The Anne Valente Interview (pt. 2)

[This is the second part of a two-part interview. Check out the first part here!]

Anne ValenteOZP: There are multiple stories in the collection that deal with sexual violence (“By Light We Knew Our Names,” “Minivan,” and, on a somewhat smaller scale, “A Taste of Tea”). Tell me a little bit about what role that plays in your work. Notably, the latter two stories are narrated by men, and I want to know what led you to these stories, in which the narrators come to realizations about certain violences they have either committed or been complicit in. “Minivan,” for instance, could’ve easily been narrated by Jane, but it’d be a completely different story, of course. And in a perhaps unrelated, perhaps not, question, why did you decide to name the collection after “By Light We Knew Our Names”? It’s one of the darker stories in the collection, if not the darkest, but it also, to me, feels like the most important. I’m just curious about how you see it representing/interacting with the collection as a whole.

AV: While writing these stories, I think I was coming to terms with some of my own realizations about gender violence – five years ago, when these stories were written, I don’t know if the same conversations were happening about microaggressions and rape culture. I don’t know that I had the language to properly identify what I was experiencing while walking down the street or sitting in classrooms or even socializing at supposedly civilized dinner parties. Exploring this violence in part through male narrators felt like an exercise in understanding another side of this, but also perhaps in broadening the exploration of gender violence beyond the experience of women. Other violences appear in this book too – violence against animals, against the planet – and I don’t think these things are disconnected from one another. Some of these stories explore violence as a means of simply identifying it and naming it, and I think the collection’s title comes from this sense of self-identification, of finding a voice.

OZP: I see place doing a lot of work very subtly in this collection—often it’s essential to the story (as in “By Light We Knew Our Names” or “Everything That Was Ours”), but a lot of times, while it doesn’t factor into the plot itself, it provides a lot of interesting and necessary texture, particularly in the natural landscapes that surround the characters. What role do you feel place plays in your stories?

AV: Place is essential to my fiction. I feel very tied to landscape as a human being, and by extension, I suppose my stories do too. Given the magic in some of these stories, I feel that there’s so much magic in nature – we have scientific explanations for why trees turn or why birds migrate, but I still feel like there’s some mystery in this. These things are nothing short of miraculous. Beyond the wondrous qualities of landscape and nature, I think rich description of place also connects to this line between the tangible and the intangible in fiction. In many cases, I believe that less description allows for the reader to fill in the details, and in the cases of horror or magic, to provide a far more imaginative reading or explanation than the author ever could. But in other cases, abundance of description can highlight and enhance the unknown. Setting and place work this way for me, as tangible markers of environment and landscape. We know exactly where we are – what kind of grass we’re sitting on, what kind of light streaks the sky – but we have no concrete explanation for why war occurs, why sexual violence exists, why a strange sound breaks through our windows every night. I appreciate the grounding presence of place in the face of the unknown.

ByTheLightWeKnewOurNames_ValenteOZP: I’m a big music collector—I think I’m one of the only five people left who still buys CDs—and I tend to think of collections of stories like albums in that I’m very interested in the sequencing of stories, what stories open and close the collection, what are the centerpieces (or “singles,” if you will). While they overlap somewhat in tone and ideas, your stories here are very different and follow very different people, and it seems like a different order could change how we read it entirely. How did you go about sequencing the stories in the collection? Was it easy to pick first and last stories? Were there stories you knew needed to be together (or, alternately, stories that needed to be spaced out)?

AV: I definitely thought hard about the order of these stories. Originally, the stories progressed from childhood to adulthood in terms of their narrators, settings and content. This order still prevails in the collection – we begin with the children in “Latchkey” and end with a middle-aged couple in “Mollusk, Membrane, Human Heart” – but I thought much harder in finalizing the order about the particulars of this progression. For instance, “Until Our Shadows Claim Us” was originally placed near the beginning because it’s about a group of children who believe they’ve summoned a neighborhood phantom. In revising the collection’s order, however, I realized that this story is far more elegiac and not childlike at all. The collective narrators are retrospectively remembering their childhood from the vantage point of adulthood, and with great grief for what they’ve lost. For this reason, this story felt like it should come near the end. I made similar choices with other stories. Beyond large-scale concerns of narration and content, I also looked at the final lines of stories as they transitioned into the opening lines of the next, watching out for matches in the patterns, voice and sound of the language.

