Fall 1996, Volume 13.3
An Interview with Robert Olmstead
Robert Olmstead was born and raised in New Hampshire on a dairy farm not far from the banks of the Connecticut River. It's a landscape which informs much of his fiction—and his characters more often than not seem a part of the landscape or in revolt against it. Prior to attending Syracuse University's graduate program in creative writing, where he studied with Raymond Carver and Tobias Wolff, Olmstead worked as farmer, dish washer, house painter, laborer, rodbuster, butcher, road crew, cotton mill employee, carpenter, roofer, contractor and English teacher.
Since his first collection of stories, River Dogs (Vintage Contemporaries, 1987), Olmstead has charted a unique course in American fiction. Tobias Wolff has written, "Robert Olmstead is a nation unto himself, or at least a province in revolt; an original in the American grain, shrewd, funny, interested in the convention only for what he can get out of it"
He followed the stories in River Dogs with three novels, Soft Water (1988), A Trail of Heart's Blood Wherever We Go (1990), and America by Land (1993). With each book, Olmstead's prose has become more layered and lyrical.
Olmstead's work has appeared in numerous journals as well. He has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Pennsylvania Council for the Arts.
Olmstead's new book, Stay Here with Me, portrays a week in the life of an eighteen year old boy on the verge of moving away from the farm and grandfather who has through his wits and wiles dominated a family. In this memoir, a love affair becomes as important as the tasks which are always at hand on a farm, and the telling of the story becomes a labor, an art unto itself. At one point he writes, "What I told and what I didn't tell were two different things, honesty becoming its own best deception, the truth getting in the way of truth and finally it doesn't matter."
It's Brattleboro, Vermont where this interview takes place, a 20-minute drive from Westmoreland, a bridge across the river from New Hampshire. But it is a very different place. "New Hampshire," Olmstead quips, "is the land time forgot." I met with Robert Olmstead at the studio of Susan Osgood, an abstract painter, a colorist, who has exhibited throughout the United States, Europe and the Middle East. Osgood also grew up in Westmoreland; they have known each other since childhood. Each has traveled far. Each returns. Osgood's yearly trips to Egypt under the auspices of the University of Chicago's Epigraphic Survey, a part of the Oriental Institute, continues to influence the voice in her work, as do the clashing, muted and stark colors of that landscape. Olmstead and Osgood get together two or three times a year. During this interview, she was working on a large canvas, greens and browns and yellows laid down and repeated.
Read fiction by Robert Olmstead published in this edition of Weber Studies.
Zenowich: Some people seem to be born knowing they want to be writers, and others find or develop the desire to be writers. Which is it, nature or nurture?
Olmstead: Being a writer was always a fancy idea to me. I was intimidated by people who spoke with such conviction. Still am. I don't know where the confidence comes from. Writing is a hard thing to do. Until you have something, you actually have nothing. There are no directions, no recipes, no blueprints. Making art is the leaving behind of all that. I don't know how people can have such confidence about something that does not yet exist. It has its requirements whether it's your first story or your tenth or fiftieth story. Those requirements do not change. Making art is a hard thing to do. It can kill you.
Zenowich: Given that, didn't you have a sense of beginning? An inkling that you wanted to write?
Olmstead: Yes. I guess it was an inkling. It was always a secret idea though. I would write, but it was never something I fessed up to. A closet writer. But also, there were a lot of things I wanted to do, still are. Writing was one of those way off dreams, and as long as I hadn't tried it, it was something I hadn't failed at. It was always in my mind, a place to go when life wasn't as beautiful as I wanted it to be.
Zenowich: Was story telling a big part of your family?
Olmstead: No. My family rarely talked, it being New Hampshire and all. It's a cliché isn't it? The idea of families sitting around the summer porch telling stories, swapping lies in the dark. It was the stories they didn't tell, the things you didn't hear. That's where my imagination kicked in. The people in my family were not great story tellers, but how I grew up, I was constantly witness to significant and dramatic events.
