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Between the Covers Lance Olsen Interview

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David Naimon: Today’s episode of Between the Covers is brought to you by All Lit Up, Canada’s independent online bookstore and literary space for readers of emerging, quirky, and acclaimed indie books. All Lit Up is your Canadian connection for award-winning fiction and poetry, author interviews, book roundups, recommendations, and more. The only online retailer dedicated to Canadian literature, All Lit Up features books from 60 literary publishers and now they offer e-books in accessible formats through their ebooks for Everyone collection. All Lit Up makes it easy to discover and buy exciting contemporary Canadian literature all in one place. Check out US readers can also shop All Lit Up close to home and save on shipping when they purchase books from its affiliate shop. Browse selected titles at Today’s episode is also brought to you by Morgan Talty’s much-anticipated debut novel Fire Exit, a powerful story of family, legacy, bloodlines, culture, and inheritance. Set on and across the river from Maine’s Penobscot Reservation, Fire Exit reveals the secrets of Charles Lamosway, who for decades has watched another man raise his child. Called “utterly consuming” by Tommy Orange and “frankly honest” by Brandon Taylor, Fire Exit asks what, if anything, we owe one another. For in the words of Karen Russell, “Forgiveness, Morgan shows us, is also the work of a lifetime.” Fire Exit is out now from Tin House. I’m excited to Welcome Lance Olsen back to the show today, for one, because he represents two enviable qualities that are uncommon together, a deep lifelong interest in the theoretical, philosophical, existential, and political implications of writing, and by extension, of all representation and form within art making, and a very palpable and inviting enthusiasm and joy about it all where he speaks in ways that do not require you to know what he knows. That even if you have never read Derrida or Bakhtin, even if you don’t understand the mathematical theories of Hermann Minkowski, even if you think you’d really never want to, the experience of approaching writing alongside Lance is one of deep curiosity and pleasure, a curiosity he wants to share and one that speaks to everything about us now alive in the world, from memory to history to self-hood to death. The last time Lance was on the show, we talked about his book My Red Heaven, which he calls a love letter to modernism, and for the bonus audio, he spoke about and read from Ulysses, As I Lay Dying, Mrs Dalloway, and Carole Maso’s Ava. This time, Lance contributes an extended reading from his own as of yet unpublished forthcoming novel with the provisional title An Inventory of Benevolent Butterflies about the outsider artist and writer Henry Darger. This joins an ever-growing audio archive that really is immense and I wanted to name a couple of other contributions relevant to today. Two figures that are kindred, aesthetic, and philosophical spirits to today’s conversation are past Between the Cover’s guests Melanie Rae Thon and Lidia Yuknavitch. Melanie contributed a reading of her craft talk The Ethics of Perception and Lidia read Zoe Leonard’s landmark poem I Want a Dyke For President. The bonus audio is only one possible benefit of joining Between the Covers Community as a listener-supporter. Every listener-supporter can join our brainstorm of who to invite on the show in the future and every listener-supporter gets the resource email with every conversation, with things I discovered while preparing, things we referenced during the episode, and places to explore afterwards. Then there are simply a ton of other possible things to choose from, rare collectibles from everyone from Karen Joy Fowler to Victoria Chang to the Tin House Early Readers Subscription, receiving 12 books over the course of a year, months before they are available to the general public. You can find out about all this and much more at Now, for today’s episode with none other than Lance Olsen.


David Naimon: Good morning and welcome to Between the Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host. Today’s guest Lance Olsen is the author of more than 30 books, both of and about innovative writing. These include novels, story collections, poetry, anti-textbooks, hyper-media texts, and non-fiction. His short stories, essays, and reviews have appeared in hundreds of journals and anthologies, including Conjunctions, McSweeney’s, BOMB, Best American Nonrequired Reading, and Black Warrior Review. Olsen’s accolades include a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Berlin Prize, a Pushcart Prize, and multiple N.E.A Fellowships. He is Professor Emeritus at the University of Utah where he taught experimental narrative theory and practice and directed the creative writing program. Prior to Utah, he taught for many years at the University of Idaho and directed their MFA program for two of them. A graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop for 16 years, Olsen was the chair of the board of directors at Fiction Collective Two, a publishing house for artistically adventurous, non-traditional fiction that has published past Between the Covers guests Brian Evenson, Lucy Corin, Lidia Yuknavitch, and Amelia Gray, as well as Samuel Delany, Noy Holland, and many others. Lance was first on the show in 2020 for his novel My Red Heaven, one of the last in-person interviews for Between the Covers, and since then, he has published the novel Skin Elegies with starred reviews from Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, and Foreword Reviews and Always Crashing in the Same Car of which Jonathan Lethem said, “Always Crashing in the Same Car presents a phantasmagorical mosaic of facts and fantasies concerning the life and art of David Bowie, for whom the mask always melted into the face and vice versa. A meditation on memory, loss, and love; on the projection of a writer’s self through their chosen idols; on the artist’s attempt to orchestrate the manner of a life’s conclusion. All this, Lance Olsen delivers, and more.” Lance Olsen returns today four years after our first conversation and as prolific as ever, to discuss the two new books he has published this year. The first entitled Shrapnel: Contemplations from Anti-Oedipus Press is a collection of his 21st-century essays and interviews, a book about the philosophy of writing and writing craft, and his latest novel Absolute Away from Dzanc Books of which Brian Evenson says, “What makes Absolute Away so impressive is Olsen’s ability to dive into two historical moments in a way that renders them palpable and real, and then, having established the possibilities of the mirror of realism, to tap that mirror sharply in a way that spreads cracks throughout its surface, multiplying and complicating the real. A novel of possible and impossible worlds that is above all a compelling, provocative read.” Melanie Rae Thon adds, “Through the roiling thunderstorm and utter marvelousness of his exuberant imagination, Lance Olsen rescues Edith Metzger from the oblivion of her violent death to reinvent her with the crackling skin fizz and full-body thrill of a Jackson Pollock painting. This jazz improvisation of a novel will open and wreck you as you enter the miraculously weird shimmerings of the infinite and Absolute Away where identity shreds into a proliferation of possibilities—where anyone might have been, might still become, wildly, spectacularly other.” Welcome back to Between the Covers, Lance Olsen. 

Lance Olsen: Thanks so much for having me, David. It’s great to be back with the most thoughtful, perceptive, and well-researched literary interviewer in America. [laughter]

DN: Well, thank you. Well, since we’ve last talked, you’ve published a book Skin Elegies, about an American couple fleeing their increasingly authoritarian country and in doing so, uploading their consciousnesses to quantum computers in Europe and Africa. And Always Crashing in the Same Car, a prismatic, polyvocal exploration of the ur-chameleon David Bowie, and also since we last talked, a global pandemic has changed all of us irrevocably, not to mention a million other ways we are all hurdling through and toward tectonic sea changes. Yet improbably amidst all this change and given the variety of books you’ve written over your career, whether engaged with the land art of Robert Smithson or with appropriating and rewriting Franz Kafka, we find ourselves in a similar setting again as our first conversation with My Red Heaven, which was set in Weimar, Germany. Here we are again with Absolute Away, again in Germany and at the end of the Weimar Republic in the first year of Nazi Germany. Let’s start with a painting of the historical or political setting and/or scenario where we find ourselves in part one of Absolute Away.

LO: I think a good place to start is I actually started that novel as a novel about Jackson Pollock. As I was reading about Jackson Pollock, reading the biographies and we can talk about little bit, Jackson Pollock in very many ways has something to do with David Bowie. The more biographies one reads of somebody, the less you understand them. August 11th, 1956, about 10:15, Jackson Pollock was on his last ride, he was drunk on Long Island, then next to him was Ruth Kligman, who he was having an affair with while his wife, the artist Lee Krasner, was over in Paris. As I was reading the paragraph that introduced all this, they talked about a woman in the backseat. They didn’t name her in the biography. They just talked about this woman in the backseat. When Pollock went off the road, Ruth Kligman barely survived and the woman in the back seat died along with Pollock. I became fascinated in that one sentence, “the woman in the back seat,” and I started to do some research. It turns out that her name was Edith Metzger, so I started to try to research who she was, what she was about, and so on. Ruth Kligman writes about her a little bit in her autobiography and so on but it’s mostly this American woman who came over from Germany. Well, I started to read more and discovered that she actually was a little girl in the late 1930s in Germany, and her parents who were progressives and were horrified at what was happening in Nazi Germany took this little girl to a Nazi book burning to show her what was going on and to witness what was going on and Hermann Göring was there, and mistook her for an Aryan little girl because apparently, she had incredibly beautiful blue eyes and lightish brown hair. He picked her up and she bit him so hard on the lower lip that it actually bled, then she fell out of history. The next we see of her is being in America, living in Manhattan. We have no idea how she got over it. We have no idea what happened to her parents though we suspect that they were murdered in the Holocaust. We have no idea of what her reality was, then suddenly she’s in her early 20s in the back of Jackson Pollock’s car because she’s a friend of Ruth Kligman. So to me, that was stunning. As you know, the novel is written in three parts and the first one is that book burning, the second is that mad drive through Pollock’s last night, then the third is all of the lives that she might have lived. In that sense, in my mind, it’s a novel about travel and its largest sense, not just through space but through time, through gender, through genre, and all the things that we travel through without thinking of these things being traveling into aging, which is also something that’s been fascinating me. You can tell from Always Crashing in the Same Car and David Bowie, I’m not as interested in David Bowie’s early years. I’m interested in somebody who’s the opposite of young and still vibrantly engaged with the experiment, with the innovative, and what that feels like. Another thing, maybe a last point, then we can move on, but I think one of the things that appeals to me, whether it’s the characters in My Red Heaven or Bowie or somebody like Edie Metzger, are the gaps. There’s a term uchronia. Uchronia is a fancy literary term for alternate history and I think over the years, I’ve come to understand that it’s all alternate history. There isn’t a history. There isn’t a primary site in origin. Truth recovery is always going to be a failed project. What interests me as a writer is getting back into those gaps and trying to imagine the spaces that don’t exist. That takes us back to Edie and the situation in Nazi Germany. Oh, okay, one other point. Clearly, I can never stop talking. [laughter] I wrote My Red Heaven because of Trump. I wrote My Red Heaven because of the political catastrophe that had happened. One of the things people really poo-pooed was this idea, “Oh, there are no parallels with Germany,” and I’m like, “No, they really, really are.” I think now that’s almost a truism. You look out the window at what’s happening and you think to yourself, “Oh.” As my German friends say, “We’ve seen this movie before. We know how it turns out.” I think that kind of paralleling of historical times was also very important to me when thinking about little Edie Metzger.