OZP: What are you reading right now? Anything you recommend?

AV: I just finished Jesmyn Ward’s Men We Reaped, which was haunting and devastating. I couldn’t put it down. I read it in one day, something I haven’t done in ages. I’m also reading John Darnielle’s Wolf in White Van and Jac Jemc’s A Different Bed Every Time.

OZP:And finally, what have you got in the works? What’s next for Anne Valente? Do you have any new stories in lit mags we should check out?

AV: I’m currently working on a series of short stories about the city of St. Louis – reimaginings of the city’s history and major events, as well as continued focus on place through research into Missouri trees, birds, wildlife, weather. One of these stories just appeared in The Normal School, and another is forthcoming in One Story within the next few months. I also recently completed a novel about a series of mysterious house fires that erupt in a community after a school shooting. A brief excerpt of this is out in the newest issue of Threadcount.

The Anne Valente Interview (pt. 1)

To celebrate the release of Anne Valente’s debut collection, By Light We Knew Our Names, we sat down with Valente in the Origami Zoo to talk about the wonderful and wondrous stories populating her book. We conducted our interview at the overlook above the origami giraffe habitat. As the paper giraffes showed us how they endlessly unfold their necks to reach leaves on higher branches—and even all the way up to us, licking our faces—Valente told us about titling stories, blurring realities, and the role history and science play in her writing.

You can order By Light We Knew Our Names here, and if you want even more Anne Valente, we have an excellent chapbook of short-shorts for sale that we of course highly recommend.

Anne ValenteOrigami Zoo Press: The children in the opening story “Latchkey” are set apart from other children by their strange gifts—including a halo of planets, a fishbowl stomach and a tiny librarian, as well as the mysterious gift for Sasha, which she has not yet discovered. I’m curious about how the idea for all these gifts come about, but my real question is: What would your magical “Latchkey” gift be?

Anne Valente: I wrote this story at the beginning of my MFA program at Bowling Green State University, and at the time, I think the gifts seemed to come from other fascinations of mine: the solar system, my husband just beginning his career as a librarian. Looking back though, I can’t help but think that the gifts were also some expression of my awe at the talents of my classmates, and that I got to share a classroom with writers like Brandon Davis Jennings and Matt Bell. Everyone’s work blew me away. I had just started writing stories when I got to Bowling Green, and this story feels now like the latent hope that my gifts in writing could be just as magical as those of my peers. More tangibly speaking, if I had a magical gift that I could open, opening a package and finding a baby giraffe wouldn’t be far off the mark.

OZP: I really admire all of your titles. They’re usually extracted in some way from the story, but they’re rarely direct lines—you seem to be able to paraphrase in such a way that lends a grander feel to your titles. They have a weight to them, that a direct line lifted from the text might not, though they still seem to perfectly capture the heart of the story. How do you come up with titles? Do you begin with them? Or do they not come about until after the story is finished? Has a story ever been particularly challenging to title for you?

AV: Titles have always been difficult for me, so I’m glad to hear that these titles are succeeding in some way! My process is usually one of waiting until I’ve completed the story in order to see where it takes me, then going back through to find the sentences or brief moments of language that seem to encapsulate the story’s heart. I’ve been tempted before to pull phrases straight from the story, but then there’s the weird effect for the reader of reaching that passage and thinking, Oh, here’s the important passage. Here’s the story’s main theme. Other writers have pulled this off in smart ways, but when I’ve done this, I feel too obvious and too directive as an author. I do still go through and find the lines that seem to speak most to the story as a whole, but I usually alter them in some way. As for a particularly challenging story title, “Latchkey” was actually one of the hardest. The word appears nowhere in the story, and I’m still not sure if other people associate the word of this title with what I do: a group of kids being watched after school until their parents can pick them up. But something more direct felt too obvious and heavy-handed for this story, especially one that is fairly light in tone.