Zenowich: Some of your stories do seem so rooted in the characters you grew up around, in the ways they express themselves.
Olmstead: A friend, Bill Morrissey, tells a story about being in Barstow, California, playing guitar, singing. These were the early days for him and late one night he called L. L. Bean just to talk. He wanted to hear the sound of a voice from back home. I guess it's that simple.
Zenowich: Didn't you begin to think of yourself as a writer at some point, though? In some way stories begin to form up in your mind and you want to write them down?
Osgood: But that question assumes that writing is about words, that it comes out of story-telling, but maybe your writing comes out of something else, something more visual, like what they didn't say, like what was left to your imagination? Silence more than sound.
Olmstead: Silence more than sound. Like how blank pages, blank canvas are so very quiet. I think too, being afforded aloneness. Most people have a problem with that. Aloneness is not an accepted way to be. You need it and desire it, but it can be so relentless. It takes a certain kind of bravery. You can get that room of your own, but then what do you do with it? It can be terrifying. I think writing is unique insofar as it takes forever alone to create and then the experiencing of it by the reader is long and alone. No performance, no showing, no gathering of a crowd and yet you become so intimate with the readers and writers you never know. You always maintain a distance from what is before you and what is inside you. Most artists I know can be pretty cold at the bone, not so feeling as one might think. I was thinking about this last night when I was out walking and it was so dark, so completely dark. Where I live now, the night isn't so dark. There are street lights and town lights. I had forgotten how really dark it could be and was really moved by that.
Zenowich: How so?
Olmstead: I'm not sure yet. Either the simple idea of how very dark it can get in the woods, or better yet, how I forgot how really dark it can get in the woods at night. But again it's that blankness, that emptiness, that aloneness. I was set back by it all over again. I'd become complacent maybe and it came to present itself all over again. I thought, that's what it really is. It's like that in extreme sun, sunlight so bright you walk around half blind, can't see a thing. Like, I know my hand but I can't see it. I recently went to the Edward Hopper exhibit at the Whitney. Hopper said something like, he was re-creating the reality outside himself through the reality inside himself. I've probably torn that up a bit, but you get the idea.
Zenowich: New subject, starting from the other end. What role does you editor play in all this? In the upcoming book specifically?
Olmstead: It was extraordinary to see. Four and five page movements lined out. Almost fifty pages. Sometimes what you love the most you keep hanging around, but it's just got to go. It's what got you to the place you had to go, and then it has to be dismantled, like scaffolding, or rope work. You can't be precious about such things. You've got to say, now here's this thing in front of me and I love it, but it isn't working. Just pray that by then you are in the hands of a good, kind editor. Talented editors are far more rare than talented writers. I have been fortunate in that regard.
Zenowich: Something like that doesn't really translate into advice for young writers—it seems an individual has to come to that under standing. Was that the case for you?
Olmstead: You have to get over it, being precious. It's a constant. We all start out dumb as hell and we defend our dumbness. We go out of it kicking and screaming. I think how in Bonsai, the tree never occupies the center, so there is always a place for God. Maybe it goes so far. Being made to leave that small center ground, leave some emptiness, a place for you and the reader and God to come back to. The art I admire the most has always invited me in and made a place for me. That's the glory of Raymond Carver. It's what Ray didn't write that is so beautiful. There are also places you create for yourself. I'm told that Navajo rug makers always weave a thread that exits the pattern giving the artist a way to leave the work once it's complete. To do this is an act of will. To gain mastery is a decision you make. It's a risk you take. Artists work as hard as farmers and loggers and construction workers and miners. There's a lot of understanding you have to come to. This is something that is constantly teaching itself to me, over and over again.
Zenowich: You did your apprentice work at Syracuse?
Olmstead: Yes. I was there in the early eighties.
Zenowich: Do you believe that writing programs tend to produce mimics?