DN: Well, this abrupt pivot from the politically fragile but also polyvocal and pluralistic parliamentary democracy of The Weimar Republic to this monolithic, far-right fascism of Nazi Germany, as you’ve just pointed out, echoes today. I think also the infamous book burning that we get near the beginning that Edith is at as a 3-year-old when students raided the libraries of The Institute for Sexual Research which was founded by a queer Jewish musician, a place that did pioneering research on gay, transgender, and intersex topics and they burned upwards of 20,000 books, and books from other libraries were added. Everyone from Walter Benjamin to Robert Musil to James Joyce to Leo Tolstoy were burned and Goebbels wanted the burning to happen late at night to evoke a subliminal connection to their Nordic past, to conjure mythic primal images of purification of the German mind. Last time we talked, we talked quite a bit about writing about real historical people within a novel, which you do hear again and have in many of your books. Even if many of the real people in Absolute Away, whether the mathematician Hermann Minkowski or the poet Erich Kästner, are less immediately recognizable as real to probably most modern readers. But you have this interesting exchange on this topic in your new book Shrapnel with Michael Lackey. Michael brings up the book The Historical Novel by the Hungarian philosopher György Lukács, whose books were part of the bonfire actually and Lackey says, “Lukács’ The Historical Novel argues that the biographical form of the novel is doomed to failure because the focus on the biography of the hero leads authors to overlook or misrepresent significant historical events and truths, and thus reveals the historical weakness of the biographical form of the novel.” Lackey then goes on to suggest that Lukács would have found your novels Nietzsche’s Kisses and Head In Flames not just failures but doomed to failure from the outset because the biographical novel is flawed and limited. You respond that you find Lukács’ assumptions quaint, for one, that he believes in a transcendental truth but more so, that he thinks he can easily define either what history is or what a novel is. That your books are problematizing both history and the novel, and through both, narrative itself. You say that interpretation is a mode of closure, that our first instinct as we approach a novel is to limit, totalize, and detonate into containment and that the inexhaustible is the only productive strategy to deploy when discussing biography, history, and truth. You end by saying that your biographical novels are the investigation of the impossibility of biographical novels, even as their examples of them. I was hoping maybe hearing this again, you could expand on any of it in history or novels, or maybe most particularly on inexhaustibility as a productive strategy and what that means.

LO: Let me make a general point, then maybe try to take each of those and talk about them just a little bit. I think maybe a good place to start with this is to suggest the texts that make us work, make us think and feel in unusual ways, and attempt to wake us as I say in the midst of our dreaming are more valuable epistemologically, ontologically, and sociopolitically than texts that make us feel warm, fuzzy, and ultimately forgetful. I think Lukács, in his drive toward totalizing systems, Lukács would not agree with me on this, but really has that impulse toward forgetfulness and toward a kind of easy categorization, a categorical simplification of what these terms actually mean. History is such an interesting subject. I think my first historical personage that I looked at was Nietzsche in Nietzsche’s Kisses. Again, really what I got down to was the inability to understand Nietzsche. I’d read all his work, I’d read all the biographies, and the more I read, the less I could get back to what that is, what that noun is, Nietzsche, which we load with such an over-determined noun. The more I’ve been thinking about it over the years, the more I’ve been doing extensive research on this subject or that, all I can find, all I can settle on is the unsettled fact that history is a problem. Yesterday is always a problem. Who’s telling it? From where is it being told? Why are they telling it? Who has the power of telling it? When is it being told? All of those things lead us to what M. NourbeSe Philip talks about in one of her essays, the essay that follows her incredible, I don’t know what you call it, a novel-like object called “Zong!” is that we live in this forensic landscape. Whether we’re in Europe, whether in the US, whether we’re in an African country or the Middle East, the landscapes look almost tame now but they’re forensic landscapes. They’re filled with brutality, they’re filled with murder, they’re filled with destruction, and they’re filled with all sorts of horrible things and to imagine that we can get back to some kind of essence of that. I can’t remember who it was, I think it was Olga Tokarczuk who said, “You can’t look at a field the same way once you know a tank’s driven across it.” To me, that is the interesting thing to explore, not some weird Lukács and totalizing system. Also, I think placing history in the personal as fraught as that is, and hopefully, we’ll get to talk about that a little bit as well, makes it more available, makes it more human. Lukács always talked in these huge brushstrokes and that just isn’t where I position myself. Then as far as the novel goes—and this is just because I’m wired the way I’m wired—I’m much more interested in novels that present themselves as problems rather than solutions. I’ve always been working in that mode, well, not always. I actually started with a very traditional New York-based, very corporate publishing novel called Live From Earth because I went to the Iowa Writers Workshop but after that, things got more complicated. I just finished a really wonderful study by a guy named Stephane Vanderhaeghe and it’s called Dear Incomprehension. He talks about this being a study about speculative fiction. But it’s not speculative fiction in the way you or I might think of it in terms of science fiction, the SF tradition, and so on. Rather, he says he’s interested in fiction by people like Blake Butler or people like Renee Gladman who speculate, who create works that force us to speculate about the problems of reading without ever settling. They create spaces that exist to leave us in the lurch rather than to take us to some kind of what would you call Christian ex-cathological redemption. In that sense, I think those novels—and this is what Vanderhaeghe argues—are a more pure form of realism in the sense that they more accurately represent lived experience. That’s beautiful. One other digression, then Heidegger too, this is a Vanderhaeghe thinking, Heidegger has that essay in which he talks about tools and equipment. He says in this beautiful Heideggerian way, “They become most significant when they’re broken because they stand there,” and this is Vanderhaeghe quoting the Heidegger but there’s this phrase, “They stand there in all of their obtuse conspicuousness,” which I love. The reason that they’re obtuse and the reason that they’re conspicuous is because they look like nothing else anymore because they’re broken. We don’t know what they’re for or how to use them. That to me is if you translated that idea into the novel form is where it gets really interesting for me. It’s confronting textuality or creating textuality that is truly not sure how to use it, why to use it, or what it’s there for and that makes it there in all its obtuse conspicuousness. Okay, so there were three things you had asked me. The first was about history, the second was about the novel, the third was about what?

DN: Inexhaustibility.

LO: We may have talked about this last time. I really connected with Bakhtin but not the Bakhtin that most people talk about, I mean obviously, I’m really interested in polyvocality and that sort of thing, but there’s one paragraph in Bakhtin that talks about unfinalizability and it’s magnificent. He says that when we approach people or when we approach texts—and this goes back to what you were saying—our instinct is to finalize those things. Our instinct is to lock them down so that we can, in our elevator pitch, pull a novel together—and this goes back to Lukács—and categorize it and say something about it that is meaningful in a couple of sentences. We do the same unfortunately with people, with kinds of people, which would be a totalizing system, or with individual people where we try to lock them down very quickly. Bakhtin points out that will never work and that the only time we can lock down a text is were we to kill it, and the only time you can lock down a person is when they’re dead and the problem with when they’re dead is they enter narrative, so it’s impossible to finalize them at that point either. In fact, finalizability becomes even less graspable and I love that. I love that idea of the unfinalizable and that goes to creating problems rather than solutions in novel form.

DN: Well, in the spirit of inexhaustibility, we have a question for you from writer and editor John Madera. He runs the online arts and culture magazine Big Other. He’s also the author of a debut collection of short experimental fictions called Nervosities which is just out and shares a publisher, Anti-Oedipus Press, with your book, Shrapnel. Garielle Lutz says of Nervosities, “The fourteen sententially ambitious and masterly entries in Nervosities introduce us to a bold and startling new force in American fiction. John Madera is a learned and scathingly observant chronicler of our turmoil, and his prose is some of the most robust, ruckusing, and gravely brilliant I have read in ages.” Here’s a question for you from John. 

John Madera: Greetings, David Naimon and Lance Olsen. This is John Madera currently putting nomadology into praxis just a few blocks away from where once inspiringly stood the Gaza solidarity encampment at Columbia University. Anyway, big thanks to reader, writer, and interviewer par excellence David Naimon for inviting me on Between the Covers for a cameo question about Absolute Away which absolutely blew me away. Lance, your latest marvelous prose object once again finds you not only dissolving the borders between past, present, and future but multiplying the possibilities of each one of them, suggesting that this could be done endlessly, so you might call Absolute Away an omniversal text, or at least I might, that is, did. Two, you trespass and dissolve the so-called borders between genres namely historical novel, speculative fiction, philosophy, critical theory, etc. In Absolute Away, engagements with thinkers as diverse as Andrew Monson, John Berger, Albert Einstein, David Hume, and several others and most extensively, Jacques Derrida and Catherine Malabou, fruitfully interrupt the seductive illusions that normative fiction for many might provide, all to ask at what point of the writing of Absolute Away did these interventions begin to appear? What do you hope readers will receive from these engagements? What do you think of the term theory fiction? Is it a useful way to describe the hermeneutical but also visceral adventure Absolute Away invites readers to join? Thanks in advance, Lance. Thanks again, David. 