OZP: There’s a big tug-of-war between the fantastic and the real in this collection. There are a few stories that are outright realist or outright fabulist, but most leave the reader wondering: though we see ghosts and shaking mirrors and disappearing teabags, there’s always this lingering doubt—maybe those characters were imagining it, maybe the narrator is remembering this moment from their childhood wrong, etc. It works in reverse, too—for instance, I was totally willing to believe everything that happens in “Mollusk, Membrane, Human Heart” was grounded in scientific fact. How do you view the relationship between the real and the fantastic in your stories and how do you hope readers will interpret these moments?

ByTheLightWeKnewOurNames_ValenteAV: I was just listening to a Radiolab podcast yesterday about a paranormal team investigating a haunted house, and I noticed that the more intangible the experience became – once flashlights started blinking, once spirits started communicating – the more technical and scientific the language became. A chemist was consulted to explain what happens inside a flashlight’s bulb, and how this reaction could cause what appears to be ghostly communication. In the end, this scientific explanation becomes one among many – it might explain what is happening, but it also might not. To some extent, I feel this way about the relationship between the real and the fantastic in my own writing: I love the informational excess of scientific explanation, and I love how its tangibility comes up against everything we can’t explain. The process of writing feels similar. I’m constantly using the tangibility of words and language to try to describe what can’t be contained. Language is always an asymptote. I don’t know that I look for a specific interpretation that readers should take away, but instead the experience of liminality, that multiple realities and a blurring between them might be at play.

OZP: You have quite a few stories where the fiction intersects with historical events (“Dear Amelia,” “Everything That Was Ours,” “Until Our Shadows Claim Us”). Tell us a little about that. What role does history play for you when writing fiction? What’s the importance of the historical interacting with the fictional (particularly in a story like “Dear Amelia,” where there are explicitly fantastical elements)? What was your research process for these stories like, and where/how did you decide when to take liberties?

AV: Much like the tangibility of scientific fact, which I love but which I feel only provides one answer among many, history seems very similar. I absolutely adore research out of sheer curiosity, and of trying to imagine a particular moment in history such as how young girls might have imagined Amelia Earhart at a time when a feat like hers was an anomaly among women. But like science, history is authoritative. It assumes a single, all-encompassing narrative. I like to reimagine history to some degree, to make sense of what we think we know through alternate perspectives. I’m less interested in historical fiction than in the possibility that history didn’t happen the way we were told it did.

The Anne Valente Interview will return… on Friday!

Review: BY LIGHT WE KNEW OUR NAMES by Anne Valente

ByTheLightWeKnewOurNames_ValenteBy Light We Knew Our Names is the kind of book that reads like eating a five-course meal. It’s delicious, yes, and heavy, satisfying. It’s the kind of book you want to take with you to a deserted island or up in space or anywhere really. But more than anything, it’s the kind of book that makes me want to write, the kind that fills me up with ideas of my own, new universe spun into existence I just have to explore. I don’t know what it is about her work that does that. Maybe it’s because her stories ask tough questions with complicated (or unknowable) answers, and putting another story into the world seems like the only appropriate way to respond.

BLWKON is the debut collection of longtime Origami Zoo favorite Anne Valente, and it’s a thrilling one. It feels incredibly cohesive, like a great album, but all the stories feel totally distinct. They share similar concerns and Valente’s hypnotic prose, but they run the gamut in terms of tone, genre, and characters.

I’ve been a fan of Valente’s work since I read the title story in Hayden’s Ferry Review my first year of graduate school. It more or less defined the her work for me, as well as the journal itself. It also served as a kind of benchmark—I thought, if I could write a story half as good as this one during my time here, I’ll have made it. The story follows four teenage girls struggling to survive in a small town where rape and abuse are inescapable, coming from boyfriends and fathers and brothers and strangers. The grimness of the story is made readable only by the strength of Valente’s characters and of her prose, which often reads like incantations. Even in the most realist stories, the prose does magical things: “Then she punched, both hands clenched rigid—she punched so hard I felt what force was in her move through me, a kinetic quake, all the light she held inside her, some separate sun no one saw, eclipsed.” Valente piles on images in long sentences you hope never end.