Olmstead: I don't know. That's the rap on writing programs. Look at the people who were there. We all sat in the same workshops, and whose work is similar? Similar to Carver or Wolff? To me, it's like how everything I eat, needs a little hot sauce. Is that the same thing as saying these writers mimic each other? Writers influence each other, the same way all artists are in a dialogue, but it reaches a point where the imitation fails of its own weight if that's all you're doing. I've read such commentary. Seems like a waste of ink. Why don't those writers spend their time making art instead of complaining? But teaching imitators like that, the center will never hold. So when you ask about literary influences, I'd have to say The Count of Monte Cristo, Kenneth Roberts, the forty-five Hardy Boy books I read in seventh grade, books about guns and ivory, lost boys and black horses and rafting south on big muddy rivers. Everything I ever read. A book titled, The Doctors who Conquered Yellow Fever, by Ralph Nading Hill. But again, art itself is a dialogue. It fills in where there are no words. For the artist there is no given and at the same time there are a lot of givens. The dialogue is a conversation among writers, painters, musicians. The dialogue is among artists, long dead or still alive, famous and obscure, a grand improvisation.
Zenowich: Yellow fever? A book about that influenced you?
Olmstead: Yes. I checked it out of the Westmoreland town library when I was a kid. It's just a little one room library. It was built in 1830 and was a schoolhouse until 1902. So I went there last year and found the book and I asked the librarian if I could have it and in return I gave her a copy of my novel, America by Land. She was a good librarian. But I am moved to say all about our kinship with books, the blood ties we feel. Words written and lived and imagined and wondered, they cross our lives again and again.
Zenowich: What is it about those first books we read, about reading?
Olmstead: I can never remember a time when I wasn't reading, where I didn't have two or three books going at once. Books spoke to me. They were a means of conveyance. They lifted and moved, made me be better than I was. Books made me think outside myself. My father was a reader and took me to the library and when I was old enough, I'd ride my bicycle there every Saturday. Getting my hands on books was an adventure. Peddling those seven miles was the way to everywhere. And I am indiscriminate. I can't be without something to read. Magazines, newspapers. I love well-stocked newsstands. As good as a bookstore. I buy three newspapers and four magazines. I'll buy anything, yachting, architecture, art, hook and bullet, home building, magazines of what is called popular culture. It's my understanding that for all the talk of the info highway, what's happening with books and zines is an explosion of the written word.
Zenowich: So you read a lot of nonfiction?
Olmstead: Anything with good stuff, grit, facts, information. This book by Whynott, blue tuna fishing, I'm looking forward to it. The Japanese are paying forty grand a piece for them and it's spawned this industry with spotter planes and guys out to get no more than three a year. You'll see it on TV. Take TV and radio, those two modern day miracles. Nine times out of ten, whatever they're talking about, it's already been published in a book, newspaper or magazine. The info highway? What good is information without authorship, without context, without editing? It's really silly. E-mail? Who has all that much to say? People running off at their keyboards. I don't get it. Delete buttons should have a rewarding feel to them.
Zenowich: What are your habits as a writer? What do you think about keeping a journal? And about this thing people call journaling?
Olmstead: Journaling isn't really a word, is it? Journals of a current fashion are not interesting to me. They've become a place where people are told they can reveal unto themselves, can self-medicate, self-therapy. To me what is interesting to record is how many people died at Gettysburg, my mother's recipes, phone numbers and addresses. My journals are filled with photos, menus, the number of miles between Brattleboro and Springfield. If I'm writing and I want to know what's on the menu in this Mexican restaurant where my characters are eating then I have it. If I am going to write, which I do not like to do, then I'm going to do my work. I don't know what I'd write about in a journal when it comes to myself. I'm not very interesting to myself.
Zenowich: It's more of a commonplace book for you, like Auden's?
