Thanks to the cooperation of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) and Creative Writing at The New School, as well as the tireless efforts of our students and faculty, we are able to provide interviews with each of the NBCC Awards Finalists for the publishing year 2016.
Bridget Kiley, on behalf of Creative Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed Olivia Laing about her book Lonely City (Picador), which is among the final five selections in the category of Criticism for the 2016 NBCC Awards.
Olivia Laing has opened the floodgates on loneliness. A seldom talked about yet common aspect of humanity, loneliness is investigated through the lives and work of artists like Andy Warhol, Edward Hopper, David Wojnarowicz, Henry Darger, and others. How is loneliness really operating in our society and who does it affect the most? Laing relocates to New York City and finds herself utterly lonely. She analyses her loneliness by studying that of other's. What transpires is a deeply moving portrayal of how loneliness is in large part a symptom of society's tendency to marginalize certain groups. Laing was gracious enough to answer some of my burning questions on how writing this book impacted her own loneliness and what parts of the East Village she frequented where the crossroads of every kind of New Yorker intersected.
Bridget Kiley: While I read this book, I kept wondering about your process. I pictured you at the American Folk Art Museum pouring over the Darger archive or in Pittsburg at the as yet unfinished Andy Warhol exhibit, and I kept wondering how you structured your research. How much did researching this book impact your life at the time?
Olivia Laing: It impacted it hugely. I was spending a great deal of time in archives, particularly the magical Fales Library at NYU, where the Wojnarowicz papers are housed. I was conducting formal, biographic research, but it was also undeniably succoring to my own sense of loneliness to read diaries and handle objects that had so clearly arisen out of other people's isolation. Wojnarowicz's taped diaries are a prime example here: they were so raw and honest I often found myself brushing away tears as I transcribed.
BK: You write that most of your time in New York you lived in the East Village. Can you speak more to what it felt like to be lonely in that neighborhood? Since the area has gone through vast gentrification, what were your sources of comfort there that offered a sanctuary for the lonely or marginalized? Did you find remnants of the old East Village?
OL: I lived in an unreconstructed tenement on East 2nd Street, which was basically unchanged, right down to the kitchen bathtub. When I first lived there the neighborhood felt amazingly mixed: there was clearly wealth around, but it was diverse in terms of income, language and ethnicity, and I found that sense of diversity and cosmopolitanism a relief. I spent a lot of time hanging out at Vesalka and Mogador, or going to drag shows at Drom, and I loved the sense of multiple lives overlapping. The loneliest places are homogenous.
BK: You write that loneliness “grows like a mould or fur” which to me speaks of its negative and positive aspects. Besides the obvious creation of this incredible book, what else did you take away from this period of loneliness that changed you in a positive way?
OL: It opened me up, I think. It made me alert to loneliness as a communal experience, and made me think hard about the social and political forces that cause individuals to become isolated. It also made me a lot more relaxed about acknowledging loneliness, and refusing to be inhibited by the shame that attaches to it.
BK: You have established in this book and ones before that you are a master at writing in between genres like biography and memoir. As a writer, I am fascinated by how you harnessed this voice. On a very surface level, was this voice hard to achieve? How do you keep it so fresh?
OL: Ha! I use a first person voice to make the more academic material in my books stay immediate and exciting - I think people are much more willing to tolerate a lot of Melanie Klein or heavyweight attachment theory if you give some concrete information about where you're reading it, and how it impacts you emotionally as well as intellectually. It's a tightrope, to try and keep the elements balanced, and not to become too dry or - horror! - too sentimental or self-absorbed.
BK: You speak a lot to the fact that loneliness is a process, and complicated by “an interplay between the individual and the society.” Do you think that art is the saving grace of what you term this “vicious cycle”? Is there a prescription for the cycle?
OL: Art is definitely a saving grace, but I'm not sure there is a the here: a universal prescription for human happiness and fulfillment. And the thing is that loneliness is not something you can ever really avoid or evade; it's part of the human experience, and is absolutely inevitable, whether you renounce intimacy altogether or engage wholeheartedly in romantic love. You can't escape loss and longing, so maybe it's more that art is a terrific way of feeling accompanied and touched in those lonely zones of a life.
BK: I read that Sebald is an inspiration for you - he’s one of mine too - and I’m curious if his tendency for wandering around cities and landscapes can be seen as an antidote for loneliness, because it seems that you find peace exploring the artwork by Warhol, Hopper, Wojnarowicz and more.
OL: I'm not sure peace is totally what I or Sebald are looking for: perhaps more a desire to turn over troubled ground and understand how damage and trauma come into being. He's a very haunted writer, and while I'm less under his spell than I was stylistically, I'm still very much enamored of his grand project.
BK: There is a lot of concern about the role of the internet in this book; regarding how it hampers authentic contact. But what do you think about the role of art and literature on the web? For kids today who feel alienated and alone, isn’t the internet a means to save them - a database of art that addresses the very feelings of isolation he or she is experiencing? Do you think these are redeemable qualities of the internet?
OL: Yes! I love the internet, and despair of it, and I don't think what happens on a computer screen is necessarily inauthentic; in fact, I think sometimes the lack of face to face contact liberates people to be much more honest than they might manage in their daily lives. For a queer kid in Texas the existence of social media is a lifeline. At the same time, it's also possible to see how online communication deprives us of some comfort and depth that comes from being with a human body as well as consciousness.
BK: Most if not all of the artists you mention appear to come from deeply troubled backgrounds, yourself included. Do you think this is a coincidence?
OL: No, absolutely not (interestingly, everyone except Hopper was also raised in the Catholic church, as was I). I'm sure I was drawn to them in part because of their disorderly and painful backgrounds, and the way their work ameliorated and transformed that difficult inheritance. This is especially true of Wojnarowicz, who is extraordinarily honest about his childhood and the impact it had on him, and who taught me that the legacy of shame and fear is nothing to be ashamed of.
BK: How do you see the role of children working in this book?
OL: One of the approaches to loneliness that I found most fruitful was attachment theory, and especially the work of the psychoanalysts Melanie Klein and D.W. Winnicott. Between them you get an enormously sophisticated map of the psyche as a place assailed by strong forces, but also capable of profound resilience. Their writing was very helpful for me in trying to understand how damage occurs in early life experiences and how it manifests in later life. Both were emphatic too about the role of art as a place of repair and healing.
BK: Coming back to this notion of loneliness as a very public and societal phenomenon, I loved your assertion that loneliness is political. Do you think that the threat of loneliness is more evident because of our current political climate?
OL: Yes. In the book I used the AIDS crisis in New York as a way of exploring how stigmatization works as a force of isolation, and what horrific consequences it has. You can see exactly the same thing happening again right now, with refugees and with the Muslim Ban. Loneliness is among the consequences of any act of demonization or shunning, on both sides of the equation. Resisting that kind of dehumanization, making friends with our neighbors: I think that's one of the best ways we have of becoming less lonely and more richly involved in life.
Olivia Laing is the author of three books, The Lonely City, To the River, and The Trip to Echo Spring. She is writer and critic with a particular interest in art, books, sexuality and cities and is a writer for frieze, the Guardian, New Statesman, Observer and New York Times among many other publications.
Bridget Kiley is an MFA candidate at the New School concentrating in creative nonfiction. She is an editor by day and adoring cat mom by night. She is currently at work on her first book.