“All of these stories need you”: A Conversation with Claire Oleson

Claire Oleson is a writer and 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 Los Angeles Review of Books, and Newfound Press, among others. She is the 2019 winner of the Newfound Prose Prize. Her chapbook debuted May, 2020, and touches on gender, image, queerness, and absurdity. She currently lives and works in NYC.


Lucy Thynne: Thank you so much for agreeing to talk with me Claire—it was honestly such a privilege to read your chapbook, Things from the Creek Bed We Could Have Been, and it brought a lot of fun and solace in these crazy times.

Claire Oleson: No, thank you! It means a lot to hear that.

LT: I was wondering if you could first tell me a little about how this chapbook came about? Did you set out to write it as a fully formed sequence of stories, or were the stories initially unrelated?

CO: They were initially definitely their own entities. They all came from classes and creative writing classes I took during my undergrad, so it was really nice to have a space and a stage to get to work on stuff like that, after having feedback from so many people around me. All of these pieces were things I had drafted for a long time, and been able to get outside input on, which was really helpful when it came to wanting to put them together and wanting to put them in conversation with one other, as well—not only to make them interesting and individual pieces to move through, but I hoped also to make them feel like they share space and can talk to one another. I really enjoyed putting them together in a workshop, but formulating them together was definitely something that happened after, particularly when I saw contests emerging and wanted to submit something that could go to print. Newfound does a really cool job in consistently posting prose and poetry competitions that intentionally make chapbooks for showcasing short works.

LT: That was Newfound, then? I think they did a brilliant job. And as you were saying, the stories have such a flow to them, but then at the same time they are kind of unsettling too. I found that so many of these stories are located in the uncertain, or the hypothetical—from the beginning with the title, there is this idea of “things we could have been.” And then, in “You Were Snowing,” the narrator describes how “There’s a feeling of salt in the air or maybe it’s just me feeling that there’s salt in the air.” What interests you about the hypothetical, what the narrator could be feeling or not feeling?

CO: Yeah—that’s a good thing to pick up, and I’m glad it’s legible throughout. I think being an anxious person and an anxious writer makes me interested in the uncertain, and the idea of hovering at the edge of things—some of the stories have action and even violence, and some of them are slower to build, wherein you could say that arguably not much happens. So, my use and interest in plot often comes down to: if not much is physically taking place, what is the mental and emotional landscape that is being built here? When you don’t do a lot of moving, you have to rely on the awareness that your idea of the reality and someone else’s idea of the reality might clash with one another. I think I like to occupy the space a lot which asks: what do you know about the people in your life, and the relationships you have with them, whether they’re familial, or romantic, or platonic? What edges of them are you very familiar with and what ones end up becoming questions in states of emergency? Particularly when you don’t really know the people that you know, how will they react or move in a space that is new and jarring? So, I write in and around thought, because I think it is as and sometimes more interesting than some big action spilling over.

LT: That was so eloquently articulated, thank you. Speaking of the creek bed in the title, many of these stories are framed by weather, nature, and the elements: “Light Exposures” begins on a snowbank, “Alluvium” in a creek, and then some stories even take on inside landscapes—exhibitions and domestic spaces—but these still feel just as raw and exciting. How do you think geography pairs to language in your chapbook, and do you have a particular relationship to place that has inspired some of these stories?

CO: I think that arguably comes from being Midwestern, the feeling of those flyover states; having grown up in Michigan and gone to college in deeply rural Ohio. It puts you in acquaintance both with the serene calm of a rural landscape and the anxiety of it, with not knowing what could be out there and realising also that if you’re going to be out in nature or far from a lot of people, you have to start becoming comfortable with yourself. And I think whether that means becoming comfortable with nothing time, walking past cows and pastures in between classes, or being in a house in Michigan in the middle of the woods, where you cannot go into town, makes you very aware of the environment around you, and it can prompt realizations that it’s either a calm and enriching space (which I believe that it is), or that it means you have to have a command and sufficiency about yourself! I think in some senses this comes up in my story “The Afterdog,” where you realize that these people are in the middle of nowhere, and there’s not something around which is going to fix what is happening—while in some other contexts it might just have been an alarming thing, it takes on a new aspect because of where they are, and how the environment is playing into the severity of what is going on. I think place is critical to the framing and understanding of these stories.

LT: Absolutely! But even though they center on vast expanses of space, all these stories have a very intimate feel to them, and I think readers will be able to identify at some point with the voices that lead them. The chapbook is described by Newfound Press with the sentiment that “All of these stories need you.” Can you tell me a little bit about what you think that means in the context of your chapbook?

CO: I think when it comes to these stories, I see reading as such a participatory and action-based thing—it’s not a passive inhalation, but it’s something you do to a book. I think the reader’s participation, not just in literal extraction, but with how the piece is taken or interpreted is really critical. In that same vein, I like to write things that I feel don’t come down to one thing, or have one didactic takeaway, or moral answer, or that there’s a way to “solve” the story. I like it to be more experiential and have people think that there’s no wrong way to take in the story.

