An Immoderate Novel for an Immoderate Season: An Interview with Olivia Laing

Olivia Laing’s new novel, “Crudo,” is a fictionalized account of the summer of 2017, written in real time by Laing — from the perspective of Kathy Acker.

Bridey Heing | Longreads | September 2018 | 10 minutes (2,761 words)

 

As a non-fiction writer, Olivia Laing has made a name for herself by writing deeply empathic explorations of creativity and the human condition. Her 2011 debut, To The River, situates the River Ouse, in North Yorkshire, within history and culture, from its role in 13th century battles to the death of Virginia Woolf. Her follow-up, 2013’s The Trip to Echo Spring, focused on American writers and alcoholism. Her 2015 book, The Lonely City, interrogated loneliness as a state of being and as a catalyst for art. But with her fiction debut, Laing has pulled back from the closely researched subjects that have been her wheelhouse; instead, she broadly documents a seven-week span of time. And yet her  penchant for research still peaks through — the narrative is written from the perspective of a fictionalized Kathy Acker-esque avatar, whose books Laing kept piled around her for inspiration while she wrote.

Crudo opens with the resignation of Steve Bannon, which Kathy, a soon-to-be newlywed, follows on social media from a Tuscan resort. Her attention ricochets between the rapidly unfolding news cycle playing out online and her private world of friends, her upcoming wedding, and, eventually, adjusting to life with her new husband. As she writes and prepares for her first trip overseas without her husband, Kathy charts the frenetic energy of the summer of 2017, unsure of whether the end of the world is truly approaching.

That sense of confusion was what Laing sought to capture. She wrote the book in real-time, with carefully outlined rules that were designed to ensure she didn’t deviate from the emotional responses to a specific whirlwind moment. Kathy, who is based in part on Kathy Acker, is also based on Laing, who turned forty and got married within the time frame of the novel. Crudo was conceived of as a means of understanding the impossible speed at which the news seemed to move, while also preserving the feeling of instability and uncertainty she saw in herself and those around her.

Laing spoke to me from the UK, where she’s currently working on a book that was put on the back burner while she wrote Crudo. In our conversation, we spoke about Kathy Acker’s relevance to our current cultural and political moment, balancing personal life with political awareness at a time of extreme worry, and documenting history’s emotional reality.

Can you tell me a little about the origin of this book? I read that you were actually working on a different manuscript when you started writing Crudo?

I was in Italy and I was reading Chris Kraus’s book about Kathy Acker, The Biography of Kathy Acker. She was talking about Kathy Acker’s technique of appropriating other people’s books but changing them into the first person, and I thought, “That’s interesting. What would happen if I appropriated my own life and times? If I tried to tell the story of this particular moment but from the perspective of this sort of Kathy Acker-like character?”

This wasn’t a book I’d sold or a book I was even thinking would be published. It was really an experiment with myself, and it rapidly became apparent that it was a way I could get to grips with the sort of things that were happening and the speed at which they were happening. I could talk about that sense of disintegration, and the movement, and the mood — the whole feeling of onslaught with horrifying news stories. All the things that were going on in the summer of 2017, I was suddenly able to get to grips with in a way that I hadn’t been able to.

This wasn’t a book I’d sold or a book I was even thinking would be published. It was really an experiment with myself… It was a way I could get to grips with the sort of things that were happening and the speed at which they were happening.

What was it like, coming from very research-heavy non-fiction writing to this fiction debut? This feels like the extreme opposite end of the spectrum, writing in real time like this.

I had really strict rules with it. Part of the project I gave myself over the summer was that I had to write every single day, and I wasn’t allowed to edit or even reread what I’d written. So it really is a pouring out of this happened, then this happened, then this happened. That’s the complete opposite of how I normally write, which is very slow, very careful, lot of rewriting. When it came to publishing, the same rules applied, even though it has had a light edit. It needed to preserve that feeling of absolute rawness.

In terms of research, although it’s written on the hoof in a very immediate way, I think the underpinnings of it and the concerns of it very much come from the books I was working on before. It’s blasted by much deeper thinking about violence, about fascism, about social media, about news and numbness, or intense violence and the numbness that causes. Those are the central concerns of the book, and the outside architecture is much more about daily life and daily existence.

One of the book’s sort of primary devices is simply the perspective of Kathy, and I’m curious how you would characterize the relationship between Kathy the character, Kathy Acker, and yourself? How much blur is there between these three figures?