Many of the stories are coming-of-age tales, but they are not cloying or precious as stories about adolescence can often be. Sometimes, they give us tiny librarians living in little girls’ pockets or ghosts of grandparents or mothers who transform into bears. Other stories are more grounded, but all of them are about growing up and venturing out into a world that is sad and unwelcoming and, particularly for young women, dangerous. And even in the world where mothers turn ursine, it’s our world still. Valente’s characters don’t grieve so much for lives lost as they do for the lives impossible for them to live.

Some of the strongest stories are the ones that expertly blur the lines between fantasy and reality. The penultimate piece, “Until Our Shadows Claim Us.” In it, a group of second graders believe they have summoned the Rosewood Phantom (a “Bloody Mary”-type specter), thus causing greater tragedies around the world (the Challenger explosion, Chernobyl), as well as the close-to-home disappearances of their classmates, one by one by one. Of course, for much of the story, we chalk the Rosewood Phantom up to childhood fears and superstition, but by the end, there are a few moments that leave this wonderful, terrifying sliver of doubt—and, in effect, we the readers become a part of that collective first-person narrator driving the story. We believe the impossible, the unbelievable.

And that’s what these stories do: they make us realize that the unbelievable is sometimes in our own backyard, under our very noses. Valente’s stories grab you by the ears and force you to look at some scary truths about our world, and that is important—but in equal measure, and sometimes in the same moment, they tilt your chin down and have you consider the beauty that is there, lighting up the dark.

Resurrect Your Darlings: Anne Valente

Anne ValenteLike most writers, I try to make everything I write work for me in some way, even if it doesn’t end up on the final page. I rarely save separate drafts of the same project, so much of my revisions – the large sections that get cut, the scenes that are moved around, the lost images that are abandoned or placed elsewhere – are absorbed into the finalized version of a story or essay. I finish every project I start, but I do have one small, hidden folder on my desktop called Retired Stories. There are seven of them. All of them are as finished as they can be. But they’re retired because, even though they’re complete, I realized quickly after writing them that they were failures.

It’s hard to say how I knew they had failed other than that once I’d finished them, within a week I didn’t like them anymore. Long after the fact, I know now why some of them were failures. Take the following story, which opens in this way:

Because the sun stained its path in shades, Loka did not see the cows until she crested the hill. The haloed sky above Wisconsin blanketed the fields in pallid, predawn light, a blue so indistinct that Loka imagined it the color of crossing over, the only moments in a day when living and not-living became one. There were hundreds of them, backs humped. So irregular in shape that for a moment, Loka mistook them for hay bales. They lay immobile, a quiet so profound that Loka thought they were sleeping, but their contours never moved, never rose or fell with breath. She had heard of blackbirds, and geese, and a mass of toads that all burst open, every one, simultaneous and unexplained. But nothing like this.

There are things here that interest me still, and which I’ve developed further in other stories – a Midwestern landscape, liminal spaces, strange occurrences, animal behavior. But while the image of hundreds of unexplained dead cows is both intriguing and unsettling, and was a news story that preoccupied my attention for several weeks, it didn’t necessarily make a story. This is evident as the story progresses:

She came to the fields some nights, late, when the earth turned away from the moon, when the sky pooled open in darkness. It was then that stars illuminated themselves, splashed their light across the earth in a messy wash of ether and pockmarks and stardust, a display clarified by silence, by only her breath and the earth, the bleats of the cows a solemn foghorn, distant beyond the hill. Loka slid against the fence on these nights, looked up and imagined the world encased in a blackened dome, and these stars, pinpoint cracks in the shell, spreading fissures to let her know light was out there somewhere, to make her small again in the gravity of their wake.

Here too, there are concerns that are still central to my sensibility – stillness, solitude, nature, stars – but this is an attempt at characterization when I was clearly more interested in the cows. I can see now that this story failed because the image itself was far more fascinating to me than the story around it. Who is this person who came upon the cows? Do we even care? I don’t think I did as a writer. There wasn’t much of a story there for me, which is why the story remains retired.

This isn’t to say that it was wasted writing, however. I suppose I could delete the Retired Stories folder since I know I’ll never submit any of them, but I also know writing isn’t always about publication. I keep the Retired Stories folder as a personal archive of showing myself my own fascinations and how my curiosity develops over time, even if the story never sees the light of day.

