This interview originally ran in the Spring 2012 issue
Okla Elliott has recently published his debut short story collection, From the Crooked Timber
, through Press 53. Currently, Elliott is the Illinois Distinguished Fellow at the University of Illinois in the fields of comparative literature and trauma studies. He also holds an MFA from Ohio State University. In 2008-09, he was a visiting assistant professor at Ohio Wesleyan University. His drama, non-fiction, poetry, short fiction, and translations have appeared in Another Chicago Magazine, Indiana Review, The Literary Review, Natural Bridge, New Letters, A Public Space,
and The Southeast Review
, among others. He is the author of three poetry chapbooks—The Mutable Wheel; Lucid Bodies and Other Poems;
and A Vulgar Geography
—and he co-edited (with Kyle Minor) The Other Chekhov
The seven stories and one novella that comprise From the Crooked Timber
are, in their way, representational of Immanuel Kant's dictum, “From the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing can ever be made,” from which the collection takes it title. It is a collection of stories about, as Elliott says, “human crookedness and all the noble and desperate and pathetic and cruel and generous things we do to come to terms with that crookedness.” These character driven pieces follow the down-and-out and the damaged as they try to make sense of their past, their present, and how they fit into the world in which they find themselves. Through this, the stories provide a peek into what it means to be human.
I recently had the opportunity to talk to Okla Elliott about his background, his development as a writer, and his process.
: Let’s begin by talking about your background a little, as that seems like a logical place to start. In my research about you, I found that you are from Argyle, Kentucky, and that your generation of siblings was the first in your family to graduate high school and enter college. Can you elaborate a little on your formative years, especially in terms of how you think they have influenced you in your writing, your politics, and your world view?
: Well, it’s easy to over-emphasize this kind of stuff—embarking on a trite faux-psychoanalysis session and explaining everything from my creative life to my choice of breakfast cereal via some childhood event—so I’ll try to avoid that. At the same time, it’s easy to shrink these sorts of things, to ignore them as inconsequential details from the past that one has “overcome” or whatever, even though they are completely present with us all the time—so I’ll try to avoid that as well.
The first effect of having parents who never graduated high school was that my father instilled in me an intense seriousness about learning. There’s a way in which kids whose parents are doctors and professors and the like can sort of downplay the gravity of education. It’s taken for granted maybe. Or maybe it’s a sort of rebellion in some instances. But for me, education has always been an unalloyed good. Education can make a poor boy from rural Kentucky into a successful lawyer, or it can make that same poor boy from Kentucky into a writer who gets the opportunity to travel the world and study fascinating cultures, languages, literatures, etc. So I guess I have always taken my studies seriously because I saw them as my way out of a life of poverty and ignorance.