Interview with Toby Olson
Jaclyn Cole & Jason Macey

Jaclyn Cole: Many of your novels are set in either the Northeast or the Southwest.  Does the setting drive the plot, and if it does, is there a necessity of these two preferred settings?


Toby Olson: Both of those settings do drive the plots, but in very different ways. I've had a house on Cape Cod for the last thirty-four years, and I've spent a lot of time there.  So the reason  I write about the Northeast is that I've lived there.  It's as simple as that.  I lived in the Pacific Southwest, Arizona, and on the Mexican border, and I spent some time in Mexico too.  But that was mainly in adolescence and childhood.  Since I'm interested in nostalgia or memories about the past, those  places  come naturally into these books.  I can't say more about them driving the plot, except to say that they may drive the atmosphere more.


Jason Macey: Do you feel that the tempo of your writing varies with the setting?  I felt that the novels set in the Southwest were slower and more contemplative, while the novels set in the Northeast moved much more quickly.  Is this conscious on your part or a function of the setting?


T.O.:  It's the second.  There's nothing conscious about that.  I suppose when I think about it, the stuff in the Northeast is less contemplative.  It's just what it is.  I'm particularly thinking of Seaview


J.M.: You write in the opening of Seaview that the skin is "a barrier, an integrity and a definition."  This is immediately contrasted to water, cancer, and breath.  This is a consistent opposition that we've found in your novels, but stated most powerfully in Seaview.  What is the difference between primary barriers or surfaces and the formlessness of water or breath in your work? 


T.O.:  Boy, that's some question.  You'd have to write an essay about that.  [laughs]  Certainly Seaview would be an example of this [i.e, experience].  That novel really came out of a cancer scare that my wife had.  She didn't actually have cancer.  But there was a period of a few weeks when we were going to the doctor where we weren't only trying to figure out what was wrong, but also trying to figure out how to respond in anticipation.  And there's a lot of strange feelings that come up as a result of that.  For example, the idea that if my wife were to die, I would be liberated in a strange way, in an existential way.  You don't want that to happen, but you're whole life is going to change if it does.  When a parent dies, your  life changes, and there's a feeling of that possible change and an anticipation of  it.   So  Seaview came from that in a sense that what I wanted to explore was the ramifications of a relationship between a man and a woman in that situation in as many ways as I could.  Now, it strikes me that people have a very difficult time communicating, at best, and seldom do communicate.  So for me the metaphor, it's in a way literal, of the skin being a barrier between people, rather than the cover for what's inside is where that idea comes from.  The idea also in the sense of character, of there being not a depth under the surface but other surfaces, either psychological or physical.  The water and bathing stuff  is linked to a number of ideas ö baptism, connection between people through water as if it were animal magnetism-as if the energies could flow in the water from one person to another-cleansing, community, those kinds of things.   In Seaview  bathing is  examined in one way and in another way entirely in The Woman Who Escaped From Shame, particularly the scene where my character is in the bath with a prostitute, and all the bodily fluids of all the men she's ever slept with are washing over him.   As I develop ideas about bathing (or anything else) in one novel, I often find other ideas emerging, ones that have no place there; then I  try to get at them in a subsequent novel.  There are a few "images," enough to call them that, which like bathing seem to come up over and over in these books.   Another is travels underground.   People are invariably going below the surface.  I used to go myself when I was a kid in California ö you know, the washes, the dry washes, that are used for runoff? [JM: yeah] Off  those major tributaries are concrete washes that are smaller, and if you were small enough you could enter them and go various places.  You could literally go for miles.  I used to go underground too when I lived in Arizona, not only into washes, but into old mine shafts, and I remember once I found one of those huge runoff pipes, and I was able to go through it  all the way to the center of town. I was under the streets, below the grates that people walk over, and I could look up and see everything that was happening. 


J.M.:  So that was probably the inspiration for that scene in Write Letter to Billy.


T.O.:  Oh, absolutely, that's where that came from, and though it might in the reading seem symbolic or "significant,"  it's not  always the case that I had such things in mind in the writing.  With those washes I  just wanted to see how interesting and curious it might be to go down into the sewers once again!  [laughs]  That's really where it came from.


