More of Our Conversation with Lance Olsen


Would you talk a little more about your sense of collaboration?

Maybe it would be helpful to point out that collaboration is the basic mode of most writing, most creative acts, although our culture usually likes to repress that fact by embracing the Romantic myth of the solitary artist creating in the solitary room. All published stories and novels, for instance, are mutual projects that involve author, editor or editors, publisher, graphic artists, layout people, a printer, reviewers, general readers, bloggers, teachers, critics, people who set up reading series, and so on.

I think of those involved in a self-conscious way in this essential ecology, especially when its goal is the production and dissemination of innovative writing (i.e., writing that isn’t concerned with keeping the economic machine up and running) as literary activists—people like Lidia Yuknavitch at Chiasmus Press, Ted Pelton at Starcherone, Steve Gillis at Dzanc. They’re my heroes. If it’s the case that the early 21st century is the worst of times for American fiction because of the market pressures that favor novels and short-story collections that want to be films when they grow up, it’s also the best of times because of these sorts of people and presses—who and which, I’m happy to report, are proliferating. Competition in their universe has been replaced with cooperation. Corporate paradigms have been replaced with collective ones.

I’m also keenly aware that simply putting pen to paper, or fingertips to keyboard, is to collaborate, to enter an intricate conversation across time and space with other authors. Every act of writing, then, is a complex conscious or unconscious act of pla(y)giarism.

And that same collaborative spirit is what motivated the founders of Fiction Collective 2, of which you’re chair of the Board of Directors, correct?

Exactly. FC2 is an independent publisher run by and for innovative authors. It was launched in 1974 by a handful of writers frustrated at the corporatization of the publishing universe in Manhattan. FC2’s story, which now forms part of our culture’s past, points as well to one future of American publishing by offering a successful model based on alliance and partnership, a production paradigm run by and for authors, the idea that it is less important to make a profit than it is to disseminate significant experimental projects. The result is to remind ourselves with every book printed that there are exciting options that stand against the commercial milieu’s structuring, functioning, and ambitions.

Head in Flames, your latest novel, captures the inner narratives of actual living (and once-living) people, not fictional characters: Vincent van Gogh; his brother’s great grandson, Theo van Gogh; and Theo’s murderer, the Muslim extremist Mohammed Bouyeri. I suppose in a sense there is nothing more or less real from a reader’s perspective about a character named Vincent van Gogh than there is about a character named Holden Caulfield. Still, there’s a presumption of truth that hovers over this attempt at fictionalization. What were your thoughts about this kind of intersection between fiction and nonfiction?


These days I think of history writing in particular and nonfiction in general, whether “creative” or not (a distinction I once upon a time was able to articulate), as subsets of fiction (every narrative, at the end of the day entails editing, shaping, “artificing”) that concern themselves with getting all the bloodless facts right, and that’s well and good. But fiction can also experience an experience from inside out, from within a character’s consciousness, from multiple subjective perspectives. Fiction, as Picasso reminded us with respect to art, is the lie that can tell a truth, can get the diesel scent in the air right, the background sounds of clanking trams, the way the light falls on a wheat field at twilight after a hot day, the cadences of a polemicist’s anger. That’s what engages me: the complexities of a moment felt, and how we might “narrativize” it.


Head in Flames is also a network of quotations, half-quotations, memories, and faux observations, so it converses with the collage form as well. The novel’s a kind of documentary, of course, and, since part of the text is an appropriation and manipulation of the experimental short for which Theo was murdered (the film is titled Submission, a translation of the Arabic word Islam), and since Head in Flames is strongly visual in nature, the novel is also in self-reflexive dialogue with the film genre—particularly with film’s technique of montage, with moving collage.