LO: Wow. Okay, so first I have to say Lutz’s sentences are so beautiful. I just got giddy listening to simply how she spoke about John’s work. John is an amazing writer and Nervosities is a really fine and completely heterodox collection of fictions. I just can’t say enough about it or him. His mind is amazing simply to watch work. That notion of existential multiplicity that that novel is involved with goes back to somebody who I actually talk about in the novel and as you say, most people won’t recognize this person as a historical biological being but Hermann Minkowski and his claim to fame of all things is being Einstein’s tutor though his mentor when he was in college and Einstein apparently was a terrible student, and sat in the front row and slept for part of the lectures, and looked bored for the other part of the lectures but Minkowski really paid attention because every time he gave an exam, Einstein blew it out of the water. When Einstein’s first papers came out in the early 1900s, I think it was like about 1905, they actually didn’t make the splash that we have now historicize them to have made until Minkowski several years later presented a paper at a conference on Einstein and translated Einstein’s thoughts about relativity into more digestible form for mathematicians, and suddenly, people started to pay attention. But what’s interesting to me about Minkowski is he has this idea, in German it’s called [absolut anderer Ort], so absolute other place, which is where the title comes from, Absolute Away and what he says is, “If you picture time as two funnels, one set on top of the other, so the thin points come together and touch, where they touch is the present. Everything in the lower funnel represents the past, everything in the upper funnel represents the future.” If you notice when you’re born, there are all these possibilities that confront you. The funnel is wide open but everything that happens in time limits those possibilities down to this present. So for me to be sitting here talking to you, I have to have written these sorts of novels. For these sorts of novels to have been written, I had to have lived this sort of life or this sort of life to have been lived, I had to have been at this place at this time, listening to that, reading that, or talking to this person. Okay, that part’s understandable, then it gets a little crazier. As you move into your future, those possibilities reopen, not in any sense that’s a new agey that everything is possible or something like that. If we think it hard enough, it will happen. Simply that in terms of physics, possibilities open until you close them. At this very moment in time, I could jump out the window, I could walk down the stairs, I could go into town, I could move to a different state. The possibilities are endless until they’re not, then he says, “But outside of those two zones exists absolute away, absolute other place, absolute possibility. And in those places, anything can happen. Trains can arrive in stations before they leave and so on.” Actually, it was Minkowski who helped me understand the shape of Absolute Away. I started the novel—and this goes back to John’s question—writing about Edie because of the way I explained it to you and just doing my historical research, and just becoming fascinated by this little girl whose parents had taken her to the Nazi rally. But as I did that, one thing bumped into another and I met Minkowski’s thoughts, and I began to think, “Okay, so what would a novel look like that presented the metaphor one can’t actually in a novel present a multitude of possibilities in the sense of unfinalizable but one can present a multitude of possibilities in the sense of more than you usually see in a novel and suggest an infinite number, and begin to also present multiples of genre, multiples of self, multiples of gender, and so on?” That got me really interested. To go back to John’s question, I think this is just how my brain works, I really don’t see a distinction between theory and fiction. I think fiction is a kind of theory. To write a story is to make certain assumptions about how reality works because you’re making assumptions about how narrative works and you’re making certain assumptions about how structure works. I’m sure we’ll talk about this in a little bit but just to say in a phrase, every form suggests a kind of philosophy. It’s just that a lot of writers, especially when you’re first starting out, maybe aren’t aware of the philosophy that they’re so deeply embedded in that they actually can change that philosophy. That’s very interesting to me. Then to go back, John talked about Derrida and Derrida has been extremely important for me since probably the mid-80s on in the way I conceive of thinking. Derrida makes a distinction between thinkers and philosophers. This takes us back to Lukács, thinkers and philosophers because he says philosophers are those that try to develop hermetic systems, I think Lukács and hermetic structures. Thinkers are people who don’t stop thinking and their minds work like termites. They just chew through a problem and get nowhere. It goes back to what Stephane Vanderhaeghe was saying too about this idea of leaving you in the lurch. One of the things that was brilliant, I was a grad student when I ran into Derrida and if you run into a Derrida early enough, your brain explodes and you don’t know how to talk about them. [laughter] His language, every sentence is being hit on the head with a hammer. All of these things are a completely disruptive experience for me and I found it thrilling. I found that sense of being lost. I found that sense of being set back on my heels. I found that experience of somebody who didn’t get anywhere in his thinking because that wasn’t his point was fascinating, then his key ideas and so on, I track back and of course, it takes us to the doorstep of Heidegger who did many of the same moves only not as radically as Derrida. But Derrida looks back to Heidegger, both of them look back to Nietzsche and that’s what got me to Nietzsche’s Kisses. But Derrida, for those of your listeners who aren’t familiar with this, began to, for a book, exchange postcards with a theorist whose name was Malabou and they began to talk about the nature of travel. One of the things that blew the top of my head off as I was reading this was to make a realization about Derrida. I have no idea why I didn’t make this before. Derrida wasn’t a European. He’s a North African. He grew up in Algiers. He grew up in a sort of Jewish household that didn’t think of itself as Jewish that was in the heart of an Arab world. He had a brother whose name was Jackie and the parents blur the two characters of Jacques and Jackie together. The brother died. Jacques goes up to France to study but becomes involved from a very early age, contrary to how Derrida is usually constructed, deeply political activists in the anti-colonial movement. All of that’s going on and it occurred to me like a bolt of lightning that really what all of his work is about isn’t the instability of language, isn’t the fact that meaning always means more than it means, isn’t about the notions of the lack of a transcendental signified and so on. It’s about having been raised in exile. It’s about having existed as a mode of being as an exile, not only in physical terms, socio-historical terms, and so on but in terms of textuality. So Derrida never enters a text the way a tourist does. A tourist enters a new space needing to know, “Okay, I’ve checked this off my bucket list. I can now talk about whatever this is in these terms, then I can move out of the text, i.e, finalizing it.” Derrida always wants to remain an exile in the text and the result is that he turns us into exiles. He turns the reader into exiles, the thinker into exiles. That I think for me is an idea that actually travels through all of my work, though it traveled unconsciously, then became conscious in Absolute Away. I wanted to create a text that I as a writer was an exile in, that the reader would become an exile in and of course, all the characters, Edie being an essential character, is in exile, in all of the ways that we just talked about. Nobody thinks about this with Pollock. It is also just intriguing, I mean he was raised in the middle of the country in this very rural setting. You think of him as this very New York avant-garde guy but he felt like an exile every moment he was in New York and I’m sure that was in part what led him into alcoholism, self-destructive behavior, and also destructive behavior for others is this idea of never knowing where he was or why he was there. Some people find that the definition of trauma and some people find that the definition of possibility and liberation.

DN: Well, I share this presumptive connection with Derrida around maybe his relationship to language in his own uncategorizable identity. I want everyone to hold on to this question of exile and home and belonging because I want to return to it later. But just to return for now to thinking of the novel as an inexhaustible form and how you’ve mentioned that Absolute Away has three distinct parts, Derrida being most prevalent in the third part, but each of the parts isn’t only in a different time, each part is written in a different mode and with each mode comes a different relationship to the page, and to form. So in part one, the part in the first year of Nazi Germany with the book burning, nearly every paragraph is titled so that each page often has many titled mini sections and the many bolded titles all over the page become as prominent in their own right as the text beneath them. Some sections are only a couple phrases of text and read more like a poem, like the section Three Smells, which goes, “Gasoline fumes. Particulate haze. The oniony reek of human dampness.” Some are a single question or sentence and some are more normatively forward-moving continuous narratives, occasionally spanning multiple pages like we would expect of a chapter in the most common form of the novel today. I have some thoughts about this form but before I share mine, talk to us about why this is the way you would approach this material of part one formally.

LO: So you know this feeling that writers have where I think it was Browning who said after he had done a reading one night, a woman raised her hand and said, “Mr. Browning, what do you mean by that poem?” He said, “At the time I wrote it, only God and I knew—and now only God knows.” [laughter] I think there’s a certain degree of truth to that and a certain degree of truth that many of us writers make stuff up after the fact to make sense of things that we wrote. But I actually remember what happened here and it was one of the thrills of getting into what I perceived as Edith’s mind. My Edith’s mind was trying something I hadn’t done before in writing and that is getting into a little girl’s imagination. So a different gender but also an age that is really hard to get back into, I mean we can play games about getting back into it but it’s a little like trying to imagine how a dog thinks or how a horse feels. It’s like we simply project the human onto that because we honestly couldn’t even begin to imagine another being at, you know we have a hard enough time trying to imagine ourselves like that, each other, but to get back, so to try to imagine the space of a little girl who doesn’t know what’s going on, she’s that three, four years old thing, and I didn’t want to get back into all the romantic cliches of childhood because actually, I found childhood, as most of us do, an incredibly violent and traumatic, brutal, unnerving, disorienting, weird time. There’s nothing romantic about it. We never know what the hell we’re doing, where we are, why things happen the way they do, why people are mean in the world, or any of that. What I was trying to do is to create these little bursts on the page that weren’t necessarily sequential, that weren’t necessarily cogent, that were really haptic in the sense of being simply expressive moments where things don’t make sense but they feel very immediate. So I thought one way to do that is to create this almost collage form of sense impressions, thought may be too strong a word, but thought-like impressions of a little girl. Now I’m fascinated because you said you have your thoughts about this and I’d love to hear what yours are.

