From romantic missed connections to video games, Brian Oliu‘s writing takes on subjects from his own experience, but presents them in a way that is magical in their strangeness, generous in their openness, and deeply human in their resonance. Oliu is most recently the author of Level End (Origami Zoo Press, 2012) and The Fullness of Everything: Three Chapbooks by Tyler Gobble, Brian Oliu & Christopher Newgent (Tiny Hardcore Press, 2012). In 2011, Tiny Hardcore Press published his collection of Craigslist Missed Connections, So You Know It’s Me. Originally from New Jersey, Oliu currently lives in Tuscaloosa, where he teaches at the University of Alabama. Following the tornadoes of April 27, 2011, Oliu organized the anthology Tuscaloosa Runs This: An Anthology of Tuscaloosa Writers. Originally published as an eBook in the weeks following the storm, Tuscaloosa Runs This was published as a print book in April 2012. Additionally, his work has been anthologized in Best Creative Nonfiction Vol. 2 (Norton, 2008), Metawritings: Toward a Theory of Nonfiction (University of Iowa Press, 2012), and Blurring the Boundaries: Explorations to the Fringes of Nonfiction (University of Nebraska Press, 2013). Gina Myers first met Brian at the Slash Pine Festival at the University of Alabama in 2011 and previously reviewed So You Know It’s Me. She recently interviewed him over e-mail about his recent publications, Tuscaloosa, and future projects.
It seems like a lot of your work–at least what I am familiar with–is project based. Come See For Yourself, your contribution to The Fullness of Everything, is a collection of short prose pieces named after the counties of New Jersey. Can you tell me where the idea for this project came from?
I’ve always been interested in the idea of cartography and map making: I find place really interesting and I had just finished writing ‘So You Know It’s Me’ which is very much about place & I obviously hadn’t gotten that theme entirely out of my system yet! It was a project I started while I was home in New Jersey over the summer of 2011–we had just survived the tornado down in Tuscaloosa and it felt strange to be away. I started to take in the strangeness of New Jersey (it is an extremely peculiar & haunted state) and decided to run with it.
How would you categorize the pieces in Come See For Yourself? Your work is often referred to as lyric essays or literary nonfiction, but it seems the pieces could just as easily be prose poems or fiction. Is genre important to you?
The concept of genre isn’t overly important to me, although I have never seen myself as anything but a lyric essayist: obviously there has been some major backlash against the term recently, which is all ridiculous & unfounded. To me, the essay is less in the product and more in the craft of the thing. I feel as if the people who are against the term believe that a lyric essay is created by taking a poem that doesn’t work & suddenly turning it into ‘a lyric essay’. It doesn’t work that way. I’ve always ascribed to the traditional definition of ‘essay’, in that it is an ‘attempt’. My work has been published as prose poems & as fiction and I am fine with that. However, ideally, I want the reader to know that these stories are true and that “I”, Brian Oliu, is very much a part of these stories: I don’t want the reader to lose track of the author which might be a little narcissistic of me & the opposite of, say, how fiction writers want the reader to be immersed in a story, but I feel like it adds a sense of urgency & importance to the work, almost like I am working these emotions and situations out in real time & thus telling the reader a secret.
I think that is one of the interesting things about Level End–that while the pieces within read like fiction where the narrator is traveling in a magical world and has to battle the awaiting boss, they are really about your experience as you assume the role of the character in a game. Are the pieces in Level End all based on actual games? And for people who may not play video games, can you define what a “boss battle” is?
When playing a videogame, at the end of a stage or a level the hero typically has to fight an enemy in order to advance in the game. Typically, this enemy is unlike any other enemy the hero has faced thus far and much stronger, or has to be attacked in a certain way. In a game like Super Mario Bros., the fight against Bowser is a boss battle. The pieces are based on actual games: there are “boss battle tropes” if you will–there’s always a boss that will disappear & reappear, a boss that is underwater, and usually a boss that is deeply personal to the character. I had The Legend of Zelda in mind while I was writing this, as well as Mother 3, & I think people who are familiar with those games can see their influence.
When I was young, I played a lot of pinball at the hockey rink, but I’m not familiar with too many videogames. Even so, I could recognize the tropes, and I loved the repetition of “When I arrived, the music changed” that occurs at the opening of the boss battle pieces. I think this gets at what Mike Meginnis called the games’ “strange, surreal logics.” At the same time, there’s human/real-world experience interwoven with the game logic. Did these seemingly disparate threads come together naturally for you?