Olmstead: Yes. It's a reservoir of information that stays with me, that I decide to record. Maybe I will use it. Or maybe never use it directly, but allow it to inform something I'm writing. It's really a useless thing for much else, just scraps. But your question was after something more. My ideas about my work, its trajectory, its breath, its interior, its life of sorts these thoughts I hold close. It is like I have all these watches and they are working and some I know the insides of and some I don't. Of the ones I don't, I have idea and suspicion and sometimes true reckoning, but no matter, I don't care to think out loud on my work. As soon as I say something, I would have to dispute it. Let me put it this way: I am not really interested in what I think about when I think about what I do. John Cage, on composing, said, My brain is giving me instructions and I am carrying them out. I should say the same. It is the truest way I think for artists and thinkers and scientists. At the most uninteresting level we can talk about maps and tools and means of transport, can show how these are available to all, can discuss how intricate the map, how fine the tools, how complex the transport, but in the end, we are no closer to discovery. So the questions remain: what is my work, how do I do my work, where has it been and where is it going? I have ideas and my work is evidence of those ideas, my work is there to speak on my behalf. The ambition is to always write the story I cannot write.
Osgood: So back to the question. How is it we come to move words or colors around on a page or canvas, obliterate them, go over them, take a break? Until something we envision in our heads is the composition we have before us?
Olmstead: That's an interesting word, 'composition.' We don't do compositions in school anymore; students aren't asked to compose.
Zenowich: What do we have then, a 'discourse experience'?
Olmstead: They essay. Remember when we used to do compositions? Inside there is the word, compose. I don't hear the word composition used in relation to writing much, do you? But to compose is an artful act. It links writing to the rest of the arts, to music and painting. The idea in that word is that there are a multitude of elements all in some kind of dynamic. That's basic to art, to writing. It's like how light is waves and particles at the same time. But the question, how do we artists do what we do? Talk about talent, technique, perspiration, inspiration, the artist rap. Can't say just what it is, but I can say it's like how some kids dam up streams and pile sticks and make mudpies. Seems like a small step from there to building a five hundred foot pyramid or writing a frail little poem of a dozen words. Both are just as real and forever.
Zenowich: But at the same time, we talk about technique. Don't writers talk about pushing a word around like it's a color, a paint on the canvas? And isn't that what craft is all about?
Osgood: For painters, it's a beginning, but it's a myth that there are these ingredients to be learned, that there is a beginning and some known end. It just doesn't work like that.
Olmstead: Same with writers. The idea of craft seems the least interesting aspect of the work. Necessary, but simply the parts that in and of themselves do not add up to a whole. I think it has as much to do with the eye and the ear, with making something that is revealing itself to you again and again.
Osgood: Don't you think the process of writing, composing and painting are similar? You have a vision, an idea of where you want the piece to end up? Yet, you have never painted it, you've never told it until you've done it.
Olmstead: I think that's true. You never tell a story until you've told it. The writing makes the story. Otherwise you're foiled every step of the way. You try to write the story you can't. You write to find out how it's going to end. (To SO) It works that way in painting, doesn't it? How do you get the distance you need?
Osgood: You're not talking about the size of my studio? (laughter) No matter how you start you never know where you're going. It's like the Japanese, who when they see a beautiful sunset, bend over and look at it between their legs. I'm always looking in mirrors at my own work. You want to turn the painting upside down. You want to see it with fresh eyes. It's like this story I heard about Thelonius Monk, that he used to go around his house and tilt all the frames of the paintings on his wall just slightly crooked. He couldn't stand to see art perfectly centered.
Zenowich: And how does this relate to fiction?
Olmstead: Maybe how often you run into a spate of fiction that has the feeling of perfection, pure and cleansed. And for every reason possible, it should work. Except it is just so bloodless. There's no thumbprint, no voice. It's all just beautiful writing. And there's no sense of discovery. It's all familiar territory to the writer. It's been rehearsed and the writing is a performance. It's all craft and no art.
Zenowich: You're not talking about simple surprise, plot surprise?
