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Our Sense of Time: An Interview with Olivia Laing

Olivia Laing interviewed by Claudia Bruno.

Olivia Laing by Sukhi Dhanda

3:AM: There was a point at the beginning of the lockdown when many people felt kept alive by machines. It was as if, for the first time, they were seeing clearly how relationships work in our societies. Many thought we could completely replace our usual activities with technology, happy hours included. Actually, in being hyper connected, always looking for breaking news, we were facing a mental burnout. There were a lot of people who thought that the pandemic would break the internet, but it didn’t happen. For many, however, what crashed was the nervous system. That is to say that, for some people more than others, at some point it became clear that the internet would not keep us safe. In an article which recently appeared in The Guardian, you describe how in 2017 you decided to leave Twitter. “Twitter was my constant companion, the lens through which I watched the EU referendum, Brexit, the American presidential campaign and Trump’s election. I couldn’t look away”, you write. “I wasn’t so much addicted to the spectacle as to the ongoing certainty that the next click, the next link, would bring clarity. I felt like if I watched everything, if I read every last conspiracy theory and threaded tweet, the reward would be illumination”. What happened next?

Olivia Laign: The reward was not illumination! Social media is a factory for manufacturing paranoia, and though it can be a very useful source of information, I think its prioritising of breaking news is a problem in terms of real understanding or clarity. I backed away from Twitter in 2017, and I’m glad I did. I wanted to go much deeper, to return to history and to tease out a sense of causes and consequences in a slower, more thoughtful way. The speed was genuinely making me ill, I think. In the lockdown, the internet was an amazing source of contact. It collapses space; it means you can talk intimately with anyone in the world, but at the same time it is alienating and estranging. I agree with you that the internet won’t keep us safe. It invades our privacy and it directs our discussion in what I think are very dangerous ways. We polarise, we fight, it is hard to find common ground.

3:AM: Your first novel, Crudo, which you call “an experiment”, comes out from that experience and was written “in real time”. What do you mean by that?

OL: With Crudo I wanted to try and record the moment I was living in. I knew that it would be historicized, and that it would acquire a shape and meaningfulness that were totally invisible to those living through it. It wasn’t possible to know which events were salient, and which were random, or what future we were rocketing towards. I decided to record everything, the raw data of a transitional moment. The word ‘crudo’ means raw, of course, and in writing it I had two rules: that I had to write every day, and that I couldn’t edit or reshape the material. I wanted a record of the present, the political and the personal smashed together, as they are in reality.

3:AM: “Kathy, by which I mean I, was getting married”is how  you start. Who is Kathy? Is she the punk writer Kathy Acker, is she you, or is she a mix between the two? How did you manage to shape her voice? What kind of need did you start from?

OL: I had the idea for Crudo while I was on holiday in Italy, in the Val d’Orcia. I was reading a biography of Kathy Acker by Chris Kraus, and it described a technique Acker used of plagiarising other works — Dickens, Don Quixote — by putting them into the first person. It changed them utterly. I wondered then what would happen if I recorded the turbulent events of the summer, but from the perspective of Kathy Acker, almost as if I was channelling her wild, unstable voice. I needed that instability. If I had written a non-fiction, first person account, I wouldn’t have been able to capture the sense of shiftiness and collapse. The Kathy of Crudo is a spliced, braided character — she has elements of Acker’s biography and of mine, and she lives through all the events of the summer as I did, but her perspective and voice is very different.

3:AM: Before writing Crudo, you won (critical) acclaim as a non-fiction writer and cultural journalist. Funny Weather, a selection of essays and articles you wrote for magazines and newspapers, has now been published in the UK by Picador in a beautiful pink fabric hardback whose front cover features a black and white work by David Wojnarowicz, one of the artists you wrote about. Art has a crucial role in your output. In your experience, what is the relationship between art and writing?

OL: For me, writing about art rather than literature was an enormous revelation. I started out as a literary critic, and didn’t move to art writing until The Lonely City. I love painting, of course, but I also love to write about the object itself, as a physical thing that exists in the world, outliving its creator. The melancholy life of the painting. As a writer, I am always trying to get past abstraction, the world of ideas, and putting actual objects in my writing — paintings, photographs — really helps with that. They’re beautiful tools with which to think.

3:AM: Flicking through Funny Weather, as is the case in The Lonely City and The Trip to Echo Spring, but in some ways much more, one can have the feeling of fitting gradually into your world. It’s like a labyrinth that starts from Georgia O’Keffe’s canyons and reaches David Bowie’s reinventions, passing through Agnes Martin’s “rigorous nets”, Wolfgang Tillmans’ photography, and your real or virtual relationship with an infinite network of brilliant people. In some ways, it reminds us of a shell collection, as if you are compiling different shapes from different lives to build your own. What do you find interesting in studying and writing about other people’s lives and intelligence?

OL: A shell collection, I love that. This is similar really to the previous question. I write about quite difficult subjects, about loneliness, loss, addiction, hatred, on personal and political levels. I want to understand those things philosophically, but I also want to know how they affect real human lives. I’m not very interested in memoir. My own experience is inevitably so limited. So I tend to be drawn to other artists who’ve worked in these arenas, or suffered from these conditions. Funny Weather is a little different from my usual non-fiction because it has so many biographical essays, but even there I’m trying to understand people’s motivations, the things they were searching for and the constrictions they needed to undo. Another thing: I write out of love. All these essays are about artists who move and excite me. I wanted to bring them together and to pass them on, almost like a gift for the reader.