And, as you suggest, the novel is also a non-novel, a text shot through with non-fictive facts semi-fictionalized. The voices in it suggested themselves to me as I became interested both in Theo’s 2004 murder and, through it, as I re-engaged with Vincent and his suicide in 1890. I began by reading Vincent’s letters, quotes by Theo that appeared in various media (he had his own TV show in the Netherlands, and a Web site called—very Theoesquely—The Healthy Smoker), and the trial transcripts and the poem and five-page letter Mohammed left with Theo’s body (the latter stuck into the filmmaker’s chest with a large kitchen knife). Those shards suggested certain rhythms, dictions, obsessions, shadings, metaphors, syntax—all the things that make somebody’s language somebody’s language. While on occasion I quoted them verbatim, most of what developed as I went along was a mixture of slant quotes (what I think of as the equivalent of slant rhymes) and a faintly more insistent form of voice for each character than was present in the original—perhaps something like a concentrated version of each man’s style of communicating in the world.

But there’s also an incredible fidelity in your work to the actual lived experiences of these people.

I read quite a lot about the killing and the facts surrounding it; read about Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the controversial Dutch politician who wrote the script for the film; traveled to Amsterdam and spent time in and around Oosterpark, where the actual events took place. Too, I traveled to Auvers-sur-Oise, the small town outside Paris where Vincent van Gogh spent his final days, the field where he shot himself, the room where he died. I visited museums in Paris and London that house van Gogh paintings, strolled through and sat for days in the amazing Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam taking in his work, sensing its extraordinary growth over the course of his life, enjoying its wild brushstrokes, trying to imagine, among other things, a linguistic equivalent to them. All the details helped me world- and character-build when I finally sat down to write.

In a mass media, 24-hour hypertextual environment, the written word often seems to be an afterthought, yet it is, as you have noted elsewhere, the function of novels to give us something unique that even the immediacy of film cannot offer. Your exploration into—and incorporation of—various forms of artistic expression raises an important question, then: what do you think of as your medium?


I used to know the answer to that question. Working with Andi on our collaborations, trying to explore the possibilities of hypermedia writing in the new-media version of my print novel 10:01, and increasingly interested in how texts matter, how the page functions as stage in our post-genre instant, I’m tempted to say that every writer, whether he or she knows it, is a multimedia artist. Some consciously engage with the possibilities inherent in such a realization, while others do so unconsciously—unconsciously, that is, because, whether they are aware of it or not, they author electronic texts (all manuscripts these days are electronic texts), engage in collaborative creation (see above), worry about textual mattering (they prefer this font over that one, this layout over the other), and so forth.

That said, I’m still in love with what we used to call the novel, although currently I think of that entity simply as the extended prose text. The function of it—as Barthes [French literary theorist, philosopher, critic, and semiotician] reminded us was the function of all literature—is to provide the questions without the answers. That’s what extended prose texts do best: They’re a tool to help us think and feel in complex ways, to challenge preconceived notions, fundamental assumptions, to help us become more ourselves, not ourselves, and not not ourselves.

I hope it goes without saying that I’m referring to extended prose texts that strive to be art rather than entertainment, and there are fewer and fewer of those around in this culture where even bestsellers exist in a secondary position to films, iPods, iPhones, and Xboxes.

So, you’re showing your students that art is all about opportunity.

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 that you’re challenged to reimagine and re-feel form and experience. Entertainment deliberately accelerates and simplifies them so you don’t have to think about or feel very much of anything at all except, perhaps, the adrenaline rush before dazzling spectacle. Although, obviously, there can be and are myriad gradations between the former and latter, in their starkest articulation we’re talking about the distance between Don DeLillo’s Underworld and Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol; between David Lynch’s Lost Highway and Michael Bay’s Transformers.

Another way of saying this—to conjure up Viktor Shklovsky’s ghost and his seminal 1916 essay “Art as Technique”—is that art’s aim “is to make objects ‘unfamiliar,’ to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception.” Through difficulty, through impeded progress (rather than through predictability and velocity), art offers us a return to apprehension and thought.

If not that, then what?

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