Pixelated is the digital, double-blind, lit-inclined conversation series.
In each episode we put two writers on a sort of blind-date, and have them interview each other. The result? Who the hell knows. All conversations are 'manuscript-first', meaning they were typed as you see them.
"Phantasmagoric sentences and scenes"
In this installment, I set up Laura van den Berg (above) with Karen Olsson (below). They discuss having the same editor, author photos, novels vs. short stories, nonfiction vs. fiction, Didion, writing every day, William Goyen, reading your own reviews & more.
Andrew: Welcome to the tenth installment of PIXELATED. I’m here with Laura van den Berg (author of FIND ME, FSG, 2015) and Karen Olsson (author of WATERLOO, Picador, 2006, and soon-to-be-released ALL THE HOUSES, FSG, 2015).
In both FIND ME and ALL THE HOUSES, we have characters fighting traction, both in the short-term (addictions to cough syrup & a sedentary lifestyle) and in the long-term (troubled pasts & crumbled patriarchies). FIND ME features Joy, a grocery store worker living a lonely, troubled existence—until an illness spreads to all corners of the country, and she’s found to be immune. She’s lifted from her life and into one that Laura paints with a confident, brilliant surreality. In ALL THE HOUSES, we have Helen, removed from her everyday by family emergency. Like Joy, Helen is made to confront the forces of her past—specifically the scandal that pulled her family apart. While Joy must seek repair from within, Helen has to come to terms with the forces of the world around her, and the people she’s bound to.
Before we get started, first things first: would you each a) kindly describe where you are and what you see, and b) confirm whether you’ve met?
Karen: I've not met Laura but we share the same editor at FSG and I just read FIND ME and was delighted by it!
Andrew: So far so good.
Karen: What I see above my desk is a slightly surreal nature illustration that has a flamingo, a couple of birds, some flowers and what I think are spores. Around me on my desk are bills and other crap. Trying to get from the desk level to the wall level but this week has been mostly desk.
Laura: And we're both team FSG! Nice to meet you, Karen, and thank you for reading FIND ME. I'm living in a house at Bard College in NY and I'm in a little room upstairs, looking at tree branches and a road. My dog, who evily ate my calendar an hour ago, is sleeping on my feet.
Karen: I would like to devote the next hour to singing the praises of our editor Emily Bell, ok with you?
Andrew: What makes a great editor?
Laura: Yes, please! I am devoted for life.
Karen: A combination of things: smarts and empathy, an ability to inhabit the book where it is and see where it can go, and trustworthiness, for starters.
Laura: Oh man. A lot of different things. I think there is something to finding the right "match," the ideal chemistry between author and editor. But also a reader who can really inhabit the ambitions of a particular project and help you make those ambitions more fully-realized.
Karen: Yes I think we're agreed on that, and I'll also vote for chemistry.
Laura: And yes to all that Karen said. Trust is huge. As is being able to communicate honestly.
Laura: Also she supports my stance on non-smiling author photos.
Laura: None of that gendered marketing crap
Andrew: There's a hashtag in there somewhere
Karen: I also love our editor's genuine enthusiasm. But Laura I think you have a great author photo....
Karen: Maybe I should've written And, not But
Laura: I like it. My husband took it when we were in Madrid. We had been walking all day and I was covered in sweat. But it was our honeymoon and I liked the idea of a happy moment being a part of the physical book.
Andrew: Does this classify as a smile? http://graphics8.nytimes.com/images/2005/10/16/books/olss184.jpg
Andrew: Or would that fall under the "happy nonsmiling" bin?
Karen: Maybe a smirk? I'm not sure what the expression is, like most authors I'm not that excited to get in front of a camera.
Laura: That's like "I am maybe thinking about smiling but no promises" + it is a very lovely photo.
Laura: Right? What are we supposed to do with our faces???
Andrew: Better than being too excited to get in front of a camera
Andrew: There is one vested author, who I will not name but who is wildly successful, who I have a hard time with, because of said vest and the gravitas it carries
Laura: A vest can be a hard sell.
Andrew: Have either of you worked with Emily Bell before?
Karen: Right on. Now I would like to sing the praises of Laura's book, unilateral though that conversation may be... I thought you did such a great job establishing Joy's past which could've just seemed melodramatic but in your deft hands was moving and set the tone for the rest of the book.
Karen: Me, no, but Laura is more prolific...
Laura: Oh hey that's really kind! Thank you. Emily was a great help (just to answer Andrew's question we also worked together on my story collection The Isle of Youth)
Karen: And having spent some time in Boston, I thought you evoked boston splendidly, without doing too much -- just the stop n shop, the T, the place names, really transported me and again it grounded me in a way that prepared me for the rest of it.
