Lance Olsen is one of America’s most formally inventive and intellectually stimulating novelists. Few writers have been as consistently excellent over the past thirty-plus years. In that time, he has evolved from a cutting-edge sci-fi writer into a wizard of form and narrative, infusing his singular works with poetically imaginative language as well as a rare range and depth of knowledge.
His work has earned him, among other recognitions and awards, a Guggenheim, Berlin Prize, DAAD Artist-in-Berlin Residency, NEA Fellowship, and Pushcart Prize. He served for many years as Chair of the Board of Directors at FC2. He currently teaches at the University of Utah.
His latest novel, Skin Elegies, continues his recent work of collaging the stories of a wide range of characters, voices, and styles. In the following interview, we discuss this book as well as his approach to writing. I am grateful to him for his time and generosity.
Marcus Pactor: Your new novel Skin Elegies describes nine different time periods from nine different points of view in nine different styles of writing. How were you able to keep all these elements straight in the writing process? What techniques did you use to bind them together into a coherent novel?
Lance Olsen: Initially I found it difficult to locate each of the voices, hear their rhythms and obsessions, invent a way to represent them on the page. It felt a little like beginning nine different novels. So the first, say, fifty pages felt like juggling a hundred objects, some of them on fire. But once I got those voices into my head they wouldn’t leave. At a certain point the juggling began to feel natural, and the metaphor transformed into one of barnacles growing on a wreck or rock.
Then I noticed something else happening—that, despite how different each of those perspectives was, I could weave them together into what felt like a fractured narrative that still felt complete (if not whole) by focusing both on a key metaphor (human hands touching, which is to say human being connecting, however briefly, fragilely, and sometimes violently) and a series of musical moves (repeating/modulating phrases, leitmotifs, etc.).
Only in the tenth narrative, the final one, do the others resolve into clarity: the reader learns he/she/they have been witnessing the symptoms of a mind undergoing what’s called in the trade a “destructive upload”—the translation of a human consciousness into bytes in a quantum supercomputer.
I’ve been referring to the form of Skin Elegies as a constellation novel, one built from many narrative fragments that intimate, for want of a better phrase, an anti-teleological activity. That is, I’m ever interested in narratives that don’t easily narrativize the world, that don’t move from beginning to end in a smooth arc. For me, every form signifies a philosophy, and I’m trying to bring into being one that is more about the process of understanding than the product, just like our lives are, about reading as a mode of nomadic travel.
Sometimes I suggest to my students that the real goal for us writers is to imagine ways to tell the contemporary in ways that don’t just recapitulate or abandon the past. I’m trying very hard to follow my own advice.
MP: I was particularly intrigued by the way you used 9/11—not to predictably fictionalize the terrorist destruction but instead to tell the more muted story of a retired professor’s assisted suicide in Switzerland. What led you in this direction? More generally, how did you come to choose Skin Elegies’ nine time periods?
LO: Most of us don’t experience the immense moments in history straight on, but rather at a slant—in, as it were, our peripheral vision, while we’re involved doing something else. According to 2017 data, about 150,000 people die every day around the globe. On that scale, and from that perspective, 9/11 was not in any way a minor event, but still a strangely familiar one. We die, we die, we die. In a sense, that’s how all stories end, whether we want them to or not. Only the how is sometimes unique. I wanted one narrative track to focus on that feeling, how each of our deaths is simultaneously important and inconsequential against the backdrop of history that in a profound way deeply doesn’t care about us.
I also wanted to explore what assisted suicide might feel like. What happens in this narrative is a rendering of something that occurred to a German friend’s mother in Europe. One of the many things I adore about fiction’s potential is that it functions as an empathy machine, a way we can—however momentarily, approximately, partially—try to imagine the minds and bodies and hurts and heavens of others; try to step out of our own heads even as we are unable ever to leave them. Writing can be a means not only to contemplate my own life, but also to running thought- and feeling-experiments about the lives of others. Perhaps at its most consequential, it can function as an anti-narcissism technology.
