The Rumpus Interview with Isaac Oliver

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Isaac Oliver is the author of Intimacy Idiot, a debut collection of essays about dating, living, working, and being single in NYC. Interspersed throughout the book are recipes, wry poems, and subway observations, providing a deeply personal take on what it’s like to be looking for love—or a connection—in New York. Oliver’s self-deprecating, overanalyzing take on his mishaps and encounters is one that readers will inevitably be able to relate to and commiserate with.

Originally from Baltimore, he is an award-winning playwright (New York Innovative Theatre Award, Outstanding Original Short Script for “Come Here”) and performer, a MacDowell Colony Fellow, and a graduate from the Carver Center for Arts and Technology at Fordham College at Lincoln Center.

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The Rumpus: Everyone thinks being single in NYC is so easy, but it’s really hard to meet someone. You talk about Grindr and social media; do you think it actually makes it harder for people to meet other people?

Isaac Oliver: It’s funny, on the way down here, I was thinking to myself about when the 1 train goes above ground for a brief stretch at 125th, and we all, myself included, get our phones out, and I’m on Facebook, and I looked at the person next to me, and they’re on Facebook, and everyone’s on Facebook or Instagram, and we’re all seeking this social interaction, but we’re all buried in it on our phones. I think it does make it harder. The Grindr thing turns sexual interaction or sexual energy into a feature on an app or something. I did go to a Grindr wedding, so it does work! It works for some people. Yeah, I think it does make it harder. You used to have to leave your home and go to a bar. As a gay person, it’s a different era, and it’s better to be gay now, but you used to have to go to a bar to meet other gay people, and now, with these apps, we can be at home and distill it down to just sexual urges—I want this, I’m looking for this—and you find someone who will fulfill that and it makes it less complicated and less complex. It’s making it less social, I think.

Rumpus: You also mentioned OkCupid—

Oliver: I have had terrible luck on OkCupid, but I have straight female friends who clean up on OkCupid.

Rumpus: Really? Who are they meeting?

Oliver: They go to dinner three to five nights a week, and everything. “Clean up” isn’t the best term—they’re eating well, at least. But I don’t have the same luck on OkCupid. I don’t know, I haven’t really thought out what the differences might be, but there is sort of a dating construct for men and women that the gay community can either subvert or abide by, but there’s a whole new slew of young people on Grindr and SCRUFF and these apps who say they aren’t looking for sex. They’re looking for friends, or to talk, so there’s this new wave of subverting of one of the things that was celebrated by the gay community, not having to abide by the sort of courtship rituals that you could just sort of have sex and have fun, and if you clicked with someone that way, then try and develop a relationship from that. I don’t know, it’s interesting. I haven’t been actively participating in it recently, because it takes a long time to write a book, and I’ve been focused on that.

Rumpus: One of the things you talked about is that your family reads your writing. You talked about teaching your mom the phrase—

Oliver: “Come on your face?” Yeah. I didn’t directly teach it to her, but she learned it from reading the pieces.

Rumpus: That was one of the things I laughed out loud at, because I couldn’t imagine my grandmother reading something like that and being like, “what does that mean?”

9781476746661Oliver: My grandmother has not read my writing, at least I don’t think so. I don’t think she has the book. THAT would make me nervous. I had a blog for many years where a lot of the pieces sort of started, and I was an idiot and used my full name in an entry, and my dad was Googling, and found it, and they read the blog for a full year before they told me that they had found it. That was actually a quite generous act for them to do that, you know, because if they had said to me, we just found this, what is this, it would have just pulled the plug on it and ruined it for me. But by reading it for that long, it gave me permission to continue. I looked back and thought, well if they read that, then I might as well keep going. I don’t think it’s easy for them, I think things still make them uncomfortable—they don’t necessarily need to know about their son’s sex life in graphic detail, but they either skip over ad stuff or have a glass of wine and read it. Like I say in the book, there is a cost to it. There were a couple instances where they sort of tried to intervene and say, we think you might be having too much sex or your relationship to sex is unhealthy, which is a generational thing as well. I told them that I think the difference is you just know about your kid’s sex life and your friends don’t know the specifics of what their kids are doing, so in comparison, I’m the whore of Babylon. But it’s a new era and, sure, would I like to be having sex in a relationship with someone I love? Of course. But what am I supposed to do in the meantime? And it is a way of reaching out to people, for lack of a better phrase.

Rumpus: Does it ever censor your writing? How do you overcome self-consciousness?

