The Rumpus Interview with Joseph Olshan

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“Just listen to this sentence. Listen to it.”

If you ever want to know the exact point when your writing goes sour, have someone else read it aloud. You’ll hear them taste the spoilt milk sentences, the ones stinking up any fresh thoughts around them.

That was the author Joseph Olshan talking, and the sentence he was referring to was mine. He wasn’t reading it aloud because he liked it. Instead of telling me it didn’t work, he wanted me to hear it. And I did. Joe and I had worked together, and he’d offered to take a look at my manuscript. I wanted him to be brutally honest. I didn’t anticipate that the sound of his voice reading my words would give me that nails-down-a-chalkboard feeling.

Admittedly, the aforementioned sentence was cumbersome and vague. After ripping it apart, Joe said something about a writer’s instinct and just sticking to the story. Instinct? Did he mean the instinct that told me to write that atrocious sentence? It’s easy for him, a novelist nine times over, to talk about doing what feels right, I thought. He’d done it, and it worked. I knew writing a novel wasn’t easy for anyone, but in the moment I was certain—certain!—it was especially hard for me. Maybe other voices were just louder. Clearer. Stronger. Better.

The more Joe and I talked, the more I learned just how easy it wasn’t. He told me about the detours he took on the way to finishing his acclaimed first novel, Clara’s Heart, which was reissued in a 20th anniversary edition last month. The novel is about moving on when you think you can’t, and the unconventional love between David, a twelve-year-old boy, and Clara, a Jamaican woman who moves in with his family in New York during a crisis. (The book was made into a movie starring Whoopi Goldberg and a pubescent Neil Patrick Harris. Even though it’s a mediocre film, I’m convinced it launched NPH’s career). We also talked about “Wolverine Cirque,” Joe’s recently-published short story about the fraught relationship between an athletic, middle-aged ski buff and his much younger lover, a college soccer player struggling with his sexuality.

Here, Joe and I discuss impossible relationships, the power of the erotic in fiction, and making your way down the dark and foggy highway of novel writing.

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The Rumpus: Congrats on the twenty-year anniversary and the reissue of Clara’s Heart. I know when the book came out, one of the things that got a strong reaction was the way you incorporated Jamaican patois. How did you learn it? Did you grow up hearing it?

Joseph Olshan: When you choose the right subject, it’s almost like you have artistic guidance. Because I felt this subject matter so deeply, there was a kind of alchemy. I heard the music in my head and it became poetry. Images will come to you that seem so right you can’t image how they got there. It’s like that crystallization of the artistic process. Having had said that, I’m very sensitive to foreign languages. I speak a few languages and I pick them up very quickly. I remember cadences, intonations. I think that when I start to pull back on writing novels, I might start doing translations because I think it’s something I’d be good at, but also I’d like to serve literature. I’d like to bring other foreign languages into English. I’m very interested in the conversion of one language into another, the conversion of one culture into another.

The Rumpus: Some people say they write by ear and that’s how they know if a sentence works. I always think of that Joan Didion quote, and there’s definitely a music to certain books that’s undeniable. But in the novel you had David, a young white boy, embody the voice of Clara, a black woman from Jamaica. As a white male writer, did you ever worry you were appropriating? Was there any criticism of that?

Clara's Heart jacketJoe Olshan: I think I made it very much my own. A Jamaican person who reads the novel might see something that’s not exactly correct, but this was my distillation of that, so I never really got any criticism in that way. I was surprised, actually. But I think people were also delighted that here’s someone bringing this culture into relief. I think people were proud of the fact that there was this character that’s sort of larger-than-life, and certainly the smartest character in the book. So this was sort of a role model that people could maybe look up to. [Clara] certainly had her faults, but she was bighearted and smart. So if there were any inaccuracies in the language, I think she redeemed that.

The Rumpus: So after twenty years, what do you see now that you didn’t see when it was published? Is there anything that you’d change, and did you have the opportunity to do so?

Joe Olshan: Grace Paley used to live on my street, on West 11th,  and we got to know each other. She was always very supportive and we did a couple of radio shows together. But she had said that one of the scenes at the very end of the novel was too over the top, too melodramatic. She felt the book didn’t need it, and it took a book that was fairly restrained into an area of melodrama. I think she was right. On one hand, it is what it is, and you had your chance to make it. But I think what Grace said was prescient, and you know, I wish that I had listened to her.

