Go Forth: An Interview with Lance Olsen

by Robert Lopez
February 10th, 2020

Lance Olsen is as innovative as he his prolific and an irreplaceable figure in avant-garde fiction. The author of over twenty books of and about experimental fiction, My Red Heaven, a novel published by Dzanc Books, is his latest. Set on a single day in Berlin, Germany in 1927, it follows a diverse troupe of writers and artists as they move about a promising and fruitful present, look back into a troubling past, and hints toward an horrific future for Germany and the world. Told in vignettes that are formally daring, yet always musical and accessible, this is a powerful book in every respect and an important one for readers here in this country in 2020. 

—Robert Lopez

THE BELIEVER: I know you’ve spent a lot of time in Germany, what’s your relationship to Germany and how has it influenced your fiction?

LANCE OLSEN: I fell in love with German literature in high school through Kafka’s uncanny crystalline perfections. In college, I began taking German language and literature courses and saw my interest expand, myself drawn increasingly to the culture’s fraught history and extraordinary and extraordinarily deep, serious aesthetic-existential investigations. In 2013 I lived at the American Academy in Berlin for half a year on a fellowship, and again for a year bridging 2015 and 2016 on a fellowship from the Artists-in-Berlin Program. Since then, I’ve been spending a month or six weeks there every spring.

I hope my fiction has absorbed some of Berlin’s creative energy and some of Germanic art’s tradition of gravity mixed with mischievousness, where a good amount of unhinged reality and formal play goes without saying, from Handke to Herzog, Musil to Hannah Höch.

BLVR: Where does My Red Heaven come from?

LO: While at the American Academy, where I was working on two books unrelated to this one, I noticed I began reading about and taking notes on German history, although I didn’t really understand why. In 2015 I stumbled across German-Jewish artist Otto Freundlich’s Abstract Cubist painting called “My Red Heaven” (finished in 1933, the year Hitler became Chancellor) at the Pompidou in Paris. It immediately became connotative to me of the cultural energy of the Weimar Republic—those interwar years.

Freundlich’s painting also gestures toward a collage structure in its collection of apparently disparate forms on a surface that simultaneously unifies them and underscores their multiplicity. I wanted to see what happens when that form is translated into a narrative architectonics. Perhaps weirdly, my novels recently have tended to arrive, not in the form of a character, or scene, or theme, or image, but rather as opportunities inherent in a certain shape.

Each chapter of My Red Heaven manifests as a narraticule set in the consciousness of an historical or imagined figure living, working, and/or simply passing through the city’s remarkable intellectual and creative possibility space during a single June day in 1927. The idea became, then, to create a broad canvas called Berlin—in many ways the city is the novel’s disorienting and disoriented protagonist—that explores the resonant complexity of an historical moment: the rise of a deadly populism at the heart of a thriving center for artists, writers, musicians, and intellectuals at a time when all fences seemed down, all options open, and the future unimaginable. That’s a space, disconcertingly, that evinces many dispiriting parallels with what’s going on now in the U.S.

BLVR: This makes sense, of course, your reaction to the Freundlich’s painting and the germination of the novel. I imagine the form presented itself, as collage, immediately. Is this the case? Did you always envision the novel from multiple perspectives on a broad canvas? What do you find appealing about this sort of scope as a writer/artist?

LO: That’s right: collage presented itself as the only viable form for what I wanted to do. What I’m attracted to is how collage refuses to privilege one voice—which is to say one vision—over another. Rather, it’s a mode of juxtaposition that allows visions to clash with, converse with, harmonize with—and even turn their backs on—each other.

In this way, I think of My Red Heaven as a love song to Modernism, which used collage as one of its primary structuring principles. One thinks of Joyce’s Ulysses, say, or Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, or Eliot’s Waste Land—polyphonic works that invite the reader to pass through a succession of contradictory and ambiguous attitudes about the world, emphasizing how each is both tenable and arbitrary.

Collage also offers an author the ability to suggest a city in its myriad languages, both literal and metaphorical. That’s what I wanted to do from the get-go—talk, not only at the level of the individual, but also of the urban, the cultural, explore how we all exist in history like fish in water. The fact that each of us is a historical being is so obvious it often becomes an invisible fact. I wanted My Red Heaven to act as a 264-page reminder.

BLVR: The parallels to our current political and cultural predicament are unnerving indeed. How prevalent were your thoughts on these many parallels as you were working on the novel?

LO: Initially not very much. After the 2016 election, however, those parallels became paramount. I’ve always been interested in the Weimar years from a distance, how populism can contaminate a country so gradually, so insidiously, and yet in the end so completely through a politics of paranoia, Darwinian nationalism, and pit-bullish ignorance that most of its essentially good-hearted but unthinking citizens come to understand what’s happened only when their democracy has already become something less than democracy around them and in them.

BLVR: There is a striking urgency and immediacy in the prose throughout the novel. It’s clear much attention is given to the acoustics of each sentence. There’s so much musical repetition that it reads like a song in many places. At the same time how the work is laid out on the page visually is innovative and daring. So, this question is both about the individual sentences and the formal choices from section to section, which vary wildly. We have the newsreel transcripts, poems, a screenplay, etc. How does this happen for you? How do you work on the line and how does that relate with what you do with form?