As far as the larger time periods go, the specific narratives: they were a way to think about (and invite others to think about) what pivotal moments in our postwar cultural consciousness made us all a little bit more who we are in 2021. If you had to distill nine out of the welter, I ask behind my narrativizing, which would they be?
MP: The success of the Fukushima, Columbine, and 2072 sections depends as much on the layout as the content of the prose. Would you describe the origins of these different layouts as well as the distinct effects they achieve?
LO: Normative fiction tends to use the page as a transparent window through which to fall into story. In other words, normative fiction seeks to naturalize the page, make it invisible, and hence ditto with the reading experience. Indeed, we even have an idiom for this feeling: I lost myself in a book. Oddly, most books in the world want to make you forget you’re reading a book when you’re reading a book.
It intrigues me to make the page in fiction into event, into part of the complex languages we read when we read. I’m interested in making how a page matters as important as what matters on the page. This is a possibility space that so-called poems are wired to think about, but somehow many fiction writers remain blind to it (as do, weirdly, many poets), even as we live in a post-genre moment when such distinctions as “poem” and “narrative” seem downright quaint, like talking about cotton candy and Slinkys and turkey TV dinners.
This reminds me that, in his book Cybertext, the digital theorist Espen Aarseth talks about what he calls ergodic literature, work that demands nontrivial effort on the part of a reader to traverse a text. I’m attracted to how various layouts—especially those occurring in the same textual space—challenge us continuously to think about the reading process, pacing, eye movement, this uncanny undertaking we do that transforms black bits on a page into meaning, fear, fun, pain, bliss. I’m attracted to queering the reading process so that in a phenomenological key we can begin to experience it deeply and revealingly again.
I was especially curious in Skin Elegies about white space as an analogue for silence, which is to say as a metaphor for breath, which is to say a metaphor for death, which in one way or another swamps each character, as it does us all, and how I might be able to manifest that in different visual registers. Too, form suggests not only philosophy, but also consciousness, the circus of a particular mind in motion. Layout can work as another tool to reveal that, whether it’s the embodiment of Mark David Chapman’s churning gray-tumble-down-the-page thoughts on the day he kills John Lennon, or the diaphanous hallucinations of Dave Sanders, the shot teacher at Columbine who loses a sense of spatiality and temporality as he becomes less and less himself.
MP: The multiplicity I described in my first question has been a constant feature of your novels since, I think, Head in Flames, though the numbers of characters, styles, and moments have varied from book to book. What first attracted you to this multiplicity, and what are its advantages?
LO: In his often-overlooked discussion of the novel that came out ages ago, the critic Leonard Lutwack distinguishes between two modes of presentation in fiction: uniform and mixed style. Texts employing the former—Lutwack cites Pamela and The Ambassadors as examples—signal the presence of a writer’s conviction about a single, unambiguous, coherent view of reality. A uniform style ensures “that no different adjustment to language and viewpoint will be demanded from the reader than that established at the outset.”
Conversely, texts that employ a mixed style—Ulysses and As I Lay Dying leap to mind—signal a writer’s lack of conviction about a single, unambiguous, coherent view of reality. Lutwack: “A mixture of styles has the effect of making the reader pass through a succession of contradictory and ambiguous attitudes. It offers no sure stylistic norm by which the reader may orient him or herself permanently to the fiction and to the point of view of the author.”
The idea behind that idea for me is this: that form (and style is part of form) isn’t simply a tool one uses. I’ve always connected with what mixed-style novels imply about how reality comes to us. My default position as author is to adopt different voices to suggest different ways of seeing, different ways of being in the world. Multiplicity is how the world arrives, I guess you could say. Why, if one agrees, wouldn’t one want to embrace multiplicity, radical perspectivism, in one’s architectonics?
