That’s What Makes It Worthwhile: An Interview with Olivia Laing

By Tarin Kovalik

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Olivia Laing was Old Dominion University’s 2017 Fall Writer-in-Residence. She is the author of To The River, The Trip to Echo Spring, and most recently, The Lonely City. Laing is also a columnist and lecturer. I had the pleasure of interviewing Laing for the ODU 40th Annual Literary Festival.

TK: Where do you write or where do you feel most inspired? Your writing and your voice are so open-minded and accepting, and I wonder if a certain place or way of travel flows your creative juices.

OL: I always get a lot done in 9th St Espresso in New York’s East Village. I’ve used it as my occasional office for years, and there’s something about the big window and the small tables that works for me. I do a lot of research in libraries, but to actually start writing I need caffeine and some background conversation. Though to be completely honest I’ve written the bulk of all three books in bed. At some point I just need to shut everything out, put Brian Eno’s Music for Airports on a loop and get down to it.

TK: I read in a previous interview that you said, “For me, the pleasure of writing is finding the connections between fragments.” How long into the research process does it take for connections to happen? Or are they there before the research begins?

OL: I can never plan for it. With Echo I picked writers whose lives I knew overlapped, but finding unexpected points of convergence between them was such a pleasure. It made the book cohere in a way that was very satisfying. And it’s just started to happen with the book I’m working on now. Finding people read the same books or were in the same random bar or hotel room years apart helps me to hook together different sections. It’s subtle but across the whole book it really makes a difference.

TK: What is your biggest quibble with writing?

OL: I think my own approach is the most frustrating thing – I spend a lot of time with artists and I always envy them the space to play and sketch and slowly develop ideas. I have a belief that once I’ve got the idea I should be able to sit down and write the book from beginning to end, in perfect sentences from the off. It’s ridiculous, and I’m trying consciously now to be more playful and experimental and let myself block things in slowly.

TK: When reading The Lonely City, I was fascinated by Valerie Solanas. Her importance in the book and her role in Warhol’s life are unquestionable. Your subjects are men, though you chose to include much of Solanas. Why so? What drew you to her?

OL: Solanas is really key in that book. There are other women characters, like Garbo and Nan Goldin and Zoe Leonard, but Solanas ended up occupying a larger space because I was so fascinated by the similarities between her and Warhol. She suffered from mental illness, but it seemed to me a lot of the tragedy of her story is the way that she couldn’t succeed because of her gender. I think even though the main characters are male, it’s a book that’s deeply concerned with gender, as well as sexuality and class, and the different ways they provoke loneliness. And the reason so many of the people I focus on are queer men is because that’s how my own sense of gender and sexuality shakes out.

TK: The hybridization of your work shows the first-person narrative can be beautifully woven together with elements of research and biography. How would you advise novice writers to approach a hybrid essay?

OL: Find something they’re fascinated by and then work out multiple ways into it. Biography, reportage, travel narrative – these are all such rich ways of exploring a subject. The first person can be very lightly done, as a way of containing and linking other approaches. Our world is so troubled right now, I think it’s the writer’s duty to look beyond the immediate experience of the personal and to grapple with the political in whatever way we can.

TK: What thoughts do you have about a writer’s comfort zone? Do you have a comfort zone?

OL: This is a fascinating question. Do I? I don’t know! I try to write about challenging subjects, but I think I really haven’t explored race as much as I might have. It’s much more a component of the book I’m working on now.

TK: Your books The Trip To Echo Spring and The Lonely City discuss topics of alcoholism and loneliness in artists’ lives. Do you have any current obsessions, curiosities, or people that could become the subject of your future writing?

OL: Yes. My new book, Everybody, is about bodies and freedom – why the body can be such a block to freedom in various ways, and how it can also be a route to power. It’s about protest and performance, about violence, illness and oppression. And it’s got some really fantastic characters, including the abstract painter Agnes Martin, the singer and civil rights activist Nina Simone and the novelist Kathy Acker. This is a book for the ladies, and the gender non-conforming!

TK: I feel that there is bravery in loneliness. It’s a necessary stage or rather a recurring place in life. If you could go back to your loneliest time, would you?

OL: Yes, I think so. I’m married now and my life is very different from how it was in New York five years ago, when I was really drifting and disconnected. But I got so much out of that time of life: in particular a kind of empathy and solidarity with the dispossessed that informs everything I’ve done subsequently and which I think is vital for the times we find ourselves in now.

And I think you’re right that there is a bravery to loneliness, both in publicly admitting to it and in choosing a life that provokes or includes it. For women especially the refusal to be defined by relationship status and to live autonomously remains a weirdly radical act.

TK: For me, the beauty of your writing stems from it’s quiet. Here the personal, historic, and inevitable are together in confidence and honesty. How have you constructed your voice and craft over time?

OL: Slowly expunging all excesses from my writing! I used to be much more lyrical, but these days I’m more concerned with a kind of absolute clarity. I want people to understand what I’m trying to say, even when the ideas are very complex, and I use scene-setting and sensory material – even character-driven stories – as a lure, a way of making the more abstract or political thinking concrete and lively and above all real.

TK: What is your deepest love with writing?

OL: I love research, and I love the intimacy that you develop with characters through deep research. Writing The Lonely City, and getting up close with Wojnarowicz in particular, but also Warhol, and feeling like I’d done justice to their stories: that was really magical. Getting a scene right, feeling like I’ve really managed to express a thought: that’s what makes it worthwhile.

 

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