Olivia Laing: “I stopped being able to distinguish news from rumour, paranoia and supposition”

Suki Dhanda

Olivia Laing discusses her Goldsmiths Prize-shortlisted novel Crudo, the unstable political moment, and the book that best describes how fascism rises.

Olivia Laing is a writer known for her genre-crossing non-fiction work: her first book, To the River: A Journey Beneath the Surface is part memoir, part Virginia Woolf biography, part nature writing, part history. Her second, The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking, explored the muddy waters where creativity and alcoholism meet, and her third, The Lonely City, looked at the relationship of four different artists with urban loneliness, positioning Laing as, in her own tongue-in-cheek words, “the poster girl for loneliness”. Crudo, shortlisted for the 2018 Goldsmiths Prize, is her first work of fiction. In it Laing narrates the summer of 2017 from a perspective that is partially hers, and partially that of the experimental writer Kathy Acker: the novel opens, “Kathy, by which I mean I, was getting married.” It takes in Laing's, or Kathy's marriage, the refugee crisis, Donald Trump's tweets, the Charlottesville rally, the dismissal of James Comey, and more.

Why do we need the Goldsmiths Prize? 

To reward innovation. Though really the reward for innovation is more space to move in. 

In Crudo, you write that Kathy “thought […] prizes were dreadful, that comparisons had no place in art”. Do you have conflicting feelings about literary prizes even as you are nominated for them?

Yes. Sorry. I have conflicting feelings about prizes when I judge them, too. I’m all for assembling shortlists, it’s the winner aspect I find complicated. Art isn’t sport, you aren’t comparing like with like and I’m uneasy about the idea of a ‘best’ book. But I’m also grateful that anyone wants to give writers money. That’s a transaction I do approve of.

The Goldsmiths Prize was set up to reward fiction that “breaks the mould or extends the possibilities of the novel form”. What can an “innovative” approach offer the reader (and writer) that a more conventional novel might not?

 The world, returned to you in all its strangeness and charm and horror.

In the novel, you ask, “what is art if it’s not plagiarising the world?” Can plagiarism, borrowing, or imitation also be innovative?

Of course. Books are always talking back to other books. Kathy Acker helped herself liberally to the canon of literature, stealing from Cervantes and Dickens and the Marquis de Sade. She used those voices to make something absolutely new, that comments on what has gone before while remaining stylistically and conceptually distinct. As for a more recent example, I loved Felix Culpa, a novel by Jeremy Gavron composed almost entirely from borrowed lines.

Crudo features a main character called Kathy, who seems to be part Olivia Laing, and part Kathy Acker. What drew you to that amalgamation?

I was stalled on a non-fiction book about violence and bodies, and I realised part of the problem was that the political times had become so turbulent that I couldn’t find stable ground, or a stable point of view to write from. At the same time, I was reading Chris Kraus’s Acker biography, which described how Acker would take books, like the biography of Toulouse Lautrec, and transpose them into the first person. I decided to take my own life and times and transpose them into the Kathy Acker person. I wanted to see what would happen if I recorded everything that was going around me, from my own wedding to Trump’s tweets threatening nuclear war, from the perspective of this cartoonish, hyper-anxious, paranoid figure.

This book is often described as autofiction. Why did you decide to write in the third person, rather than use an “I” that, to use Crudo’s words, “dissolves, becomes amorphous, proliferates wildly”?

For the same reason that I couldn’t write about this particular moment by way of non-fiction. I wanted to report on a moment, both personal and political, but the hallmark of the moment was the fracturing of any steady consciousness, a perpetual sense of interruption, a dizzying simultaneity. The only way I could record that was by way of an invented consciousness, a character that was clearly and explicitly spliced.

“Kathy was writing everything down in her notebook, and had become abruptly anxious that she might exhaust the present and find herself out at the front, alone on the crest of time”. Crudo was written “on the crest of time”, as you wrote about the summer of 2017 in real time. But a year passed between the book’s writing and its publication: what effect do you think that delay has on the novel itself?

I knew the summer of 2017 would be written about by historians, and that it would acquire a coherence and shape that it absolutely didn’t have when I was living through it. So I wanted to record everything as it happened, day by day and often hour by hour, without the benefit of hindsight, and without knowing what would be significant and what would be detritus. A year on, I’m already surprised by how much I’ve forgotten, and by the proximity and rapidity of events. It’s novel as time capsule, a way of grabbing a moment while the ink was still wet. 

“The speed of the news cycle, the hyper-acceleration of the story, she was hip to those pleasures, queasy as they were. People got used to them, they depended on the reliable shots of 10am and 3 pm and 7pm outrage.” Do you think there is pleasure to be found in being constantly and totally absorbed in depressing news stories?

Yes, in that it’s completely addictive, and there’s something grotesquely captivating about trying to stay abreast of what’s happening, a sense that you can conquer or make sense of the horror by knowing everything, by plumbing the depths. I did think it was somehow necessary to do that, but after writing Crudo I realised all that was happening was that I was becoming paralysed by anxiety. I’d stopped being able to distinguish news from rumour, paranoia and supposition. I also realised that knowing everything that’s going on isn’t the same as acting to resist it. I’ve left Twitter now. I think I’m more productive and useful in the world without that level of terror.

Tell me about a piece of art, literature or music that was important to you in the writing of this book.

The single most important book, Acker aside, was Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin. Like Crudo it sets out to record a moment at the threshold of cataclysmic change. Isherwood begins by documenting Christopher’s adventures in Weimar Berlin, his exploits and friendships. At first the Nazi party is a minor irritation. But gradually the balance of power shifts. People on the beach spell out HEIL HITLER in pine cones. The windows of Jewish department stores are smashed. By the end of the book, Christopher’s friends are being taken away and tortured. There’s no book like it for showing how the political and personal intersect, or what the rise of fascism might look like in an ordinary, recognisable world.

What past British or Irish novel deserves a retrospective Goldsmiths Prize? 

I’ve never quite gotten over Nicola Barker’s Darkmans not winning the Booker Prize. A magnificently strange, ambitious, polyphonic book. But how far back shall we go? What about Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, 90 this year? It’s witty, silly, tender, elegant and radical. Despite its playfulness it’s absolutely hell-bent on revealing the slippery, dissolute nature of time and gender alike.

The winner of the Goldsmiths Prize, in association with the New Statesman, will be announced on 14 November. “Crudo” is published by Picador.

Suki Dhanda
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