The Kathy of the book is a fictionalized character, and she’s based in part on Kathy Acker, so she has some elements of Kathy Acker’s biography. She’s written some of Kathy Acker’s books, she lived in the East Village in the 1980s, she has some of Kathy Acker’s familial structures. At the same time, she’s going through the circumstances that were going on in my life at the time. I was turning 40, I was getting married, and it has this day-to-day element of my own existence, but seen through the lens of this fictionalized character who has hyper intense reactions to everything. She is hyper anxious, hyper opposed to commitment, very paranoid. This cartoonish version let me deal with some of what it felt like to live in that moment in — not a realist way, but in a way that sort of felt like it got close to the emotional truth of what that was like.

Almost like permission to swing to that extreme rather than moderating in a way.

Yeah, because it didn’t feel like a moderate moment. Everyone I knew was glued to social media and so paranoid that people were talking about packing escape bags. None of that needed to happen, but at the same time what was happening was extremely grave and is having intense consequences now that weren’t necessarily predicted then. But the feeling of being in shock is very much of that summer. It’s not the same this summer. It’s quite different.

I feel like Kathy Acker is someone who I see referenced more and more over the past year or so. Having looked at our moment through her perspective in a way, is there something about Kathy Acker that makes her an interesting person through which to see what we’re going through right now?

I always loved Kathy Acker’s writing, but if we’d been having this conversation even three or four years ago I would have said, “She’s a fascinating experimental writer but very dated and very much of the ‘80s.” That was true until very recently, and then I think the world went through this drastic change and suddenly her concerns — abortion, terrorism, hyper violence, the rise of the right — are all the things we’re seeing in the news cycle day after day, and that makes her a really interesting writer to think about right now.

Then the other thing is that she’s a plagiarist. She takes whatever she needs from the canon — Don Quixote, Dickens — and she steals them. She puts them to her own ends to ask really complicated questions, in particular about violence and sexual agency. So it feels to me like she was absolutely central to right now, which is one of the reasons why whenever my character Kathy is writing anything, it’s from Kathy Acker. I had this massive pile, a stack of all of Kathy Acker’s novels in front of me, and I would open them sometimes at random and sometimes flipping through, but almost always finding lines from her books that reported on the moment we were in and the feelings of the moments we were in, especially the psychic sense of living through such dark times. It was all there in her work. I wanted to draw attention to how incredibly relevant she is right now.

So much of the discourse about this moment is that so much of it isn’t all that new, so it’s fascinating to think of her as a figure who was thinking and writing about these issues a couple decades ago.

In some cases, it’s the same people. It’s the same Republican politicians she was writing about who are still around now now. It’s mind-boggling to me, but of course the 1980s aren’t that long ago.


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The book is set last summer, and one of the things I found really fascinating is how you capture this really complex web of emotion that I’m sure a lot of people can relate to — the sense of constantly having to be paying attention but also of life going on in terms of the personal. As you were writing this, is that something that you found yourself wrapped up in, this kind of tug of war?

It was incredibly cathartic. It’s so grotesque — that idea that one minute you’re looking at news story about people in the floods in Houston and the next minute you’re going to a restaurant for your husband’s birthday dinner. That juxtaposition is horrifying, but yet it very much is the juxtaposition of daily life for people. That combination was something I really wanted to get down on paper.

What was in the back of my mind throughout the entire project, as a sort of relation to this, is Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood, where he’s very much doing the same thing. When it starts out, he’s in Berlin and having a jolly time making friends and having sexual relationships, and slowly, slowly it becomes apparent that the Nazis are coming into power. He goes to a beach and there are swastikas on the beach, and then within a year people are being taken to camps and tortured.

That sense that we’re in ordinary life and it’s very familiar, then it suddenly is not familiar is what I wanted to capture. I knew this moment would be historicized and talked about by historians, and once it was turned into a historical narrative, it would lose the confusion and paranoia and the oddness of ordinary life going on as usual. That was what I wanted to try to capture. [Historicizing] tidies it up. It gives it a forward structure. One of my friends said — and I quoted [this] in the book — that Comey got fired, and we don’t know how this is going to pan out, but in ten years time we’ll look back at it and know what the end game was, but in the moment you’re just befuddled and confused and scared. That sense of confusion felt important to document.