LO: There are two things fiction can do that no other art forms can do so well. The first is deep consciousness—the ability to bring you into another human’s mind for an extended period of time: a minute, a few hours, a few weeks. The second is textured language. Poetry can do that, naturally, but it can’t sustain it over the course, say, of 300 pages. I love madly the harmonics of a good line. Every morning when I sit down to write, I back up to what I’ve written the day before and write and rewrite each line so it approximates more and more, I hope, the consciousness and melody of the character whose mind or world it’s in.

With regard to form, we’re back to My Red Heaven as a love letter to Modernism. I wanted it to slant-rhyme with Joyce’s collage novel about Dublin, with Woolf’s beautiful exploration through her narrator’s oceanic consciousness of London, and with various other modernist forms and visions in literature and the other arts, both in Germanic and, more broadly, European and American cultures.

When critics and novelists consciously engage with earlier work, as I often do in my writing, thinking with it, against it, and through it, what they produce is a way of saying thank you to that work—as well as a way of killing their parents. I would never have become the writer I am without the complexities, conflictions, and complications we call Modernism. Here I wanted to pay tribute to its aesthetic gifts, and so matched each chapter in My Red Heaven with a structure that both somehow felt right for the character upon whom it focuses and engaged with the particular author, painter, and so on who is associated with it.

BLVR: I always like the idea of a writer/book in conversation with other writers and books. Like you say… thinking with it, against it, and through it as both a thank you and a murder, if you will. I’m wondering how this might or might not come into play when it comes to your own body of your work?

LO: Well, I think of writing in 2020, not as navel-gazing monologue, nor as something simply current, but rather as a mode of conversation across time and space. So many of my novels are quite consciously attempts to talk with works that have had a profound impact on me.

My last novel, for instance, Dreamlives of Debris, is a retelling of the minotaur myth, but here we’re not talking about a monster with a man’s head and bull’s body. Instead, we’re talking about a little deformed girl—she calls herself Debris—hidden away from public view beneath Knossos by her parents. I was interested in gendering the myth, in other words, while exploring our culture’s notions of monstrosity. And my novel Anxious Pleasures is a retelling of Kafka’s Metamorphosis that fractures the original form, so, instead of being locked in Gregor Samsa’s perspective, the tale is told from the points of view of the family members and others around it.

This strikes me as a productive way to approach writing. It has evolved over the years into a question I often post to my creative-writing students: How does one write the contemporary in a way that neither simply abandons nor simply perpetuates the past?

BLVR: I’m curious about the formal constraint of placing everything within a 24-hour period and the related decision to employ the present tense. Do you enjoy writing in the present tense? What are the virtues of such and how does it differ from past tense for you? This is a question we talk about in classes all the time and I’m always one to point out the many pitfalls of present tense, so it’s always fun to hear other writers/teachers talk about it. I often refer to William H. Gass’ essay, “A Failing Grade For The Present Tense” even though I take issue with any number of assertions in this piece.

LO: The 24-hour period was a way of waving to Joyce and Woolf, primarily, and, secondarily, a way to underscore the vibrancy of Weimar culture and Berlin—all that energy contained in so few minutes.

I don’t conceive of the use of a particular tense or any other craft choice as a general category to which can be ascribed plusses and minuses. Rather, I see each as a tool that can, under the right conditions, afford the writer myriad possibilities.

Since My Red Heaven is so aware of history, which is to say temporality, I wanted a tense that drew attention to itself. The simple past is the invisible one, the tense so ubiquitous that readers don’t really even register it. The present tense, however, carries a glassy sparkle to it that draws one’s eye to presence, its sense of being present, and therefore its awareness of existing within time.

But the really unusual tense I use repeatedly in the novel is the future. A number of chapters end, not it in the novel’s present, but in its impending. I was interested again in foregrounding this problem we call time. More so, though, I was interested in warping temporality, injecting an always ironic and painful awareness of larger futures into My Red Heaven—at one point I have Kafka say: “People always live happily ever after until they don’t. Every story is also always about night.” I wanted My Red Heaven to underscore how we all exist as sometimes conscious, sometimes unconscious, yet always doomed historical beings subject, in part, to forthcoming violences we can, if we really, really put our minds to it, barely fathom.

BLVR: What’s next for you? What are you looking forward to or even dreading, particularly in light of to the forthcoming violences?

LO: I’m working on a novel that takes me as far away from Modernism and the concerns of My Red Heaven as possible. So this one, a kind of speculative literary fiction, explores and troubles mind-upload neurotechnologies, and therefore questions about the relationship of brain to mind; identity; memory; refugeeism (geographical, somatic, temporal); and where the human ends and something else will someday begin. It takes as its structure a cluster of neurons firing. I’m not quite sure what I mean by any of those things at this point. That unknowing, that befuddlement, delights me, has been waking me up every morning these past few months and seating me in front of my laptop, cup of coffee in hand.

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