Toby Olson is the author of The Bitter Half and The Blond Box from FC2. The following is excerpted from an interview by Douglas Gunn, originally published at dalkeyarchive.com.
Your fiction gets called “experimental” a lot by reviewers and critics. It’s an expression that betrays something of a cavalier attitude on the part of the critic, and it does little justice to your writing, which is endlessly more complex than the term implies. I’d like to start this off by trying to get at what your novels do that makes people retreat behind this word. My own sense is that the quality in your writing others have called “experimental” is the product of an awareness that reality is, in reality, falsified by the simulation of the world conventional form limits itself to, i.e., the officially sanctioned version of the world. Are you conscious of manipulating linguistic or literary forms in your writing in order to discover the internal formal principles peculiar to the things you write about — events, places, characters? Present the reality of events in ways true to the events, by inventing the appropriate forms? This could account for critics applying the term “experimental” to your writing — it doesn’t fit into convenient critical categories based on conventional assumptions about the world.
Well, for me present reality is almost always filtered through memory, through the consciousness of various characters as they move in some arena of places and events and attempt in various ways to come to terms with it. Even when writing in the third person I try for a consciousness that usually speaks in a way that feels coerced by some past.
I’m concerned in part with nostalgia, and I’m thinking of that as a kind of bondage, one that prevents characters from living, unencumbered, in the here and now. I’m not sure what it would be like to live in the here and now, and I suspect that’s why those characters in my novels (be they horses or people) who are able to do that are fundamentally enigmatic. They teach by example, often ostensively, point out an unencumbered world, one that might be seen as healthy, against the pathology of past-tortured minds. But they don’t reveal their inner selves in ways that would explain them. At least, I’m not clear about them. But then, I’m not too clear about any of these people I write about.
Don’t you get to know them by writing about them?
Coming to imagine them? Sure, but I’m fond of feeling that I don’t want to know them any better than I know people in my life, which isn’t very well when it comes, I think, to what you refer to as an “officially sanctioned version of the world” for fiction as a measure. In that world we can come to feel we know characters quite thoroughly. We can find fault, for example, when writers fail to provide sufficient psychological motivation for actions. Our expectations can be systematic, with characters as little systems in a larger one. That world (of what we might call — oddly — “realistic” fiction) is most often completely ordered, and when it isn’t a reader can find fault with the writing. Or a reader can like the writing as it is and call it things like “experimental.” Convention aside, I certainly want my characters to feel tangible, like real people in a real world, though not the “official” one you mention.
Can you say something about what makes up the world as you engage it in your writing? It seems to me that a slightly skewed perspective is responsible for shaping the world of your fiction — you see this in the language itself — and I wonder if there are formal or thematic systems that you find especially effective for developing this world.
Two of my models are Faulkner and Lawrence, writers whose real worlds are contained and somewhat conventionalized because of systems, of place in history and of moral/aesthetic philosophy, that somehow stand beyond the work, give it referential meaning. Could we call Faulkner “experimental” in any other than a trivial way? The system makes it clear that he had other things on his mind.
I guess I wished for a system early on, wanting to emulate these two great writers, but only over time did I come to any good sense of what it was I was writing “about.” It’s surely America; I’ve no doubt about that. And it’s an America that exists outside the European sophistication of New York, outside of cities for the most part. Its qualities are those of nostalgia, fundamental inarticulateness, and a concern with details as more complex and valuable than systems that explain them. Skill too, something about mastery of the details that make up skills, then something about the way such mastery relates (or doesn’t relate) to that larger life beyond it. Skills like golf, prostitution, massage.
So it is not only through characters struggling in nostalgia nor these enigmatic figures who are free of it that I want to get at this present that I tend to think of as luminous, as so adamantly here. I want to get at it through details, both by presenting them as the exclusive elements that make up the present and by finding in them systems of articulation such that passages of thought in prose will seem no different from the present they distinguish and name. Here’s the sentence, sentences growing into paragraphs, the struggle to position a self, so that he, she (I) might speak out purely, unencumbered. I see this struggle often in Faulkner and Lawrence. Much tortured preparation, quite necessary, so that finally one is in a position to speak. I’m sure this way of seeing things comes from my writing poetry for so many years before I had much thought about attempting fiction. Not only writing it, but reading it: Pound, Williams, etc.
Because of the precision that poetry demands?
More the attending, that constant focus in articulation. Really, it’s the im-precise I’m most interested in: confusions of feeling, perception. How [can I] be precise about that? Without being reductive. I think of the aquiline nose, high cheekbones, broad, honest forehead. How often it seems that the world is a vacancy, until the writer names it, invents it, takes it into his story.
But in a long, narrative poem by William Carlos Williams, the articulation of an event seems never a matter of use or anticipation. His attention to a given world in language is so acute and present that it overcomes what might in other hands have seemed in service. There is no story waiting for its particulars. And for me the same holds true in fiction that draws me, Faulkner, for example. Broad, monstrously clotted, long-winded, and excessive, but constantly energized by a celebratory pleasure in the struggle and then the ability to speak out. Right now.
I keep hearing this as a distinctly American thing; [the] result of the youth of our language? Our having to learn how to use it? Maybe the sheer weight of talk about talk in our literature points to this. Whitman. The wow factor. “Wow! I can speak out! I can say this!” I often hear the current avant-garde (what’s been called “Language Poetry”) in this way. The aesthetic there remains adamant. Still, listening to many of these poems, one gets the sense that the wow factor is overcoming that aesthetic at every turn. Usually, there’s an implied narrative base, but as with Williams the poet gets so taken up with the ability to speak out, that the particulars of the poem are received not as a service but as an immediacy.
Anyway, I came to fiction with a poet’s attitude, one that saw the struggle toward articulation as a value in the work, not just as a process of refinement.