The Rumpus: The relationship between Clara and David was the thing that grabbed me, even though David keeps messing up. What’s it like to write a character like that?

Joe Olshan: I think all my characters keep messing up over and over again. I think that’s why I’m drawn to them. So I certainly wasn’t aware of it at the time. When you’re younger you make mistakes. I think his biggest mistake is the racial slur he calls her toward the end of the book. He’s feeling so frustrated and abandoned, that out of anger he lashes out at her. Even though she forgives him—I don’t know that she ever completely forgives him.

Rumpus: Yes, it really creates distance that can’t be bridged, but I guess that was another thing I liked about the book. In real life we do make big mistakes that fracture our most important relationships and sometimes we can’t go back. It was real.

Joe Olshan: I think novels tend to want to have redemption, but the redemption is really that people go on—they don’t forget, but they adapt and they go on. You sense they’re [Clara and David] going to have some sort of relationship, but not as close as it was. I don’t think it’s an unsympathetic resolution. It’s a realistic one.

Rumpus: To finish a book is a huge task in general, and this was an ambitions first novel. What was it that drove you?

Joe Olshan: I had a couple things that were driving me. It was partly that everybody in my family went into business or went to law school, and I think that was maybe expected of me, and I came from a family where my father was really strong and domineering, and had a lot of opinions on things and I wanted to excel in a field he could have no sway over. In my earlier life, certainly my twenties, I was having a lot of struggles with my father. In fact, I wrote about it in an essay for The New York Times about how I was going to tell him I was publishing a gay novel.

Rumpus: Were you out to him at that time?

Wolverine_Cirque_jacket440Joe Olshan: I was out, but I wanted to let him know I was publishing a book that was overtly gay and it was going to have scenes in it that were erotic and really intense. And his only concern was whether or not there was a character based on him. And I said, “How can there be? All the characters in the book are gay.” But he had been portrayed in other novels, and he thought not very sympathetically. So anyway, I had this thing, not necessarily to prove myself, but to make my way in a field that no one in my family could have any kind of influence or really judge in a way.

I think maybe I started writing the novel too early, and it went in a lot of wrong directions. I had all these really crazy plot developments. For example, I think Clara, in one earlier chapter, is getting chased by someone who has a poison dart and then she gets hit by it, and it ends up being in the paper. It was just ridiculous. At some point you have to realize you could’ve taken it further, but you just don’t have the capacity to take it further. I don’t know what it’s like for most writers, but I feel that I’m always sort of bumping up against my deficiencies, and what I feel I can’t do. And it’s really, really frustrating.

Rumpus: I actually don’t hear a lot of writers talk about that. What do you mean by things you can’t do? You feel like you just don’t have it in you, or that your craft isn’t developed?

Joe Olshan: For example, I’d have trouble doing a period novel that took place a hundred years ago. I feel like I’m greatly limited, and when I try to step outside that I get into trouble…if I write something that’s merely competent it’s not good enough. I want something to be inspired.

Rumpus: So how do you know what will really move people? You read a story and it can be fine, the characters are well-drawn and all, but it does nothing for you. Then you pick up another story and you’re completely taken by it. Do you know when you’re writing something whether it’s inspired?

Joe Olshan: You have to really believe in what you’re doing, no matter what level you’re writing on. Whether you’re writing on the level of schlock or you’re writing on the level of literature, you have to, in the moment you’re creating, believe in what you’re doing and feel that people are going to be moved. Because if you can’t believe that, then you won’t be able to commit yourself to it. What’s ultimately successful is not to be judged by you but to be judged by other people.

Rumpus: I guess you can’t predict what’s going to happen and how it will resonate with the collective unconscious.

Joe Olshan: That’s why I get frustrated when the literary world tries to anoint the stars. I guess they have to do that—we live in a very competitive country and it’s all about who’s number one, or who’s up there. And I think you and I have talked about this whole competitive spirit that is America—I mean, you certainly don’t have it in Canada, and you have a lot of wonderful writers there and everyone seems to co-exist. But here, it seems very cutthroat. Who’s the best? Who’s second rate? And it makes it harder because we’re really all out there trying to write books, and if we get a small audience and there are people who like our work and are moved by it, then we can consider ourselves successes. We don’t have to be big bestsellers, and we don’t have to be the person that everybody is talking about, but we feel like we should be because we keep being bombarded with it all the time.