J.C.:  In Dorit in Lesbos, Edwards's paintings seek to portray reality by showing some part of the skin as transparent as in an anatomical drawing.  There's a natural comparison, strangely enough, to David in Utah, where his expertise as a masseuse allows him to begin a dialogue with the individuals he is massaging.  Does one only get to the surface of things by acknowledging the skin and outer appearance, and does one get beyond superficiality by looking beyond surfaces?


T.O.:  The desire on the part of these characters and my own desire, which I admit is an impossibility, is to start from the premise that everything meaningful is on the surface, and that if you could articulate everything on the surface, you would have the meaning of life.  Contrary to this, all interpretations that I know of-historical interpretations, psychological interpretations, philosophical interpretations, etc.-are limited, because they proceed from a theory.  Therefore, they only get a piece of the reality, and probably not anything as significant as what one would desire.  So both of these characters are particularly aware of this.  The painter ends up going a little nuts wanting to paint all the surfaces; finally he ends up wanting to paint the air!  There's  a moment in the book where one of the characters speaks of "the surface of the earth, where all beauty resides."  I  might have said that myself,  and I want to explore that impossible claim when it comes to human beings and their relationships,  to assume that  everything of significance can be found on the surface.  And maybe that's not as strange as it might seem.  There is an interpretive communications theory that wants to talk in psychological terms, which would define schizophrenia not as a  traditional psychological problem, but as a problem with communication.  The proposal is that the pathology is in  the communication between people and only there.  The assumption that the way you cure people is to cure the communication between them.  If you can cure that, they're cured; you don't have to look inside.  That's one way of looking at things.  I'm more interested in that way of looking than in delving into some sort of ghost in the machine, or some other system ö like the id, superego, the ego ö all of that is wonderful theory, but I just think it's much more interesting to look at the surface. 


J.M.:  We've noticed a number of characters that find their separate ways into other novels, for instance the quartet of Paul (The Woman Who Escaped From Shame), David (Utah), Allen (Seaview), and Jack (Dorit in Lesbos) all finding their way into At Sea.  More poignantly, Peter Blue, the protagonist of At Sea is once again a major character in The Blond Box.  How are these characters both new and repeated in your novels, and how do they help to elaborate on ideas common to the novels?


T.O.:  In At Sea, at the bar, I decided I was going to pull together all the major characters from all the other books and proceed with it, to see where it would go.   So I even worked Jesus in there, as JZˇsus, I think. 


J.M.:  David, Allan, Jack·


T.O.:  Yeah, one of them has a little horse sewn onto his pocket if I remember right.  Yeah I just thought, what the hell, I'm gonna bring them all in, let them all ride into this book. 


J.M.:  Now are these characters new at all, in the newer novels, or are they the ones from the other books?


T.O.:  I want them to actually be the people from the other books. One wouldn't have to know this to read them, but they're not new characters.  It's pretty difficult to believe that Jesus would show up among these others, here in modern times, unless we were dealing in science fiction. However, he's like the others in that he's really not a person but a character.  One character, Peter Blue, finds his way into three of the novels I've written,
At Sea, The Blond Box, and Tampico.  This last one hasn't been published as yet. In Blue's case, the character develops through these appearances. 


J.C.:  This is firstly our congratulation for having your work translated into French. Of course, few authors enjoy this honor in their lifetime, especially when their work is not strictly intended to make money.  Could you tell us about the experience of having your work translated?


