Behind the Words: Claire Oleson

Posted by on Jan 25, 2022 in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Behind the Words: Claire Oleson

Claire OlesonClaire Oleson is a queer writer and 2020 Fiction Fellow at the Center for Fiction. She is a 2019 graduate of Kenyon College, where she studied English and Creative Writing. Her work has been published by the Kenyon Review online, the University of Kentucky’s graduate literary journal Limestone, the LA Review of Books, and Newfound Press, among others. Her chapbook of short stories debuted May, 2020 from Newfound Press. She currently lives and works in NYC. She’s 4’10” and has been for a long time. Here, Claire joins fellow Spry contributor Kendall Pack in a conversation about her writing.

What are you inspired by lately?

Silly hope really hits the sweet spot. Practical hope is nice too. I write and facilitate poetry classes for Cleaver Magazine; that keeps me engaged with contemporary poetry while I try to write contemporary fiction. I like it when those things hold hands—it makes them both better. I think the biggest thing might be the constant reminder, which I have to tell myself often, that we can make space for art and writing. We can carve out ditches to read and speak in. We are always in possession of that potential even in the midst of disconnection. I also like it when it snows, that’s nice for me. 

This is one of those big writerly questions, but what do you hope to contribute as a writer and editor to the landscape of literature?

I think it’s very difficult to look at oneself or one’s work in a broad and still emerging scheme like that, but to say something, I think I’d say empathy. I mean this in the sense of being able to feel characters and situations presented in fiction or poetry as well as experiences- rivers and evenings and hands sitting in sink water for too long, I want my work to be places people feel, work that is enacted at the level of the reader’s body, work that requires that participation to be completed. It’s not done when I’m done with it. I think it needs other people. I’m grateful for anyone who reads and participates. 

How do you “participate” as a reader?

I feel that reading alone is participation, is an act of creating, taking a set of thinking instructions and performing them yourself. One of the best things about writing for me is that it’s gives differently to different receivers. Everyone sees the “barn” or “heartbreak” or “sixth toe on the dog we adopted when we couldn’t pay the gas bill” differently. It’s not a direct translation, and it’s not complete on the page, it needs to be taken up in a brain and made again. It’s like that game telephone and the messed up places, the places where the message warps, are the spots where work is being done.

What part does Ohio (or other places you’ve spent time) play in your writing life?

I’ve been in the Midwest my whole my life exempting stints elsewhere for vacation. I live in Brooklyn now which is a sharp difference. I grew up in Michigan and attended college in Ohio. These are fly-over states, these are states whose region is often contested and rurality that’s often written down as wholly skippable. I’ve got a fondness for lakes and forests and rural landscapes and what they do to and for the lives that happen in them. I think as far as my writing goes, these areas have taught me a lot about isolation and expanse, about what we consider to represent mediocrity and what that means when it’s something you actively live or grow up in (the perception, at the very least). I think the Midwest has shown me you can get scared or passionate or disillusioned or immensely invested in the ordinary, in the rural, in the expansive and silo-studded. 

I’m working on a novel draft with an agent I recently signed at Janklow and Nesbit—it’s a queer, rural, experimental project that’s centered on Michigan as much as any one person in it. Being in a specific place has immense bearing on everything from your experience of the sky to what you might do in a county that has one bar and one ER. It’s a one-bar, one-ER project and I’m extremely excited about it. 

What moments of your life can you point to as essential Midwestern Experiences you want to recreate for readers?

It feels difficult to call something essentially midwestern that isn’t as basic as growing up in Michigan. But in childhood I’d say experiencing rural expanse, especially if a car breaks down in farm land you can get a sensation of “we might as well be in a tundra, it’s big and maybe pretty but also inherently uncaring, the corn doesn’t have empathetic capacity.” That, or any sort of salad that takes mayonnaise as its foundation. 

Readers of Spry need to know! Tell us about upcoming publications and projects you’re involved in.

I feel so fortunate to have received the Center for Fiction’s Emerging Writer’s fellowship in 2020; I was able to write 85k in a year because of outside enfranchisement. I was able to take a leap on the idea that a long project, a manuscript that centered queerness in both its form and content, was worth that time and energy. Having a community of fellows and the encouragement of an institution in Brooklyn let me get a white-knuckled hold on the idea that I could spill a lot of time and effort into writing and not be completely idiotic for trying. 

Maybe I’ll be found an idiot later, but for now, it’s going all right enough for me to keep spilling. 

A lot of your characters are apologetic or stuck in a rut. Is that a purging for you or just an opportunity to explore characters with mindsets different from your own?

Both. I definitely have gotten stuck in things and I’ve definitely apologized. It’s also a useful space to enter a story. In a very basic sense, it provides something “wrong,” which feels like a necessary foundation to establish to convince anyone that you have a story.  

What about the confessional style spoke to you for “Marinara”? Did you begin with that frame in mind, or was it something you applied afterward?

