March 9, 2012

The Idea and the Form: An Interview with Okla Elliott

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.

Daniel Elkin: 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?

Okla Elliott: 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.

The other major effect of my background is more experiential than educational (if those two words aren’t in fact perfect synonyms). My sisters adopted me when I was twelve—after our father died and our mother’s schizophrenia made her unfit to raise me. This put enormous pressures on all three of us, and I consider my sisters heroes for the sacrifices they made so I could live a better life. Part of those pressures were financial, so I got a job at McDonald’s the very second I was legally allowed (age 15 and ½ in Kentucky) and began paying rent, buying my own skateboards, CDs, comic books, etc—all the things a growing boy needs. I worked constantly in high school, in college, and after.

But what has this taught me or what have I gained from it? Tough question. As you might expect, I have tons of little work experiences I can use in my writing, ranging from facts about tobacco growing to working as a janitor to being a film projectionist in an art-house theatre and so on. Those come in handy when I need an authentic detail in a story or poem. But perhaps more importantly, my situation forced me to develop a work ethic, which is perhaps the most important thing a writer (or musician or lawyer or astronaut) can have.

As for my politics, my background has made me a committed progressive. It is impossible to believe that laziness is the only cause of poverty and hard work the only cause of success when you’ve seen the people I grew up around working fifty or sixty hours a week and still unable to afford healthcare or to send their children to college. It’s impossible to believe this nonsense when you see privileged children fail out of college three, four, five times and get chance after chance to pick their lives back up and end up in a much better place than harder-working people can even dream of (and trust me, I’ve seen this scenario play out dozens of times). You could say that my background gives me the emotional core of what is ultimately a much more philosophical set of political positions I hold.

DE: As part of an interview with Meg Pokrass for the Fictionaut Blog you generalized your development into a writer by saying, “I slowly realized I could make a life of philosophy, literature, and languages.” Could you be a little more specific as to how that process occurred, what sort of encouragement you had along the way, and what were some of the obstacles you faced in making that choice?

OE: I answered this in part in my first somewhat epic-length answer, I guess, but I’ll just add that it is sometimes hard for people who were raised in cities with educated parents to understand how utterly alien the idea is that you can philosophize and write as a way of life. I mean, it was just unthinkable. So, the first obstacle was to finally realize it was even possible. After that, I was incredibly lucky to have mentors and friends to support and challenge me. Without them, I would never have come this far. We have this weird myth in America that there is such a thing as the self-made man. This is, as the British say, rubbish. Without public schools and public universities, without mentors, without friends and family, etc, I could have never ended up where I am today. I don’t mean to say I haven’t worked. I have. I’ve worked my ass off, in fact. But that work needs a system that rewards work and offers further opportunities, as well as support when we need it.

DE: You've spent a great deal of time immersed and enmeshed in American education, having garnered multiple degrees. Can you outline your journey a little and maybe provide some insight into anything you may have learned through your navigation of the system that may help someone contemplating a similar journey?

OE: Just be interested constantly. I still think of myself as an autodidact, since I end up using classes as aids for things I am already doing anyway. If you engage fully with this stuff, you’ll be the most interesting student in any class. Treat it as a way of life, a calling, not some hurdle on the way to middle-classitude, and you’ll excel. That’s my advice.

DE: In your own PR and other interviews, you've talked about your literary influences such as Bertolt Brecht, David Foster Wallace, Anton Chekhov, and Goethe. What other influences to do you feel seep into your work, specifically from the world of pop culture, including music, television, movies and the like, and how does their influence manifest in your writing?

OE: I listen to music regularly and often get the mood for a piece from a song or album. For example, the novella in From the Crooked Timber was written under the spell of Whiskeytown’s Stranger’s Almanac, which I loved years ago and revisited during the writing of the novella for some reason. I think I was trying to reconnect with my more rural and southern roots while keeping my mindset contemporary and fresh, and so an alt-country album seemed ideal for that. There are also two direct Destroyer references in my collection.

DE: What's a typical day of writing like for Okla Elliott?

OE: I don’t do set times or strict schedules. I write whenever I can or want to, which varies a lot depending on my other responsibilities or my mood. I tend not to go more than a week without writing, and when I am in a productive phase, I write every day at some point, occasionally for several hours at a stretch. I usually get a flash of language or a vague structural feel for a piece and then start writing it. I find that if I overly plan, I ruin the piece, but very shortly after that initial burst, I have to plan somewhat. It’s a delicate balance between writing in the dark without a purpose and becoming stifled by some arbitrary plot or structure I’ve imposed on myself. Poetry is harder than prose in some ways, but the one way in which it is easier is the greater freedom I feel with it structurally, and the fact that I only rarely write poems longer than 3-4 pages means I can cut or alter poems much more easily than when I have a 20-page story or an 80-page novella.