Oliver: No, but there have been several pieces where I thought, oh God, I’m essentially telling this to my parents. When I had the blog I would write disclaimers like “Mom and Dad, you might want to skip this one. Love you. See you at Thanksgiving,” but so far I’ve been able to successfully push that voice aside, because I think deep down they know what I’m trying to do, and they wouldn’t want me to censor myself. I’m not out to be shocking, or needlessly provocative. I try to be elegantly frank, or if there’s a funny way to write about brief moments of being graphic, but I think it’s manageable.

Rumpus: The first thing that came to my mind was when you were on Skype, with the dust—

Oliver: (Laughing)—the dusty dildo.

Rumpus: Yeah, you crawled back in—

Oliver: my mom thinks that story’s funny, so—

Rumpus: You’re just reading that story, and laughing, and there’s a part of you that thinks, ‘Thank God that wasn’t me” but at the same time, you’re being graphic, but I’m not even sure that’s the right word, because it sounds really judgmental.

Oliver: Graphic is a word that has been used to describe the book in a couple of reviews, and I understand, but it does sort of have a judgmental tinge, and I don’t think they mean it. It’s more of a warning, like, we don’t want you to be shocked. But it’s funny—you’re a straight woman and I’m a gay man, and you’re recalling that story and it’s funny. In the couple years that I’ve been collecting these stories and performing them, and the stories that people mention to me are often the most graphic pieces. I’ve had women come up to me and say, “I’ve slept with a guy who had a dirty dick, too.” It’s these specific moments—that’s the word I’d use instead of graphic—the specific details that are sort of salacious or shocking, but they are portals into a moment, and I think those are what makes it for me, when I’m reading something else, for lack of a better word, transports me to that moment where I can imagine putting a dusty dildo in my mouth or swallowing soap, and the humiliation when those things happen. For me, as a reader, that makes the experience rewarding, because the writer wants to include me in that.

Rumpus: I really enjoyed how the work was interspersed with the subway observations, because when you’re on the subway, you see so many different things. What made you decide to include that?

Oliver: The subway and work stuff had been long features on the blog and were important for me to include. I wanted the book to feel like a collage, a sort of New York-paced quilt of pieces that, even thought they’re not a linear narrative, are taking you on a journey with me. And I wanted to try and capture my experience in New York, and God knows I’m not the first writer to be like, “New York is crazy!,” but these moments of listening in on people on the subway, people having affairs or breaking up, or trying to sleep together, or fighting, or Breastfeeding Awareness Week—all these sort of magical, intimate (for lack of a better word) moments. They were stories that I thought were funny or rich in some way. Same with the Box Office. I worked that job for 12 years, and I just left it. But you know, it gave me just a diamond mine of material, in what should really be a pretty simple transaction—coming to a window to by tickets for something; and people really seized those moments to interact with me. Just the fascinating stories, ones I didn’t even include, like people calling to exchange tickets after being in a car accident. The weirdness of human impulses that can be revealed. I wanted to juxtapose how liberated we can be when being with a stranger. It gives us permission to be honest in a way we couldn’t be with someone in a more formal intimate moment, like a date or interview. It’s like, I’m never going to see you again, so sure I’ll tell you this story—there are things we allow ourselves to say when we think we’re off the hook. Those darker moments in the book are where we realize, oh, we’re not really off the hook, are we? It all counts, it all matters.

Rumpus: They’re all different forms of intimacy.

Oliver: Yeah.

Rumpus: The things people say when they think someone is either below them, or owes them something.

Oliver: Exactly. I think everyone should have to do at least six months of food service or something. If you’re on a date with a person and they’re rude to the waiter, it’s like, I know everything I need to know about you. It’s so elemental. If you don’t have compassion for someone in a service position, we’re done.

Rumpus: What made you decide to write the book? Was it a natural progression from the blog?

Oliver: I’d always wanted to write a book, always always. But I didn’t know what it was going to be. As a kid, I just devoured books, and I thought about writing a novel, and I went to school for playwriting, so I took some detours. But I was always writing short stories, poems here and there, but I didn’t have ideas for any novels, per se. Then I had this blog, and was treating the blog as a side project, thinking of it as not quite creative writing. After a year of doing it, I was like, I’m having so much fun with this, and telling stories I think are funny and worthwhile, and meaningful, and maybe this could be something. Maybe what I’m looking at is a book of personal essays or humor pieces. A good friend of mine became my book agent, and we put together a proposal, and sold the book. Luckily, Scribner was the best home for it; they had no objections to any of the content, they embraced it and came up with that cover, which I’m so grateful for. I’m learning all about the book industry as I go. It’s not a world I knew anything about. I mean, I knew Sex and the City, so I came in bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, and hopefully they found that endearing. Each step of the way, they had me adjust and explained it to me. They were very funny; they said “We have to have the Sex and the City talk with a lot of new writers.” So I was like, okay, good, it’s not just me.

Rumpus: Did you go to a writing program for playwriting?

