Loneliness and dysfunction are constant companions for many artists.
Life in their world, a world of contemplation and creation, can be all consuming and doesn’t leave much room for other people. That’s okay — other people are soul sucking on their best days. It’s hard enough to live in the world under the best circumstances, but when you have the type of brain that compels you to distill your view into an object, or words onto a page, it can lead to some antisocial coping mechanisms.
The artists that Olivia Laing writes about in her books and essays have issues out the yin-yang. Illness, isolation, and lots of Daddy Issues are a common thread among the subjects that Laing tenderly explores in her books The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking and The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone. These books are beautiful documents that leave enough of Laing herself in them so that we are taken on little journeys with her.
Laing will be in Norfolk on Monday October 2nd 8pm at the Chandler Recital Hall at Old Dominion University as part of the 40th Annual Literary Festival. She will be discussing her work as a writer and cultural critic; the event is free and opened to the public. AltDaily corresponded with Laing about technology, her writing process and why — duh — Twitter is still cool.
AltDaily: Let’s start with the important stuff: how did you manage to get proto-goth icon Nick Cave to write a blurb for your book?
Olivia Laing : Ha, I have no idea. I suppose someone sent it to him and he liked it? It’s my policy never to be involved in the gathering of blurbs.
You seem to be a citizen of the world. Is the western world getting to be too much alike?
In that it’s increasingly right-wing, intolerant and aggressively anti-difference?
Yes, I think so. I like different places having their own characters, sure, but I’m much more concerned with the proliferation of anti-migration sentiments. I like open borders, I like diversity. Homogeneity scares me.
I find that I like to write with a pencil and notebook but I end up transferring everything to computer because I can’t spell, so I’m totally dependent on spell check. Do you write on a computer or freehand?
I totally rely on my Macbook. I do field notes/archive notes in a Moleskine (in an archive I often have to use a pencil, but I prefer pen). But in terms of actually writing books I’m completely dependent on a computer. I’d be lost without cut and paste, and I like the letters to look sharp even if the sentences aren’t quite there.
How did you pick your book subjects?
Whatever I was obsessed with at the time. But they tend to lead into each other — I think each ends with a question that couldn’t quite be resolved inside that book. So writing about water and drowning in To the River led me to think about drowning one’s sorrows and the liquid lives of alcoholic writers in The Trip to Echo Spring. And that in turn took me to loneliness, because it so often came up as the root cause of people’s alcoholism (or at least the six writers I was investigating). And The Lonely City left me with some unanswered questions about bodies, which I’m turning to now in my new book, Everybody.
I think great art often comes from growing up in desolate or super boring locations. Can you really ever be a cool artist if you’re born in an already cool place? (This question has nothing to do with the fact that I was raised in suburban Ohio—nothing at all.)
I mean, I grew up in the suburbs, so I’m on your team. But honestly, art comes from anywhere, though I think I’m personally drawn to art that has a relationship with unhappiness in some way.
The great improvisational theater guru Del Close said that a good actor wears their character like a veil so they can reveal themselves, even if just a little bit in a character. I feel like you do that in your writing. Especially impressive was your revealing that you used Craigslist to meet people. How did you decide which parts of yourself to reveal?
I’m hyper-minimal in what I say about myself, but I also try and pick the real shame-spots, the bits that actually matter. I’m present in my books because I want to make the intense personal investment that I have in the material visible to the reader. I didn’t write about alcoholics, for example, because the subject was academically or intellectually interesting, although it certainly is, but because I grew up in an alcoholic family. So I had to cop to that. It also feels fairer, when you’re revealing so much difficult biographical material about people, if you apply the same scrutiny to yourself.
It seems like all artists today have to be self promotional experts, which has got to be a first class drag. What advice can you give a writer about being self promotional without looking or feeling like an attention whore?
Tricky. I think the best advice is to remember that the literary world is very small, and that we all want it to thrive and survive, so making it a nourishing community for everyone is much more important than fighting for attention. I tend to focus more on what I can do, which for me especially means giving young queer writers support and advice. Being a good chair, a generous reviewer to new or difficult voices, a rigorous critic: I think that stuff matters, and participating in it makes life more fun and interesting too.
You write a bit about technology and its ability to both connect up and separate us. I used to love Twitter because I like the 140 character limit. Then some jerk decided it was ok to tweet a story link and some even bigger jerk decided that it was just ok to post multipart Tweets. So Twitter has been corrupted and ruined for me. What is your favorite social media platform?
Twitter, duh. I love it, both for the observational window it offers and just having a space to play with language in a way that’s half-private and half-public. Also Instagram to keep up with my friends’ cats. I’m not on Facebook, I hate everything about it.
From idea to published, how long does it take for you to write your books?
I had the idea for To the River maybe a decade before I wrote it, but these days I guess it’s a 4 year cycle: a year of mulling, a couple of years of writing and research and then the weird year where you’ve given it to your editor and have to chew your nails until it’s born into the world.
When you are in the middle of writing something, and you hate what you have discovered in your writing either the content or the context, do you trash it or carry on?
This is a really interesting question. I don’t know that I’ve ever hated what I’ve discovered – I often hate how I’ve written something, but I feel like that’s generally related to not having properly discovered what I need to know. The sense that something has been discovered is what I think I’m striving for. I suppose it might be painful or shameful, but that’s so often at the heart of my books anyway. As for trashing things, I never trash anything, I just stick it in a folder and let it mulch. I mean I literally never even delete an email. It’s all going to come in useful one day.