An Interview with Bruce Olds

By Ramsin Canon


Bruce Olds is the author of three novels: Bucking the Tiger, an ALA Notable Book adapted for the stage a The Confessions of Doc Holliday; and Raising Holy Hell, a Pulitzer Prize finalist and an IMPAC Dublin Literary Award Nominee that was also named Novel of the Year by the Notable Books Council of the American Library Association and winner of the QPB New Voices Award for Fiction, and The Moment’s Lost: A Midwest Pilgrim’s Progress, also a Pulitzer Prize finalist. His nonfiction work has appeared in Granta and American Heritage, among other publications, and has been anthologized by the Modern Library and MIT Press.  He lives in Chicago.


All the travails your protagonist goes through—from his farm roots to his journalistic success to his artistic notoriety to his ultimate destruction—do you see that as “progress,” in the traditional sense of advance?  Or is it a devolution?

One of the standards that a lot of readers and critics and scholars use to judge whether a novel is a work of art or not—a serious work or not—is whether the characters change.  It is my own conviction that, really, people don’t.  By and large.  And they certainly don’t change like they usually do in novels.  Owing to some epiphany or traumatic event.  I think people just become more  of who they were originally.   The older I get, the more I believe that.  In a sense, this “story arc” notion of take a character from point A and guide him to point Z and “watch him grow” or “destroy himself” is one that I don’t find instructive of real life.  But does the character grow, and change or evolve or regress?  I would hope he does all of that simultaneously.  But he has a center, and he deviates back to his own norm.  All plots, and all people, as in life, all tend towards death, don’t they?

Pretty chipper.

And this is a Bildungsroman, which means it takes a character from childhood—birth really—through his adolescence to his adulthood, that seems pretty natural and fairly real to me.  Does he change along the way?  Does he become more who he is?  That’s really a schematic way of thinking of things, and I write more organically.

So what is your starting point?  I know part of it comes from your family history.

It wasn’t necessarily a burning need in me to write my family history, but I wondered if there was a story to be told from my family history.  When I started talking to my relatives, they sort of all looked at me cock-eyed, ‘I don’t see where there’s a story here.’  And I told them, there may not be, but I need to find out.  Originally, the book was going to be about the strike.  It was going to be a strike novel.  But as I researched it, I came across this character, Frank Shavs.  Franklyn Shavs in the novel.  That was really the starting point, this man.  But I only had a paragraph of information on him, so there was a lot to fill in.   I gave this historical persona a lot—really, a 99% fictional character.  But as with any novel, he’s also the author.  Any novel is autobiographical to some extent.  I don’t care what any author says otherwise is lying.

Can you think of two other authors that have used the word “billingsgate” non-ironically?

[Laughs] No, I can’t.  You know, it’s interesting, I’m criticized and praised for my vocabulary.  Some people find it pretentious and showy in a negative way; other people find it enriching.  As you can tell, I don’t use those words in common conversation.  I apparently have a huge, latent vocabulary.  And when I sit down to write, these words come out from Gods-knows-where.  I mean, I do a lot of reading, and just like tunes stick in some people’s heads, words stick in my head.

I was taking notes as I read, and there were many examples where you purposely used words for the purpose of a string of alliteration.

The question is, do the words exist to be used or not?  And how the hell do I know what words people consider a “big” word, or an arcane word, and what they don’t?  I don’t know that.  In a way, I feel like I’m rescuing these dying words—

Billingsgate is definitely a dying word.

But if I know these words, and they work, I’m going to use them.  People say its artificial, it’s mannered, it’s self-conscious.  But of course, the novel, any piece of art, is self-conscious.  And anyway, the word choice is not self-conscious in my case.  What is self-conscious for me, is to write simply.  What comes naturally to me is writing in this sort of more baroque, “stained-glass” fashion.

There is a disturbing passage that describes the main character sexually assaulting the gay woman he is in love with. 

Technically speaking, I like the notion of writing well, or poetically, or lyrically, about really despicable stuff.  I’m not someone who has a problem with someone writing a beautiful novel about, for example, the Holocaust.  I don’t think anything is off limits when it comes to subject matter.  Just off the top of my head, Sam Peckinpah—the way he filmed violence.  So, yes, as far as the reader goes, it’s a challenge to make your character loathsome at moments, and yet keep the reader interested enough in that character that he’ll want to keep reading—and feel some empathy in fact, as he moves past that.

The narrator seems to poke fun at some of the more “reporterly” writers of the time, the early part of the 20thcentury.  Your characters discuss literature quite a bit, and are pretty hard on Theodore Dreiser.  Not a fan of Sister Carrie I take it?

I really consider Dreiser unreadable.

And that’s the sort of Chicago tradition of the novel.

I enjoy Sherwood Anderson.  But I find Dreiser just unreadable.  And a pretty despicable human being.  He was on the side of the Gods as far as social justice was concerned, but, I mean, he was just a bad writer, a tin-eared writer.  He piles on reporterly detail after reporterly detail, in the hope that they will make his work live—but instead it buries it and makes it, well, unreadable.

He just collects as many facts as possible, and figures eventually he’ll have a story.

I mean, concrete detail is key.  Absolutely.  Specificity.  But, good Lord, you have to be selective.  In historical fiction especially, you have things you need in there, and things you don’t.  I understand that in historical context, he was beyond important in literary history.  I just don’t admire his sentences.

Tom Wolfe is in his tradition.


Don’t want to pick a fight with Tom Wolfe?

I’m not looking to pick a fight with anyone.  I cut my teeth as a writer by imitating people.  We all begin imitating those we admire.  And eventually, hopefully, you find your own voice and your sensibility and what-not.  One of those people I imitated and admired, possibly because, given his style, he was easy to imitate, was Tom Wolfe.  I admire him tremendously as a reporter.

Would you say the New Journalism has its own place?  Would you say it leaves too much on the table for what a novel can be?

Tom Wolfe, in my opinion, writes satire and parody—cartoon characters.  And insofar as satire and parody have a place, Tom Wolfe has a place.  He loves literary feuds—Updike, Irving and Mailer.  He called them the Three Stooges.  Moe, Larry, and Curly.  Maybe I’ll be Shemp.  I mean, look, he was very important to my evolution.

And that shows in your attention to detail and a desire to recreate a world.

And, I would hope, although I think it’s my own, in a certain flamboyance of style.  Mailer is another one.  Mailer is really someone I was reading early on in my development.  Early in high school.  And he is the one, I think, that planted something in my mind about the possibility that writing was something that could be important.

Talk about your attraction to historical fiction.

Philosophically, the thing that draws me to the history is that it’s not the present.  The present is confusing, chaotic, and seemingly meaningless, or absurd.  And, so, I probably will never write a “contemporary” novel.  And science fiction doesn’t appeal to me at all.

This interview originally appeared in MAKE #5, City in Biography.


Originally from Chicago, Ramsin Canon is a writer and attorney in Oakland, CA.

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