BY LIGHT WE KNEW OUR NAMES by Anne Valente is available now from Dzanc. Check out our special sale to celebrate this Fortnight of Valente: buy BY LIGHT WE KNEW OUR NAMES and get Valente’s Origami Zoo chapbook for only $4!

Fortnight of Valente: By Light We Knew Our Names sale

ByTheLightWeKnewOurNames_ValenteWith October comes the fantastic, exciting release of Anne Valente’s debut collection, By Light We Knew Our Names from Dzanc. We hope you’re as excited as us to get your hands on this book, and just in case you needed a little extra push, we’re offering Valente’s fantastic OZP chapbook, An Elegy for Mathematics, for only $4 when you purchase By Light We Knew Our Names.

Simply email us a receipt showing you’re purchased By Light We Knew Our Names, then use the PayPal button below to get your discounted copy!

Please note: any orders received without a receipt indicating a purchase of BLWKON will be ignored and refunded. If you want to buy An Elegy for Mathematics at regular price, go here. We also still have a few UnArchived Special Editions left, which includes audio from the book, an ebook version of the text, digital copies of all the artwork for your social media fix and bonus story-inspired artwork, notes and packaging. Get ‘em before they’re gone!

Writer Crush #32: Ben Marcus

1328667769524.cachedOf all the contemporary writers I read, the one that feels 100% guaranteed to still be read and written about centuries from now is Ben Marcus. I’m about three-quarters through The Flame Alphabet right now, and it’s just such a masterful book—it feels so meticulously crafted, from the endless lists of dubious pseudoscience experiments the narrator reads about in brochures to the gut-wrenchingly real dialogue to the bizarre world of language afflictions and listening holes Marcus has created. If the plot synopsis isn’t enough to entice you—there’s an epidemic due to children’s speech becoming toxic—I’m not sure what will. And the fascinating thing about reading this book, about the toxicity of language and comprehension, is that you’re reading the whole time, and so much of the pleasure of Marcus’s writing is the fine detail, the precise language.

The beauty and terror of language is clearly an ongoing concern of Marcus’s: My first exposure to him was The Age of Wire and String, which calls itself a collection but feels more like an almanac, an atlas, a guidebook to this age of wire and string—and honestly, even after having read it a couple times, I have no idea what’s going on in those stories. The diction and syntax are mostly very simple, the words familiar, but the things the words do make them wholly unfamiliar. Here’s an example: “The brother is built from food, in the manner of minute particles slowly settling or suspended by slight currents, that exist in varying amounts in all air.”

And yet, when I get to the end of these stories, I often get that kicked-in-the-stomach feeling that mostly comes at the end of early Simpsons episodes, or when I see a sentimental greeting card commercial. There’s some kind of powerful, poisonous, emotional core to these stories, so even though I don’t understand, on a literal sense, I’m still very moved.

Resurrect Your Darlings: BJ Hollars

(Check out our first entry in this new series for more information!)

The Last, Last Line You Never Read

BJ Hollars

BJ Hollars

Of the many edits I’ve made, there’s one I’ll always regret. It was the last line from a short story entitled “Sightings,” the title story of my collection.

For the uninitiated (read: 99.999% of the reading population) the story involves a basketball-loving Sasquatch who joins a high school team. (Think of it as a literary version of Teen Wolf, only with more fur and less Michael J. Fox.)

In brief, at the end of the season Sasquatch falls for the prom queen and is later abandoned by her, a heartbreak that spirals him into a booze-drenched existence forcing him back into the trees.

Originally, the last line read: “It was all he knew to save himself from extinction.”

(The “It” referring to the booze).

But when the story was initially accepted the editor felt strongly that the last line had to go.
If memory serves, the editor felt the last line was a bit too “on the nose,” the word “extinction” a little heavy-handed for a story about Sasquatch.

I got it, I heard her loud and clear. And yet…try as I might, it was the one line I couldn’t let go.

There were plenty other edits as well, and I made them all with gusto. But there was something about that last line that wouldn’t seem to budge.

Long story short, eventually that line began to budge. I simply made it.

All I had to do was remind myself that if I found the line to be clever and good and right on the money, chances are it was derivative and bad and way off the mark. Simply put, I knew I was too close to the story—too emotionally invested (if one can be emotionally invested in a Sasquatch yarn)—and I had to go with the editor’s gut over my own.