T.O.:  Yes.  There are two books that are translated into French, and one into Spanish.  One is Seaview-which has been translated twice into French by the same translator-it was published once about ten or twelve years ago, then went out of print, and he found another publisher who wanted it, so he retranslated it.  The Woman Who Escaped From Shame just came out, translated into French.  The experience-first of all I don't read French, so that takes care of that.  However, I met the translator and we corresponded, and he came to visit me on Cape Cod and I visited him in France.  It was seven or eight years after he translated Seaview, that he came to Cape Cod and we walked at night on the golf course that is in Seaview, that is an actual place.  So he had already translated it into French without ever seeing it, and he went to see it later.  He's a terrific guy; he sent me in both cases an extensive list of questions, because a lot of this stuff is learned by experience, which makes it hard to translate, and Seaview is particularly tough with all the golf terminology and so forth.  So he sent me these questions, and we corresponded a lot. When he retranslated Seaview, he found things that he had missed the first time around, the significance of something, things that he hadn't understood and now did.  I'd like to think that our dealings were collaborative, but they were collaborative only to the extent that I was able to answer his questions.  My not knowing the language after all.  Sure it's nice to be translated, to have these books in hand, but then I can't read them.  Bernard (the translator) is a good friend now, and  I assume the translations are well done,  which for me means close to my intentions.  I recently went to Brown University for  a translation conference. Bernard and other translators were there.  I talked to them about what I've just told you, and I got a sense that most of them felt that the author, especially a living author, is an irritant.  You don't want to talk to the author, you don't want to have the author around, you don't want to muddy up the problem with considerations of author intention. On the one hand I can understand their point of view, but on the other hand I'm still here. [laughs]




J.M.:  Given your background in philosophy, we thought it may be interesting to ask you a couple questions on that field. Ludwig Wittgenstein writes:  "Working in philosophy-like work in architecture in many respects-is really more a working on oneself.  On one's own interpretation.  On one's way of seeing things.  (And what one expects of them.)"  How do you relate the more subjective and progressive interpretation you must have for a novel you are working on against the more objective page?  Is this tension more worked out in the writing before the writing, or is this resolved throughout the writing of the novel?


T.O.:  Everything is resolved through the writing.  I do remember when I was writing Dorit in Lesbos, and I was at about 150 pages; I didn't know what the plot was and I didn't know who the criminals were.  I thought, I'd better think about this a little bit at that point.  But, it's only then that I do that.  I just kind of write it-not that I don't revise a whole lot, I do-but I don't make plans in advance.  In the same light, I'm not interested in getting to know characters that I write about very well.  I want them to take on their own life and to be unknown to me in a way, because, if you think about real life, you probably don't know anyone as well as you know the protagonist of a lot of novels, certainly not as well as in most conventional fiction, where you get a sense of virtually everything that's going on in a person's mind and you feel you understand that person thoroughly, which is not real.  So I want to keep the characters and how we understand them to their experience, and because of that, there is no sense in doing anything like a character sketch.  Their qualities always emerges as a part of the writing, and so does everything else.  The part that's the most problematic, but it's only problematic when everything is emerging through hard work later, is the mystery aspect.  I don't want to know before hand.  What I come up with is a mystery-what is that thing doing there, or what is that person doing there-and then I write about that question; what does it mean, and I go on to something else and hope somewhere down the line the solution's going to come up.  If it doesn't then I have to do some hard work, but it's work that doesn't depend on the imagination, it just depends on some solitude.


J.C.:  Heidegger writes:  "Man speaks in that he responds to language.  This responding is hearing.  It hears because it listens to the command of stillness."  What is the response of listening, first as it pertains to the necessity of writing, secondly as it pertains to the subsequent response to the finished published work?


T.O.:  I don't understand that question; that's a pretty philosophical question [laughs].  I'm not sure what you mean; you'll have to clarify that.


J.M.:  Okay, since it's my question, I think that was a cheesy way of saying, "What gets you to write, what Îsilence' gets you to write?" sort-of-thing.  I don't know if  it makes anymore sense that way.  That's my useful way of interpreting that little snippet of Heidegger.


T.O.:  I don't know how to answer that, I suppose, except to say that the silence is the time when I'm banging my head against the wall because I can't get started, and I'm cleaning the house to avoid writing.  Once I start writing, I don't feel any silence at all, I feel voices banging around in my head-not mysteriously, but of the characters.  Also the idea of silence in that philosophical context sounds wholesome, and I think for me at least, writing novels is not a wholesome thing at all.  It's a pathological thing; it's much more pathological than writing poetry, because you live with it all the time, for two or three years, all the time.  That can drive you crazy.  I'm not working on a novel right now so I'm free to be sitting here talking to you without writing, talking to you and not thinking, "now what was this character doing when he moved that piece of furniture beside Jason."  I think it's one of the best and worst feelings when you finish a novel.  It's so consuming, almost like what I imagine having a child to be.  You have it with you for so long, and when it comes out, there it is, and what was inside of you is gone.  Anyway, that's my answer on Îsilence'. 


