I read Lion Attack! earlier this year. I borrowed a copy from the library after listening to Oliver talk about his novel on a podcast. What inspired me most in that interview was what I saw was Oliver's ability to talk about complex experiences and ideas in a simple way. I was writing my own attempts at something resembling a novel at the time whilst working on a submission for the Scribe non-fiction prize, which Oliver co-won in 2013. In the interview Oliver said something along the lines of "if you give up, fuck you!" I wrote that on a piece of cardboard and stuck it above my desk. I also wrote to Oliver to tell him about it.
I'm thrilled to be publishing this interview with Oliver.
I’ve been listening to Kate Tempest’s album recently, “Let them Eat Chaos” and I feel that she speaks so earnestly to the state of our world. To alienation, disconnection, apathy and fear… she is a poet using her craft to speak deeply and meaningfully about our world, urging us to take a stand and to “love more.” Are you a fan of hers?
O: I haven’t read any Kate Tempest though I was incredibly moved by her performance on Q&A. I would like to read her books soon.
In the wake of the US election announcement, I know many people are feeling quietly terrified about the future. How do you feel young (and old) writers can contribute constructively to discussion's about the future? Do you feel there are important or relevant topics now, or do you feel that an impact can be made regardless of the topic when using the experiences of the day to day to speak about the macro?
O: It’s hard to answer your question because how do you define “constructively”? Maybe I’ll answer like this: we need to remember that we are all humans and the world is changing and we’re all scared. We need to remember to be kind.
My friend told me about Agnodice, this woman from Ancient Greece. Agnodice noticed lots of women were dying from childbirth so she travelled to Alexandria to become a doctor. Except there was a problem: women weren’t allowed to become doctors so she cut off her hair; she changed her appearance; she became something new. But then something else happened: she was too good at her job so all the other men began accusing her of sleeping with her patients, their wives. Fuck you, they said. She went to court. She stood before the judge and the witnesses and the politicians and the men and the men’s wives and the children and she did this: she stripped. So now people knew the truth: she was a woman, and in the story it was understood she wasn’t sleeping with their wives, and she was better at medicine and saving women’s lives than men were. Kill her, the men said. But then all the men’s wives rose up. Kill her and you kill all of us, they said. They saved her. She was the reason they were alive. She was the reason they could go on breathing a little longer. And you want to know why? Because she still believed in the miracles no one remembers anymore. She still believed in herself.
Do you think much about the impact of your work on other people?
O: When writing Lion Attack!, I wasn’t consciously thinking about the impact of my work on other people. I was writing it to understand the world and my place in it. I was writing it because it felt like the only thing I knew how to do. In an indirect way, I suppose, I was thinking about my work’s impact in the same way I think about my own actions and how they might affect other people. I’m aware of the contradiction there.
Maybe I’ll say this: I was aware to some extent that my book would affect other people but only in the sense that it’s inevitable some people might have experienced similar thoughts and feelings and experiences as me. But I wasn’t writing it for them. It’s always nice when people tell you your work meant something to them, made them feel something. Maybe I thought if I could express that I’d felt lonely or happy or sad or passionate about something, someone else might recognise those feelings within themselves too. I think that’s positive. To recognise the good and bad things we all feel.
Since completing the book I stopped writing for a year but now I’m writing again now. The work I’m interested in the moment seems less about me and more about others, or the issues that face others. I wrote an article about my friend who has bipolar. I wrote an article about my cousin’s suicide. Facilitating dialogues about mental health and looking at the country we live in seem very important to me right now.
In Lion Attack, there is a heightened level of self awareness, and also a yearning in the narrator (you!) for authentic connections with others. You speak so sincerely (and powerfully) to this condition of feeling lonely in a sea of people through humour. What place do you feel there is for humour in talking meaningfully about the world?
O: A lot of the humour in Lion Attack! was produced during those periods when I consciously tried to not write a book at all. There were days and nights when nothing would come. I’d stare at the page and see all the things I was trying to do but couldn’t. So I’d sketch out jokes or things I’d seen or remembered that made me laugh, like the guy in SNOOZE drinking heaps of Mothers. When I had those anchors, those funny things that seemed too serious to belong in anything literary, I felt freer to explore the darker themes in the book.