There is also an odd species of guilt I feel if I don’t work regularly. If I go too long without writing, or if I leave a story untouched for too long, I feel like a neglectful lover or disloyal friend. It’s this fidelity to the relationship I develop with pieces that forces me to return to them often enough to finish them. I don’t mean to suggest that this is my primary motivator, but it is one of the top five or so. The best thing is when I am just on a quasi-manic tear and am devouring books and writing lots of pages with a kind of electrified abandon, but those phases come and go, and the hard thing is to find a way to work when you’re not super jazzed to be doing it.

DE: I’ve had the great fortune of reading some of your poetry and a few of your essays, but I have not read a great deal of your fiction yet. From what I understand, your new book is a collection of short stories combined with a novella. How did this come about and how does the process of writing fiction differ from writing poetry and essays? How do you decide that what you want to say is best suited to a particular genre?

OE: One of my early models for writing was Robert Penn Warren. He said that a writer ought to write in all the genres available. I took this to heart, at least in part because of how important he was too me as a young writer (he was also from Kentucky and was perhaps the catalyst for my realization that I could dedicate my life to this stuff). But I also think he’s right. Why should we limit ourselves? All of the work I do in each genre improves the work I do in other genres. As for how I decide which genre a certain piece ought to be in, it always just comes to me as what it is. I conceive it immediately as a story or novella or essay or poem or play. The idea and the form are utterly married, and as I said earlier, usually a chunk of language arrives along with the overall idea, so all of it is completely interwoven. Sorry…that’s a bit of a non-answer, but it’s the best I have.

DE: Overall, is there a particular theme (or themes) that runs throughout your writing, and, as a follow up, what do you hope your audience gains through your insights?

OE: The novella and stories in From the Crooked Timber are all about how irreparably warped human existence is, and it’s about all the noble, stupid, sad, generous, selfish things we do to try to make our limited time bearable. The title comes from a quote from Immanuel Kant: “From the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing can ever be made.” That sounds about right to me. But quite famously, Kant had hope for humanity, and among those hopes was the power of art. That also sounds about right to me. (That Kant fella was a smart dude.)

As for what I hope my audience gains from my work, I am not entirely sure. I know I want to bring immediate reading pleasure into their lives, and I hope that maybe they recognize some of our shared failings and perhaps gain a bit more empathy for others by seeing how all of us are just making this shit up as we go along in life. We all fall short of our best intentions and we all fail to live up to our highest potential. I guess maybe I want people to have a bit more empathy and perhaps sympathy (though not pity) for the failings in all of our characters. Something like that anyway.

(That’s an incredibly tough question, by the way.)

DE: I get this question a lot from High School students and I was wondering how you might answer this: “Why are we reading (insert author here – typically it has been Shakespeare, Beowulf, Chaucer, Cather, Homer, or Faulkner)?”

OE: Well, most of the ones you named there are read for two reasons: 1) They are damn good, and 2) They are classics. Some very good books are ignored, and some classics bore any sane person to tears, but often they line up. The reason one ought to want to read them is for the same reason people seek out religion, for wisdom and understanding. I really think this ought to also be why people write. I mean, if we’re not being made better by doing this stuff, then why do it? All that said, I think we should teach literature classes in reverse. Start with contemporary or nearly contemporary stuff and work your way back. Get someone into Allen Ginsberg because he’s all cool and hip, and then show them how he was influenced by Walt Whitman. Suddenly Whitman becomes pretty cool and interesting. Same thing with fiction. I mean, I’m surprised anyone wants to read when they’re slapped with some huge book from the 18th-century at age 16. It’s not that these kids are dumb or lack interest in figuring things out; they just can’t see how Alexander Pope can teach them anything about their online flirting and nascent romantic efforts. It’s our job as teachers to show them that he can.

DE: What advice would you give a young person who loves to write and would like to try to make a living doing it?

OE: Read everything. Live life. Travel. Write constantly. Be empathetic. Be passionately curious about everything from anthropology to philosophy to how the person beside you on the bus deals with the crowd around you both. Be confident, even arrogant if you have to be, because you have to feel that your project is worth doing. You have to be serious as hell about it all. And, though it sounds contradictory to what I just said about being serious, you also have to have fun doing this stuff or else you’ll stop. Ecstatically serious; that (or something like that) is the state you should be seeking.

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