Thursday, April 12, 2012

10 Questions with Iowa Writers' Workshop Graduate Eric Olsen (@2bwriters)

Photo Credit: Dennis Mathis

This Author Spotlight features Eric Olsen, author of We Wanted to Be Writers and a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop.

Eric Olsen was born and raised in Oakland, California, loves the Oakland A’s, and has seen "Moneyball" 147 times (actually, I added that; he's only seen "Moneyball 146 times). Eric started college as a pre-med student at UC Berkeley, like all ambitious young freshmen at the time. His interest in medicine lasted about half-way through his first quiz in “orgo.” 

He finished college many years and false starts later with a BA in Comparative Literature (Classical Greek, a long story and we won’t get into that here). 

He got his MFA in fiction from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1977. 

With Glenn Schaeffer, he co-founded in 2000 and then directed the International Institute of Modern Letters, a literary think tank that helped writers who were victims of censorship and persecution. 

Eric also helped establish the first American City of Asylum, in Las Vegas, an Institute program. The Institute also ran programs to support emerging writers in this country and abroad. Before that, Eric was executive editor of custom publishing at Time Inc Health, a TimeWarner company. And before that, he was a freelance journalist. He has published hundreds of magazine articles, a few short stories, and six nonfiction books, including the most recent, We Wanted to Be Writers. He was a Teaching/Writing Fellow at Iowa, and after leaving the Workshop, he received a James A. Michener Fellowship for fiction. 

He continues, despite common sense of family and friends, to work on a novel and screenplay. Eric does sometimes wish he’d toughed it out in orgo. (I know the feeling.)

1. How did you get into writing?
I talk a bit about this in We Wanted to Be Writers. When I was a kid, and through high school, and beyond, all I read was science fiction. But at first it never occurred to me to try to write any of it myself, or anything else for that matter. But still, I think from all that reading, I had developed a respect for the folks who wrote the stuff I loved to read, and so I think the seed of the idea of trying to write something was planted, though deep in my subconscious or wherever such notions get planted. 

Then in college, where I had some serious attitude problems about the required English courses, I got involved in the anti-war (Vietnam) movement and started writing one-page anti-war screeds, which we’d run off on an aging mimeograph machine and then tack up on telephone poles around town. As I mention in We Wanted to Be Writers, what I wrote had no impact whatsoever, but I got a bit of a rush out of that writing. It was only later that I realized the rush was probably the result of fumes from the mimeograph inks and solvents, since the room where we worked wasn’t well ventilated. 

But still, I realized I liked to write. 

I dropped out of college after two years and wrote even more anti-war screeds among the fumes. Meanwhile, my wife, Cheryl, finished her BA, applied to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and got in. We moved to Iowa City.

While there, I decided to go back to school and finish my own BA, and during my final semester, I took an undergraduate creative writing course from one of Cheryl’s classmates, Allan Gurganus. I didn’t write sci fi in his class, since one did not dare commit genre at Iowa, but the stuff I wrote had a sort of magical realism thing going on, which I think amused Allan. He suggested I apply to the graduate workshop, which I promptly did, only to be resoundingly, enthusiastically rejected. The first readers of application manuscripts were second-year Workshop students like Allan. The work they liked got a second reading from the faculty, who made the final picks. One of these first readers of my stories wrote a big “NO” on the readers’ comments sheet, with several exclamation points, and that was that. Into the trash can….

John Irving was still teaching there at the time, working on Garp, and Allan suggested I take John’s graduate-level writing class that summer and maybe try again. During the summer, no one cared who took the graduate workshops, so that’s what I did. Minimalism was all the rage at the time—Carver, Beattie, etc.—and John was anything but a minimalist, and I certainly wasn’t. He liked my work, and more or less hand carried my next application through the review process and assured I got in. And so here I am, still at it. No magical realism these days, but I’m still not a minimalist, as you can tell from this answer….

2. What do you like best (or least) about writing?
Writing about the creative process, C. G. Jung remarked, “The work in process becomes the poet’s fate and determines his psychic development. It is not Goethe who creates Faust, but Faust which creates Goethe.” Or 

as T. S. Eliot put it, “the progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality.”

Now and then, when the writing’s going well, I do get a feeling that the work is writing itself and I’m just along for the ride. It doesn’t happen often; usually writing for me is just putting a lot of words down, one after the other, a long slog. But now and then, the work does seem to take over. I love that, when it happens. Lots of the writers I interviewed for We Wanted to Be Writers talk about this, how the work can take over, extinguishing the ego. At least for a time. You live for that….