DN: Well, you can tell me whether this feels like it might also be true or not true. I’d be just as interested if you’re going to push back against this. But if we hold in mind these many islands of texts that are interrupted by title after title, I want to read a couple things from Shrapnel and the first is from a section called Not-Knowings, and it’s a passage that I wonder if we could consider this an ars poetica for you in a way, hear your speaking about Guy Debord’s perceptual revolution, “Impede that passive relationship between human and spectacle, even if only for flashes. Disorder the spectacular by devising instants that reorder life, give rise to sudden rushes of self-consciousness about one’s being-in-the-world. Through the act of détournement—, the creation of a new work inimical to the assumptions of an original and usually commercial one familiar to the target audience—Situationism appropriates and perverts the grammar of the distractive habitual in an attempt to interrupt it, making us aware both of the dynamics of spectacle and the possibility of alternative modes of existence.” Perhaps similarly, you also in Shrapnel quote Ronald Sukenick saying, “You need to understand that understanding is an interruption. Understanding is always an interruption of which you understand in the form of the cryptic. You need to interrupt yourself.” I just love this idea of understanding coming from an interruption of the self and also the notion of the interruption of the distractive habitual. I wondered if we could view the form in part one as partly in that spirit of interruption, cryptic understanding, interruption of that understanding, then further understanding.

LO: I mean what’s so great about you, David, is you can mainline something perfectly. [laughter] That’s exactly my mantra and it has been forever. You’re talking about Guy Debord. People often don’t think about this disruption of the habitual as a way in which he rhymes so beautifully with Derrida. So many ways the situationist project is about that rupture of understanding because what understanding ultimately is is a mode of indoctrination. Boy, I’m just going to keep hitting Lukács over the head. [laughter] But that idea of trying to settle things is what we call understanding. I think with Sukenick, that notion of interruption is something you know, it took me a long time in life to learn that that was where, I don’t even want to use the word knowledge came from, that’s where unlearning comes from. Maybe the first 20-some-odd years of my life were about learning and ever since then, it’s been about unlearning, especially I’m sure so many of us feel this at some deep level in high school, we really feel like we had things figured out, then the rest of our lives, we realized just how wrong we were every five minutes. I think what I was talking about was almost a character-based answer to this. How would a little girl at a Nazi rally perceive? What you’ve done is to theorize that by saying, “Well, one of the ways she would perceive is to perceive in a disruptive, interruptive, Shrapnel-like way.” I mean the reason I call Shrapnel Shrapnel is in many ways for me, that life doesn’t come to us at least the way I perceive it, the way I experience it as cogent illumination. It comes to us as Shrapnel. It comes to us as these bright burning flakes of metal and how do we deal with those? How do we find pattern in the lack of pattern? Of course, as soon as you find a pattern, you’ve missed the point. So all of those things, I think really, really jive. Then just to add one more thing to that, which you’ve suggested by the way you’ve described how the pages work in the first section and definitely in the second section, I’ve really come to think over the last 20, 25 years of the page as an event, when we open a page, we don’t just open language. We open shape. We open a relationship to wide space. Scott McCloud always talks about the gutter in comic books but they’re gutters all over pages, right? Visual gutters. Between each section in section one or movement one, there are white gutters. How do you read those? Well, we don’t even think about reading them but unconsciously, you’re reading them as abrupt disconnections, as a disjunction between this part and that part. We’re so taught to read pages as coherent artifacts but the fact is that Edie would never do that. How do you construct a page that feels Shrapnel-like? This takes us to another point. I loved your interview that just came out with Joyelle McSweeney. I adore Joyelle’s work. I think that idea that she was talking arout but I was thinking about is what Joyelle writes, sure, we can call it poetry but we can also call it a sort of exploded fiction or a kind of jammed narrative but why do we even use those words? We really are living, at least for writers in this larger family, in a post-genre world, given what just happened in New York Publishing a day or two ago. I’m not so sure [inaudible] publishing thinks of itself that way. But the rest of us really exist in this space where I just have no idea what the difference between poetry and fiction is anymore. Thank goodness. You read Lutz’s line introducing John and I was thinking about how, “That’s what? That’s theory? No. That’s narrative? No. That’s poetry? No.” Then the answer is also yes to each of those. It’s this idea of the page’s event. I think I just wanted to make one other point on this and this goes to the post-genre, this goes to the idea that I think a certain kind of writer, we mentioned a couple early on, like Renee Gladman or Blake Butler, and in a big way, Melanie Rae Thon as well writes between spaces like, “What in the world do you call these works?” One last point and that’s in Katherine Hayles’ point about media-specific analysis, which really intrigues me. Hayles talks about this idea that every media can do something that other media can’t and can’t do things that other media can. One of the things that has just been obsessing me since probably the late ’90s, maybe the mid-’90s is what can novels do? How come every Tuesday, we hear of the novel’s demise, then every Wednesday, one of the most incredible novels we’ve ever encountered comes into our world? I think it has to do with the fact that novels can do certain kinds of moves that say film can’t do, that music can’t do. Film can do other things and music can do other things but novels can work with the–this is why I can’t stand reading digital format, is novels do things with the page that are astounding when they’re allowed to do things with the page. Novels can do things with consciousness that are astounding and novels can do things with language that traditional poetry can’t do for extended periods of time. You think of Ulysses and instead of calling it a novel, you call it an extended poem and suddenly you think, “Oh, my God, the things that it did with language, that’s extraordinary.”

DN: Well, one of the things that I marvel about part one in light of everything you’ve just said is how immersive it is. Not only with all these interruptive titles but even more so because you have two primary points of view which are so different from each other. One is that of the three-year-old Edie Metzger who, as one might expect, lives in what feels like to an adult, a dream state or a state of magic and wonder where the world is almost like an unfolding fairytale. Of course, she’s too young to understand the implications of anything happening around her politically where for instance, she thinks of cooking bratwursts when she sees the bonfire of books. Then there’s this roving, omniscient, time-traveling narrator who keeps dropping facts from the past and the future into the book, rupturing the unity of time with the knowledge that no character in the book could have. It reminds me of my conversation with Mathias Énard where the reincarnation he is enacting in his latest book is bidirectional in time. You can be reincarnated into distant history just as likely as into the future. One minute in Absolute Away, you might leap from a candy cane in the present moment of 1933 to their invention 263 years earlier to discover that it was a means to keep kids quiet in church. Or we might suddenly learn that 62 years later, John Berger writes his novel To the Wedding and we’ll get the quote from that book “The waters change all the while and stay the same only on the map.” I say this as a preface to a question for you from past Between the Covers guest Melanie Rae Thon. In Shrapnel, you describe her last book As If Fire Could Hide Us, the one I discussed with her for Between the Covers, “Part lamentation, part desperate love song to our species sightlessness and demise, part post-Christian neomisticism inflected by a transcendental pantheism, evinced in a boiling oceanic consciousness that wants very much to believe time despite time’s piercing arrow and space, in a sense, don’t exist, creating a narrative timelessness and wearlessness. She wants very much to believe that all people, all things, all atoms are connected, rich with the opportunity for love among the ruins, afflictions, bodily and spiritual pains and longings that make us who we are, all held together in the form of the exploded page, a performative precinct which sometimes looks and reads like poetry or sacred chant, sometimes like what we used to call prose, sometimes like both-and. As If Fire Could Hide Us considers what a postmodern holy book might look like that can no longer wholly acquiesce to the meaning of any of its constituent modifiers.” So here’s a question for you from Melanie.

Melanie Rae Thon: Hello, David. Thank you for inviting me to share the joy of Lance’s work. Hi, Lance. One of the many things I love about your fiction is the multi-dimensional, destabilizing experimentation with narrative consciousness. I’m going to read 13 astonishing lines from Absolute Away, just to suggest how intricate your innovations can be.

“Children Picking Up Their Own Bones Game

The goal of the game is to pretend they are the little boys and girls of parents who died horribly because this will invariably be the case. So, imagine how your mother perishes. In childbirth, in flood, in a collapse of brittle bones or fragile arteries, a terrible automobile accident, after which she lives for seven minutes in a gale of agony. Good, and now your father. Riptide, furnace, slow diabetic ruination, or quick slip of a chainsaw. And now yourself. Imagine how you will live with this information inside you. This is where the game turns formidable. This is where the challenge lies. Pretend the universe is, after all, benevolent. Say oranges. Say jasmine. Say beautiful music. Out of nowhere, Edie concludes she loves her father more than her mother.”

This sequence is absolutely amazing. The first eleven lines seem to come from Edie’s deep past, something the child knows at a cellular level but cannot begin to articulate. In her future, her deep future, she will have a language to describe the excesses of loss and grief. The imperative voice evokes these extremes, deep future and deep past, as if both are somehow already part of Edie’s unbound, cosmic, unconscious consciousness within and beyond her. The final line jolts us back into her not-quite-three-year-old sensibilities where what she perceives, what emerges emotionally is an unspeakable secret, the terrifying recognition that she prefers one parent over the other. I wonder if you could tell us more about your understanding of narrative consciousness, human consciousness and/or cosmic consciousness, and how you explore, and represent limitlessness through the limits of language. Feel free to use examples from any fictions that come to mind. Thank you, Lance. 

