It was a great pleasure to get to bend the ear of sophomore novelist Karen Olsson about her new book, All the Houses. From the unique pleasures of longform to the exact ratio of stick-to-itiveness and megalomania necessary for writing, Karen had a lot of intriguing things to say! Be sure to check out her book trailer below, shot by her filmmaker husband, Andrew Bujalski.
BK: What is the question you are asked most frequently about your writing?
Karen Olsson: “Are you still working on a book?” Other versions include: “Weren’t you working on a book?” and “Are you working on anything these days?” These questions tend to drive home the fact that the book you’re working on has taken too long, in the unlikely event that it had slipped your mind.
I hope I’ll one day have a novel just come upon me in a rush—I’ve heard of this happening to other people—but in 2006, when I began the work that became All the Houses, my early attempts were quite different from what the book ultimately became. A couple of secondary characters stuck around, but I banished other people and eliminated situations that had been in early drafts. I was moving indirectly and in the dark, and gradually I backed into writing a story about a family and the long-term impact of a political scandal on that family. In the meantime, I got married and had two kids, so it makes some sense that I found myself veering toward the subject of family. (Fortunately, I became embroiled in no political scandals during the writing of this book.)
BK: What’s the earliest memory you have of writing a story?
KO: My second-grade teacher once gave us an assignment to write a story, and another girl and I started competing to see who could write a longer one. I’m not sure who won and I’m not sure what I wrote about—maybe a trip to an amusement park? (Trips to amusement parks and visits to grandmothers were recurring motifs in my early writing.) What I remember is how thrilled I suddenly was by the blank pages in my notebook and the possibility that I could fill as many of them as I wanted with something I’d invented. Whether to count this as an early memory of writing or as an early memory of writer’s megalomania is hard for me to say. I suppose both the habit and the delusion are necessary developments if you’re going to try to write novels.
BK: If possible, can you send a photo of your bookshelf? What makes these books meaningful to you?
KO: I have a rotating bookshelf in my office—rotating in the sense that the actual piece of furniture revolves but also in that the books change over time, depending on what I drag in to keep me company. It’s a place where, freed from the strict government of alphabetical order that rules over the other shelves at my house, books can rub shoulders with strangers and distant cousins. Some of these books are longtime favorites, like Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights and Larry McMurtry’s Leaving Cheyenne, and some I’m planning to read soon, like Bill Cotter’s The Parallel Apartments and Fernando A. Flores’ Death to the Bullshit Artists of South Texas, Vol. 1.
BK: Can you tell us what you’re reading now?
KO: I’ve been reading How To Solve It, a classic book on problem-solving by mathematician George Polya, published in 1945. I studied math in college and then left it behind, but lately I’ve been thinking back on that time and reading about mathematicians. I’m also reading All Our Names, the Dinaw Mengestu novel that came out last year, which accomplishes such a marvelous intertwining of political story and love story.
BK: Who would you say is your ideal reader?
KO: I don’t think Henry James meant to praise those 19th century novels he referred to as “large, loose, baggy monsters,” but I tend to think of that description when I think of novels. Unlike short stories, they can afford to be baggy, and I like that bagginess—in moderation. (Occasionally I’ve thought of the novel as an actual bag, a suitcase let’s say, and I’m that person trying to stuff a pair of running shoes into an already full one. Something editors have helped me to do is to put a few items back in the closet.) I’d usually rather read a book that wanders down artful back roads than a book in which a tight plot is relentlessly executed, and that’s how I write too. So I hope for a forgiving reader who will tolerate the indirect route, and in exchange I try to offer roadside attractions along the way.
But maybe every book has a different set of ideal readers, readers who respond to a particular book’s sensibility and concerns. While I was writing All the Houses, certain questions were lurking in the back of my mind and sometimes in the front of it, among them: What is our relationship to the (often mystifying and/or horrifying) public events we absorb via the news media? How do we shape our versions of who our parents were and are, and how do our own identities depend on that? Why do adult siblings fight with one another as though they are still kids? Why does Washington D.C., where I grew up, rile and unsettle and lure me the way it does? This book’s ideal readers would be engaged by at least some of those questions. They would also find it funny!
BK: Is there a piece of writer’s advice that has stuck with you?
KO: The writer Robert Boswell, who is one of the best teachers I’ve ever had the good luck to encounter, once said to me, “Your strengths are also your weaknesses.” He said this like it was a nugget of wisdom already known to most people, but I hadn’t heard it before, and in the cartoon bubble over my head, a light bulb went on. That advice has come to mind many times since then—and not just in writing situations. It reminds me to be more skeptical of what I take to be strengths and more tolerant of what I see as weaknesses.
I also regularly think of Julia Child, who was quoted in a New Yorker profile as advising home chefs: “Never apologize! They don’t know what you were aiming for. Just bring it to the table.”
Karen Olsson is the author of the novel Waterloo. She has written about politics, science, and popular culture for magazines, including The New York Times Magazine and Texas Monthly, where she is a contributing editor. She is also a former editor of The Texas Observer. Born and raised in Washington, D.C., she now lives in Austin, Texas, with her family.
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