3:AM: You write at the beginning of Funny Weather: “What I wanted most, apart from a different timeline, was a different kind of time frame, in which it might be possible both to feel and to think, to process the intense emotional impact of the news and to consider how to react, perhaps even to imagine other ways of being”. These words come to mind when, in the column entitled “Between the Acts” (the title of Virginia Woolf’s last novel), you talk about the day that you and the writer Julia Blackburn (who had just finished writing Time Song, her book on Doggerland, the land that once connected England to continental Europe before it was lost beneath rising seas in around 6,500 years BC) found a weird fossil on the beach of Covehithe in Suffolk. That’s a beautiful piece of writing which reflects the sense of time, in a parenthesis that spans several geological eras, between Doggerland and Brexit. What’s happening to our sense of time?

OL: This is a very good question, and especially in the light of the lockdown, which has given a very odd quality to time. Every day is the same, and yet time seems to move very fast too. It’s June, I’m writing this on the summer solstice, and it seems only a minute ago that it was January and we were still living our normal lives. Time on social media is a permanent present moment, the very crest of breaking news. I find myself longing for deep time, or cyclical time, and perhaps that’s nostalgic about a kind of past that has gone. But reading Time Song was an amazing experience, because it reminded me that human existence is a tiny element in the vast life of the universe. I found that weirdly consoling, that there are great oceans of time behind us, and great oceans of time ahead.

3:AM: You write, “Every crisis, every catastrophe, every threat of nuclear war was instantly overridden by the next. There was no possibility of passing through coherent stages of emotion, let alone thinking about responses or alternatives. It seemed as if people were stuck in a spin cycle of terrified paranoia”. You often describe art as a process of resistance and repair. In Funny Weather, you quote Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s idea of “restorative reading”, or the practice of gardening. It’s different from saying that art can “change the world”, but in some ways, it concerns a transformation. Tell me a bit more.

OL: Sedgwick proposed the idea of reparative reading not long before her death of breast cancer. She thought that art could be a space in which people envisaged new possibilities, or made something sustaining and nourishing out of a culture that was antagonistic or actively hostile. I think it’s a motivation shared by many of the artists in Funny Weather. Art can be a source of clarity, a way of bearing witness, a zone of enchantment, or a place to create a different kind of future. The example I like to give is of the artist, writer and filmmaker Derek Jarman. When he was diagnosed with Aids, he began to build an extraordinary garden, on the beach in Dungeness, right next to a nuclear power station. It was a very homophobic era, and thousands of people were dying. He didn’t stop writing or protesting, but at the same time he built this fertile utopia, this strange, beautiful, improbable garden. He died in 1994, but the garden is still there, a monument to the other realms, other ways of living that art can invent.

3:AM: In some of your personal essays, you talk about your life before your 30s and your relationship with different jobs, with nature and religion; in other words, your life before becoming a writer. What is the relationship between life and writing in your experience, and what do you think is the role of what critics call “autofiction” for the time we are living in?

OL: I led quite a wild life before becoming a writer. I dropped out of university, I lived on protests and I trained and worked as a herbalist. That’s really the foundation of my writing. Those experiences inform my perspective. I don’t like the term autofiction. For a start I don’t think it’s a new thing. Isn’t Proust writing autofiction? And Christopher Isherwood certainly is. I think writers always play with the real and the invented, and I also think we’re in an era that is obsessed with memoir, to its own detriment. We like personal stories too much, and personal stories are very poor at revealing the political elements of a life, what’s shared. That excites me as a project, and I’m always trying to escape the I. Surely Crudo is biofiction, if it’s anything? I’m much more interested in we than I.

3:AM: Can you give us a little preview of your next project, Everybody, which is due to come out in 2021? You chose to talk about bodies…

OL: Each book comes out of the previous one, and at the end of The Lonely City, I was aware that there was an ongoing story about bodies that I hadn’t quite addressed. Why are they so frightening and difficult to inhabit? Are they a source of power? I started Everybody then, but it’s taken longer than any of my previous books, so Crudo and Funny Weather came out while I was still struggling with it. It’s an investigation into the body and its discontents, using the life of the renegade psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich to chart a course through the great freedom movements of the twentieth century, from gay rights and sexual liberation to feminism and the civil rights movement. At a moment in which basic bodily rights are once again imperilled, I wanted to go back in time to explore the long struggle for bodily freedom and to understand why the human body has been subject to so many punishing limitations. It has material about my experiences in protest and alternative medicine, but it also has a huge cast of characters, some of the most significant and complicated figures of the past century, including Nina Simone, Christopher Isherwood, Andrea Dworkin, Sigmund Freud, Susan Sontag, and Malcolm X. I started it five years ago and it feels particularly relevant now, in this moment of the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter struggle. I’m very excited for people to read it.

A short version of this conversation appeared in October 2019 in Italy’s national newspaper Il Manifesto.


Claudia Bruno is an Italian writer and journalist living in London. Her writings have appeared in the national newspaper Il Manifesto, in literary magazines and collections. @millebollebru

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, August 4th, 2020.