J.M.:  Do certain characters become symbols for health or illness, or is health an unattainable concept?


T.O.:  I have to answer that by saying that my father died when he was 42 and I was seventeen, and he was sick all of my life.  He wasn't actually, but my first memory of him was of him sick.  For some reason, when he died, the family collapsed.  We were relatively poor, and when my father died everything fell apart.  My brother went nuts.  He was younger than I, and he ended up in the Hell's Angels.  My sister got married and had six children in about ten years.  All of this happened after my father died.  What I did was to go into the Navy.  We were in a class during basic training and it was about two or three weeks before we were going to start our training for our actual jobs.  We were offered jobs, and somebody said they had volunteer work in the morgue, so my first medical training was in the morgue, assisting autopsies.  And then I was on a cancer ward, then I was a surgical technician.  So I had a lot of medical experience, most of it not academic or aesthetic, but mostly practical things ö curing the sick, being in settings of caring for the terminally ill, and working on cadavers.  So I think this is tied to my father in a psychological way, with trying to bring him back, you know, to cure him?  I know that's glib, I'm not much interested in such psychological interpretations, and yet this one seems almost sensible. So yeah, sickness plays a part in most of these books.


J.M.:  The Life of Jesus appears much more discontinuous in its often short, choppy sections.  None of your other novels seem to use this form.  To what extent did your experience as a poet necessitate the form of The Life of Jesus?


T.O.: The Life of Jesus started out with two poems. When I wrote them, they were very odd poems for me, I didn't know what they were all about, and I didn't know they were about Jesus when I wrote them.  Then I wrote a short story called "Walking," and there's a section in that where Jesus and St. Peter are in a boat, and they're in close to the land and all that is about being in Arizona as a child, and about the principal of my high school and desert rabbits and other things and memories from that time. That was a short story, that did have to do with Jesus, but I had no idea I'd write a novel.  That's how the novel came together, a bunch of short stories and a couple of poems.  Once I had about a hundred pages, I thought why not find a way to put this all together. And so that's how it became a book.  It's discontinuous because that's the way it was written.  When I finished it, I thought: wow I've written a novel, maybe somebody will publish it.  Then I sat down and tried to do it again, for real. So that's the story of The Life of Jesus.  What did you think, that I had planned it?


J.M.:  Yeah, I thought it was intentional.


T.O.:  Well, I want it to look that way, pieced together the way it is.  But I have to admit that it came about that way; it wasn't planned.  I would say also, that it was around the time that I was writing that book that I read Robert Coover's Pricksongs and Descants.  I was so taken with that book and so taken with the gravity of it that I thought, if I were ever to write fiction, that's the kind of fiction I'd like to write.  While the book is not imitative, there are some commonalities-he has sections, one where he tells the Hansel and Gretel story where he repeats certain sections.  He tells the story in a piecemeal fashion.  Of course, it's not simply piecemeal.  He writes of the two walking along the trail.  Then there's a  section when he tells that part again from a different point of view, and again from another point of view.  I know that section in The Life of Jesus where they take Jesus down from the cross, which I tell over and over, is really a nod to his book.  So what I'm saying is that part of the structure of The Life of Jesus was suggested by Coover's book. 


J.C.:  Your more erotic scenes seem to be more about sensuality than about sexuality.  There seems a staged quality in the sexual scenes of your novels, almost suggesting the reader was viewing kitsch.  It's also uncomfortable.  What does this unease add to the story?


T.O.:  Well, I don't feel unease about it.  I hope what you're asking about is the unease in between the characters. 


J.M.:  Yes.