In situations like this, I often return to some key advice my wife once gave me:

“B.J., you’re usually wrong.”

These days I live by it!

I’ve found time and again that when it comes to writing, stubbornness rarely pays off. On occasion I have found myself fighting for a dash when that time could better be spent…well, probably doing anything but fight for a dash. It’s not that I’m a pushover when it comes to my artistic integrity; it’s simply that I’d rather invest that time making more art.

When I was writing Opening the Doors, my civil rights book, the editor asked me to cut 20,000 words. This meant cutting well over 20% of the total manuscript. Nevertheless, when given my marching orders I publicly smiled, privately pulled out my hair, and then began hacking deep into every chapter. It wasn’t easy, but the book was a much better book because of it.

These days, when I think back to the line I lost— “It was all he knew to save himself from extinction”—I realize that maybe I don’t actually regret the edit.

After all, nobody ever complained about the line they never read.

Perhaps—much like Sasquatch himself—it’s the stuff we don’t see that keeps the mystery alive, the lines we lose that keep us hungry for the hunt.

Writer Crush #31: Ramona Ausubel

16158505A few months ago, I saw Ramona Ausubel read “Atria,” a story about a teenage girl named Hazel who becomes pregnant from one of two men—a dopey 7-11 cashier she has underwhelming sex with or an adult man who rapes her. She doesn’t know which the father is, and doesn’t care to know, but that’s not what the story is about. The story is about her keeping the baby and what she imagines is growing inside of her. What you might not guess from this description is that hearing Ausubel read this story was gut-bustingly hilarious. The crowd was roaring.

The rule of thumb we’ve all heard, and perhaps repeated to our peers and students, is that specificity makes good writing. Specificity also makes good comedy. Maybe it’s simply that specificity is affecting because it’s surprising, or because it feels true, and maybe the key to eliciting any emotion from your audience is specificity no matter what. And, another rule of thumb, that I’ve learned from a writer or two is (not to mention by lifelong love of The Simpsons) if you want to make ‘em cry, you gotta make ‘em laugh.

Basically, what I’m getting at is Ausubel’s details are so specific and surprising that it’s impossible for them not to accumulate into something both hilarious and moving. I mean, just look at these moments from “Atria”: When she has sex with the 7-11 cashier, he “sat up, straddling her, and put one big hand on each B-up. Squeezed, pumped like udders.” Or when Hazel imagines the baby growing in her stomach as a three-headed giraffe whose heads emerge and “rolled out their three long purple tongues… Cleaned her arms and her face.” Or simply that Hazel thinks of being in high school as “a soggy thing.” It’s that kind of simple but powerful specificity that defines much of Ausubel’s stories and makes them such a pleasure to read.

There’s that book list meme going around facebook lately, where people name ten books that have stuck with them, and of course a lot of writers are taking part. The biggest criticism of those lists, though, is that there aren’t enough women writers on them. Given the predominance of canonized men and the longtime marginalization of women writers, this isn’t really surprising—but I take comfort in the fact that, in my mind, women are easily writing the best and most celebrated fiction right now (Kelly Link, Karen Russell, Aimee Bender, Marie-Helene Bertino, not to mention the writers on OZP’s roster). Add Ramona Ausubel to that list, for here is not only an excellent book by a writer who happens to be a woman, but a book that is unabashedly about women and women’s bodies and women’s stories. The collection “Atria” is in is called A Guide to Being Born, and is split into four sections: Birth, Gestation, Conception and Love, and even when the character at the forefront of a story is male, that story is still framed around women (as in the story “Chest of Drawers,” where a man wakes up to find his chest now has a set of drawers in it, coinciding with his wife’s pregnancy). There aren’t enough stories like this immortalized in our culture’s literary repertoire, but with writers like Ausubel, soon there will be.

