What Okla Elliott Knows

MFA candidate Sean MacIntyre interviews Okla Elliott on his new story collection, From the Crooked Timber.


January 16, 2012

When I learned at the end of last year that contributor to this blog Okla Elliott would publish his first collection of stories, From the Crooked Timber, with Press 53, I promised myself to do something with it here. The something took the form of setting up a discussion between Okla and another awfully smart young guy I know, Sean MacIntyre. Have a look as Sean interviews Okla on his new book, philosophy, and the role of politics in literature. --Churm


Interview with Okla Elliott
by S.P. MacIntyre

SPM: What inspired your interest in the transgressive, the downtrodden, the afflicted and addicted?

OE: Some of my interest in the impoverished, the sand-bagged, and the self-destructive comes from my background in rural Argyle, Kentucky, and in various inner-city neighborhoods where I’ve lived. But some of my favorite authors also deal with these types of characters, so I’m probably working in a tradition that wants to explore the underbelly of society.

Among those authors, I would have to put William T. Vollmann at the top, perhaps my favorite author, living or dead, though on the level of style we rarely have much in common. But there are other writers such as William Gay, Robert Olmstead, Lee K. Abbott, and Joyce Carol Oates whom I admire and read regularly and who are interested in the same material. I'd say my background caused me to be drawn to these authors who then taught me to deal effectively with the subjects that interested me.

My title, From the Crooked Timber, comes from Kant's famous pronouncement: "From the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing can ever be made." And so the book is about, on the level of theme anyway, human crookedness and all the noble and desperate and pathetic and cruel and generous things we do to come to terms with that crookedness.

You've mentioned that one of the things you admire about Vollmann is that he can sit and describe something disgusting for pages, portraying it in a way that's clinical but also weirdly beautiful. How do you think this "underbelly tradition” works aesthetically?

I've long said that 20th- and 21st-century literature and art need a new term that means "the exploration/study of ugliness"—a sort of flip-side to aesthetics, which is "the exploration/study of beauty." My own scholarly work focuses on trauma and Holocaust studies, so I spend all of my research time on some of the ugliest acts humans have ever committed and how they’re depicted in literature. Everyone should read Brett Ashley Kaplan's Unwanted Beauty, on the art and literature made from the Holocaust experience. She goes a long way toward theorizing an aesthetics of horror or ugliness in that book.

This might be too broad a statement, but I think the horrors of the 20th century shattered our belief in the old Romantic truth-and-beauty nonsense. David Slavitt has a poem in which he says that truth only rarely lies down with beauty, but that truth and ugliness have maintained a long and steady (if not exactly happy) marriage. That strikes me as about right.

In these stories you seem to write a more mimetic representation of that "crooked timber" than an aestheticized depiction of it as, oh, Raymond Carver might. You veer away from sparseness and into lyricism and an attention to interiority. I'm thinking specifically of "The Queen of Limbo" or "The Long Walk Home," where the main characters are damaged in some way and act in response not only to their immediate situations but also to their conceptions of self.

I tend to view minimalist writers like Carver and writers who eschew character interiority (e.g., Cormac McCarthy and Ernest Hemingway) as more affected than, say, David Foster Wallace or William H. Gass. I think the way Wallace writes consciousness is closer to how human consciousness actually works. I mean, people think as much (or more) than they act, even if those thoughts are not always about curing cancer or solving serious philosophical questions.

I love some Carver stories and count McCarthy among my favorite mainstream literary authors, but I disagree with their choices to lop off the majority of their characters' consciousness in favor of this highly affected (and utterly inaccurate) stoicism. As I tend to phrase it, these sorts of writers make their characters engage in ineffable acts with an inscrutable demeanor, and they do this to create mystery via the opacity of these actions/reactions. It works on some level, but Pynchon, Gass and Wallace follow the mind's winding path with much more accuracy than so-called gritty realists.

To depict human consciousness is what Joyce said was his only real goal as a writer, and he knew how hard it is. Some writers, especially those just getting started, often like to ignore interiority because it creates a sense of gravity and mystery without real effort. The much harder thing is to accurately explore how the mind works.

You seem to be addressing this very idea in "They Live on the Water," where Denis, at his daughter's funeral, is thinking things that range from irreverent to overtly sexual. It's as though the story were challenging the reader to ask if this character—regardless of his past—is a bad person for thinking bad things, or if morality is more complex than that. This ties in interestingly with your choice of Kant’s phrase as title, since this idea is a bit more grounded in the existentialists. How does your motif of morality affect your depiction?

It’s true, Denis is having irreverent and sexual thoughts, but that misrepresents what I was going after, a bit, since he was also thinking "appropriate" things alongside the "inappropriate" ones. We never have only appropriate or expected thoughts. At funerals and weddings I always end up with weird, unexpected things going through my mind with the sadness or happiness. So, this was an attempt at accuracy.