T.O.:  What I want to write about is ideal sexuality, a conduit to the most profound connections.  Not the most profound connections, but a conduit to them, a way of arriving.  And therefore, it's gender free, it doesn't matter if it's two women-it's not a bisexual issue.  I still like that scene from The Woman Who Escaped From Shame where the gay guy, Ronnie I think is his name, is washing Paul, the main character, in the shower.  He's washing him in order to sooth his injured body, and Paul gets an erection.  Ronnie says, it's alright.  It's not an erotic thing, it's not sexual, it's just washing-one person caring for another.  It's the same with the baths.  That's the way sex almost always operates in my books.  It's a very serious matter that deals with connection, at least the possibility of it.  The other way it operates is the way in which it's often subverted.  In Seaview,  Jerry and Richard's
sexual pathology-bondage and whipping, things like that-is the perverted side of that.  Same thing in The Blond Box with the porno shows and all that.  There's endless talk about the lack of connection in sexuality.  Even for the performers, it just doesn't get to anything real.  It's a fake.


J.M.:  So that also adds significance to the moment, the dying in the arms, it's the moment.


T.O.:  Yes, that's a moment of real connection in The Blond Box,  and it's the last moment in the book, the very last words.  That's the  tragedy of it, because only when he's getting ready to die, and through all the turmoil the husband and wife have had, there's been nothing since the wedding night.  Then there's a real connection.  He wants to die in her arms, and then he dies.  It's a hell of a thing. This connection should have happened earlier, but it didn't [laughs].  Of course, it's meant to be perversely ironic as well.  I'm interested in sexuality.  I'm interested in the fact that Sandy Redcap has never looked at her body.  She's clearly a virgin, and she's going through the day trying to understand all of this.  It's also interesting, the ways in which various circumscribed skills may or may not be transferable.  Take for example Seaview, the issue is the game of golf, and Allen uses the game  as a weapon, to solve problems outside of the problems of the game.  Or in Utah, the massage is not just a massage.  The massage leads to memories and stories.  Also with Utah, one of my favorite ideas, that art can actually vanquish its enemies.  So, Lorca paints the painting with the bees and the guys are coming at her and she brings out her paintings, waves her wand and the bees fly out of the paintings and kill the guys.  I love that idea, I thought it was a great idea.  People often say that art criticizes society, and it often does.  But beyond that, you'd like to see art really succeed.  You'd like to see art really start a revolution, and maybe it has at some points.  So all these different skills run through all of the novels.  In Dorit in Lesbos my central character is a landscape architect.  The whole idea of landscape-the surface under the surface, how is that going to serve him later on, how will it help him "uncover" the mystery.  I guess  this kind of thing isn't taken up in The Blond Box. Maybe it was about time for me to get off that ride, for the time being at least.


J.C.:  We're going to talk about the imagination now.  Since all of your novels are clearly fictional, the imagination would contrast any experiences you have had.  Does the imagination act as liberator or director for the possibilities rising out of experience?


T.O.:  I think the best way to approach that is not going to be a direct answer.  I'm interested in trying to push the envelope with narrative convention.  I don't want to wreck narrative convention.  What I want is to find a circumstance where, because of the imagination, because of heightened experience or perception, the conventional gets slightly exaggerated.  So you the reader feel this could be happening, but then you say no this couldn't have happened.  For example, in Seaview one of the characters is admittedly small.  He has to get something out of his golf bag, so he reaches down inside the bag, and before long he's up to his waist. Now you really can't get that far into a golf bag. It's the same thing with the horse in The Woman Who Escaped From Shame.  I wanted a burden that would be difficult to hide, impossible to hide.  Now these little horses are never quite that small; there are miniature horses but not as small as those  in the book.  That's a slight exaggeration.  The same is true with the flying machine in Write Letter to Billy.  I wanted to build a machine from the father's weird inventor imagination, and I wanted the reader to believe that it could actually work.  But I've made it all up; it's kind of an adolescent fantasy of a machine that might fly.  It's a mix, some things will work, but some people won't buy these fantastical things.  I read a review in the Los Angeles Times, that I discounted, because everyone else likes it-this smog thing.  My character goes down into a kind of town in the city of Los Angeles, and the smog is so thick that he has to take a shower and wash it all off.  Now I've been in California smog when I lived there as a kid.  The smog was bad, but it's not like that anymore and was never that bad. I wanted to exaggerate to make it worse than it would've been in real life.  For me, the reader has to be convinced that it is reality. 


J.M.:  You seem to have a particular fondness for using deus ex machina.  What does the work gain by use of these twists?