It’s really interesting that you bring up logic because that is something that has always been very important to me as a writer: that when I write everything links back to itself in a certain way. Although I don’t necessarily intend for the reader to be completely aware of the logic, it is one of the ways that I determine that a piece is ‘done’ when I am writing it. The thread between “game” & “gamer” is a strong one: unlike films where we are watching other characters & have no say in the outcome, the gamer is in control of a character in a predetermined world. Not only that, but we “become” the character–when Mario accidentally falls into a pit we exclaim “I just died”: as a result there is a connection there; that we are a part of the journey & we have a responsibility to see the story until the end.
In a way, I can see this interest in interactivity relating to your collection of missed connections that you originally posted on Tuscaloosa’s Craigslist and that was later published as So You Know It’s Me. By choosing to post these in such a format, you allowed people who read the missed connections section to read themselves into the pieces. What was the response like to these? Did you receive any e-mails back through your posts?
That’s a really nice way of putting it: the idea of people ‘reading themselves into the pieces’. Many people have asked if they were written to anyone in particular, & the answer is that they were written to a multitude of people all at once: strangers whom I saw about town, people in my past, a few folks who had passed away. I knew a few folks who really did think that the posts were specifically about them when they weren’t, & I like to think that is a pretty good compliment in regards to what I was trying to accomplish. I received a few emails: one from a high school girl who said that she wasn’t the girl that I was looking for but she ‘takes poetry classes’ & thought ‘it was really nice’. Another one said ‘interesting, tell me your greatest fear’, & another one said that a painting I was referring to was ‘Starry Night’ (it wasn’t). There were a few homages on the board for a short period of time, all eventually revealed to be friends of mine, which I all thought were really great.
It seems like you have a great community of friends and writers in Tuscaloosa. Can you tell me a little about what it was like to put together the collection Tuscaloosa Runs This?
After the tornado, there was such a great outpouring from the writing community for those down here in Tuscaloosa–there are a lot of great writers & people down here and I think most folks in the literary scene knew of at least one person that has ties to Alabama. I remember waking up two or three days after the storm & thinking that I should put together an eBook of Tuscaloosa writers as a fundraiser: I put a call out on facebook (from a patch of grass on the University of Alabama campus–literally the only place in town to have Internet in the first few days after the storm) to those who no longer lived in Tuscaloosa, & let as many people around here know about the project. I wanted to get it out into the world as soon as possible so I gave everyone a deadline of a week, which I think forced & allowed people here to sit down and write for the first time since the storms. It was definitely an honor to publish those pieces. In January, I was approached by Bob Weatherly, owner of Egan’s, our favorite bar, about printing a physical copy of the book. We got the print copies in around the end of March & we have been selling them around town & online ever since.
You have a lot of pride in Alabama, from the writing community, to the football team (Roll Tide!), and you were even an early advocate of Huntsville-based rappers G-Side and received some vindication when Spin named them one of the top new acts. Do you feel like there’s a musical and artistic resurgence occurring, or has the rest of the nation just been slow to pay attention?
I think that folks have been slow to pay attention, but I also feel as if the word is getting out there a bit quicker because of the Internet–it really does change everything and lets people know that there is quality stuff to be found & heard down here in Alabama. I believe in that Spin interview G-Side talks about the importance of the Internet community: they realized they had fans in Norway & so that’s where they went. They release everything online & have a very active Twitter account. Actually, they were one of the first people to retweet about Tuscaloosa Runs This way back in the day! But I think people feel as if Alabama is a tough place to be ‘proud of’, considering its history & its on-going problems, however, there are a lot of things that folks down here can take pride in, & I think that excites people a great deal. We can sure as hell take pride in our football team, that’s for sure!
You also DJ at Egan’s. If someone were passing through Tuscaloosa and happened to catch your night, what could he or she expect to hear?
The secret of DJing is actually quite easy: play stuff that makes girls dance. If the girls dance, everyone else follows. I have an unabashed love of cheesy pop music & considering my New Jersey origins, the ridiculous club anthems have always been in my blood. I really love playing 90s hip hop & some gems that folks have forgotten about. I played Nelly’s ‘Country Grammar’ the last time I DJed and the place went bonkers.
What are you currently working on? Do you have any upcoming readings or publications?
It’s pretty quiet on that front as of right now–it’s been a long few months of publicity for the two chapbooks and getting Tuscaloosa Runs This off the ground, so I’m going to allow myself to get back into writing and creating. I’ve been writing dance song/DJ-inspired pieces that I’ve really enjoyed, & so that’s my current project. I’ve been doing some translations as well: my aunt wrote a book of poetry in Catalan so I’m translating that as a warm-up to tackling a book-length project that is about my grandfather, who wrote a book on long-distance running (also in Catalan). It’ll be nice to have the summer to relax and (hopefully!) be productive.
Gina Myers is the author of A Model Year (Coconut Books, 2009) and a regular contributor to Frontier Psychiatrist. She recently reviewed Alabama Shakes’ Boys & Girls. She lives in Atlanta.