalin rush before the spectacle.

I’m interested in writing and reading against simplicity, renewing what I think of as the Difficult Imagination — that dense cognitive space in which we are asked continuously to envision the text of the text, the text of our lives, and the text of the world other than they are, and thus contemplate the idea of fundamental change in all three. If you think about it, then, this isn’t simply an aesthetic but also a political undertaking.

All around us we hear certain narratives repeated over and over again — so much so, in fact, they begin to sound like the truth, even though, of course, they’re not: they’re just a few ways of arranging the world among myriad ones. I’ve always been drawn to writing that challenges those received narratives and their assumptions about existence, structure — about, in other words, how life flies at us.

The Difficult Imagination is an area of impeded accessibility essential for human freedom where we discover the perpetual manifestation of Nietzsche’s notion of the unconditional, Derrida’s of a privileged instability, Viktor Shklovsky’s ambition for art and Martin Heidegger’s for philosophy: the return, through complexity and challenge (not predictability and ease) to attention, contemplation, and change.

This rhymes with your question about the relationship of author and reader in that The Difficult Imagination produces texts that transform reading into event — into a dynamic process, an ongoing nomadic event.

An understandable side effect of allowing one’s text to be experimented on is the generation of a veritable menagerie of interpretations. How much does authorial intention matter when it comes to literature? Do you feel that the potential loss in translation is something of an acceptable evil? Are there invalid interpretations, and is it within the authority of the author to make that decision?

My sense is that, once the author mails his or her manuscript to the world, she or he becomes simply one more reader among others, entitled to his or her interpretations, but no more and no less. An obvious point: many of us authors don’t actually remember our intentions after we finish a work. Or they metamorphose while we’re writing. Or we’re not aware of patterns our unconscious is busy creating behind our backs. Or we’ve gone off and gotten older and died four hundred years ago. So in a very real sense we’re not the same person who wrote the text “we” wrote.

That naturally doesn’t mean there aren’t invalid interpretations. If someone reads, say, The Odyssey, and then tries to mount an argument that it’s really an extended metaphor for a Christmas party, we immediately intuit that that someone is wrong. There’s no textual evidence to support such claims.

So while there may be numerous interpretations to any given text, the number isn’t infinite.

It’s possible to view Dreamlives of Debris as something of an invitation to construct your own truth, especially if it is read by your suggested method of intentional directional jumbling. Even the characters within the story seem to have their own versions of events, sometimes conflicting and sometimes conflating one another. There are sometimes even self-contradictions, especially in Debris’ — your protagonist’s — case. Is there an objective truth? Even if it was no more than a few guiding events you constructed over the process of writing, did such a linear concept ever exist in your mind? Do you feel that it existing or not matters in regards to the end product?

I love producing texts that self-consciously generate a heterogeneity of possibilities. That’s what experience feels like for me — beautifully various, multi-perspectival, joyfully rich and puzzling and continuously shocking.

Of course others will experience experience quite differently. That’s why I continuously urge my students to ask themselves how they can write their contemporary without rewriting the past. One’s response will open possibility spaces that will help one’s writing practices become themselves rather than someone else’s.

Ronald Sukenick, a fascinating and sorely under-appreciated experimental writer who worked primarily in the seventies through the nineties, once put it this way: “If you don’t use your imagination, someone else will use it for you.”

You’ve admitted that many of Dreamlives’ “songs,” though they appeared to be quotations, are really your own invention — so much so that, if I recall correctly, you said you’d forgotten what exact passages you did write and what you did not. I thought the sentiment of that was kind of perfect, as it seemed to me to reflect part of what Dreamlives was getting at. Though I cannot be the judge of whether or not Dreamlives could be strictly categorized as historiographical metafiction, it does intertextually and indiscriminately blend together history, quasi-historical anecdotes, and fiction. Is there really a difference between those things for you in regards to storytelling? Rather, how important is “truth” in regards to telling history?

I’ve come to think of history — along with Linda Hutcheon, the theorist who coined the term “historiographic metafiction” — not as a static truth, a kind of transcendental signified we can, if we’re diligent enough, someday somehow reach and get “right,” but rather as a narrative problem. That’s why I’m interested in composing work — from a novel about Friedrich Nietzsche, and another about Vincent van Gogh, to the retelling of the minotaur myth in Dreamlives, in which the teratoid is a little deformed girl through which passes all the voices of history (both past and future) — that’s why I’m interested in composing work concerned with who’s telling the past, from what perspective, and for what purposes.

And so again we’re back to experimental writing practices as profoundly political acts whose goal, in part, is to make visible what our culture has felt it necessary to repress in order to remain whole and functioning.

In my rewriting, I wanted to gender the minotaur myth — in part to explore our culture’s notions of “monstrosity”: that which is perceived to be threatening and therefore in need of silencing, and in part (by performing the gestures you describe) to ask ourselves in what sense history is a complicated and complicating subset of fiction.

On a final note, Dreamlives of Debris confronts the current state of information as a whole in our society. Debris is plagued by the multitudinous voices of past history, present history, and — excuse the oxymoron — future history. We live in an age of not only post-truth, but post-information, where stimuli constantly assault our senses and demand our attentions. As you describe it in the book, it is the unspeakable labyrinth of data in which we all find ourselves. So, how are we to proceed?

That’s right. The labyrinth is the central metaphor at work in Dreamlives, but a special sort of labyrinth: an impossible liquid architecture that bears no center and hence no discernable perimeter. In our post-facts contemporary, one could argue it’s become liquid labyrinth all the way down. I imagine the labyrinth, therefore, not only as a structure, but also as a method of knowing, a way of being, an extended and dense metaphor for our current sense of presentness — the impression, for instance, that we are always awash in massive, contradictory, networked, centerless data fields that may lead everywhere and nowhere at once.

I’m not at all sure it’s the author’s job to tell us how to proceed, however, so much as to get us to think and feel deeply about diverse issues we may not have fully thought and felt about before. Writing defamiliarizes the present so we can see it anew. As Roland Barthes had it: “Literature if the question minus the answer.” If literature provided the answer, it would constitute a mode of propaganda.

At best, at least for me, literature doesn’t function as inculcation, but invitation — to contemplate and experience in ways we couldn’t have imagined before beginning a particular text, to test our beliefs rather than confirm them, to live inside and hence come to understand other subjectivities, other perspectives, for extended periods of time, and hence arrive at a better understanding of what it means to be alive.

What in the world could possibly comprise more important work than that?

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