Lance Olsen is the author of over twenty-five fiction and nonfiction books concerning experimental and cross-genre representations of historical and mythologic narratives. His recent work includes My Red Heaven (Dzanc, 2020) and Dreamlives of Debris (Dzanc, 2017) as well as the ongoing installation No Place Like Time, in collaboration with his wife and fellow artist, Andi Olsen, at the Zweiful & Zweiful gallery in Berlin. Olsen also holds a handful of awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, two fellowships from the National Endowment of the Arts, and a Pushcart Prize. Currently, he teaches experimental narrative theory and practice at the University of Utah. On May 9, 2021, editorial assistant Alec Witthohn corresponded with Olsen over email to get his thoughts on the craft and his story “A Thousand White Ibises,” published in the Summer 2021 issue of Colorado Review.
Alec Witthohn: I wanted to start off by asking you about the historical events of this story. Do you remember where you were when the Challenger suffered a catastrophic failure?
Lance Olsen: I remember exactly. I had begun my first job as assistant professor at the University of Kentucky the year before. On the morning of 28 January 1986, I didn’t happen to look at the news before heading up to campus, but rather went directly to my office to look over my notes for my twentieth-century British literature seminar, then directly to class. The students looked stunned as I walked through the door, like they didn’t quite know how to behave. I asked them what was up, and they told me what had just happened. I asked if they’d like to cancel class. They said absolutely not. And so we spent the next seventy-five minutes talking about how death and uncertainty feel, how our culture never prepares us for those emotions, how maybe literature can help at times like that, and how maybe it can’t.
AW: There’s a line in here I wanted to talk about. You write, “All but Christa McAuliffe’s name will be immediately forgotten . . .” How does this work confront more familiar or privileged narratives? How might the process of forgetting come into play here?
LO: I’m sure if you asked most people, they would, at best, associate Christa McAuliffe’s name with the disaster. Most don’t know that the evidence points to the crew cabin surviving the initial catastrophe, all or most of the astronauts surviving for minutes until impact with the ocean. What I’m interested in is investigating historical corners that are often forgotten by the dominant narratives. I want to hear the voices that haven’t been so much silenced as never allowed to speak. I’m interested in investigating the stories our culture has sanitized or allowed to slip from memory. And I’m interested in forms that challenge the reader to break with habitual reading strategies in order to re-see and re-feel—in order, in a sense, to remember the complexities, the richnesses, the dangers in that strange, miraculous activity we call reading.
AW: What kind of concerns do you have when writing fiction about real people?
LO: I’m not sure we can ever write about real people—including ourselves—in fiction, nonfiction, or poetry. I think what we write about is the impossibility of writing about real people. How, after all, could we possibly have access to another consciousness, let alone our own, in any complete way? I’m committed to fiction as empathy machine, yet know the attempt will always lead to failure. That’s what writing does at its most important—it allows us to try to see the world as another human might, knowing we will founder and try again and founder again and so on. The same is the case, at least in my mind, about any historical event. Writing about history is always-already about the problematization of pastness, always an approximation.
AW: There are a couple instances in “A Thousand White Ibises” where a character’s dialogue is nothing more than an ellipsis. Could you speak a bit about the role space and silence play in this piece?
LO: We often think of the page in fiction as a kind of clear pane of glass through which we fall into the story. I like to conceive of the page differently—as a space of performance, as an integral part of the telling. When I look at a piece of fiction, I read how white space and silence are deployed, how one can summon them in different ways for different purposes. For me, white space here suggests not only encroaching silence, but impending death, an increasing entropic dissolution, the ultimate splash into blankness.
AW: There are moments in this story where you depict the Challenger’s mechanical failures in equal parts beauty and tragedy. Is there an intersection between ethics and aesthetics and, if so, what does it show us?
LO: Yesterday was Thomas Pynchon’s birthday—8 May. One of my many favorite lines of his is: “Why should things be easy to understand?” What I like to think he meant to imply, even if he didn’t, is this: that aesthetics invariably suggest an ethics; that easy, comfortable, conventional aesthetics suggest an easy, comfortable, conventional ethics that eschews nuance, complexity, deep thinking and feeling. I’ve always been drawn to work whose structure suggests a philosophy of complication. I’m thinking of, say, Joyce’s Ulysses and Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, or, much more recently, Jenny Erpenbeck’s Go, Went, Gone and Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights.
AW: Some of your other work focuses on continental figures like Hieronymus Bosch or Friedrich Nietzsche. Does your approach or view of the story change when you’re writing something that takes place in America?
LO: That’s a fascinating question. I haven’t really thought about in those terms before, but when I write about continental figures I tend to stay much more tightly in their consciousnesses for extended periods of time. Here, of course, the blips into consciousness are much shorter, more concentrated, and there is a lot more emphasis on action than in much of my work. I want to leap from there into some large generalization about the continental imagination versus the American, but I shall hereby force myself to refrain.
AW: What was behind your decision to write about the Challenger? What lessons does this story have? Why is it relevant for a modern audience?
LO: At the largest level, the narrative of the Challenger disaster is simply a retelling of the Icarus myth, an ur-narrative that is always relevant—especially, in my mind, in Bruegel’s brilliant visual retelling in “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus.”
AW: Finally, to zoom out, commercial space flight has opened up access to outer space for private citizens. Do you think this new access will also open up new literary spaces for fiction writers?
LO: I tell my students that their real mission as writers will be to find a way to tell the contemporary without merely abandoning or merely perpetuating the past. Each, of course, will find their own way to do so. If that’s even just a little bit true, I suspect commercial space flight, and every other change that’s bound to happen over the next, say, quarter century—from overpopulation to the further depletion of our natural resources, climate change, the rise in populist/authoritarian regimes to generate illusions of order, the rise in fanatical religions (ditto), perpetual pandemics, the intensification of surveillance capitalism, the proliferation of virtual reality, and so on—will open up literary spaces that we can’t even begin to begin to imagine now. You can bet the near future is going to be a ride that may just make that of the Challenger look like a walk in the park.
Lance Olsen’s newest novel, Skin Elegies, is forthcoming November 2021 from Dzanc Books.
Alec Witthohn is an editorial assistant with the Center for Literary Publishing/Colorado Review. He is studying fiction in the MFA program at Colorado State University. Before joining Colorado Review, Alec worked with Copper Nickel for several years as an assistant/associate editor.