What I like least about writing? The next day, going back over what I wrote that seemed so damned brilliant at the time, only now it sucks, at which point I decide, hardly for the first time, to quit all this nonsense and get a real job. 

But then sometimes, the day after that, what sucked might seem not half-bad….

3. What is your writing process? IE do you outline? Do you stick to a daily word or page count, write 7 days a week, etc?
For many, many years, when I was writing non-fiction for a buck, I’d work on the assignments all day during the week and do fiction on weekends or in the evenings when the day’s work, the “real work” as I thought of it, was done. So it was sporadic.

Sometimes, I’d get a week or two between magazine assignments, so I’d try to concentrate on my fiction then, but I’d usually spend that time rereading what I’d written during my last break, trying to pick up the strands of the story, and more often than not I’d chuck the whole thing and start over. Or I’d be fretting about the next assignment. So I didn’t get much fiction done.

More recently, I’ve decided to “privilege” fiction. About time, I figured. So when I get up in the morning now, I go immediately to work on fiction. It helps not to be too awake. Several of the folks in We Wanted to Be Writers talk about this, rolling out of bed and going right to work, still a little groggy, the night’s dreams still available. 

I make myself stay in my office for two hours. No email. No phone. Sometimes I write. Sometimes I just sit there. But I’m thinking about the writing, which is a sort of writing, I suppose. I don’t have any word-count expectations. 

Then I go to the gym and then after that, I do the work that pays the bills. In the evenings, I might noodle around some more with the fiction, by way of setting up the next morning’s work. 

As for outlining, I’ve always outlined my non-fiction. And I’ve usually outlined my fiction. And in many cases, I’ve ended up tossing the outline once I’ve gotten into the piece a bit, when it begins to demand its own organization, or it does when all goes well.

However, for the novel I’m writing now, I’ve made a point to not do an outline. This one’s a bit of an experiment for me. This time, I don’t particularly want to know where it’s going. Thus a few days ago I was working on a scene and a new character showed up, completely unbidden. Where’d he come from? I’ve no idea. But it was fun when it happened and now I’m working on this character, and how he fits into the story. This approach will probably lead to disaster, but for now, I’m rather enjoying the ride. 

Ron Carlson writes about writing as exploration in Ron Carlson Writes a Story, a terrific book, by the way. Actually, it was after reading that book that I decided to try not outlining, for a change. 

I try to write five days a week, then I use the weekends for puttering around. I might write a bit, but only if the urge comes on.

4. Who are some other writers you read and admire, regardless of whether they are commercially “successful?”
I have an accumulation of books on my desk that I like for various reasons, and when I’m writing, if I’m feeling a bit stuck, or tired of it, sometimes I’ll pick up one of the books—it’s important to me to have them close at hand—and just read a half page or so. Some of the books I like for the writing, some for the story, some for both. The books that accumulate change over time. They’re all books that I’ve read and re-read. Here’s what’s within reach at the moment, in no particular order:

LA Confidential by James Ellroy
All the Arkady Renko novels by Martin Cruz Smith (my favorite is Red Square)
Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
Earthly Powers by Anthony Burgess
The Cider House Rules by John Irving
Get Shorty by Elmore Leonard
True Confessions by John Gregory Dunne
Pelican Brief  by John Grisham
Bangkok 8 by John Burdette

Plus various nonfiction books, including Faith of a Heretic by Walter Kaufman; Liberty by Isaiah Berlin; The Outsider by Colin Wilson; and The Rebel by Albert Camus. I thought I also had Hannah Arendt’s On Revolution in the pile, but now it’s not there. These are serving as reference texts for my present fiction project. 

5. Should the question mark in the above question be inside or outside the quotes?
I always put it inside the quotes. I know the Brits don’t in cases like the above, and they’re probably right, as they usually are in such matters, but it looks weird. 

6. What’s your stance on the Oxford Comma?
I’m all for it. For several years I was a magazine editor and our house style called for the Oxford, or “series” comma, but even before I became an editor, I was a firm believer in the thing. I think in most sentences, the series comma provides more clarity. However, there are times when it can lead to lack of clarity, so you have to carefully consider the meaning you’re aiming for. 

Take this sentence: “In the car were two of Mitt’s children, Seamus and Ann.” Now, without the series comma, one might read this to mean that two of Mitt’s children are named Seamus and Ann. With the series comma, “…children, Seamus, and Ann,” it’s less ambiguous. Of course, better would be a different construction entirely, such as “In the car were two of Mitt’s children, plus Seamus and Ann.” But with or without the comma, the sentence is still ambiguous because in fact Seamus was Mitt’s dog and wasn’t in the car, though he should have been. Mitt stuffed him into a crate and tied him onto the roof of his station wagon for a 12-hour drive to Canada. No amount of commas or lack thereof get to the key issue here, which is what a mean, thoughtless bastard Mitt Romney is. 