Laura: I'm super excited to read your new novel when it comes out. Can you tell me about it? How long have you been working on it? Are you glad to be done/nearly done?
Karen: Emily pressed The Isle of Youth into my hands when I first met her. I will not go on now about The Isle of Youth because I'm already veering into Laura-groupie territory.
Laura: I realize I just did that annoying thing of asking you 50 questions all at once
Karen: I've been working on All The Houses forever, it seems like, with some interruptions for childbearing and magazine work. I'm very, very glad to be almost done with it. Just proofs left.
Karen: And the author photo.
Karen: I will definitely not smile.
Karen: I started what became this book in 2006, but what I wrote in 2006 doesn't have much to do with the book now.
Karen: So it's been a while.
Laura: Oh same. I started FIND ME in 2008 but took long breaks to write ISLE and for, you know, life. But it's a very different book than the early draft.
Laura: I was so excited to be done and work on new stuff, but I also kind of miss it sometimes.
Karen: Yeah, I know...
Karen: I wondered, because you are such a good short-story writer, did you start FIND ME knowing it would be a novel, or did it start out as a story and progress?
Laura: I knew it would be a long thing because I had that 2 part structure early on and couldn't imagine that as a short story.
Laura: Also, I would have been happy to write stories forever and never get a novel idea that persisted but if I was going to write a novel I wanted to do something that really could only be a novel and not, you know, a kind of stretched out short story
Laura: Does that make any sense?
Karen: That makes sense. I admire that structure--it can be so claustrophobic when you have a whole novel in one setting... and yeah it didn't read at all like a short story-turned-novel, I just wondered because you are a story writer.
Karen: As a sometime magazine writer, I kind of hope that one day I'll get a good idea for a long nonfiction book, but they just don't come to me.
Andrew: I imagine it's better to be a great fiction writer who's curious about non-fiction, than a non-fiction writer who has sometimes struggled with fiction
Andrew: i.e. Susan Sontag and, depending on your opinion, Joan Didion
Karen: Sometimes I think I am the latter!
Laura: You know Didion's Play It as It Lays is one of my favorites of hers
Karen: I understand the criticism of Didion's novels but I actually love them -- the atmospherics of them. I have "Democracy" close to my desk right now.
Andrew: Yeah, that's definitely an opinion
Andrew: I liked Play It As It Lays
Andrew: (Not that the Sontag comment isn't also an opinion)
Laura: I am not a very good nonfiction writer, honestly. I wish I could do it better. But yes, I love the atmospherics of Didion's novels too. The mood of Play It is so dark and intense and kind of hostile to everything and I loooove it
Andrew: I think her NF has a much broader cultural appeal than her F
Karen: It's hard to get political material into novels without just making a mess of it, and I think she has a way of doing it that's better than most, even if the plots are melodramatic
Andrew: For sure—she balances politics better than most, which is surprising how hostile she can be (and impressive); agreed re: melodramatic
Laura: Absolutely. Her novels are much more tonally extreme and therefore are likely to have a narrower appeal.
Karen: For almost anybody who writes nonfiction and fiction, the nonfiction has more of an audience... unless you're Franzen or somebody like that.
Andrew: True. Though he definitely doesn't shy away from the NF.
Andrew: I heard Klostermann say he writes one NF for his publisher & one F for himself, again & again
Karen: A magazine piece I wrote in 2003 has been anthologized in some sort of freshman comp anthology, and has been read many more times than I expect my novels will ever be
Laura: Karen, did you start with NF? Or with fiction?
Karen: I had this idea that journalism was going to be my "career" and fiction a kind of hobby, I think because I was very insecure about writing fiction and very naive about what a career was...
Karen: So I did more nonfiction to start out with.
Laura: But you were writing fiction/thinking about fiction too, it sounds like?
Karen: But ultimately I had to become more committed. I was writing fiction but didn't think it would ever be published.
Karen: I had this idea, with my first book, that I was writing it for my friends.
Laura: I understand that.
Laura: Fiction feels more private.
Laura: And at the end it's sort of like hey guys here's this weird dream I had, what do you think??
Karen: Now it's pretty much all I want to do... but yes, I do right now feel as though I am emerging from a strange 9-year dream.
Laura: Oh yes! I had that feeling too, after I turned in my final edits.
Laura: And now I'm kind of addicted to it. I still think of myself as a short story writer first but am working on a new novel (+ stories) now, even though when I was writing Find Me I thought so many times my god I'll never do THIS again
Karen: How do you work on a novel and stories at the same time? Do you have a schedule or just kind of know when you wake up which thing you're wanting to work on?
Laura: There's this thing that I read once in an interview with Aimee Bender: " Write what you feel like writing each day, he said. It sounds so basic, but there’s something radical in it, and it has helped me many, many times."
Laura: I try to do that.