My evaluation is that all these people who are talked about—I would say most of them, about ninety-five percent—are at various levels of good writing, and there are very few that are really good or great.

Rumpus: Who, in your opinion, are those great writers?

Olshan: In my generation, I’d say Louise Erdrich is one person who comes to mind. Her most recent book is just wonderful. I think of Alan Hollinghurst. Colm Tóibín. The American writers that I really admire are people in the older generation: Russell Banks and Robert Stone. Those are the people that I go back and re-read.

Rumpus: Tell me a little bit about why you pick a particular voice when you’re writing. Both Clara’s Heart and “Wolverine Cirque” are written in third-person. I’m working on a novel in first-person, but at times it feels limiting. Do you have a preference?

Olshan: I often write in first-person when I’m starting a novel, just to get into it and create a sense of intimacy. And when, if I feel the first person can’t bear the weight of the novel, I switch to third-person. It’s almost like, what’s the baby going to be, a boy or a girl?  And then you sort of wait and see what the gestation period is.

Nightswimmer jacketThe thing about first-person is that when it works, it’s unbelievably powerful. The problem is the only thing that the reader can know is in the head of the character. The way writers get around that is that the character is exposed to other characters who tell them a story, and then the character retells the story with their own embellishments. That’s what Michael Ondaatje does in The Cat’s Table. It’s a very intimate, reflective first-person of a man writing a story many years later, and you get that sense of a seasoned narrator looking back. But he takes the liberty of jumping from the time frame of the past into the future. Now, that wouldn’t be possible in third-person, the reader wouldn’t be willing to follow. Ondaatje’s able to not only master the form, but make it more expansive than the third-person. The vast majority can be very confessional, which a reader can feel very comfortable with.

So in terms of the short story, I knew it was going to be in the third person and there were two reasons for that. The story sort of mapped itself in my head pretty quickly, and I also thought that I wouldn’t be able to write about things that were really, really intimate unless I had some distance. I felt less comfortable writing about some of the very intimate, erotic power play stuff in first-person. When I go back and read Nightswimmer, my fifth novel, which is written in the first-person, it has a lot of the same intimate writing. I can’t believe that first of all, I sat down and wrote it, but also that I allowed myself to be committed to it. When I read it now, I’m almost embarrassed.

Rumpus: Really? Is it that whole thing of people assuming that if a book is written in first-person, the author is automatically the narrator?

Olshan: In fact, when people talk about that, they say, “When you did this and you did that”—I keep saying it’s not me, it’s the narrator. People assume that I’m writing a confession of my life. That idea is always difficult. I don’t like people to make that assumption.

I worked with an editor who said, “Wow, you took all the veils away from the window and now the light is shining in.” And I think what he was trying to say [about Nightswimmer] was that in some of my earlier fiction, I wanted to write about some of these things, and I kept veiling it.

Rumpus: You mean like sexual things?

Olshan: Yeah, some of the more emotional, erotic things that I was writing about. So in a way, it was like I had to write in the first-person. I felt the only way I could get it out. It’s like, when I was nineteen, I was suffering from really bad agoraphobia. I could only go twenty-five miles from where I lived and I would get these panic attacks. But finally I told myself, I have to break this. So I got in my car and I drove across the country by myself.

Rumpus: You must have been terrified.

Olshan: It was terrifying. The first three or four days were an absolute nightmare. Then I sort of had one of these John Cheever-esque epiphanies. I’m referring to a short story that he wrote called “The Angel on the Bridge,” where he talked about a family—all of them have fears of different things. The main character had a fear of going over bridges, the brother had a fear of elevators, and the mother had a fear of airplanes. And everybody is crippled by their anxiety, but by the end, the main character has to go over the Tappan Zee Bridge and he’s so freaked out that he pulls over the side of the road. And this woman who’s hitchhiking that he didn’t see gets in, thinking he’s offering her a ride, and she’s this lovely person. And she somehow breaks the spell of his anxiety, and the same kind of thing happened to me. I was in Duluth, Minnesota and I went into this restaurant and there was this woman who was incredibly kind to me. And somehow that gift of love helped me continue the journey without nearly the same amount of anxiety. In fact, I was nearly able to enjoy it.