It’s funny. Before you write anything, writing appears quite linear. There are beginnings and middles and ends. But now, or for me anyway, I know it’s different. Writing a book now seems like a puzzle. You have all these pieces that don’t fit anywhere. But the thing is you are creating your own pieces and the picture on the front of the box is constantly changing. It’s incredibly lonely and frustrating. So I guess the jokes I wrote helped with that. The jokes were like: hey, have fun with this, and: don’t forget rim-job-dog-trains exist. The jokes kept me awake because I knew at some point that picture on the front of your box would appear and when it did I wanted to be there to see it.
I’m not sure if that answers your question. Here’s a better answer: humour is critical when talking meaningfully about the state of the world. Because humour can make the pain go away but, when done correctly, it can also make the pain feel a lot worse. And maybe we need to feel pain sometimes. In life and in writing. Maybe the pain allows us to grow and appreciate and breathe.
I wonder, ultimately, if the humour, the joke, was on me. Some people didn’t get the jokes. Or they thought the character in the book was too idealistic. I don’t mind if people didn’t get the humour but the character in the book was earnestly, or as earnest as a representation of a person can be, me.
Do you have any big projects on the go at the moment?
O: I’ve started and deleted two novels that were more or less terrible and trying too hard to be the things they weren’t. But I recognise the process because Lion Attack! was birthed from the same fire too. So, for now, I’m collecting. I’m collecting stories and they look like tiny puzzle pieces. I have them scattered in my brain but I have them scattered in files on my computer too. Here’s one:
When I was younger and visiting my grandpa in this nursing home before his death this 97-year-old lady called me over to her bed. She took my hand in her shaking hands and called me Thomas and told me to be a, “Very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very good boy.”
She asked how Francis was and if he was taking care of the chickens. I didn’t know who Francis was but I told her he was well and that the chickens were fine. Then we sat for a while and she said, “I’m looking forward to getting off this ship.” She said, “I’m not very comfortable on this ship. The waves keep splashing me at night. I wake up soaked every morning.”
Then we smiled at each other for a while. A long smile. Still holding hands. And when I tried to let go she gripped my hand tighter and held me there. We smiled at each other like two people not understanding something, but then figuring it out. And we kept smiling because I knew then that bad things happen and I looked around and saw that they happened all the time.
What I do know is this: There’s no rush. The next book will involve illustrations and pictures and drawings. It will either be very big or very short. It will be in first or second or third person and it will be in three parts. The first part will be about Canberra in the early 90s. It will be set in Wanniassa and Erindale. It will be about rolling blading and the snake pit and Nike Swooshes shaved beneath undercuts. It will be about the birth of monsters. The ones that grow inside and eventually live right inside your head. The second part will be set in Vietnam or Colombia or Japan and there will be people together and alone and they will be laughing and hurting and dancing and crying. The third part will look at Sydney right now. Sydney was just named the second most boring city in the world. That seems like an excellent place to start.
Or it could all change too.
You have said in previous interviews, that some of the great novelists of recent centuries have been your “text books” for learning and refining your skills. What are you reading at the moment and which authors do you still look to for guidance and inspiration?
O: At the moment I’m reading Valeria Luiselli. Earlier this year I read Faces in the Crowd and now I am reading The Story of my Teeth. She is incredibly talented. I can’t wait to read more. Scott McClanahan always inspires me. At the moment I have three of his books in my bag. Last month I finished Mickey by Chelsea Martin. I like how her brain works. Several weeks ago I ordered OK by KOOL AD, from Sorry House, which should arrive any day. It looks heaps buzzy. And in the evenings my girlfriend and I have been reading Bonsai by Alejandro Zambra. I have read it before many times, maybe 10 times, but now we are reading it aloud, together. The characters in the book also read aloud to each other. I like the portality of that: ideas that shoot out of fiction like arrows, the extension of it, maybe there’s something in there, that portality, maybe I’m trying to find out.
Thanks Oliver :)