Whoops, did I just go off topic here? Sorry about that.

7. What is your book, We Wanted to Be Writers: Life, Love, and Literature at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, about and how did it come to fruition?
I wrote and edited the book with Glenn Schaeffer, one of my classmates from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in the mid-70s. It’s a series of “conversations” with nearly 30 of our classmates and teachers from back then, including Jane Smiley, TC Boyle, John Irving, Sandra Cisneros, and Joe Haldeman. We talk about writing, the lit biz, our two years in the Workshop—what did we learn, what did we not learn but wish we had—and our early years after, trying to make it, and more.

I use the term “conversations,” as the book is not a collection of interviews a la the Paris Review interviews. Rather, the book is organized by topic, with everyone weighing in, in a series of extended conversations.

How did the book come about? 

Glenn, who’d gone into business after Iowa and made a bundle building and operating resorts and casinos on the Las Vegas Strip, had decided it was time to finish a novel that he’d started while in the Workshop, Holy Shaker. The first 60 pages of it were his MFA dissertation. He asked me to edit it. 

One day we were working on it, going over some pages, and we were sitting on the balcony of his condo in Vegas, smoking nice Nicaraguan cigars, as I recall, and it occurred to me that the desire to write, a desire that in Glenn’s case had remained strong even after 30 years away from it, was perhaps a sort of sickness. I mean, here was a guy who really didn’t need the aggravation, did he? I mentioned this to Glenn. “You’re right,” he said, “we really can’t help ourselves, can we?” 

One thing led to another and I started calling up old chums from Iowa asking them questions about their writing. How did they stick with it? How did they get started in the first place? When did they get “hooked?” How did they write, what was their process? What had they learned at Iowa, and so on. 

I actually went out of my way to try to find some classmates from back then who’d broken the writing habit and had managed to quit. Some had, for a time. One became a lawyer, but now he’s at it again. Another had an illustrious career in advertising, and now her fourth novel is about to be released (The Age of Desire, by Jennie Fields). A couple others got into the computer business on the ground floor, and they didn’t write for some time, but they’re both at it again as well. And of course writers such as Jane Smiley and TC Boyle and Sandra Cisernos never left the game. In fact, everyone I interviewed was still writing. We really can’t help ourselves.

After doing a few interviews, I realized we had the makings of a book. 

8. What’s your current writing project?
A murder mystery set in Central Asia on the Silk Road about 2000 years ago. It involves the translation of a manuscript from a dead Indo-European language. I’m totally into dead Indo-European languages. 

9. What book(s) are you currently reading?
I have a bad habit of reading several books at once—a short attention span or something. Right now, I’m reading Friday Night Lights by H.G. Bissinger, about high-school football in Texas back in the 1980s, and in particular the Permian Panthers in Odessa, Texas. It’s terrific. A movie starring Billy Bob Thornton and a TV series were made from it. I’m also reading The Spinoza Problem by Irvin Yalom, MD, a novel about Spinoza, among others. I just finished Cutting for Stone  by Abraham Verghese, who’s also a physician. Hmmm. I seem to have a thing these days for novels by physicians. 

10. Who or what inspires your writing?
I can’t say I’m ever “inspired.” That sounds a little too high-falutin’ for me. Usually, I’ll read or hear something that seems interesting, and then I’ll dig into it more and that might lead to another try at a novel or a non-fiction book. The idea for the project mentioned above, the mystery novel, came about when I read a magazine article about the mummies found in the Tarim Basin in Western China. They had European features and were fair-haired. How’d they get to China? What were they doing there? That got me to thinking….

Finally, is there anything you’d care to add? Please also include where people can read your published stories, buy your book, etc.
People can find out where to buy We Wanted to Be Writers (and plenty of other cool stuff), on our website, We link to the Red Room bookstore because they give writers a much better shake than others, but it’s also available at major book retailers.

That's great, Eric. Thank you for taking the time to compile such an invaluable resource for writers, and for fans of the writers included in We Wanted to Be Writers. And let us know when the new novel is available; fans of dead Indo-European languages are clamoring for authoritative fictional treatises on the topic.

Be sure to visit Eric's website and purchase a copy of We Wanted to Be Writers. It's a fascinating read.

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