City Weekly: Were all of these stories originally intended for this collection, or did that idea evolve later?
Lance Olsen: I woke up one morning with this idea, of how would you create a novel that felt like Russian nesting dolls. … A lot of these pieces were actually published while I was working on the novel. Some of them had actually been published before as shorter pieces, but most of them are actually published as excerpts from the novel.
CW: What makes this a novel rather than a short-story collection?
LO: Usually short-story collections are connected by some thematic concerns, but each story has very different characters, very different places and so on. What I tried to do with this is weave thematics through it, but also some of the same characters, some of the same lines throughout, so that … there’s a kind of musical structure going on. … Also, a lot of these chapters are about the need, despite the worst that can happen to us, to live as joyfully as possible. I mean, Bosch, the poor guy, he … hates life, he hates the world that he’s in, and the one thing he learns ultimately is, “Oh, I see, when you put it that way, can I have five more minutes?”
CW: Was there ever a time when the project started to feel too ambitious?
LO: It’s sort of like what I imagine the impressionists felt like: You don’t want to step back from the canvas too soon. … I write a couple of paragraphs a day, and then the next day, I start back with those paragraphs, and the result is you don’t get intimidated by the large canvas until very, very late in the process. Then you sort of step back and go, “Oh my God, this certainly has gotten very large, hasn’t it?” I didn’t get intimidated because I tried to keep myself as ignorant as possible for as long as possible about the big picture.
CW: Elements of the structure are reminiscent of James Jocye’s Ulysses. Did you have a specific inspiration in mind, whether that one or any other?
LO: I actually teach Ulysses an awful lot … and one of the things I love about Ulysses is its ability to take on lots of different forms. The idea of opening up Ulysses and seeing that he essentially started that novel again each chapter with a different kind of voice, a different kind of consciousness … was extraordinary. Once you read Ulysses, it’s like there are certain texts that … you either have to pretend you never read them, or they sort of infect you and you have to deal with them.
CW: What are the upsides and downsides of choosing to portray real, historical people?
LO: I was really interested in what fiction can do that history can’t do. … One of the great things about Hieronymus Bosch is that there’s very little historical information about him. We have a vague birthdate, we have a couple of points in his life, we have a death date. We’re not even really sure how he died. And for a fiction writer, that’s wonderful because you look at his canvases, and you think, “What kind of mind created these complex, intricate, proto-surreal sort of canvases?” Then you think, “What kind of life could account for such a mind?”
CW: This is a book that’s not “easy,” and obviously has a very select audience.
LO: There’s a writer [named] David Markson, who writes very strange, collage-like novels, and who probably has a readership, if he’s lucky, of a thousand people. He was asked one time how he would define what he does, and what innovative literature is, and he said, “Innovative writing is really the research and development arm of culture.” And I really like that. It’s just setting ourselves interesting problems and trying to move the form forward a little bit in ways that are unexpected.
Our culture … sort of re-processes a kind of narrative over and over and over again: a kind that has a beginning, a muddle and an end, and things have to end in kind of an upbeat or transformative way. We read them so many times, we take them as a kind of truth about the way the world works. With my hundred readers, I really like the idea that they’ll be engaged in other ways to read their reality.
CALENDAR OF REGRETS
By Lance Olsen
2010, University of Alabama Press