Laura: (here's the interview: https://www.one-story.com/index.php?page=stories&story_id=158)
Karen: I am going to read that interview!
Laura: It's not efficent but when I get bored it's usually a terrible sign. I do try and work on something nearly every day, in that way I am pretty consister, but at the same time I try and let interest lead as opposed to chaining myself to a single project
Karen: I'm more of a self-chainer I think. Even when I recognize it's time to unchain.
Karen: Though I'm not one of those get up at 4 am people. I wish.
Laura: There's a lot that's good about that, though, it seems. Like I think sometimes you really have to sit in the muck to get somewhere, especially with novels.
Laura: Listen those 4 AM people, I don't know
Laura: 6 AM I can kind of see but 4 AM is pretty much in the middle of the night
Karen: Novels do seem to me to require clocking in and clocking out, we're the drudges of the literary world
Karen: I know. I just finished reading a biography of this wonderful Texas writer William Goyen. Crazy, wonderful writer who got up at 4 am.
Karen: But it is night, I agree.
Laura: My puppy aspiries to be an early riser but I am working very hard to train him to appreciate the merits of sleeping in
Karen: With a 9-month old person in the house there is a similar struggle.
Laura: Oh yes I bet.
Karen: Anyway part of my mission this year is to get more people to read William Goyen, so Andrew and Laura, consider yourself instructed.
Laura: He is going stright into the TBR stack! I am always so happy to hear about new authors.
Laura: What do you love about his work?
Andrew: Duly noted
Karen: He writes these amazing phantasmagoric sentences and scenes, sometimes over the top, but still. I'd heard about him for years, he was from East Texas and gay (or perhaps bisexual -- he had a crazy affair with Katherine Anne Porter at Yaddo and wound up married to a woman) and melancholy and spiritual
Laura: Wow. That sounds like my ideal kind of fiction.
Laura: Also "phantasmagoric" is such an excellent word. I'm sold!
Karen: I'm not sure I'm using it correctly but I'll stand by it all the same.
Andrew: Who else do you two think should be read more?
Karen: Oh gosh.
Karen: You know, there are writers I love who are not widely read, but for some reason I don't have the same evangelical feeling about them.
Laura: Sometimes it's hard for me to really get a sense of how widely someone is read or not, as strange as that may sound. For example, I think everyone should read Joy Williams but so many people I know adore her work. Then again I'm kind of in a writer bubble in that way, maybe.
Karen: But going back to our mutual editor, she just edited a collection of stories by Lucia Berlin (forthcoming this summer I think) that seems pretty great.
Laura: I can say that I would love to see Yoko Tawada read more in the US. She's one of my favorite living writers.
Laura: Yes! I just got a copy of the Lucia Berlin.
Karen: Okay, I'm making a note of Yoko Tawada...
Laura: It's called A Manual for Cleaning Women
Laura: (The Berlin)
Andrew: For a barometer on who is how widely read, I've found myself going to Goodreads and looking up # of reviews, though I know there's like six things wrong with measuring it that way
Karen: I haven't done that on Goodreads, but I have looked up the customer reviews on Amazon for books like "Middlemarch"
Andrew: Like, The Girl on the Train already has 115k ratings
Karen: I mean, Middlemarch will never come close to The Girl on the Train for stars.
Laura: Electric Lit did this hilarious thing on 1 star reviews of classics recently: http://electricliterature.com/one-star-reviews-of-classic-novels/
Karen: Oh great, I need to read that too!
Laura: Karen, are you someone who reads reviews of your work? Or just ignore them?
Karen: I did read the reviews of Waterloo. I assume I'll do the same with this book, it seems like it'd be really hard not to. And now you have to, like, tweet them, right? Do you read reviews?
Andrew: Oh, how different the world was in 2006
Laura: I read whatever comes my way. I'm way too curious! But I do have friends who are really adverse to reading reviews of their work, so I wondered.
Karen: I admire their restraint.
Laura: I think the novetly of getting a review at all has not worn off for me.
Karen: I hear that.
Andrew: Karen, Laura—we're nearly out of time
Andrew: Last thoughts, author recs, article shares?
Karen: Geez, last thoughts.
Laura: I feel so much pressure now!
Andrew: Yeah, really make this count
Karen: Me too.
Laura: Karen, where do you live in real life? Did you say so already?
Karen: I live in Austin, TX.
Karen: Are you temporarily at Bard or is that where you live?
Laura: Austin seems like a rad place to live. I am here just for the spring and in NYC for the following year. It would be pretty cool to meet you in real time one day.
Laura: We could toast Emily!
Karen: That would be great. I look forward to it!
Andrew: Thanks you two!
Karen: Thanks, Andrew
Laura: Thank you, Andrew! Thank you, Karen!