T.O.: Doug Messerli in his article about Write Letter To Billy talks about this.  What he says is interesting, and I'm of course pleased that he liked the book enough to write something about it,  but I look at the things he writes about differently.  While it's true that there are an awful lot of coincidences and twists, and they are machines in a way, I buy them as a certain kind of reality.  I think that one's life is full of accidents and coincidences.  I think that we often try to incorporate them into some sort of rational system because we don't like the idea of anything being inconsistent, of our being out of control.  But I see that in the same terms in which I see this business of slight exaggeration. I also think I see it as a way of separating the plot from the characters, so that the characters never really drive the plot because they are victims of coincidences.  That seems to be a better analog to the lifelike than in certain circumstances in which characters drive the plot completely.  I say that because, if we think we drive our lives, we're living in an illusion.  If we think we do the best we can and then accidents happen, those are probably the more real circumstances. 


J.C.:  At times it seems your novels have the framework of a detective novel.  Characters often go on quests, and chase scenes are also common.  Are these elements necessary for your novels; in other words, what would happen if these elements were removed?


T.O.:  John [Taggart] and I were actually just talking about our love for mystery novels.  I do recognize that all the books I have written are mysteries to a certain extent.  To be completely honest about it, I can't imagine wanting to write a work that didn't have some sort of mystery that I have to figure out.  I don't know why that is, but I just can't conceive of it otherwise.  Somehow writing a book that's just about a relationship doesn't appeal to me.  I can't figure out how to do it.  I don't want to write mysteries, but it seems my books all have mystery elements in them.  You know, it's interesting, because the publisher of At Sea made a mistake in marketing that book as a mystery novel.  It got slammed in at least one review, and the slam was territorial,  "How dare this Olson write a mystery novel?" But, no, they're not mysteries, and yet I couldn't write them without those elements in mind.


J.M.:  Are there any writers or works that provide models for your fiction?  What are these writers or works?


T.O.:  Robert Coover, as I've said,  is a good example, but that's a contemporary writer.  I guess the writers that I most admire, that I go back to in order to reenergize myself when I can't seem to start writing are the big guns, specifically Faulkner and D.H. Lawrence.  There are others, but those two in particular can do any damn thing they want to at a certain point in their novels, because they establish  a world.  It's as in any Dickens novel, where within the first twelve pages the whole of London has been created in the language.  A guy could walk out the door, and it doesn't matter if he turns left or right; it wouldn't matter if a character were thrown out ö the whole novel would still be there.  And I feel that with Lawrence and Faulkner, and also with Melville.  The obsessiveness of their books, in order to get to certain important events or experiences.  Those are my models, and they're nice and safe, because they're dead; they're great and there's no question about it.  I try to avoid reading contemporary writers, when I'm engaged in writing a novel,  because I don't want to measure myself against them, or steal things from them, in the course of doing so.


J.C.:  What is the difference between narrative in a poem and narrative in fiction?


T.O.:  Earlier on I felt a very strong distinction between the activities.  I still feel a distinction between them.  I initially liked Jack Spicer's distinction, something like: prose invents, poetry discloses.  Clearly, early on, when I was writing poetry I was holding to something like that, disclosure of a kind of truth, and in fiction I was clearly inventing, I was making it up as I went along.  As the years have gone by, the poems have gotten longer, many of them,  and I've become willing to allow more "fictional" material into them.  I know that my fiction has always been "poetic" to a degree.  The bottom line, in both, is language.  You could have a story without characters and it doesn't matter, but if the language is not there, the story is never going to be right.  So the way in which these two kinds of writing are relate is in a common attention to language.  When I'm writing a scene, a fictional scene, I'm never far from trying to figure out how the sentences should sound.


J.C.:  Is there any truth to the myth of a prose poet?