LT:  I wanted to ask you about that, actually. You’ve described these stories yourself as “semi-surreal.” I think all too often nowadays—and I don’t know if you noticed this—there’s a tendency from people to immediately try to “understand” works of poetry or prose, as if to crack a meaning from it without appreciating the piece for just what it is. With the surreal nature of your work, I’m sure you can anticipate many questions from readers demanding: but what is it about? Are you looking for readers to try and interpret these stories and “deeper meanings” that lie behind them? Can you give me any specific examples?

CO: I think the absurdity and surrealism that is there is to debunk that idea of a correct reading, and to sort of privilege the experiential and the sensational over the theoretical. That, if you’re holding a peach and it’s not burning—but you feel like it’s burning—the truest thing to say is that it’s burning. The fact that any reader would put effort or interest into trying to figure these out is still something I’d greatly appreciate, while at the same time I don’t want there to be the sensation that there is a correct answer or the feeling that the stories are like Rubik’s cubes that you have to line up in some way. I hope they are revisitable, and interesting, and ask people to do some work. I think reading is work. And I think trusting readers to engage with them is the way to produce something memorable beyond being a summary or lesson. I took a long time deciding whether I wanted to do my thesis in undergrad in poetry or prose, because I’m really interested in both. I’ve received a lot of feedback that my stories have or are interested in a kind of poetic voice, so I hope that sensation of microcosm and intimacy at the level of language also comes across.

LT: The language is incredibly rich in this chapbook, and I think could definitely be described as poetic. A page could easily be taken from one of your stories and called a prose poem! I’m curious about how your experience writing poetry feeds into your work (you’ve won the Propper Prize for Poetry), and whether you think it’s important for what you write to resist categorization (e.g., as prose, or as poetry, or as both)?

CO: I think I’ve really appreciated my poetry classes and exposure to the form in high school and college, which I’ve taken out of pure interest in wanting to engage more with poetry. I think it teaches words differently than a short story teaches words—there’s this sense, not universally, but a lot of times, that fiction exists on its cellular level as a sentence, whereas poetry’s cellular level is the individual word choice. But I felt that ignoring a knowledge and interest in rhythm and image for the sake of conventional fiction was not something I was interested in. I really like scene, and sight, and how image stays with people, and maybe makes up a sensation of plot or physical action for people. That’s something I think I brought in from poetry. I’m still really interested in story, and I think these are stories are for sure, but I think that working experimentally allows for opening up genres and form, and can produce a hybrid space where pieces can be in conversation with one another in a different way. To ignore my poetic education for the sake of resembling a more formal thing felt like a loss, rather than something to be gained. So, I’ve had fun playing around the edges of things and hopefully it will be interesting for readers of both. And in completing my thesis, I’ve found compromise, which doesn’t mean directly pursuing prose poetry but can be invited into fiction, where I hope it can feel it has a life.

LT: It definitely has a life, and I love how you’re breaking into that new space!

Moving onto something a bit different, so many of these stories feel personal, centering on fragmented relationships and families. If they were seen as political in any respect, I would suggest that they could be political in that this chapbook deals with gender in a striking and vulnerable way. There are some beautiful descriptions of the body, particularly in “Alluvium,” where you write, “I look down at my T-shirt and my boxers and the slim extensions of legs holding me up. They are all useful, but I don’t think they could save me from him unless I got lucky or he got very bad at this very quickly.”

Do you think you will always be interested in the body in your writing, and do you think that interest is political?

CO: Yeah, I think it is. I’m usually on the side with the idea that most writing has a political vector into it and always exist in a context. There’s a lot of discussion in this chapbook on body, and gender, and a bit on queerness, as well, which I hope is legible. I wanted to hone in within a couple of stories on the sensation of girlhood—a sort of understanding of self before and during a realization of gender comes along. It’s very easy, if you’re given the circumstances as a young girl, to not be wholly aware of the expectations of gender or the expected gender—to feel centered on your sense of self and away from being “othered” until you notice it happening. Playing alongside that socio-political space, with seeing a girl alone in a river and wondering if that’s still a girl—it’s the kind of situation where the girl is not interacting in a social space, so to what extent is does her gender exist? To what extent is it owned or operated by the person? I think the same goes for an education in boyhood as well, but I haven’t directly experienced that. So, I want to speak out to a sense of othering and awareness in the way that I could. I think body is definitely important here too, in writing about physical sensation. Physical awareness comes up a lot, whether it’s in being hyper-aware of the body or showing a movement of dissociation and loss of a body. I think and hope that the queerness comes up as a pre-organic, present thing, that it’s not sensational so much as it’s already there and belongs to someone like anything else, and that it can exist just as another element of a person. I guess it’s a lot about seeing and not being able to be seen, and trying to figure out on the latitudes of that whether or not someone’s gender exists or does not exist.

LT: You’re talking about the first story in your chapbook, “Alluvium.” And I love all of the short stories, but my favorite story is definitely the last one, “You Were Snowing,” which focuses in on two people, one of whom we learn has been struggling with dissociative episodes. The narrator repetitively reminds him, “Your name is Roger.” Can you tell me a little bit about why you decided to tackle such a broad topic, and whether you think there is anything writers need to be wary of when writing about mental health?