Review: LEAVE LUCK TO HEAVEN by Brian Oliu

bookcover_final_2AAgainst what is probably my better judgment, I recently purchased the Wii U, Nintendo’s latest home console, and every few days, when I can, I’ve been sneaking in an hour or two of Pikmin 3. Pikmin is an oddball game in an oddball franchise where you, a space explorer, crash land on a mysterious planet where little creatures called Pikmin follow you around, break down walls, dig holes, and fight enemies on your behalf. What I love about this game is that Nintendo, more so than its competitors, has retained the strange tone of video games from the 8-bit era, when many designers were still figuring out what the technology could do and decisions were often made due to graphical or other technologic limitations.

Leave Luck to Heaven by Brian Oliu takes its name from the English translation of Nintendo, and with good reason: Oliu adopts the confusing and sometimes unsettling logic and language of old school video games and uses them to in turn explore the confusing and often unsettling landscape of childhood and adolescence.

There are two things that are always very exciting to me about Oliu’s work: 1) It defies classification. Though Oliu says he writes nonfiction, he’s published his work as fiction and poetry as well as nonfiction (and in interviews he’s even said his video game essays are “collaborations” with the games themselves). 2) It is willing to take seriously aspects of pop culture that artists rarely do. Whether it’s pro-wrestling or Top 40 club hits, Oliu takes what some perceive as trite and delves into what makes them compelling to so many people in order to produce powerfully affecting lyric essays.

Leave Luck to Heaven is no exception. Almost all the essays in this collection are named after old NES games (Super Mario Bros., Ninja Gaiden, Donkey Kong), and each draws material from its namesake while also using the games as lenses to view Oliu’s own life. For example, the piece on Rampage, a game where you are a giant monster rampaging through cities around the world, becomes about 9/11.  An uncertain “you” needs help tying a necktie before his grandfather’s funeral in “Donkey Kong,” and “RBI Baseball” finds the speaker being beaten up by other children.

When they’re not named after games, they tackle other aspects of video games, such as “1up” or “Plants, Flowers, Vines,” the latter of which is like an items glossary. The boss battles and save points, which first appeared as a set in Level End, provide the most coherent through line and help to give the book a sense of escalation. And there may even be some Easter Eggs, cheat codes, or unlockable characters for you to find in the book, too.

But the essays are far more about their sound and images than the narratives you can piece together. They are best read in small little bundles, preferably even out loud. They are best when you can immerse yourself in the atmosphere they create, when you get lost in the startling sentences like “we have separated rock from rock, evaporated water with a song—here, a pond with no heart—we can play only one song—we can play that song again if we are allowed,” the same way one would do in the glow of a TV screen with a controller in hand.

For me, personally, the essays are most exciting when the language starts to imitate the title game. All the boss battle pieces begin with “When I arrived, the music changed,” and in my head I can hear the fight theme start playing. In “Dragon Warrior,” the speaker gets caught up in a back and forth that reflects the turn-based mechanics of its namesake (“I go and then you go then I go then you run”), and in “Ghosts n’ Goblins,” the speaker repeats the same section in a slightly different way over and over, as if falling into that digital abyss below the screen and having to start over with another life, having to try again to beat the level.

It does make me wonder, though, as a reviewer who grew up playing all kinds of video games, how these essays work for non-gamers. My guess would be that they are still lovely, often moving pieces of writing, but it’s hard to say when I’m caught up in all the other moves they’re making, too. I would wager that, at the very least, the magic and wonder and sadness stirred up by all of Brian Oliu’s words might make even the biggest video game skeptic go to a quiet room somewhere, flip the switch on, and press Start.

SUPER BRIAN OLIU 64: The Interview (World 1-2)

[This is the second part of a two-part interview. Check out the first part here, and take advantage of our fortnight-and-a-half of Oliu book sale here.]

bookcover_final_2AOZP: The pieces in Leave Luck to Heaven often read like video games themselves, and there are pieces (like “1up” and “Plants, Flowers, Vines”) that examine different elements of video games as opposed to specific games themselves. How much like a video game do you want Leave Luck to Heaven to Be and how much like a collection of essays do you want it to be? Given infinite time and resources, would you want to make a book that’s even more like a video game?

BO: I’m all about artifice: I love the idea of writing being “more” than writing. If there was someway to make the entire thing playable, I’d be super into that—especially to add to the interactivity of the whole thing. I think the biggest critique so far is that it is a good that uses videogames instead of being “about” videogames, which is true: it was never my intent to write a book “about videogames” but to try to make sense of the space between the player and these games. I’m in the process of working on trying to make the cover playable—there still might be a chance for some sort of strange interactivity; at the very least bridging that gap a little bit.