LO: Well, we have to preface this in a couple of ways. One of the many things I love about Melanie is she’s one of the most meticulous, sensitive readers that I know in the world. You may have come up last time when you were interviewing Melanie and certainly will come up now as we both taught at the University of Utah, and we became friends really early on in my stay there. She was already there. We took a hike up at Sundance, one of the first weekends I was there and it was the first time I really got to know her. I had read Sweet Hearts beforehand and it had simply blown me away. Anyway, we have stayed comrades and dear, dear friends ever since then and we would very regularly, now, of course, I live out East and she has remained in Salt Lake but we would very regularly take walks every couple of weeks, and talk about everything under the sun. One of the things we did, and I’m not sure Melanie would agree with this but since she’s no longer here at this point in our conversation, I will simply exert this idea that we really influenced each other a tremendous amount over the years. Indeed, if you look at our writing, our visions are very different, but if you look at our writing, what you’ll notice is that her writing picks up traits of mine, my writing picks up traits of hers. At first glance, it would seem like there couldn’t be anything less common but I think we continue to influence, support, and challenge each other and help us grow together in really, really interesting ways. What a delight to hear from you, Melanie. I think to go to your question about consciousness, I mean let me answer in a simpler way first, then maybe raise it into a theoretical mode. I think personal consciousness has always intrigued me and it’s intrigued me in dramatic ways. I’m not at all clear that we actually—this goes back to our question of understanding and understanding as a form of interruption that Sukenick was talking about perhaps—but I’m not sure we can actually ever understand another person in a deep, complex, nuanced way because of the nature of what it is to be alive. I’ll make it even more provocative by saying I’m not sure we can understand our own consciousness in any meaningful way. I think stuff like Freudian psychotherapy plays a game, it’s not for nothing that Lukács and Freud were bumping intellectual shoulders at the same time in the same historical rough period. They were both totalizers and they both had explanations for everything. I have fewer and fewer explanations for anything as I go on but I love, love, love the idea of exploring human consciousness. What I mean by that isn’t exploring other people’s consciousness. That’s an illusion that fiction writers create and it’s certainly something I’m absolutely intrigued with. But I think I use the page as a space of contemplation of my own consciousness and my own failed attempts to understand that, and by implication, understand anybody’s failed attempts to understand anybody else’s consciousness. I think that’s one of the things that fiction does or that what we used to call fiction does that separates it from most other media, that sense of deep consciousness. We just mentioned Ulysses and I think of that last chapter in Ulysses, Molly, 16 sentence-like constructions, whatever we call those and you’re inhabiting another being’s mind in this gorgeous, gorgeous prose that’s breathless and run on, and dense and elusive and allusive. It’s just incredible. That’s what fiction or what we once used to call fiction could do. I’m not a big fan of the idea of miracles and I think part of what’s going on in the Absolute Away is exactly trying to talk about the miraculous in a section associated with a child and that child-like wonder strikes me as slightly disingenuous, as one grows older, one comes to learn along with a physicist that there aren’t miracles. There are statistical probabilities that everything kind of connects with other things and kind of doesn’t, depending on how you look that up and that interests me. That’s where I was coming in is what’s a little girl’s consciousness, who can see things in a miraculous way or possibly see things in a miraculous way, again, what do horses think? How do dogs feel? I’m not sure but surely as one grows up and grows older, one sees things in a much more complicated way and that takes me to the last point, which is maybe a larger point. Olga Tokarczuk’s novel Flights was one of those novels say in the last 10 years that most dazzled me and one of the reasons was because she designed a novel that was anti-teleological in structure, and I hadn’t actually seen something so dramatically that where she can change registers, she can change discourses, she can change perspectives, she can change storylines, she can to a certain extent change style and not just to show off but actually to bring us into a realm that is philosophically anti-teleological. It doesn’t try to get anywhere. That metaphor of its title Flights really resonated with me, of course, and all the work that I’ve been doing over the last however long I’ve been doing it. But this idea that we’re always in transition, we’re always traveling, we’re always not knowing where we’re going, and so on, that I think really unconsciously, I’m just coming to understand this now, really informed version of the heart of Absolute Away. Oh, can I add to maybe one more thing about Melanie? Melanie and I were talking maybe two weeks ago about a former colleague of mine, Michael Mejia, a brilliant writer, has this one of my all-time favorite novels called Forgetfulness actually about Germany among other things and I just offhandedly said, “You know, I really do think of Michael as the brother I never had.” I also just wanted to underscore, I really think of Melanie as the sister I never had and always wish I could have had.

DN: Well, in that spirit, we have another question from you from another past Between the Cover’s guest who also is a longtime friend of yours, Lidia Yuknavitch. Lidia has been on Between the Covers twice, once for The Small Backs of Children and once for her wildly innovative story collection Verge. We also aired her craft lecture from the Tin House Writers Workshop called Writing from the Deep Cut. If that’s not enough, she was also part of the Crafting with Ursula series, and of the four, maybe I would push that one forward a little bit more as particularly relevant to today’s discussion, our deep dive together into Le Guin’s essay The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction where we looked at not only how that essay had influenced Lidia’s work but also the work of many writers, anthropologists, visual artists, performance artists, and more. Since we talked, since Lidia and I talked about The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction, I was reached out to by a film director, the co-director of a new feature film called Lyd about the Palestinian city of Lyd that is now the Israeli city of Lod, and how this conversation between Lidia and I influenced the decisions that these directors made for how they told the story of Lyd. This director has even written an essay in Filmmaker magazine called The Carrier Bag Theory of Nonfiction Filmmaking: What Documentarians Can Learn from Ursula K. Le Guin. One of the big things they did in regards to time in this film, in their efforts to tell the story of Lyd and its erasure and history of dispossession is also to tell the speculative story of what if the Nakba hadn’t have happened. They follow this speculative story also of Lyd moving forward in time with Palestinians and Jews living there in a very different framing. So they do this side-by-side and they call it a sci-fi documentary. Lidia’s question for you fittingly is also about time. So here’s a question for you from Lidia Yuknavitch. 

Lidia Yuknavitch: Hello, Lance Olsen. I love you and respect you forever. My question is one thing I delighted in reading your book was that you sometimes break down time into micro-movements and micro-intensities while other times, drawing narrative time out through the longevity of a person’s life and what happens to their body, and the kind of expansion of time that seems like it will never end, so I wonder if you could talk about those conflations and expansions, and putting them next to each other narratively on the page that gives people like me such delight since I don’t believe in linear time. Did I mention I love you?

LO: [laughs] Oh, Lidia, I adore you. Well, okay, we have to do backstory here. Lidia and I in many, many ways grew up neurologically speaking together in the early 90s or so. We first met in San Diego. I was down there reading, she was teaching at SDSU at the time and you know how when you first meet somebody, and you just sort of, “Oh, we have known each other forever,” it was like that and we became involved in really working to push fiction in ways that we hadn’t seen it go before we became involved in FC2 together. I feel like I was talking about Melanie as a sister I never had and Lidia, you’re the other sister I never had, only you grew up to be a superhero, which is extraordinary. I miss you and I can’t believe that we haven’t seen each other, and had a Scotch and many, many a moon. Time, time, time, this goes back in, and certainly, as it rhymes with the question about how we experience consciousness, time is a product of consciousness and we experience time radically differently depending on where we are, what we’re doing, how old we are. As I become the opposite of young, I’m stunned at how fast time has gone. My mom was dying of cancer and we were sitting in the living room one night toward the end, and she just looked up, it was raining outside, and she said, “I just can’t believe how fast it all went.” I just thought, “Oh, my God, yeah, absolutely. From that perspective, it’s a blink.” Yet, when you’re Edie Metzger and you’ve only lived a couple of years, and so every second feels new, vibrant, different, and amazing, those are both human consciousness. It’s incredible to me. What I’ve done for the last 25, 30 years in my work is to really try to explore experienced temporality in all of its multifarious ways, but also to talk about how we’re all inscribed in a larger historical time that many of us would prefer not to think too hard about. [laughs] I adored my students and we could talk about this forever. My undergraduates are the most wonderful beings in the world. I still stay in touch with undergrads. I did a reading, as I say, in Seattle a couple of weeks ago and had two people step out of the crowd who had been my undergrads almost 40 years ago just speaking of time, and weirdly, they look the same. They have the same inflections and were totally different people. That’s a stunning thing. But anyway, so my undergraduates though, they’re just so sweet. When everything’s working in the classroom, everything’s firing, it’s the most amazing thing ever. But they still haven’t—and this is my job for the semester—fully understood themselves as inscribed in a certain time, at a certain place, being buffeted by historical realities. They still have this idea that you can step out of your historical reality and that I don’t have to care about politics because I’m apolitical. I don’t have to think about what happened 40 years ago because that doesn’t really have a lot to do with me let alone 2,000 years ago or, in the Odyssey or something like that. Reading John [inaudible] is so old because that book came out like six years ago. I was 13 when that came out. So part of my game is to try to help them feel that they are actually part of larger historical brushstrokes and very much manipulated by the time that they’re in, so much so that they can believe that there are things like being apolitical, outside of time, or outside of their socio-historical realities. So I think for me, that has been, I mean, Lidia put her finger on, that has been one of the things that has fascinated me over the years. I think it fascinates all of us the longer you live is how time flies at us and so many different registers and keys. Yet I remember reading Stephen Hawking about the nature of time and wanting to believe he was going to say time was reversible on some human scale. Really what he kept chanting over and over again is on human scale, time isn’t reversible, time’s arrow only goes one way on human scale, and larger scales we might talk in different ways but scant comfort for the schlumps like us who are going to die, going to die, going to die. So this spins off of of Lidia’s work, maybe detours from it a little bit but I know Lidia and I also have spoken about this, have thought about this, and have written about it a whole bunch about, how to say this, death being the one constant one can’t deconstruct that when you’re three years old and you’re a Nazi rally, that is just unfathomable, that just isn’t a word, that’s a meaningless noun. As one grows older and as Pynchon said, you begin to feel entropy from the inside out, time means something very different and you can feel time growing in you and you can feel time undoing you. You can feel how you can step out of time and find timeless moments and yet still be a part of time’s arrow because you can’t think otherwise. You can’t be otherwise. Your cells won’t be otherwise. This fascinates me. I could talk forever about this, but anyway, that is how I will wrap up right now, except to say, Lidia, have I mentioned that I adore you?