I usually start with image as a hook rather than plot. This can lead to a sense of dwelling and rumination on an occasion, and I think that sense is legible in “Marinara.” This story is perhaps confessional in how seems to regret itself as it manifests, how the narrator is communicating what they could not or did not comprehend at the time of its occurrence. I think this happens easily inside of emergencies, an odd slowness, a sensation of the ordinary or banal at the breaks between knowing and panic. I think the confessional voice is allied with that mixture, with knowing something has gone wrong, but having not been able to know it when it might have mattered. 

What was the image that inspired you for this story?

“Marinara” was, for me and at its start, about seeing body out of body, about being able to comprehend blood as pasta sauce or a brain as manifesting in sticky notes tacked onto walls. I think bodies happen both in and outside of themselves, they leave marks on home and food and image, they certainly operate in the cell, but I also think it can be argued that they operate in the home, in how we keep things, in what we are prompted to see and understand. 

In “Marinara,” as in some of your other stories, you explore the themes of the body, regret, and discomfort. What draws you to these topics?

I have regret, discomfort, and a body, most of the time. I’ve got a lot of anxiety, some of which is medical. This is not to say I’m in constant occupation of any of these things, but I do find them very interesting to occupy. Everyone’s got a body and everyone can feel their body but we still can’t know the body constantly, everything it is constantly doing at the level of the cell to keep us as us. I write a lot about what scares me and sometimes it makes it more comfortable to be in but most of all it helps to make regular the terrifying. When you are setting any piece of writing in any place, it is irrevocably first set in the human body of writer and or reader, even if it’s a sectioned orange narrating, it came from a human neurology. The body is unavoidable. Discomfort and regret are not, but seeing how they can come to or move out of the body allow a still body or a fictional body to achieve a believable organicism (I hope), a sense of living and being intermittently aware of what living is or isn’t. 

In this story, you explore harm to the body, and we aren’t entirely sure of the outcome of the attack. How does it feel to explore that?

The narrator, I hope, is legibly uncertain in a lot of ways. Leaving things ambiguous makes that uncertainty into a place the reader steps into as well, building a space for empathy between reader and narrator, even and especially when the narrator is flawed, incorrect, and or fabricating. Navigating a body that does not demand to exist in a fictional realism or even in realistic violence feels like having a body to me. The feeling of having and being a body is perpetual and occasionally very overwhelming, I hope some of that is legible in the piece. 

What do you like about the editorial role at Cleaver and the staff work at Kenyon Review? How does it inform your writing and vice versa?

The access to current writing and emerging writing and the chance, in writing reviews or reading slush-pile submissions, to shape its emergence or support its proliferation has been incredibly rewarding and enjoyable. Both positions have allowed me to work with dedicated and lovely people and to promote and feature the writing of dedicated and lovely people. The exposure to a lot of writing across the board, from spectacular to borderline abhorrent, helps to contextualize my work and allows me to teach myself, to see what I like and to see what is considered good, how what is good might be changing, and how to get better.

You recently put “queer” in your writer bio. What brought about that decision?

I think visibility can help bring a different readership to my work, can help assumptions about character be discarded until shown or not shown, and can reinforce for other queer writers and artists that we are out here, living and creating, and that their work is worth working on. It also verifies a queer reading of my writing. It forbids subtext and makes it text. 

Does it change the way you approach characters?

I like my characters to feel like they have done things before I wrote them and will do things after. If queerness is part of their arc, I want it to be a facet and not a core. I’m not centered on coming out stories. These folks are already in motion and some of them happen to not be heterosexual while they do it. I hope my stories can feel like excerpts from lives rather than holistic, bow-tied and wrapped-up independent entities. Writing characters like this, I believe, turns my stories into things that lean, things that require and ask for the support of the reader to imagine what is happening both in and outside the bounds of the text’s body.

Of all the things you could do, why writing?

I used to say because I’m bad at math but I can’t even say that anymore; I’m being real: I know how to use excel and quickbooks now. A great tragedy. 

But really: I like telling stories and most of the time I’m afraid to do it in person and without the lovely rehearsal that space on a page, and time with it, can give you. I hope it continues to help me to see better and read better. At its best, I think good writing opens us to know things differently we might have had an unconscious sense for, to rename our world better and know it deeper, to take ownership of experience while also making it accessible, an invitation to others to engage in and create experience out of languages. 

How do you see yourself growing in writing?

I want to keep working on longer projects like the current manuscript I’m editing with my agent, tentatively titled New Animals. I want to keep contributing to community spaces and make sure that the ability to express is not gate-kept or locked into institutional membership. I want to sleep better and for it to snow more this year. I want you to have a nice evening. I might want a dog in the next ten years. I want to keep wanting, and that’s the most real, enduring hope I can offer to both myself and the craft. 

Kendall Pack is a husband and father of two living and teaching in Mesa, AZ. His work has appeared in several magazines, on the local stages both as a writer and as a performer, and he is currently completing his first novel, an action comedy. In the Fall of 2022, he will attend law school at ASU.