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A Killing in This Town

Reynald’s Rap: Lance Reynald chats with Olympia Vernon

by Susan Henderson on October 21, 2006

“a book should be as an axe, to break the frozen sea within us.” – Franz Kafka.

I think that Franz K. might have been on to something there. But, how?

As writers we all struggle to come in to our own. To find our voice. We study, we read, we workshop and we write, then we write some more, and rewrite, walk away, write some more…you get the point. Tell me I’m not alone on that one!

Once a writer finds that one voice-the spark, a brushfire can start. A blaze across the literary landscape that none of us with a love for words ever wants to see go out. Such fires are marvels to me, true beauty. Whenever I see these blazes I stop being a writer, become a reader; and marvel at the words.

Finding such a voice out there seems to become more and more of a challenge. So much of what we see on the shelf is formulaic, the voices that seem chosen for us. Voices marketed straight to us, faced out and in a pleasing package.

I spend a good deal of time trolling the internet, waiting for something to catch my eye. A unique voice. Something to make me think and see life through new eyes. I see some of you here at the Park. I find some of you on MySpace. Makes me feel a bit better about this writing life that we all seem to have fallen into.

My friendship with the writer Olympia Vernon was born on the internet.

Initially I was intrigued by this young woman finding a home under the Grove Atlantic banner. Grove Atlantic has published the likes of William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Hubert Selby Jr. and Henry Miller (not a shabby house, huh?). Somehow or another Olympia and I made an electronic connection that quickly cut deep to the heart of the modern writer’s life. We’ve exchanged correspondences over the past months about art, films, photos, experiences and music (we both feel touched by Joni Mitchell’s “both sides now”). Our correspondence has caused some of my presumptions about her to fall away.

Sure, I’m still certain she is one of the “greats” of my generation, but I regard today’s guest as a brilliant contemporary, a gifted writer and a true friend.

I’m very happy and proud to introduce my LitPark pals to my dear friend, Olympia Vernon.

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LR: Olympia, Welcome to Litpark.

In previous correspondence we have discussed finding some inspiration or movement for writing within an image or a song. Many writers speak of doing this. Are there any specific images or tunes that were a part of your writing of A Killing in This Town?

OV: There is always an image or tune lit in the mouth of a cave when I’m writing. I am unsure if I am asleep or awake when a vision reveals itself to me. The image was Claude Neal and he was naked; he had begun to walk through a sunlit wood and I could not see his face; but, even now, I close my eyes and see the shape of his body. He was a bit muscular, a good, strong spine. We met in the center. Neither of us spoke and when he disappeared, the air returned to my lungs. I later discovered who he was after seeing a photo of a white man standing under him, a photo of him hanging from a tree. And the tune for this moment, this note, was Diana Ross’ Lady Sings the Blues; but, there were others, Bjork was one of them; I cannot remember the others specifically; but, I am drawn to the sound of a record when the curtains are open.

My characters are jealous when they hear a violin in the room: my attention is drawn to it, the violin, the strings, and they feel I will not focus.

A character must choose the tune. If the writer does, she must have the character’s permission; otherwise, the character pouts, sits in silence, refuses to come through, unless she is convinced that the tune will not deduct from the experience she wants you to write about. A tune is another child in the eyes of a character and the character must believe that upon the writer’s giving birth that neither the tune nor the environment will silence her.

LR: Are there any tunes or images stirring you now? Those that may become your next work?

OV: Yes, there are images; but, the music has not arrived yet. The image is blurry; there are many characters fighting for the part. It is an odd feeling when they fight like this. I cannot balance them and their faces and lives are many. When this happens, I can only wait for the winning image to come forth…and listen.

LR: Your work, though fiction, includes characters that speak of troubles that we face as a society. Do you find yourself cast as an activist/advocate outside of your work because of this? Are there risks to a writer falling in to such a role?

OV: When a work moves me, when I am struck by it, how the world perceives it does not enter my mind. What does is the voice(s) of the character(s); a true writer focuses only on the character(s).

My characters are characters of the society we live in and they are brutally honest; it does not matter if some consider me an “activist/advocate.” I’m not sure they do; this is the first time I have approached this issue. I write from the characters’ lives and I cannot leave them, when a work is finished.

I want to die with a good name, something associated with it that is good. If ever I am considered an “activist/advocate” for the works I produce, then I hope an energy of splendor is attached to it. What a grand way to have lived…to have your name held in the hand of a woman who has survived or is getting through breast cancer, to have your name held in these hands and hands like these because of your legacy of goodness cannot be seen by any eye as a bad thing. It would be an honor.

LR: You’ve recently taken a chair position at Willamette University, as a teacher do you find young writers concerned or interested in the role of writer as activist/advocate?

OV: Not so much ‘the role of writer as activist/advocate.’ I find young writers are more interested in structure, the how-to of writing. My philosophy has never changed: one cannot be ‘taught’ to write. One can only be taught to open herself/himself up to the tools within her. There are those young writers who are familiar with Henry Miller, Hubert Selby, Jr, William Burroughs, etc. and they want to experiment with these works; there is only One voice for One writer. One can never mimic the voice another writer hears. Characters are unique to the writers who translate them. One painter, One brush, One scene. So, I would have to say structure: many writers feel there is a formula and if they swallow it, the power of writing begins; it is not this way. Writing is a tough, spiritual process that is a collection of voices, events, scenes, people and each voice, event, scene, person represents a frame of light and sound traveling at great speed, especially in terms of literature, and the writer must be aware, at all times, of this light and sound so much so that the reader is not aware of the blow.

LR: What advice would you give to another writer drawn to using their voice for social reflection or change?

OV: Do not think while writing. It irritates the character(s).

again, thank you for your time.
xo-LR

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Bios:

Olympia Vernon is the critically-acclaimed author of three novels. Her first novel, Eden, won the 2004 Richard and Hinda Rosenthal Foundation Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and was nominated for the Pulizer Prize. Her second novel, Logic, was nominated for the 2005 Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters. A Killing in This Town, her third novel, was a New York Times Editor’s Choice pick and was released in February 2006. Vernon won the 2005 Governor’s Award for Professional Artist of the Year. She is now Hallie Brown Ford Chair at Willamette University. Olympia’s also on MySpace and you can “friend” her here.

When not locked in the pantry evading anxiety attacks and sacrificing large quantities of peanut butter cups and Stewart’s Root Beer to the most recent copy of Writer’s Market, Lance Reynald can be found doing what most un-agented writers do all day; practicing signing his name with a Sharpie on 5X7 cards in hope that creative visualization will pay off in a book deal. Once the Sharpie huffing wears off he settles in to finishing up a shopable draft of POP SALVATION, the story of a boy who wanted to be Andy Warhol. He also distracts himself plenty with his blog at Myspace.

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