How does one learn to be less selfish? How does one learn to soften one’s borders? It’s a personal question, but it’s also a political question. That’s the same force that leads people to say ‘I don’t want immigrants in my country.’

There’s also this really fascinating tension with Kathy being someone who has always identified with being outside of the norm in terms of lifestyle and perspective, but now is leaning into stability at a time of really significant instability. Can you speak a little about that dichotomy?

My initial idea for the book was — and potentially I will still do this — was that it would be part of a quartet that looked at a woman’s life at 40, 50, 60, and 70. Part of my thinking was that these moments are so unrecorded. We think so much about being young and the aspirations we have when we’re young. We want to get a good job or get settled or get married. I wanted to think about what it’s like once those are attained and how complicated they can be. How complicated happiness can be, how complicated commitment can be, and how ugly some of the things you can discover about yourself are. If you think of it as a ‘happily ever after,’ it can be quite a surprise to find that oh things aren’t quite as peaceful as I was expecting.

This books feels very much like a partner to The Lonely City, which is so much about a particular kind of life and very much about all the political and social reasons one might be lonely. But Crudo is like, Hang on a minute, what about how a person is the author of their own loneliness? How one is creating this circumstance because it’s easier, and actually commitment is hard and couplehood is hard. What does that look like? That’s what I wanted to look at in Crudo, aside from the political landscape.

How does one learn to be less selfish? How does one learn to soften one’s borders? It’s a personal question, but it’s also a political question. That’s the same force that leads people to say I don’t want immigrants in my country — the desire to preserve your own existence at the expense of other people. That happens on multiple levels. It happens on a personal level and on a political, national level, and that’s sort of the informing question of the book.

In terms of Kathy sort of answering these big questions, the time frame of the book is interesting because it’s only a couple months, which isn’t that much time to really have this cleanly charted emotional change. You see inklings of growth, but no major transformations.

It’s stepping back and stepping forward and stepping back. Those tiny, tiny shifts — Can I? Maybe I can’t — seem really interesting to me, to go really close up on a life.

The novel starts on a fairly broad note in terms of what Kathy is taking in and observing — she’s talking about the people around her, the hotel, her soon-to-be husband — but by the end things have pulled in significantly; it ends on this note of really beautiful intimacy as she’s getting ready to go to the airport and leave her husband for the first time. In terms of an arc, although the novel is more of a record than a clean narrative, do you feel there’s something in it that speaks to how we as people respond to this kind of madness around us?

I think this might be where I slightly part company with Kathy the character. For her I think that that is kind of a resolution, that she’s accepting some level of this is where I’m based now, this is my domestic life. Whereas I think it’s important to stay politically engaged, and activism is important. But this isn’t my manifesto, this is an exploration of one character’s existence.

I think it is true that whatever else is going on in the world, we have a responsibility [to be political], but also being in that state of shocked horror and anxiety and incapacity to do anything isn’t a particularly helpful state. I think there are ways in which that line, “Love is the world, pain is the world,” is the basic acceptance you need to make before you can do anything. If you don’t understand the pain of the world, you can’t really help people or do anything about it. If you believe it’s an aberration that shouldn’t be there, you aren’t a particularly helpful person in the world, I don’t think.

What is it like looking back now, one year on? Did writing this give you a sense of how to deal with the frantic news cycle?

I’ve stopped being on Twitter now because I’ve realized it was really worth it, doing it for a year on that level, but I couldn’t function. I was never going to write another book unless it went on and on [with current events] like Crudo. I can’t process information at that kind of speed, so I pulled back and am working on nonfiction again. I’m working In libraries and archives in my old-fashioned way.

That moment was worth documenting but it wasn’t a moment I could live in forever. That era feels like it has ended for me, and I’m very grateful. I think I was going quite crazy as well. That is a document of a real sort of craziness, but one that was shared. When I speak to people about reading Crudo, they say that was what it felt like. But people now are more resigned and more capable of action. That was the shockwave moment and this is the digging in moment.

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Bridey Heing is a writer focusing on world literature and culture. She is an editorial adviser at The London Magazine and a contributing editor at World Literature Today. She has written for web and print publications in the US and the UK, including The Washington PostPacific StandardThe Daily BeastThe EconomistThe Times Literary Supplement, and Bust.

Editor: Dana Snitzky