Olmstead: No. Absolutely not. Because earned surprise in fiction is never implausible. It's consistent with the world the fiction evokes, something unexpected yet inevitable. There's a recognition. It's not so entirely out of our ken. There's something like DNA that leads to that development.
Zenowich: To what extent is that experience, that surprise the reader's rather than the writer's?
Olmstead: It can be both. And it's not unlike the contention that readers write books. But don't think that is an idea worth genuflecting before. You can say listeners compose the music, viewers create the painting. None of this is news. The invitation is to participate, to interact, to be a part of. Please bring yourself to this work. Rise to it or I have failed. Where I disagree is when an academic disappears the writer, the artist. No. Don't do that. It's selfish and ungrateful. At its most academic level, the intentional fallacy has some abstract cogency a work is not valuable simply because the artist succeeded in what he wanted to do. But the argument that intention does not count is specious. Every writer writes one's own criticism, one's own map for reading, and it's in every work of art. And any reader can find it. It's always there. Writers are always showing you how they want to be read. This thing of finding critical models is a one-size-fits-all mentality. I can't imagine anything of the mind that is more uninteresting.
Zenowich: What is a writer's place in the academy? Is it bad for your writing to be around academics?
Olmstead: Writers are an irrefutable authority on what they have written. Theory too often precedes literature and reading lists are devised to bear up theory. It's really skewed. And it seems to me that a lot of academics just don't read much. They read whatever the little pen light of their focus shines upon, and that's it. They have opinions about opinions. I was told by a professor recently that she only read women writers. I asked her if she'd accept such an attitude from one of her students. She didn't have an answer. I confess I don't know anymore what moves readers who are capital C critics, don't know what delights them. Maybe being smart and being thought of as smart. I don't know what their intent is. I think for writers, it is an unsophisticated, age old affair beginning with a call to the page, the feel of words coming out your fingertips, flowing blue onto yellow lined paper and at some point you hand it to someone and they laugh, or cry, or lose their breath, or go all fearful about the eyes and not because you've told them something they didn't know, but because you've given words to something they've felt all along. Look, it's really hard to be smart. It's hard work. I wouldn't want that burden, but your question. It's like this art departments have artists around, drama departments have actors around, geology departments have boxes of rocks. Why there isn't more dialogue between scholars and artists, I have no idea. Writers are a primary source. Most people don't know where books come from or how they get written, don't know what takes place in the years between the blank page and bookshelf. I'll say, writers are some to blame. They spend their time alone and like hermits, they tend to forget where they end and the world begins. But sometimes I think if a young promising scholar can create a relationship with a young promising writer there could be some magic.
Zenowich: How was your experience of writing a memoir different from writing fiction?
Olmstead: I hadn't written anything in the first person in years. So that had a new feel for me. Also, I hadn't written in the past tense in a long time and Stay Here with Me, is both, first person and past tense. It opened up time for me. There were expansions laterally, shifts from the distant past to the present of the writer. So the first draft actually became heavily weighted toward my thoughts, my ruminations. But in rewrite, an act committed in cold blood, much of that was driven from the book.
Zenowich: Back to writing and story-telling. What is the difference for you between writing and story-telling?
Olmstead: Okay. It's all about story, but not about story at all. I don't think writing is about story, I think writing is about writing. It's rarely talked about, the art of it. Somehow writing has been separated from art like Egypt from Africa. Most people seem to think we all have stories to tell. But, no, it isn't that way. It is an art form, its discrete, it's learned, it's self-taught. And then you fold away all that you have learned. It becomes foundation to build on. You thought about prepositions and conjunctions the way painters thought about brush strokes in their long apprenticeship. You need to always be learning what you know. Whatever the fashionable theory might say. The experience of the writer and the experience of the reader are markedly different. Story can be discussed and that passes for literary discussion in most classrooms, but voice is rarely if ever discussed and for the writer, voice is everything.
Zenowich: Where does the impulse come from, the license to write?
