OLIVIA CLARE
in conversation with BENJAMIN ANASTAS

Bennington Review Fiction Editor Benjamin Anastas had the following conversation with poet and fiction writer Olivia Clare, author of the poetry collection The 26-Hour Day, the short story collection Disasters in the First World, and a novel forthcoming from Grove Atlantic, via Google Hangouts in February 2018.

 

BENJAMIN ANASTAS

Let’s start with a question about your story “The Visigoths” from Disasters in the First World. Both in reviews and in the online chatter, this story seems to be a favorite of your readers. To me the first signal of what you’re up to—the quality of attention—comes in a description in the first line of “dark cumulous carpet stains” in Flynn’s bedroom. That made me sit up a little taller in my chair. 

OLIVIA CLARE

Thanks for the kind words about “The Visigoths.” Knowing a character’s room feels so important. It can really give you a sense of who they are or who they were or who they want to be. And those details in the room really matter.

 

BENJAMIN ANASTAS

Flynn is such an electric character—he would need to have a room that fits. Did he start with his room, or with a line of dialogue, or with something else?

 

OLIVIA CLARE

Hmm. Really with both his room and that dialogue that’s at the very beginning of the story. There’s chaos in his room. Also: non sequiturs, in both his dialogue and his room. His objects that don’t all quite make sense together, but I must list them to tell you who he is. That “Thank you, and have a nice day,” in response to his sister: another non sequitur. He is all different edges and disconnects trying to fit together.

 

BENJAMIN ANASTAS

They’re half-brother and half-sister, right?

 

OLIVIA CLARE

Right.

 

BENJAMIN ANASTAS

To me this is something that really sets your short fiction apart—the odd distances between your characters. We’re not in the realm of ordinary “domestic” short fiction. I mean, who needs another story about a wife, a husband, a biological child?

 

OLIVIA CLARE

I had this really interesting conversation with my editor, the incredible Corinna Barsan at Grove Atlantic, about my novel right after we first started working together. Not trying to shift from short fiction to the novel, but this relates re: what you said about family. She said, I love that what you’re doing is writing about a family. And about family-making between the main male character and the three female characters in that book. And I hadn’t been thinking of it that way in my novel, and suddenly her saying that made me realize she understood.

 

BENJAMIN ANASTAS

The narrator of “The Visigoths” has a very particular relationship to Flynn—and to her mother. She calls her DeeDee, which is almost more impersonal. I like the idea that part of what she’s trying to enact with the narration is a kind of “family-making,” but on her own terms.

 

OLIVIA CLARE

Exactly. It wouldn’t have worked for the narrator to call her “mom.” They don’t have that kind of relationship. And yet she wants it! “DeeDee” could be a nickname for a family member even if it’s not the mother’s name.

 

BENJAMIN ANASTAS

Maybe all fiction writing is a kind of family-making? There was another line that really captivated me in that story: when you describe Flynn “dreamily stroking the inflamed rims of his nostrils.” Why is that so beautiful?

 

OLIVIA CLARE

Hmm. That dreamy language with the image of the inflamed nostrils: that contrast? (I love contrast.) My image-making comes from my poetry writing. How can I describe this accurately and originally? How can I say what he’s doing so the reader can see it, but in a new way? Bright red nostrils—that’s not supposed to be “pretty.” In this world, it is.

 

BENJAMIN ANASTAS

I’m curious to hear more about this fixation on family-making. Pretend I’m your biographer—or your therapist—and tell me more about it?

 

OLIVIA CLARE

Where to begin…

 

BENJAMIN ANASTAS

Maybe I’ll be more specific: In “Pétur” you write about a trip to Iceland that an adult male son takes with his mother—this is another relationship that you don’t see depicted very often in short fiction.

 

OLIVIA CLARE

When I first started writing fiction, I wanted to test out writing about these relationships that I wasn’t seeing as much of elsewhere. And it was somewhat of an uphill battle.

 

BENJAMIN ANASTAS

How?

 

OLIVIA CLARE

Because—and this will sound funny—but since I came to fiction with a background in poetry, the idea of character, of characterization, was new to me as a writer. Which isn’t to say you can’t bring characters into poetry. Of course you can, and some of my favorites (John Berryman, Anne Carson) do. But that isn’t what I was doing. I was approaching poetry via language, via syntax. That first line, and then the next. The sound and texture of it. I wasn’t approaching poetry via characters, via people. The people in my poems were mostly the lyric “I” and the lyric “you.” I remember my first fiction workshop and everyone was talking about character. And I thought: so this is what they’ve been talking about in here.

 

BENJAMIN ANASTAS

I like the idea that your background in poetry freed you to conceive of your stories differently—that you aren’t tied to familiar tropes or narratives. Adam ends up sort of stalking his mother (Laura) to find out what she’s up to in this ash-covered landscape.

 

OLIVIA CLARE

Again—that’s bizarre, I know. But remember, my writer-brain had been in poetry for a while. “Pétur” started with the setting first. I was in Iceland about a month or so after Eyjafjallajokull erupted. I lived for about six weeks in a rural dale called Skorradalur.