CO: The critical thing is that whenever I write about a condition, it’s not wholly representative of the condition. But I wanted to engage with the feeling of losing ownership and control over your image and body. That comes up in “You Were snowing,” and I hope it also comes up in “Light Exposures,” in terms of how you care for someone who is in a space where you cannot arrive at or empathize with. At what point is it going to sound pedantic, or obnoxious, or intrusive even, to try and help someone who is struggling with something you cannot feel? At what point is it a necessity, perhaps alongside or in spite of that? I think talking and writing about mental health are crucial both to empathizing with them and to encountering the spaces we can’t empathize with but can exist alongside. My undergrad experience was deeply impacted by both mental health experiences of my own and noticing it in people around me, and realizing that despite the best efforts of structures around us—there was not enough professional access to help for everyone who needed it. Seeing people navigate that border between wanting to fix someone even though you can’t and shouldn’t try to—finding that liminal space—I think that was important in my writing here.

LT: This plays into what I wanted to ask you next. You’ve been talking about that remove in writing about mental health, and all of these stories, despite that remove, are written in the first person. I would love to know more about why you chose to write from this perspective, particularly in the present tense, actually? I remember reading that Zadie Smith was always a little contemptuous about the first person, but once she started using it said that found it one of the most freeing decisions in the world. Would you describe it in the same way?

CO: Yeah, I’ve enjoyed using it for all of these pieces! The present tense was vital to me for this work, for how I wanted time to function, giving a sense that it was still being directly occupied, and inviting the reader to the knowing that these stories are not in the past tense because they are not over yet. I wanted to play more into the sense of hovering on the edge of something because it is still actively unfolding.

I think I was interested in the first person because I wanted these to be explorations of interiority that make a convincing case for being inside the voice of the protagonist or narrator of each piece. Being able to navigate those fine-tuned spaces is definitely an interest of mine. I’m also really interested in showing a range of voices, to suggest that there are many ways of seeing while using the same technical, formal approach, but still producing what I hope feels like individual people.

LT: It can be daunting to put a publication into the world for the first time as an author, but I often think that there is something so special about a writer’s debut. It will always be unique in that it shows their voice at the beginning of their journey and in its freshest form. Do you have any aims for what you want to achieve with your writing in the future, and do you think you will stay with the short story form?

CO: I’m really fond of short stories. I think they are so often viewed as prefatory to a novel, or as a run-up to something else, but I really like looking them as their own finished, succinct pieces. Short story collections are always so much harder to pitch and publish, and they are so much less widely read or taken in. But I think they are hopefully having a bit more of a moment and taking a foothold right now because, unlike a short story in a journal, and unlike a novel, there is space in between them in which the pieces can feel succinct and have room to brush hands with the other pieces. I want them to feel like they’re passing things back and forth to each other. And hopefully in reading them collectively there’s a different sensation than in reading them alone. I don’t think there’s a wrong way in taking in the book, but I would hope that reading them in the order they are in gives them a certain sense of wholeness or arrival. I really like being able to sort of put them together and know that there is a different piece that comes about by constructing them in this way.

So, I hope to keep writing short stories! In general, I want to keep writing a lot. I’m hoping to do something more longform in the future too, trying to stay open to what seems interesting and engaging—to ultimately find out what form works best for what I want to do. I think it’s funny to talk about goals a little bit, just because it’s so hard to know. But in short, and perhaps a little frustratingly, I just hope to keep writing.

LT:  Finally, it is always lovely to hear what writers are reading at the moment and who they are engaging with. What have you read recently and is there anything you would recommend?

CO: I go back to Virginia Woolf a lot. I think she is wonderful and fun to go back to. A lot of those modernist writers tapped into how thought moves in a story rather than how a story moves, and this has really impacted how I work. Poetry-wise, I’m really stuck on adoring Richard Siken and Diane Seuss. I think they’re both incredible and different and also interested in the body, gender, and the self. I really liked Kristen Arnett’s Mostly Dead Things. I’ve always been both repulsed and fascinated by taxidermy, so a novel all about familial relations displaced into taxidermic creations, as a way of exploring sex, grief, and loss was a premise I was hooked on straight away. Out of Tin House, just to throw a non-fiction piece in there: Jenn Shapland’s My Autobiography of Carson McCullers. I really enjoyed this because it wasn’t afraid to be a non-fiction work, which intentionally showed itself in progress, and the struggle of how to write a biography that ends up hitting on the self and becomes a partial autobiography. It investigates queerness and our lexicography for it in such a fascinating way.


Lucy Thynne

Lucy Thynne is 19 and studying English at Somerville College, Oxford. A previous winner of the Foyle Young Poet of the Year and the Young Romantics Prize, her work has also been recognized by the BBC, the Forward Arts Foundation and the Orwell Youth Prize. She is the Fiction Editor at Oxford University’s oldest publication, the Isis Magazine, and works as a Commissioning Editor at the Oxford Review of Books.

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