As for morality, I love putting characters in uncomfortable or multifaceted ethical situations and then figuring out how they’ll act. I always work to avoid proselytizing or even picking sides. I just put people together in fucked-up situations and see what they do, trying to be as intellectually and emotionally honest as I can.

A story like "The Long Walk Home," which deals with a legless soldier home from war in the Middle East, deals explicitly with contemporary political issues. Even if the story isn't about the war, it certainly seems to express an opinion about its effects on the human soul. Do you feel that a writer is obligated to deal head-on with political issues, or is that anathema to art?

In that story the focus is much more on him as a person than as an object of political discussion (though part of being human is being enmeshed in a world of economics, politics, etc). There's a scene where Reynolds' high school buddy is mouthing off, parroting every leftist talking point against joining the Army and going to war, but there's also this very real emotional sense Reynolds has that joining up will flush all the flimsiness and indecision from his character. As it turns out, he's partially right. By the end of the story, we understand the effects of the war, but mostly we've focused on the relationship between him and Laura, who might be worse off, even though she never went to war and was never maimed.

Politics in the abstract bore me; how they affect peoples' lives is infinitely interesting. Those who pooh-pooh politics in writing are often talking about bad writing that happens to use politics. Bad writing sucks, even if it's some domestic drama that a reader might believe is magically outside the purview of politics. But when a writer blends politics, philosophy, and a careful investigation of human consciousness, it can be glorious. Think of The Grapes of Wrath, Cancer Ward, Magic Mountain, Gravity's Rainbow, The Blind Assassin, Les Miserables, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, Invisible Man, The Red and the Black, War and Peace, Disgrace, The Tin Drum. I could go on.

This quote from Foucault sums it up for me: "Your question is: why am I so interested in politics? But if I were to answer you very simply, I would say this: Why shouldn't I be interested? What blindness, what deafness, what density of ideology would have to weigh me down to prevent me from being interested in what is probably the most crucial subject to our existence…?"

The collection's novella, "The Names of Distant Galaxies," draws attention to itself as a written artifact—a collection of many written artifacts, actually. There's explicit mention of the story's existence as a file on the author's computer, and increasingly throughout the story the author comments and interjects. What drew you to this sort of style/structure?

The novella started as a novel with chapters alternating between the POV of the narrator as a boy, and his stepmother when she was his age. The narrator chapters were in first-person and the stepmother’s in third-, the idea being that as an adult he was looking back on it all, remembering his own childhood and imagining hers. This got a bit too programmatic and felt too much like a lot of southern/rural novels I'd read. Friends pointed out how there was something that sounded like an outside commentator's voice—still the narrator, just very distant and unnatural. I started writing random stuff in this voice and realized it was the narrator trying to figure out how to tell his story.

So I had him do exactly that—struggle with writing this story he had no idea how to tell. And there were meta-sections, where he would talk about his current life and the process of writing his "novel memoir thingie" and all the troubles he was having with that. Those sections are as close to my natural talking voice as I could get without losing artistry (others are much more "literary"). But even the raw voice is stylized, just differently, in a way meant to mimic my own natural speech (which is itself stylized), and so on—my point being that we stylize all our stories pretty radically.

In effect, I wanted to have a few kinds of cake and eat them all. To be honest, I am simultaneously very proud of that novella and convinced it ultimately fails (though I tend to like ambitious writing that fails, so I don't mean to say I think it's worthless or bad or whatever, just that it doesn’t quite achieve its ultimate goal). I will also say that I learned a lot writing that thing. To get what turned out to be about 80 pages in manuscript, I wrote more than 230 pages and re-envisioned it eleventeen times. I've loved the novella form for a long time and think it's the perfect genre in many ways, so I’m happy to have dedicated so much energy to it. I want to continue to wrestle with the form.

Thanks for taking time to talk, Okla. Now that the book is out, what are your plans?

I have a small, multi-state tour planned for early 2012, and I plan to do some events locally, including in Chicago during AWP. I’ll be on the radio in a couple of places. My publisher, Press 53, did an online launch that was a great success (pushing the book to #10 in hot new releases on Amazon), so I’m curious to see how the internet can be used for something like a virtual tour—which is, in a way, what online interviews like this one are. About half of my brick-and-mortar events have some money attached, but for the other half I’m footing the bill. I don't mean to sound like some sort of accountant, but since I’m a guy doing his PhD and have limited funds, there are certain realities I have to contend with. If anyone wants to invite me to read at their college, all I require is travel expenses and that the book is taught in at least one class, and I'll be there with bells on. Writers are prostitutes of a sort, so I figure I might as well admit my going rates.


Okla Elliott is currently the Illinois Distinguished Fellow at the University of Illinois and has published three chapbooks of poetry; From the Crooked Timber is his first collection of short stories.

S.P. MacIntyre is an MFA candidate at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.


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