 

BENJAMIN ANASTAS

I also suspect that you took a perverse pleasure in including the Icelandic proper names. Like Eyjafjallajökull.

 

OLIVIA CLARE

So funny you just said that. I was about to tell you that—because of “Pétur”—I can spell Eyjafjallajokull without looking it up. Wait. Did I spell that right?

 

BENJAMIN ANASTAS

The names are almost sculptural.

 

OLIVIA CLARE

You’re so right. That was almost the name of the story.

 

BENJAMIN ANASTAS

You studied poetry at Iowa, or fiction?

 

OLIVIA CLARE

I studied poetry at Iowa. I wasn’t writing fiction then. I was immersed in poetry. Reading poems and about poems, watching movies that would bring me to poems, writing emails to friends about poems, and of course, writing poems. But I just mean there was also a lot around writing poems. Talking about them.

 

BENJAMIN ANASTAS

Did you have an inkling that you were going to write fiction one day? Or were you all-poetry-all-the-time in your head?

 

OLIVIA CLARE

Of course I loved reading fiction. I read and re-read Virginia Woolf, Henry James, Toni Morrison, Mary Gaitskill, and on and on. I took a fiction seminar on fairy tales with Edward Carey. But as far as writing went, I was writing all poetry.

 

BENJAMIN ANASTAS

When I was at Iowa the poets didn’t really read fiction. We were segregated off into our genres and snickered at each other in the hallway.

 

OLIVIA CLARE

I always say I think of influences in two different ways. (And I’m borrowing this from a conversation I had with a dear friend, Andrew Nicholson, a poet). There are the influences I have who influence my writing directly in terms of content, style, etc. And then there are the influences who inspire me to be brave in my writing. So my writing may not look like their writing, but they’re an influence.

 

BENJAMIN ANASTAS

Can you give me a few examples from each category?

 

OLIVIA CLARE

My influences then were Alice Notley, H.D., Anne Carson. I’d say Alice Notley was an influence in that second category. One who inspires in terms of bravery in my own writing. Who allows me to go to an Otherplace. If I can go to a place in my head, I can write it down. I can make a story out of it.

 

BENJAMIN ANASTAS

Let’s talk about Lucia Berlin and your story in Issue Five of Bennington Review, “What She Has.”

 

OLIVIA CLARE

Great!

 

BENJAMIN ANASTAS

The story has a conspicuous note at the beginning: “After Lucia Berlin.” You’ve told me that the Lucia Berlin story in question is “Friends” from A Manual for Cleaning Women.

 

OLIVIA CLARE

Yes. One of my mentors, Mark Richard, sent me the book in the mail. I had to read it, he said. And he was right. After I read the first half of the book, I wrote this in an email to Stephen Emerson, who edited the volume: “As you and Lydia Davis say—Berlin is so remarkably sensitive to and observant of the world around her. And what incredible pacing. Music. Rhythm. How can I say it? These stories truly live. I want to read as slowly as possible since I know I can read each story for the first time only once. And yet I read too quickly, with great excitement for each sentence.”

 

BENJAMIN ANASTAS

“What She Has” is about the accidental relationship—again, family-making—between the narrator, Grace, and a co-worker and her daughter. It’s also a short-lived web of relationships.

 

OLIVIA CLARE

Yes—there’s that family-making again! I can’t get away from the idea. I am constantly trying to find ways to make these relationships happen in my writing since they seem so hard to find and fraught in life. I’m interested in the ways that family-making happens in female friendships. (I find myself, more and more, writing about sisters or sister-like friends. I have no sisters of my own.) And the relationships happen quickly too. I like that. I like that idea. I find that, in life, relationships develop so slowly. Especially as I’ve gotten older. I’m sad just to think of it.

 

BENJAMIN ANASTAS

Can you talk more about the Berlin story, your story, and what the similarities are? Emphasis on the last scene?

 

OLIVIA CLARE

Absolutely. I love that feeling of friends being drawn to one another in our adult lives. And that’s just what happens with Loretta and Anna and Sam in Berlin’s story. They develop a friendship just by spending time together. And it’s sudden. And it’s lots of time together. Isn’t that fascinating? How often do we do that now? And why not? I was also taken with Berlin’s idea of ending with a character overhearing two other characters as they speak about her. Overhearing a friend (a new friend, at that!) is always bizarre, even if it’s in your favor. In Berlin’s story, things are not what they seemed to Loretta. Things shift just like that, wow. I wanted the same effect in my own story, the same feeling of the floor dropping out beneath this friendship that’s taken the length of the story to build up.

 

BENJAMIN ANASTAS

It’s a nightmare scenario, really. We all think we want to know what our friends or our family say about us when we’re not there … But do we really want to know? I don’t think we want to know.

 

OLIVIA CLARE

Exactly, exactly. In Berlin’s story, we don’t really get to hear what happens next. We know Loretta overhears them, but we don’t know her reaction. Incredible, yes? Oh, how I love Berlin.