DN: [Laughs] Well, you did mention, when you were answering the question for Melanie, miracles, and I wanted to return to it because it’s something that you return to over and over again in Absolute Away, this question or notion of miracles. Very early on in the book, in its first pages, we get the mathematical notion called Littlewood’s Law, something proposed 50 years after the setting of the book that suggests that statistically speaking, we should expect that one in a million incidents would happen to us at a rate of about one per month. We also get a weeping Jesus statue in India, a miracle that is later discovered turns out to be from a broken sewer line. We also get the AMEN protocol, which was developed after a study that showed that 57% of people surveyed believed God would save a family or even after the physicians said conclusively that no further treatments were available. So John Hopkins, in their terminal cancer program created this protocol to maintain trust with these patients, affirming their aspirations, sharing the aspirations with their loved ones, educating them on the medical issues, and then staying the course until they discover for themselves, that they won’t be saved. You cite an inscription on a 2,000-year-old Roman tombstone: “There is no boat in Hades, no ferryman Charon, No caretaker Aiakos, no dog Cerberus. All we who are dead below have become bones and ashes, but nothing else.” All of this feels decidedly secular, sober-eyed, and materialist. Yet the physics that you embrace feels, for lack of a better word, magical or mystical, even if it is also true. In Shrapnel, you quote Lidia Yuknavitch’s protagonist in her novel Thrust as saying, “Stories are quantum,” and you yourself say serious stories of the now are the antithesis of Newtonian. Thinking of what quantum physics tells us, which I think is contrary to the way we generally move through our lives, it made me think of something the filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard said that I love about the two founding icons of cinema. On the one hand, you have the Lumière brothers who are generally thought of as the realists and the documentarians. On the other, you have Georges Méliès, who’s always characterized as the fantasist. The Lumière brothers are the ones who created the iconic film of the train moving toward the screen that caused everyone in the audience to lurch and scream in the theater. It looks like a straight-ahead documentary film. Whereas Méliès did these iconic fantasy films such as A Trip to the Moon, but also shorts that were like magic shows using techniques to trick the eye through editing and otherwise. But Godard inverts the framing of them, calling the Lumière brothers the fabulists, because they fool us into thinking the representation of the train is a train, that what we are seeing is real, whereas Méliès is the true documentarian, not only getting to a deeper truth through artifice but also through the artifice itself not being hidden but shown. I don’t know if this applies to what you’re doing with miracles but I wanted to return to it because of your return to it. It feels almost like a rock in your shoe or an irritation perhaps that we humans need to look for and find a weeping statue when so much is really unbelievably wondrous and what we can actually prove. But talk to us what this worrying of the notion of miracles, why that becomes a part of the story of Absolute Away.

LO: In my mind, that takes us actually back to Derrida and a kind of Derridean move. One of the things that Derrida brought to philosophy or to, let’s call it thinking, that at least Western thought, but I would actually say probably most thought made a deep mistake about is the notion of thinking in either-ors. I mean, certainly, Judeo-Christian thought is so heavily based in either-ors. Either you’re saved or you’re not. Either you’re a good person or you’re not. Either there are miracles or there aren’t. Either you believe or you don’t. What Derrida introduced in a very wrenching way was the idea that that was a mistake in an approach to experience and that indeed everything is both-and if you look at it closely enough. This goes back to Derrida’s notion of the trace, that one can’t actually use a word in an either-or construction that doesn’t always already carry its opposite within it. So am I a good person or a bad person? Yes. Will I be saved and will I not? Absolutely. This goes back to somebody before Derrida that Derrida was also touching on is Wittgenstein. A lot of this comes down to language problems of how we designate things rather than how they are experienced. Both of those points take us back to Nietzsche’s notion of perspectivism, the idea that one of the fallacies of the history of philosophy, okay, quick history of philosophy. Nietzsche’s thought in philosophy was that Heraclitus got it right, the Presocratics got it right. Interestingly enough, the Buddhists who rhyme in so many ways with Heraclitus got it right. Then there was this 2000 year mistake that was introduced by Plato called Platonic philosophy and Aristotle called Aristotelian philosophy and Nietzsche was going to correct it because he had no ego. [laughter] That notion of correcting it went to this idea of the problem isn’t the problem, the problem is the perspective one takes on the problem. If you tease that out and nuance it, you get to somebody like Derrida who said, “Let’s talk about the miraculous for a second.” Is the miraculous a problem with language? Because miraculous has such a Christian backbeat to it and so basically to say the word miracle is to fall into a whole 2000-year history of how to see things in indoctrination. Or do we simply reinvent a kind of language for those moments? And we get away from words like wonder and we get away from words like miracle and we get toward the experienced moment. We fall back on these incredibly over-determined words to express a moment that we’ve lived that needn’t actually have been that thing if that makes any sense. What Nietzsche always advocated and what somebody like Derrida would advocate is to step away from that, think of the problematization that’s housed in the noun, and then to move into other ways of thinking about that. For me, yes. The little pebble in my shoe about the notion of miracle is—and I think this is true for most of us, for a lot of us, I have no idea what anybody else thinks about the world. It occurs to me halfway through that sentence—but anyway, that I certainly have experienced moments that were—I’m going to get away from Christian terms—just incredible, that stood outside of my lived experience, that awoke me in the midst of my dreaming, as I said earlier, that made me feel more alive. Sometimes those moments actually involved death. I was talking about my mom. I was with my mom when she died. I was in the room. I was holding her hand. I never felt more alive. I would never call that a miracle. It was horrible. She was dying in pain. There was nothing miraculous about it. But I felt more alive to be there, more attached, more connected, more everything. But simultaneously, we’ve all experienced moments in our life that are utterly divorced from those things and utterly practical. Try to balance your checkbook believing in miracles, and the IRS will come get you. I think it’s that sense of being able to be fully human. I always think of being human as this really complicated chord pattern. It’s not a seventh. It’s like it’s a dissonant chord. All the notes in that chord are made up of different aspects of what it is to be fully human. Part of that is to live in that space where we have to take a bathroom break literally in the middle of talking about miracles and time not existing. [laughter] That’s so beautiful for me.

DN: That’s great. I want to return to form because I think about the cover of Shrapnel as this image of a knee joint that is busting apart. As we arrive at part two of the book, we not only leap to a different era and time, now with Edith Metzger in the car on the fateful day that a very drunk Jackson Pollock gets behind the wheel, but the form begins to bust apart further. In this middle section, while still modular with white space between sections, there are no titles. Each section is often a phrase or a half-heard exclamation or interjection with each line bookended by em-dashes rather than standard punctuation. There’s a sense of interruption, but also of a hurdling forward and a cascading down the page. When we get to part three, I think back to part one with the burning of the queer and transgender research, research conducted by and archived by queer Jews. Part three in a way, as I think you alluded to at the very beginning of our conversation, is an enactment of transness, not just across gender, but across time, identity, and form. Part two ends with the car crash and the lines: “What’s left of the way I was lying at queer angles beneath the inflexibility of the world.” Part three sort of says, “Screw the inflexibility of the world,” and imagines a million otherwises for Edith. I don’t know if it’s the most speculative of the section or the most real, a true enactment of the notion of multiverses or of multiple worlds in quantum physics. But it opens with Edith Metzger, not as Edith, but Edie, and later as Edda, and also as a Viking on a longboat a thousand years ago named [Edweard]. I thought of the section in Shrapnel exploring what you call “anthropology” and how for you, the spiral is the ubiquitous structure, megalithic art in Ireland, petroglyphs in Arizona, fingerprints, hurricanes, shells, draining water, and also, of course, the land art by Robert Smithson called the Spiral Jetty. That’s an inspiration for one of your books. But how do you view the third act of your three-act structure for this book formally? How do you view this post-death section or this section that happens instead of death or despite death or alongside death?

LO: So let me quick go back to the Pollock section because it actually takes us back and completes a circle that we began with me reading the Pollock biographies. Why was I reading the Pollock biographies? So I was in MOMA, and you know how many times we’ve all been witnessed to a Pollock painting or any other painting and sometimes they are speaking to you and sometimes they are not speaking to you. I was in front of one and it was the first time in my life that I actually felt the painting as opposed to talk about it or intellectualize it or go, “Oh, that’s really enlivening,” or whatever but like truly was there. I totally saw Pollock in a way I hadn’t seen before, I therefore had to fall into Pollock for a while. The form of the second chapter or second movement, whatever you want to call it, was actually the answer to the question: What would an abstract expressionist page look like? Also, Pollock got to his abstract expressionism by asking himself the question, “What would jazz on a canvas look like?” So I wanted it to have jazz elements to it. You know how in jazz, you’ll set up a riff up front and then you begin to play with that riff and take it in different ways and create different kinds of harmonics and dissonances and almost go to the edge of complete chaos and then pull back again. I wanted the page to do that because Jackson Pollock wanted his canvases to do that. That’s relentless falling forward that you were talking about in the second section of choruses, the car hurdling at the same time. That’s completely alive and also a moment of death happening in that chapter. The whole chapter probably takes place in the course of under a half hour and the last few beats of it actually are probably seconds long but last pages. I wanted to completely reinvent narrative as we moved into, I love your idea of a post-death, a post-reality, or a deep reality, and a movement into Minkowski’s world of proliferation of possibility. One of the things that breaks my heart about the novel, and this is something that’s really important to me about experimentation, there’s a kind of cerebral experimentation which I very much respect and I very much cherish, but it has no blood in it and I really gravitate toward narratives that both exploded all the ways we’ve been talking about and is shot through with human loss, human joy, and human just blood. One of the things that we haven’t talked about in the novel is how much I responded in just incredibly human terms to hearing Edie’s story that here’s this little girl and she survives the Holocaust only to die in the backseat of some drunken lout’s car that she didn’t want to be in in the first place and then to imagine all of the possible lives that she could have been, all the possible Edie’s, all the richnesses that exist within that noun, was something that actually broke my heart repeatedly as I wrote the novel. This takes us to, in certain ways, the politics of the novel, beyond the politics of the novel, at how a human life, we’re looking at the war now in Gaza and we’re thinking of numbers and think of all the possibilities that go away every day there. It’s amazing. That went away on October 7th. I think that was something that haunted me in the deepest possible way as I moved into the third section. There’s a kind of cerebral dynamic that’s playing in the third section for sure and has to do with a lot of the things we’ve already spoken about, but there’s also an existential dynamics that takes me into the realm, I want to say, of the horror novel in some strange way. Not the monster in the basement kind of horror novel, but the real horror, and the real horror I think in our lives is a kind of anti-foundational, ontological, and epistemological uncertainty that stems from some kind of deep, intractable unreadability, and if we allow ourselves to be honest with ourselves, a kind of perpetual existential hovering, which takes us back to the idea of speculative fiction in the sense of fiction that makes us speculate and leaves us in the lurch. I mean, life leaves us in the lurch. Only we can provide the narratives that create a sense of closure and a sense of completion, but life does something else to us, which puts me in mind of Joseph Cornell, another wonderful artist was once asked what his art was about and instead of answering, he wrote a formula on a piece of paper and the formula just read “collage=reality.” It’s not only a collage and form—every form suggests a philosophy—but it’s a collage of all those notes I was talking about in the chord of being fully human, or the shrapnel that keeps flying at us in bright splinters, and we will shape it, that’s because we’re pattern-recognition machines, but that doesn’t stop us from not being able to control it. That strikes me as as a horror upon horror, as well as an incredibly wonderful adventure.