T.O.:  I think that's a definitional question, and that's all it is.  There's no question that a Shakespeare sonnet is poetry.  There's no question that the Rules of the Road published by the Department of Motor Vehicles is prose.  These might be seen as the extremes at the two ends of a horizontal line. Put a vertical line down  the center, bisecting this horizontal one, a line marking the distinction, prose on one side, poetry on the other.  As writing moves closer and closer to the center line, the distinction gets less and less clear.  We can all think of examples, maybe, for example, a Raymond Carver poem.  It's a lot like  fiction, very flat and adamantly narrative, yet it is laid out in lines.  The reverse might be some very poetic language laid out in paragraphs.  What matters, as to our attention to what's been written, is what somebody (author, publisher, critic, etc) decides to call it.  So that would be my sense of the issue. Too much, I think, can be made of it.  There's a baseball story in which an umpire is standing behind the plate and people in the crowd are watching.  The pitcher throws the ball, and somebody in the audience yells, "Strike!"  This was said before the umpire could speak, and he goes over and stands near the crowd and says, "They ain't nothing Îtil I names Îem."  So, writers just write their work.  When there's a question, it's usually left to someone else to name it.  It's often no more than a issue of packaging.  


J.M.:  You said with the release of Human Nature that, "One day I woke from fiction to discover I'd not written a poem in close to ten years."  Do you have to put aside either poetry or prose to work in the other genre?


T.O.:  Absolutely.  What I've found is that I'll go on a binge and write two or three novels in succession.  This just happened when I finished the novel before The Blond Box, which hasn't been published yet.  I said "that's it, now I'm going back to writing poetry."  I'm afraid I'm going to lose what got me to this: the concern for language.  But I can't do both at the same time.  I've been doing other things, however, specifically working with a composer.  I can do that at the same time as I'm working on a novel or on poetry, and that's nice.  I've just finished the libretto for a chamber opera.  An earlier one was a setting of the book Dorit In Lesbos, and there have been other pieces, poems set as songs, and a short story set for voice and piano.  These collaborative ventures have been very exiting and pleasurable. I hope they continue. 


J.C.:  It's well known that Thomas Wolfe wrote while standing up, that Dylan Thomas would often write in bars, and Tolstoy wrote always close to the pulse of human action.  How do you go about your particular process of writing?


T.O.:  I've done all of my writing, since about 1970 from my study on Cape Cod, looking out at Cape Cod Bay, and it's still there, and I'm going back to it in two months. Now, I don't do all of my revision there; I do revise in Philadelphia.  But it's very rare that I can get something started from somewhere else.  Since it's been close to thirty-five years, and since it's worked, I'm not going to second-guess it.  I used to agonize when I was teaching ö "gee I've got to get something written, I'm wasting time."  But I'm pretty satisfied with the amount I've written.   I've been pretty prolific.  So anyway, that's the story about where I do all of my writing.  Oh, and I sit down in a chair when I write.


J.C.:  How has Paul Blackburn's influence and friendship affected your conception and writing of poetry?


T.O.:  I think in the ways that we spoke about earlier.  I was in college and I was writing a lot of stuff that was not connected to me at all.  I was writing  D.H. Lawrence poems and T.S. Eliot poems.  Then I met Paul and saw what he was doing and thought this is kind of what I want to do.  I'm not talking about an imitation of his work, but an approach to poetry.  His was much more a celebration of the world without any kind of artificial figurative language.  He talked about out-the-window poems, where what you see is what you get.  His  poems are rich and beautiful, and they don't need to be translated into something else to get their significance. That was important to me.  The same summer that I met him, I also met Robert Creeley, and the two of them, through their work, pointed me in a more authentic direction than the one I'd been mistakenly following. 


J.M.:  The use of music in your novels involves both direct references to singers as well as allusions of singular lines.  In one extremely powerful use of a jazz reference, you incorporate lines from "Send In The Clowns."  What is the significance of jazz to your work and how does it manifest itself? 


T.O.:  I like jazz a lot. It's been in my life for close to fifty years, so it's not odd that I would look to be writing poems like this Standards series.  In those poems there's an analog to improvisation in jazz, just an analog. My desire is to take the lyrics of these standard songs seriously.  The poems start with lines from these lyrics. I try then to let the poems move out from what these lines suggest, to return to the meanings of the lyrics, then to move out again when something more is suggested by them. Jazz often plays a part in the novels too.  Scenes in piano bars, where all of the songs played and sung are related to what's happening in the scene.  So, that's the way it works.