Olmstead: It's an act of will, pure and simple. People talk about finding the time, needing the time. Life for the most part is a waste of time, waiting for this or that. So write on your feet. Memorize it into your head and when you get the time, write it down. I am always stealing the time to write.
Zenowich: Is that how you found the time to write the stories in River Dogs?
Olmstead: Actually it is. I'd compose in my head. I'd be on a roof or feeding cows, something that did not require the whole of my brain and I'd compose. I'd have two or three pages in my head and when I got the time I'd write them out long hand. The memory isn't kind to tedious or attenuated action. And I always felt like I was doing something I shouldn't be doing. Now it's different. I now know that I'm a writer, and this is what I will be doing until I die. I will write.
Zenowich: That's scary?
Olmstead: Yeah, that's frightening. It's like the story, "Walking out with Syd," that's a writer's story. It's a story about the mind, and not a story about life. It's that sense that I used to live what I wrote about, and now I don't. At least not so much. It's a different story for me. It's like a punctuation mark. It feels strange to be in such a story where so much is blended and melted together.
Zenowich: Does that mean your writing is becoming more self-reflexive? Maybe you were just using it to conjure memories?
Olmstead: Maybe. There were moments in the memoir when I would break from the story itself and I would come forward in time and be the writer, the person looking back. All this philosophizing on the nature of writing, nature of memory, nature of this and that. It's really the writing you do for yourself to get story. Most all of that was edited out. I tell people that I was the least interesting aspect of my memoir! I like that.
Zenowich: Yet you've kept in touch with your roots in New Hampshire, you've made it a landscape in some sense like the stage in a Greek drama universal emotions and concerns being played out in a very specific, very real context—that in itself doesn't seem to be an art of the mind, a self-reflexive creative act.
Olmstead: I received a letter from a bookseller in Mississippi. He told of how he admired my work and said, there isn't much different between your waters and ours, your woods and ours, your rivers and ours I liked that. I felt my place to be connected to the world. It's the same in France and Germany, but the U.K.—who knows what goes through their minds? I'm really mystified at how imperial Professors of British Literature can be, no matter how liberal. But to your comment—the landscape is on the inside. America by Land is set in the Southwest. My characters see it for the first time as I saw it for the first time. I took myself there and how and what they saw was how and what I saw.
Zenowich: When you went to Syracuse University, to the graduate writing program, what was it that made you enter the writing program?
Olmstead: Nothing more than deciding to finally take the chance I'd been anticipating. It was as if some stars came into order and I saw my way clear to do it. In all honesty I didn't know who Toby Wolff and Ray Carver were. I was raw and green. At the time, Toby wasn't as well known. And writers knew about him and Ray, but they didn't have the audience they were about to reach in just a few more years. Neither was as well known then. So it wasn't like I was on a mission to work with them. I read now about graduate writing programs courting potential students like they're star athletes. They're given fellowship offers from any number of places. It's only been in the last few years that I can look back and see what a charmed time that was. But even then, I didn't feel like a student in the program. I was working and going to classes at night.
Zenowich: What were you doing for work back then?
Olmstead: I was teaching in the public school, raising a few heifers and during the summers running a construction business. I was busy doing all those things I wanted to do. So it was just luck to be there with Toby and Ray. Now it seems writing programs have finally caught up with art and music programs. Not just a few places, but quite a few. And that's the way it should be. They are a place where someone can go for two or three years and be mentored. A place where you can figure out if writing is something you want to do. And that's what it was for me. Especially with Toby Wolff. He was the one who saw something in my writing, and wouldn't let me turn away from it. And it was his conviction that became my conviction. He asked no more of me than he asked of himself. That work ethic, those habits of the mind and generosity, the sheer generosity of it all, the passing along of something like touch, something arcane… Let me put it this way. I have worked on jobs where carpenters turn their back to you when doing complex procedures to deny you what they know and I appreciate that, but artists are so unlike that in their attitude to their work. I'll tell you everything I know and do, hoping you'll catch on in your own way, but truth is, no one can do what I am going to do next. Hell, I don't even know what I'm going to do next.