DN: Well, I would love to spend the rest of our time together with the meditations in both of these new books of yours on questions of home and questions of death, which feel related to me. Starting with questions of home, here’s a quote from Absolute Away: “If you add up how much space the Odyssey dedicates to its protagonist on Ithaca versus how much it dedicates to charting his aimless wandering across the Mediterranean, the book’s deep argument comes into focus. The fundamental human condition isn’t one of being at home at all, but rather one of not being at home. The only real form of voyage is that into unpredictability and risk,” which is another way of saying in the living. You echo this sentiment in Shrapnel in the interview with Andrea Scrima, where you bring up Wayne Koestenbaum’s notion of “hoteling” as an existential condition. You say, “We hotel when we enter a state of physically not-being-at-home that allows us to read, think, become curious, pay attention.” Both of these make me think of Joanna Ruocco’s blurb for your book Skin Elegies where she says, “To read Skin Elegies is to ping between verbal asterisms generated by de-selving selves, to become, in the process, de-selved yourself. What is a mind without the brain to house it?” Part three is replete with travel as chapters, as you’ve already mentioned, travel as migration, travel as drowning, travel as reading, travel as metempsychosis apparatus. I thought it was important we spend a moment with you as an artmaker around this notion of the importance of being unhoused in a way or perpetually hoteled or traveling away from home and maybe even away from self.

LO: That’s wonderful, which not to beat a dead horse, takes us back to Derrida, but that notion we started with of exile as well as actually the fundamental human condition, what we want the fundamental human condition to be is one of home. But of course, we don’t experience that way. I mean, of course, the world doesn’t exist as a series warm and loving the homes, the world exists as a perpetual state of travel, which is incredible. Again, why do we fight that urge? Let me go back a little bit and just fill in a little bit about what you said because it really was a life-changing moment for me. I used to teach a course on modernism as well as other stuff. But the course on modernism was an undergraduate course, and we read Ulysses in it, but we always started with what I consider the first modernist text, which was actually the Odyssey. That is to say, modernism wouldn’t have existed I think in so many aesthetic ways without the Odyssey. Think of things like Faulkner’s As They Lay Dying, which is the story of a long Odyssey. Think of Virginia Woolf and Mrs Dalloway, which is an Odyssey through the city in one day. Think of Joyce creating a sort of warped vision of the Odyssey, but even in texts like Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons, every sentence actually becomes an Odyssey, both for the reader and for the writer where she uses this paragrammar to suggest that we have some kind of home that we’re in. But every sentence in her belies that. Every sentence in Tender Buttons sends us adrift so that we always know less at the end of the sentence than we thought we did at the beginning of the sentence. I was teaching the Odyssey and over and over again, I was doing it for probably decades, and suddenly one day I realized, because everybody talks about Odysseus going home at the end, and there being some kind of what I now come to think of as a Christian eschatology of settling, of redemption, of finding himself or really being home, I was like, “Wait a second, that’s not actually what happens at the end of the Odyssey.” What actually happens is he comes home and is completely unrecognized. The place is swarming with people, the suitors who he’s never seen. His wife has no clue who he is. Why? Because at a very deep existential level, he’s not the same person. He doesn’t look the same. His cellular structure isn’t the same. His thoughts aren’t the same. His beliefs aren’t the same, he’s not the same person. He is literally hoteling in his body. Then there is a last chapter or a last book, which nobody talks about in the Odyssey, he doesn’t stay at home. They always wrap it up that he goes to sleep with Penelope and they lived happily ever after. As I always say in my lectures, people always live happily ever after until they don’t. [laughter] Then they have to go out and he has to actually do battle with the offspring of the suitors in a war. So indeed, the last we see of Odysseus is leaving home again, not staying in the home that wasn’t home. That to me, personally, was just a profound insight at the very beginnings of Western culture, the recognition that home is a kind of illusion. In Freudian terms, you leave the home of the womb and it’s all exile, man. You get exiled from the womb and the rest of your life. Then I think there are all sorts of homes we’re continuously leaving. We’re leaving homes of what we might want to think of as what was once upon a time thought of as normative gender or that once upon a time, back to Lukács, was thought of as categorical thinking, which was somehow implied to be true thinking, logical thinking, reasonable thinking. I think those things are just acts of trying to get home and build a house where a house never existed. What I wanted to do was to create a novel and something like “Absolute Away” and “Always Crashing,” whose subtitle is after David Bowie, in both senses of the word, it comes after he has died, but it’s also in pursuit of the home we once thought of as David Bowie that can’t actually ever be reached. In Absolute Away, to create a space where the reader is never at home, and that I certainly was never at home. I literally in the last section let it grow organically in a way that I was never quite sure where I was going. I was always a little bit lost. That gave me the greatest pleasure of fully experiencing, on a day-to-day basis, I always think of writing as a space of contemplation and to go into the space of contemplation where I was truly lost was a tremendously enriching experience.

DN: It feels like the perfect time to hear a little bit of the many Derrida sections. I was hoping we could hear a little medley of a handful of them. Perhaps Travel as Anti-teleological Activity, Jackie/Jacques, and then one of the many Dispatches from the Drift on page 133.

LO: Okay, perfect.

[Lance Olsen reads from Absolute Away]

DN: We’ve been listening to Lance Olsen read from Absolute Away. This notion that Derrida doesn’t feel at home in any other language but French, but French isn’t his, that French itself was imposed upon him, it makes me think of Paul Celan’s vexed relationship with German too, and Derrida saying in an interview, “Celan’s language is itself a hand-to-hand combat with the German language which he deforms, transforms, that he himself attacks, cuts into. He takes it out of the body of the German language. In my own modest way I do the same thing with French. It is a battle not only between two languages, but between two languages that are themselves in an internal war. There is ‘internal’ combat in every national language, every time there is writing.” Or when I was talking to Solmaz Sharif about her collection Customs, which in some respects is about addressing the metropole from the colony, I brought up Edward Said’s describing himself in one interview in an Israeli paper as the last Jewish intellectual and me wondering if he meant this in regards to one’s relationship to the metropole, that when one syncs up identity with nationhood and nationhood with language, wondering what damage that does to the intellectual life of a person who sees no daylight between these things. I wanted to tie that back to the book burning from part one and Goebbels’ desire to have it at night so as to harken to a mythic memory of an ancient Nordic past. Talking about the David Bowie book, you say, “Identity–which, from a certain perspective, is to say the past–is nothing if not an anxious, distressed space.” In the Andrea Scrima interview, you say, “Grim populism is a clear fear-response to the deep-seated feeling that we are all, in some sense, becoming perpetual migrants.” In that same interview, you say, “The older I get, the more I realize I’ve been mourning all along for an America that never was.” All of this reminds me of the work of Svetlana Boym, the author of, among many other things, The Future of Nostalgia. Here are a couple of things that she said, “Álgos (longing) is what we share, yet nóstos (the return home) is what divides us. It is the promise to rebuild the ideal home that lies at the core of many powerful ideologies of today, tempting us to relinquish critical thinking for emotional bonding.” And, “The danger of nostalgia is that it tends to confuse the actual home with an imaginary one. In extreme cases, it can create a phantom homeland, for the sake of which one is ready to die or kill. Unelected nostalgia breeds monsters.” In a way, this feels like it touches upon the politics of your aesthetics, but I wonder if this is how you yourself would see it.

LO: Absolutely. I think that hits to the core of my sense of so much of what we’ve been talking about, I mean, it’s reframing it in a slightly different key, in the key of nostalgia, but nostalgia is an incredibly dangerous thing. That’s a concept that has shot through the American landscape. Back to my dear students, I’m talking about undergraduates. My graduates were a different kettle of fish, but my undergraduates had bought into, for instance, the nostalgia of the 1950s as being a quiet, beautiful, serene place that their grandparents talked about. It’s like, “Dude, we really have to talk a little bit about what was going on in the 1950s.” [laughter] But that is America to a tee and Trump, Make America Great Again, and nostalgia, and Hitler, with this idea of creating a rife that looks back to something that never actually existed except as a myth. Of course, questions of the miraculous are just nostalgia for a future that never exists, an afterlife. I’d like to see the evidence lined up on that and what that evidence would ultimately point to is a nostalgia for a future that doesn’t exist, that has no evidence for it. That’s part of that human search for home. We’re exiled from a home and we spend the rest of our lives going back to it. It’s that crazy romanticization we were talking about of childhood that somehow childhood is this incredibly weird space. And we then, since we’ve lost that, try to find the home at the end of our life or post-life. I think all of that speaks to not only America, but certainly America, I think we talked about this last time, one of the things that makes me so happy in German culture is the idea of them having made a project after World War II of coming to terms with their past, how you create sculptures to something that can’t be represented, how you write about a time in history where your country went mad in a way that doesn’t suggest that it was because they were German somehow, because it couldn’t happen anywhere else. Indeed, it’s just the opposite of that. Now we’re seeing that happen in our country. I find that a really interesting way to do that. Nostalgia also, this takes us back to a theme you brought up and we just touched on, which is the prevalence, the infusion, the cellular awareness of death that we get, this idea that we’ll do anything to believe that we won’t stop. I think that’s obviously where Absolute Away, without giving away too much, goes, that idea that we have this tremendous desire to tell ourselves stories that there’ll be a happy ending too, which are nostalgic stories. As I say, all endings are happy until they’re not. That’s a beautiful way of saying it, both at a cultural level and at an individual level, that resonates deeply with me.