Oliver: I went to Fordham, at Lincoln Center, and majored in playwriting and got a BFA there. I haven’t gone to grad school but toyed with the idea. I liked MacDowell; that was wonderful. I try to read as much as possible. That’s sort of how I see my continuing education—I learn a lot from reading, and from performing, from developing material as well. I’ve been doing a show at Ars Nova every few months; it’s been part of my education.

Rumpus: I think that’s important for young writers—and by young, I guess I mean anyone under forty—that you don’t have to do the MFA.

Oliver: I don’t think you have to, either. If I have any advice, and I’m not sure I have any business giving advice, but it would be to share your work as often as possible, get it out from under you and send it to people, share it with people, read it out loud, go to open mic nights, even if you’re terrified and reading from the page. I read from the page—over my dead body will they tear that page from me! Just get an audience interacting with it as much as possible. I think it made me a better writer to feel an audience’s energy move through a story with me. I saw David Sedaris read at BAM—he’s my idol—and he was reading new pieces. He had a pen with him, and as he was reading, he would take the pen from behind his ear and make an crossing-out motion or circle something. He was working as he was reading, and I felt that to be so inspiring, to have that sort of rigor and to view it as work. It’s part of the process, to let the audience in.

Rumpus: I agree; I think it’s important to get out of the classroom, to get out there.

Oliver: It’s very insular, being in the classroom. The adult world is scary, to be constantly banging on doors, trying to get seen and heard. It’s painful and humiliating, so I understand the allure of going back to school and having writing expected of you and being in a room with people who care about you. But it’s not the real world. You have to get out there.

Rumpus: You mentioned New York earlier, and it felt like New York was a character in the book—and I remembered the Sex and the City episode—

Oliver: (Laughing) Oh god, the fifth lady?

Rumpus: Exactly! But reading your writing about the apartments, and the neighborhood, that scene where you talk about the street guy where the woman takes the cane from him and you’re a little horrified—but you really got the everyday intimacy of neighborhoods; it’s forced and it’s intimate, but not. It felt like not only was New York the background to the stories, but also its own character. Did that come organically?

Oliver: I think so. I didn’t set out for that, but it’s certainly a subject of my writing, via the people in it. You can’t help but write about New York as well. Yeah, I mean, it’s a fascinating place to live, and a very hard place to live. I love it, but I don’t always like it. Like in the lonely Christmas poem, all these concurrent lives happening so close to one another, but not being connected, there’s comfort in that. When I leave the city, like when I was in the colony in the woods, I was really terrified. Living in NY, knowing there’s a roommate in the other room, or a neighbor, knowing there’s people all around, that feels more safe.

Rumpus: Toward the end of the book, when you got the call about your grandmother, it felt like you weren’t necessarily an intimacy idiot anymore. There was a quiet intimacy. Did you choose to end with that?

Oliver: I wanted to. That story for me, the minute I finished a first stab at that piece, I had a feeling that I wanted that to be the end, or second-to-last piece, but I thought that was the penultimate piece. It grapples with a lot. When I removed myself from my daily life and put myself in the woods, it came down to my relationship with myself. They say we all die alone, and I think you have to say, who are you, to yourself, can you be alone, how are you when you’re alone? That was something I really struggled with when I was there. I tried to capture and write about it in that piece, and that’s sort of what the book was leading toward, and I don’t know if I have the answer to who I am. But it’s what I learned in that interaction with that guy, and making that choice to leave his bed, and needing to be alone. I need to take this time and ride it out and be by myself. It’s a scary thing. It’s a scary thing. Sorry, I’ve taken us to a dark place.

Rumpus: No, the reader feels it.

Oliver: I didn’t want it to be a simple book of trifles; I wanted something to be at stake. When I was working on it, I thought, this could be a good end.

Rumpus: What about the recipes?

Oliver: (Laughing) The recipes! I don’t know, they were something—I’m a terrible cook, and I was trying to cook for myself, and I was trying terribly, and also on Grindr, trying to get laid, and was going from one to another, and it just sort of came to me. I thought they could be a nice little thing sprinkled throughout. Fun little diversions.

Rumpus: What do you see next, what’s on the horizon for you?

Oliver: Some things are planned, I can’t go into specific details, but I’m trying to develop this into some sort of television—something visual, so I’m starting to envision that. I have a great team of people helping me with that. I’d like to write another play, write another book. I left my day job, so I’m trying to be a full time writer, at least for the next few months, so I’ll see what happens.


Jaime Herndon is a writer and editor living in New York. She graduated with her MFA in creative nonfiction from Columbia University in 2014, and her book Taking Back Birth is forthcoming in 2016 from Microcosm Publishing. More from this author →