Zenowich: As a teacher yourself, do you find that hard to do? Does a writing teacher teach craft? Or is it something else? Finding the writer in the person who is your student?
Olmstead: Yes. It is different. At least for me. I think that being a writer involves something that runs way down deep, and if that isn't touched, I just don't care. I know so many writers who are so smart, so skilled, but I think that there is something more. I like to see the fingerprints. As I have said before, I like to see the ink a little spit-wet. I like the things writers do for themselves in their writing. I like to see intuitive leaps. I like wisdom on the page. Tell me something smart. Show me something I have not seen. Make it new.
Zenowich: So is there a risk to a beginning writer in going to a graduate writing program? Olmstead: You can fail. You can lose your nerve. Yes, in another sense you can try to learn too much. That's the strength of Toby Wolff as a writer and teacher. He's always nudging you to remember what you already know, and this is what you have to learn. A story that was eventually published in River Dogs, Carver'd go, It's a good story, Bob, but it's rough as a cob. Or he'd say, It's a keeper. It's like you have a deep well and just keep pulling up those buckets of water… Ray was a mischief. He had a spirit that came from way off, but Toby… what's to say? It was ten years ago. In writer time it could be yesterday. I still have the manuscript he worked on. I could show it to you, him reading me and holding me up to myself, not letting me turn away. Writers have certain habits of the mind and that's something he taught me to have. I learned to have that from him.
Zenowich: Is that like saying that craft and technique are the abstract, the academic component, but voice is what is felt?
Olmstead: Right. You can know all the techniques. But unless you have something that pinches a nerve, you don't have much. And you either like that feeling, or you don't. Sometimes good writing makes you squirm inside. Reading a true writer, encountering that voice, isn't necessarily leisure activity.
Zenowich: What does reading that kind of writing make you want to write?
Olmstead: For me, coming upon the work of Wolff and Carver was a new experience. I don't know how to explain it. It seemed fiction at the time was either a kind of super fiction or the non-drama of suburban malaise. You either had talking walls, pulsating pipes and monkeys under bars, or family fault lines at poolside. It all seemed silly and affected. No I take that back. It just didn't seem to have a place for me. And then you come across a book like Harrison's Legends of the Fall. It was so different. It's actually a western, old fashioned, classic tale telling. You know, there's no dialogue in that book? Or virtually none. At the time, it was so different from the prevailing literary fashions. But I'd have to extend the sources of inspiration to include music, or architecture, or anything with some passion or an element of the new in it. Even that walk in the dark I took the other night. It was an event, an unusual event.
Zenowich: You think artists are lightning rods for those kinds of impulses?
Olmstead: In a sense, yes. Artists walk around dragging these nerve endings about ten feet long. Dragging them through life that way. And whatever comes across them fires itself in. And you either hold onto it, or let it pass through. It can be a name in an obituary, a phrase, something that sparks. Always in the midst, always enthralled with the blind truth and the subtle gesture, always intimate with the creation, always dusty from the stone cut away. I heard a story the other day about a man whose wife had leukemia. There were $300,000 in medical bills, and the only thing he could do was divorce her and leave for Michigan. That way the government would pick it [the bill] up. Right? Wrong? Well, at the bottom that's what he had to do. I think that's a powerful story. But again, that's not what writing is about. It's what writing looks and sounds like. It's not the music; it's the musician.
Zenowich: Isn't that true of painting? Why paint a sunset or a moonlit night, when the thing itself is more beautiful?
Osgood: I agree. Picasso said, I can draw like Raphael, but it's taken me a lifetime to draw like a child. For me, it's creating a direct link with the canvas, that's the ambition. It's just putting stuff down. It's not what you know, but what you don't know that keeps you going back again and again. So it can't be about words or images when it's all said and done. It goes beyond that.