DN: Well, as we’re coming to an end and we’re talking about endings, you explicitly connect questions of home to the theme of miracles in the book when you say the desire for miracles is another way of asking, “Can I please go home?” But I wanted to take these notions of leaving home or even traveling away from self and away from belonging to questions of death because this is definitely a death-haunted book, not just because of Nazi Germany and the car crash that kills Edith, but most of the children’s games in part one are death-haunted. Melanie’s reading of picking up their own bones, a game where kids imagine the deaths of their parents, but also the cockroach game is a game of alienation that culminates as well in isolation and then ultimately in death. This isn’t a preoccupation only of this book. The epigraph in Skin Elegies by W. S. Merwin “Tell me what you see vanishing and I will tell you who you are” feels connected. Your meditation on Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty Land Art 2 where you say, “From the moment it is completed it is undoing itself.” But perhaps the most moving one for me is the Shrapnel chapter called Lessness, which integrates accounts of people in your own circle who are dying and in what ways, alongside famous suicides. In this section, you quote Nietzsche as saying, “The living being is only a species of the dead, and a very rare species,” and where you yourself say, “That which separates us from the world, our sphincterial control, our skin, our biological deep sea suit gradually goes away, we are always becoming something other than we are, something other than we want to be. Like it or not, we are always traveling away from ourselves.” Which makes me think of what you’ve already referred to, Termite art, the notion of moving forward by eating into our own boundaries which makes me wonder about your attraction to the form of an exploded knee joint, let’s say on the cover of Shrapnel, but not just there, if it’s really a way to write alongside death or to have a practice of writing that is porous to death or porous to what we will be when we aren’t this.

LO: I think I want to go to two different places. One of them is Pynchon, very, very young, I read his introduction to Slow Learner stories and there was a line that really stuck out to me that said, “Serious fiction only begins when it has a serious attitude toward death in it.” I realized at my very, very tender age of whatever it was, probably my late teens, early 20s, that I really didn’t have that. I had pretend relationships to death, but when you’re in your early 20s, you indeed at the deepest level feel you’re still immortal. If I track back over my fiction, I really do see it becoming more what I always wanted it to be at the moment that death entered into it, Lessness, that essay that you refer to, also I think late 90’s, very early 2000’s, a kind of haunting by death entered into it, but I also want to go a different place with that and that’s back to the both-and rather than either-or. I think a lot of us are dead much more than we’re alive anyway and I also want to go to a quote by Wallace Stevens which I think pulls a lot of what I think about together which is “Death is the mother of beauty.” I don’t want to go to a place of nostalgia in the future and I don’t want to go to a place of nostalgia in the past, I really want to be in a space that is aware of ending continuously. Anybody who hits a certain age every morning getting out of bed is reminded of that. To relish in that experience, one of the things that I admired so much about David Bowie at the end, David Bowie went through this weird phase in the late 80s of making a lot of money, with Let’s Dance and all that. Then he went into this really even weirder phase in the 90s with Tin Machine where it really wasn’t very interesting music and all of that. He was just trying this and trying that just to come back. Then in the early 2000s when he actually began to suffer the first of his six heart attacks and the cancer set in and all of that, his music flourished. The Next Day came out, that album was just fantastic, which has this incredibly haunting song called “Where Are We Now?” where nobody in his 20s, 30s, or 40s has a voice to sing that song. That’s a voice that has an awareness of where it’s been, how it’s been beaten, how it is so frail at times, and so, so magnificent at times. It’s just an incredible song. Then Blackstar, which a lot of people aren’t aware of, is actually radiologist slang for in a mammogram, there’s a certain kind of cancer that appears as a black star. Nobody knew this when they were working on the album or anything, but Bowie understood that he wasn’t following a star, he was aware of a black star growing in him. I gave a lecture in Bordeaux a couple of years ago about a lot of what we’ve been talking about today in one way, shape, or form, and that made it in as the first essay in Shrapnel. It was so sweet, all the graduate students who had attended, it was this conference, for the rest of the conference, referred to me as Dr. Doom, [laughter] and they were all like, “Hi, Dr. Doom, how are you doing?” What they heard in my talk was exactly what I hoped they would hear, which is that this is not pessimism, this is not what pessimism looks like, this is not what optimism looks like, this is what living looks like. For me, obviously, to talk about the death of the Great Salt Lake, which is predicted to happen within the next five, seven years, it’s already lost 800 square miles of itself and has about 900 more to go, there’s already arsenic in the air, there’s already other heavy metals in the air, or to talk about my mom’s death, which is always a little easier because it’s death that’s outside of us, or the death that’s housed within all of us and how that becomes a little bit more prevalent, and if we’re lucky, a little bit more prevalent and a little bit more prevalent over time, that doesn’t strike me as a negative, that strikes me as a really beautiful thing. It goes back to Smithson and his notion of anthropology, which is the study of things winding down. He talks about how civilizations will always wind down. There’s only one way for civilizations to ultimately go. People will ultimately wind down. There’s only one way for that to go. But for goodness’ sakes, why do we ever think of that as a negative? Why do we ever think of that as anything except part of this anti-teleological narrative that we’re a part of? It’s one damn thing after another and then there isn’t. That’s not an ending. That’s just called living until it’s not.

DN: Well, I think that’s a great place to bring us, if not home, to a resting place for today. [laughter] I know you have another book, if not several more on the pipeline, not just because of your track record to date, but because you’ve done a reading from a forthcoming book for the bonus audio. But do you want to say anything about either what we can expect from you next or what boundaries of writing you’re interested in pressing against or termiting your way through?

LO: Actually, both answers are the same. I’m working now on a novel about Henry Darger, who’s the so-called outsider artist who wrote over 30,000 pages of novels that were never published, never even found until he was well along on his deathbed, but also painted these really breathtaking painted collage put together, built, painting-like things, scrolls that were almost like medieval scrolls that were scenes of children being tortured, of this kind of beautiful land, these hermaphroditic children called the Vivian Girls in this strange and beautiful land that also was deadly. A lot of the themes actually that he was exploring, and my goodness, a child who was anything but a romantic frolic for him, resonate a lot with what I’m up to. So I’ve been looking for ways of combining image and text that take me in new directions. I’ve also been really interested in something that Darger became, well, was, I mean, embodied, is the idea of writing not being about something that needs to be public. That that isn’t why we do this stuff. There’s always the question that an artist needs to ask oneself at some point in life, is “If I weren’t being praised for what I was doing, if I weren’t being acknowledged for what I was doing, would I still do it?” I think early in my teens and 20s, I say, “Hell no.” Whether I admitted or not at the time, I’m doing it because I want to be loved. I’m doing it because I want to have attention paid to me. I’m probably doing it because I’m an introvert in some kind of really broken way, and that my art is a way to become an extrovert without me having to be present, all of those kinds of things. Then as I say, maybe about 20 years ago, 30 years ago, I really took a different turn. Because of this stuff I was writing, it was going to make a million bucks, it was going to gain a lot of attention, and was that okay? I was like, “Hell yeah.” Actually, that’s why I do this stuff. That’s how that idea of contemplation developed for me, that some people meditate in the morning and some people read philosophy and some people go out for beautiful walks and I sit for three, four hours every morning and look at a page and think and feel on it and it makes me end the morning feeling again more awake to the world in all of its contradictions, complexities, desires, longings, and all of those things, that’s why I really do this stuff. I can imagine this novel I’m working on about Henry Darger, right now it’s called An Inventory of Benevolent Butterflies, which is riffing off of a title that he gave one of his paintings, would be totally not something that publishers would be interested in. And it’s like, “Is that okay?” It’s like, “Yeah, that really is okay.” Because then I’ve hoteled in a really productive way.

DN: Well, thank you for coming back on the show, Lance. It was so great.

LO: Oh, man, thank you so much. I appreciate this so much. You really do bring out the best in the people you interview and how you interview. So I just can’t thank you enough for both your own writing and also your both thinking into writing in the most beautifully nuanced, rich, and what would you call sort of emotionally illuminating ways.

DN: Thank you, Lance. We’ve been talking today to Lance Olsen, the author of both Absolute Away and Shrapnel. You’ve been listening to Between the Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host. Today’s program was recorded at the volunteer-powered, non-commercial, listener-sponsored, full-strength, makeshift home office of me, David Naimon. You can find more of Lance Olsen at For the bonus audio, Lance contributes an extended reading from his future novel, An Inventory of Benevolent Butterflies about the life and work of Henry Darger. This joins bonus audio from everyone from Melanie Rae Thon to Lidia Yuknavitch. The bonus audio is only one possible thing to choose from when you join the Between the Covers Community as a listener-supporter. Every supporter can join our brainstorm of future guests, and every listener-supporter receives the supplementary resources with each conversation. Additionally, there are a variety of other potential gifts and rewards, including the bonus audio archive, but also the Tin House Early Readership Subscription, getting 12 books over the course of the year months before they’re available to the general public, to a bundle of books selected by me and sent to you. You can find out more at Or if you prefer a one-time donation, you can do so via PayPal at I’d like to thank the Tin House team: Elizabeth Demeo and Alyssa Ogie in the Book Division, Beth Steidle in the Art Department, Becky Kraemer in Publicity, and Lance Cleland, the Director of the summer and winter Tin House Writers Workshops. Finally, I’d like to thank past Between the Covers guest, poet, musician, composer, performer, and much more, Alicia Jo Rabins, for making the intro and outro for the show. You can find out more about her work, her writing, her music, her film at