 

BENJAMIN ANASTAS

I’m just reading her myself for the first time …

 

OLIVIA CLARE

So I wanted to end too with this character overhearing. But in my story I decided that the character would react a bit, and that we’d get (some of) that reaction in the story. The missing conversation is filled in.

 

BENJAMIN ANASTAS

The Berlin story is similarly about an accidental relationship—the protagonist gets involved in the lives of an elderly couple when the husband has a seizure in a swimming pool and she saves his life …

 

OLIVIA CLARE

Exactly. Yes. And after I’d read Berlin’s story, I’d had a dream.

 

BENJAMIN ANASTAS

A dream!

OLIVIA CLARE

It was a dream about driving somewhere and getting lost. But the neighborhood was familiar somehow. I was sort of sad in the dream because of the time of day. It was the end of the day, not the beginning as it is in “What She Has.” It was that Sunday evening feeling, which is a melancholy I’ll never, never, never be able to shake.

 

BENJAMIN ANASTAS

Did you set the story in a familiar place? Is this Louisiana, where you’re originally from?

 

OLIVIA CLARE

I stayed in that dream world of not quite knowing where we are for the beginning of the story. But in my mind it is Louisiana. I dream of Louisiana often—the outdoors, the green, but also my childhood home, my neighborhood, my bedroom. I am never without that landscape, those shadows on my bedroom wall, my four-poster bed.

 

BENJAMIN ANASTAS

The thing that I admire about the relationships in the story is that there is a mutual exasperation—that both sides believe that they are doing a kind of charity work.

 

OLIVIA CLARE

I’d love to say a little more about character. Just an aside. Because when I came to fiction from poetry, as I said, the idea of characterization was new to me. But now it’s all I want to think about. And about this relationship—exactly. And this idea of course is inspired by Berlin’s story. What are we giving (emotionally) in a relationship, and what are we taking? What do we think we’re giving and taking, emotionally? What do they think we’re giving and taking? Thinking through all that can get you to the heart of some friendships.

 

BENJAMIN ANASTAS

What do you think Grace is looking for in the story?

 

OLIVIA CLARE

Intimacy. Connection. But specifically: intimacy and connection with another woman who could be a sisterly or maternal figure to her. Now we’re coming at the roots of this story: family making, atmosphere and setting (via the dream I had), and a challenge to myself to have the characters meet (as Berlin did). Ah! I am getting to know myself better already.

 

BENJAMIN ANASTAS

The last line is nicely ambiguous: “I explained to them everything I had until it was early morning and time for me to drive home to all I had in the dark.”

 

OLIVIA CLARE

I think a lot about sentences that are stories in and of themselves. I like to end my stories that way sometimes. That’s one thing I was trying to do with that last line. The poet strikes again.

 

BENJAMIN ANASTAS

Switching gears, does this mean your novel is a very long series of lines without line breaks?

 

OLIVIA CLARE

Someone the other day was reading a draft and said they felt that, yes, the novel is full of lines.

 

BENJAMIN ANASTAS

I mean, a lot of poets want to write novels, and some of them do, but I’ve met very few novelists who want to write poems. 

 

OLIVIA CLARE

I love the sentence. I adore the sentence. I love the line. I adore the line. I often will take my paragraphs and put them in lines and then put them back in prose. I have my students do it too. For poetry: I’ll put verse in prose and then back in verse. Revising along the way. It is time-consuming.

 

BENJAMIN ANASTAS

Can you talk about the novel at all, or are you still in the embargo period?

 

OLIVIA CLARE

Well. I have a drafty draft. Revisions start this week.

 

BENJAMIN ANASTAS

Having a drafty draft is a nice place to be.

 

OLIVIA CLARE

In Madness, Rack, and Honey, Mary Ruefle says something about finding a poem by her childhood self with “The End” written at the end of it. And she loves that. Because writing something is “indeed a great achievement,” she says. And I was remembering when I did that as a child—I wrote “The End”—at the end of a book report or something. That sense of accomplishment, even if the thing wasn’t done. Writing “The End” in pen and scrawling back over it again. I needed to write “The End” on this drafty draft to make me feel as though I had this drafty draft. And so I did, and then I did.

 

BENJAMIN ANASTAS

The End, it does feel satisfying to write it.

 

OLIVIA CLARE

The End, and then let’s start anew, begin again.

 


OLIVIA CLARE is the author of the short story collection, Disasters in the First World, from Black Cat/Grove Atlantic, and her novel is forthcoming from Grove Atlantic. She is also the author of a book of poems, The 26-Hour Day (New Issues). Her awards  include a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award (in fiction), the Olive B. O’Connor Fellowship from Colgate University (in poetry), a Ruth Lilly Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation, and a 2014 O. Henry Prize.

BENJAMIN ANASTAS is Fiction Editor of Bennington Review. He is on the Literature faculty at Bennington College and also teaches for the Bennington Writing Seminars MFA Program. 


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