Rumpus: I know you like E.L. Doctorow, and since you brought up a road trip I want to throw this quote of his at you. “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” I’ve definitely had that feeling when I’m writing, like I can’t keep the faith that there’s going to be road beyond the light. What if there’s just a brick wall?

Olshan: It’s funny that you say that, because the advice I’ve been giving you is, just stay with it. Everything will reveal itself if you just stay with it. Don’t think about if you’ll get there. That’s when you get distracted, and when you get distracted, that’s when you’re in danger of losing the integrity of the process. That’s what it is. And when you’re involved in the process, when you’re fully engaged, that’s really the highest level of living—in terms of non-romantic. I mean, it’s not getting the great review in the NYT or getting a prize, it’s the process itself. And people really undersell that. Every artist has the ability to experience that sublime satisfaction and pleasure from just staying on the road and looking in the fog.

Rumpus: So did you feel that sort of satisfaction in writing “Wolverine Cirque”?

Olshan: The reason why I wrote this story was that I realized there was a chapter of my life I needed to close, and that was that these type of relationships [portrayed in the book] are impossible. One character is not even able to admit what his sexuality ultimately is, even though it seems he’s probably more gay than straight. And I think the power between them is kind of a spiritual power, but it’s also the power of dysfunction. But what we like to do is dress dysfunction up as something greater than that. But also, the story is about somebody who has to finally realize they’re not young anymore. The story really is about the death of an illusion: of being young, and of being able to have a relationship with someone who is much younger. There are relationships between older and younger people that work, but often there’s a certain kind of weakness or dysfunction in both people.

Rumpus: I guess that brings up another question, about what people need in a partner. But let’s talk about how this story is very erotic, which is tied to the fact that Luke is a star soccer player—he has a lot of swagger, he’s very sexy. How intentional was that?

joseph_olshanOlshan: One of the things that I wanted to show is that the view of gay men is of a certain kind of person, and there are new paradigms coming to view. There are the paradigms of men who are powerful, and who are athletic—and they’re also gay. We have a certain other kind of gay man who appears in literature who’s different from these people. What I wanted to do is show that sexuality of the characters in my story—as powerful as it is—is almost incidental. You know what I mean? This [story] is about the eroticism of two people who are extremely athletic, and the kind eroticism that those people share, as opposed to the eroticism of two people who go to the opera, which is like the stereotype of gay men: they’re dressed in bow ties and they bathed for three hours before they went. Those people exist, but these people exist too, you know. The love that they feel is powerful, and the athleticism is very much wrapped up in it.

Rumpus: So when you were growing up, did you see yourself in fictional gay characters?

Olshan: No, not really, no. Part of it is that I’ve never really identified in that world. I feel like my sexuality is incidental…it’s what I do, it’s what I’m drawn to, but that in itself doesn’t make for a culture. I’m not building a culture around it. There’s a whole culture of people who’ve come together because they’re gay, and there’s a whole ethos, which, you know, is partly built to help them live their lives and not be scorned or discriminated against. What I’m trying to get to in “Wolverine Cirque” is that two people fall in love, and because they’re at a different stage in their life, it’s not going to work out.  And yet the story celebrates the eroticism of a certain kind of camaraderie, if that makes any sense.

Rumpus: So is there one theme that you’re really drawn to, then?

Olshan: Yes, and this sort of goes hand-in-hand with both the short story and Clara’s Heart: it’s a pairing of people who conventionally would not be paired, you know? Clara and David, Luke and Sam. Their differences bring them together but also pull them apart. I keep doing that over and over and over again. And it’s really symbolic of my interest in other cultures. I want to see how other people live…that’s why I try to live a life that’s not circumscribed, because I’m constantly seeking those people and looking for those juxtapositions.

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Second image of Joe Olshan © by Tim Johnson.


Alizah Salario is writer and editor living in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Review of Books and elsewhere. When she's not driving a surrey, you can find her riding her bike. Follow her @Alirosa. More from this author →