MP: I love the way you play with diction. Here are two examples from Skin Elegies: “uncomfortable” is made into a verb (“uncomfortabled”) and “many” into a noun (“the manying”). This play seems to rework our perceptions of what is happening and what is possible in the scene. But you do not play this way in every sentence or on every page. What tells you that now is the time to play with a word and that this is the word with which to play?
LO: I’m sure it’s mostly just instinct on my part. One of the things that separates novels from other forms of data delivery is that they can relish language for hundreds of pages at a pop. If one doesn’t relish enough, one becomes a typist, or at best a journalist, rather than an author. If one relishes too much, one risks generating a clotted linguistic opacity. So I suppose in my case it’s about trying to find the right rhythm of play on a given page, and leaving behind at least a few sentences that (I would hope) form little stylistic explosions that delight, slow the reading process, invite the reader to reexperience language and perception.
MP: I might have missed a book along the way, but I’m pretty sure that Skin Elegies is your first novel in many years to envision the future. Did some particular event push you to return to your sci-fi roots, did it just sound like fun, or was it something else? Did you feel, when you were writing the 2072 passages, as though you were returning to old and pleasant stomping grounds?
LO: What an interesting question. You’re right: I wrote my last SF novel back at the turn of the century. I’m not sure, as a genre, if SF is really ever about the future. Certainly it’s not for me. Instead, it tends to function as a metaphorization of the present. A lovely thumbnail of this: Orwell’s 1984 was in fact about the year he wrote it: 1948.
At the same time, my impression—I’m sure the impression of most—is that we live in a world that feels increasingly science fictional, from our perpetual pandemic we’re living in to our own authoritarian wannabe in Trump to the daily effects of climate catastrophe. The air in Salt Lake City, where I live and teach, was unbreathable for most of the summer because of smoke drifting over from the California wildfires, forcing people to stay inside except to shop for weeks at a time—is a sentence we wouldn’t have thought imaginable to utter ten years ago. Five years ago. Three.
It was that feeling that brought me back to SF in Skin Elegies. In my mind, it is a novel about refugeeism in several senses. What does it mean, it asks us to consider, to live in a perpetual in-between? To be an exile, not only from place, but also from our own bodies, our own perception of self? What does it mean to try to be a refugee from death?
At the same time, it is just one more reminder, one more witness, among so many that we have blindly entered the coda of our species, despite all the vague and false optimism generated by the spectacle of politicians at COP26 hoping aloud while protecting their oil, gas, and coal holdings, protecting the very companies and ways of living that are killing us.
MP: You have written roughly a gazillion high-level books over the past few decades, and (I think) you have thereby established yourself as one of America’s most inventive novelists. Your achievement is at least partly due to the fact that, rather than maintain a single approach to writing, you have continued to develop new methods and forms. What books and/or writers have influenced this continued development? What keeps you motivated to return to work?
LO: Thanks so much, Marcus. Every semester I try to teach post-genre writers that I know will feed and challenge my own work to hope for more. This week, for instance, my students and I have been reading and talking about Anne Carson’s Nox, Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, Judith Butler’s essay “Performative Acts,” Kathryn Stockton’s fantastic new book Gender(s), Jenny Erpenbeck’s Go, Went, Gone, and Jen Bervin’s Silk Poems, while Diane Williams joined us for a Zoom reading/conversation. In addition to critical engagements with those projects, my students produce creative responses that open some doors and windows for us all. How, given that sort of experience, can one be the same writer this Friday as one was last?
The question of motivation is a super easy and straightforward one to answer: I’d shoot myself if I woke up every morning to write a version of the same novel I’ve written for the last thirty years. It’s more fun than fun, more energizing than energizing, more magical than magical to wake into the day by waking into an aesthetic and existential problem one is trying to solve, knowing one can’t, and trying anyway, over and over again.
In 2011, Marcus Pactor won the Subito Press Prize for his short story collection, Vs. Death Noises. His second collection, Begat Who Begat Who Begat, is now available from Astrophil Press. His work has most recently appeared or is forthcoming in The Collagist, (b)OINK, X-R-A-Y, and Heavy Feather Review.