OZP: Can you tell us a bit about the cover art and artist? It’s pretty incredible. How many of the games did he manage to fit in there? I’m not sure if this was intentional on the part of Uncanny Valley Press, but LLTH is the exact same height as Level End, making them lovely companion pieces, too.

BO: Mike mentioned that when he got the first copy of the book, he was so excited to create a book that “felt like the right size,” so I’m pretty sure this means that OZP were trailblazers in regards to “book ergonomics.” The artist is David Wells, who is a friend of Mike’s, who also did the screenshots for The Navigators—he did an absolutely insanely awesome job. Mike & I talked about how we wanted the cover to ideally look; a kind of Divine Comedy through videogames. He did an early sketch of the cover & David just absolutely crushed it. It is the greatest book cover of all time. I’m not speaking in hyperbole. There’s so many gaming nods in there; I’m pretty sure all of the images were crafted by him, so it’s more pastiche rather than collage. But the game feels simultaneously Mario, Ninja Gaiden, Life Force, Metroid, and Mega Man. It’s the best.

OZP: What are your influences outside of video games? What writers were driving forces behind your work in LLTH? Any recommendations?

BO: I read more poetry than I do prose—although nothing is more exciting to me than a well written essay. As far as writers that were driving forces, I’d have to go with Lia Purpura and Albert Goldbarth: with their ability to take something super small and blow it up to gigantic proportions; I’m always fascinated by that. I really fell in love with how Beth Ann Fennelly poems can so easily turn on a dime & get downright vicious: they do a beautiful job of scene setting before hitting as hard as possible. So great.

Level EndOZP: What else have you got in the works? I’ve seen pro-wrestler pieces by you and pop song pieces by you. How are those projects coming? And can you tell us more about i/o, your forthcoming memoir from Civil Coping Mechanisms?

BO: The pop song pieces are fun things that I’ve been writing when I’m feeling like “hey! I should write something today!” I’ve really enjoyed writing them & they’re kind of endless. They might make it into a book or a larger project someday. The pro-wrestling pieces are my main project as of right now; I’m taking a long time to craft those essays, which I think is a good thing. I’m working at a similar pace I had with Leave Luck to Heaven: we’ll see how they all come together. I’m also working on a more straight-forward memoir about long distance running; my grandfather founded the Barcelona Marathon & wrote a book in Catalan. I’m in the process of translating everything—it’s a very long and large undertaking, & something I’ve been thinking about for years now. It’s nice to finally get it off and running. And finally, I’m writing a book about NBA JAM in a month, because, why not? It’ll be fun to have this type of challenge, as I’m not one who writes every single day. I’m pretty excited about it.

I’m really happy i/o is seeing the light of day: it’s a very strange book. It’s a re-telling of the beginning of The Odyssey through memoir and also through computer viruses. I wanted to create something extremely experimental & I’ve always been fascinated by the concept of flarf/the language of computers. It was originally my graduate school thesis & has grown from there. It was an important book for me to write, as it had a lot of room for error (as it is a book primarily about error) & it allowed me to understand the workings of language, especially at a sentence-level. It’s a book I’m tremendously proud of, & easily the thing that I wrote where looking back I’m like “whoa. I can’t believe I actually did that.”

OZP: Finally, what’re your top 5 favorite games of all time? And what’s a contemporary game that you think more writers should play?

BO: I get asked this question a lot, & I’m pretty sure it changes every time I answer! I think the SNES is where videogames really hit their stride; it was a perfect marriage of storytelling and simplicity. My favorite game of all time is Earthbound, which is a popular choice for “favorite videogame of all time,” but rightfully so. I also love Super Metroid, as well as Link to the Past. As for NES, I have to go with River City Ransom, as well as Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!!. I’ve died so many times in Ninja Gaiden. As far as contemporary games, everyone should play any of the modern Grand Theft AutosGTA IV might be “The Great American Videogame.” They are achievements in storytelling as well as scope. It’s astonishing to me how much work that game must’ve been to create.