Olmstead: Yet isn't that what painting is all about: different ways of seeing things? They really are the height of metaphor. I think writing and painting share this in common: you wouldn't pretend to paint a sunset or a moonlit night perfectly. That would be too arrogant, too godlike to presume to do something like that. Reference it. Create a key into it so that you can put it in the hands of someone who can have that experience, that interpretation. It's drawing that experience out into 200 pages, or that canvas, or piece of music, so someone can be given it like a gift, Here's a sunset for you; here's a piece of life set in amber. It isn't about me or words or images; it's about you.
Zenowich: But is that experience of reading related to the experience of creation?
Olmstead: I don't think writing is something you can call real, or natural. It's not like that. Most writing is as unnatural as most painting, as unnatural as music. Life, experience, the world—these are antecedents. There is sound. There is the alphabet. We've got 26 letters, 26 shapes to work with. You write a dialogue and people say, that sounds so real, like how people really talk. No, dialogue is an appearance. Dialogue is those six or seven words that find their way into you, into some fold of the brain, an entire vision, an entire experience comes forward to you from some seam of life. The writer/artist doesn't tell you something new, but something you've known all along, that you just didn't realize. My gosh, 26 letters and look at the good and the bad that gets done.
Zenowich: And is that the most writers can hope for?
Olmstead: I don't know. I think that's pretty good. It's becoming a media world, information for the sake of information, capacity searching for need. Fiction writers keep on doing what they do. A man or a woman, alone, not wired in, not of a web or net or community, doing what they do, making up a single useless thing the world does know it needs and then the world can't turn away from it. Same for all artists.
Zenowich: And are they real or true to life?
Olmstead: They are real. But do I believe Art is life? Writing can be like life, those people seem so real to me, etc. etc., no. No, maybe that's the ambition you have as a writer, to recreate that experience, but is it the same as it really is? No. And what people are reading on the page is not the experience, not the music I heard, but the metaphor. And that's much larger. The artist creates something that begins without place in the world. No reason for it to be. It's a way to say something that can't be said in any other way, and it takes every word to say what the meaning is. You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate. Stories are experienced by the reader and the writer and in the best books these experiences move us profoundly, they become our bibles and as with all experience, they last inside us in ways we cannot anticipate.
Zenowich: And yet what people read can affect them? Can reach them?
Olmstead: Yes. But the reach is like the reach of the sacred. It isn't sacred, but like that. Books frame the so big, so long, so often discouraging life. They give us a small way to see ourselves, to see what isn't like us at all. They do what we all wish we could do at the snap of our fingers and that is to arrest time. They allow us to say, that's what I meant to say, that's what I felt, that's what I wanted to tell you. They have arbitrary and significant beginnings and endings. They leave room for us to find respite, find knowledge, to be provoked, to participate and then withdraw on our own terms. Art is human insofar as it breathes and lives and grows. Notions that art informs and instructs, makes us better, makes us worse, makes love or hate. That's silly. There is no physics of art, no cause and effect, no capacity for social engineering, good or bad. Yet some persist. We read for racial or cultural identity, teach dance so people won't kill each other. A lot of artists are complicitous, have to be to get the grant, to legitimize the endeavor. But art is its own self. It defines itself, exists of itself. It has mysterious origins. I cannot turn away from it. That's it. No more; no less. For some people this is okay, while for others it's frightening. They need reasons. Art is not a tool, is not therapeutic, is not of governments, or race, or gender, or culture. All of those readings abuse art and diminish the artist. Those readings tell on the reader, not the artist.
Osgood: It's like the person I met, another painter too. She was at a show of mine. She came up to me at the end of the night and said my paintings frightened her.
Olmstead: She used the word frightened?
Olmstead: That's really strange, her being another painter. She's the one who shouldn't be injured. She should have already built up some kind of fright quotient. And if a painting can be that fresh for her, that distrubing, isn't that great…. It's like you beat the house at blackjack.