This Moment Here: An Interview with Guest Reader Brian Oliu

by Christopher Allen See all Guest Readers
story art

I’ve recently read your story “Ghosts ‘N Goblins” at Corium. Its energy is stunning. The piece is also so rich and intricate that commenting on it further in an interview question would be difficult and maybe even distracting; readers should just go and read it. My question: How does stream-of-consciousness writing inform the way you write? If you were writing a micro handbook on SOC technique, what instructions would you give? What warnings?

Thanks so much! I have a really strange relationship with SOC writing, in that I do it, but it’s very much in bursts–typically my entire process is having a few different things that I am thinking about, say, in “Ghosts ‘N Goblins,” I knew that I wanted to talk about ghosts, obviously, but also the concept of difficulty. Those who have played the game know it is one of the most impossible games to beat, or even come close to beating. Furthermore, it is a game that is extremely mean: you think that you’ve won the game & it is like “surprise! this was all an illusion & you need to start over & it’s going to be much harder this time around!” which is something that I wanted to incorporate in the piece–having things start over, cycle back around, but everything shifts in strange ways; the way the game phrases it is that the entire game has been “a trap by Satan,” which got me thinking about Descartes “evil demon” theory. So, going in, I have my bullet points in my head that I want to hit, but however I get there is where the fun is & where the SOC elements come into play. However, I’m also a person who edits over & over–I need my pieces to have some semblance of logic to them. So, for example, if I’m writing about ghosts & all of a sudden I start writing about this paper doll that I had to make of myself in first grade, I need to figure out why my brain went in that direction–to dig a bit further to see what’s really going on & how I can strengthen the ties between those concepts without just chalking it up to happenstance. So, I think if I were writing a guidebook to this technique, it would be that: start off with your points that you want to address–whether that is a text (e.g. a videogame, a book, a memory) as well as the concepts you can place next to those ideas, & see how they work together–dig into those moments that arise organically & ask yourself why all of these separate things somehow want to meld together.

Do you sleep? I’m doubtful that you actually have time to think about donuts. You co-run Survey Time Quarterly, direct Slash Pine Press, and are the story director for Armed Mind; you’re working on a series of micrononfiction about pop songs, a series of lyric essays about wrestlers, and a translation project about marathons (not to mention that you actually run marathons). Under all this, you’re an instructor at the University of Alabama, so I assume you have mountains of papers to grade. Oh, and you DJ. Obviously you’re the guy to come to for time management advice. Your top five tips?

I do sleep! Sometimes I need to remind myself to do so, but for the most part I’m pretty well rested! I think that having a schedule is key–I’m fortunate enough to have a partner who is super-organized, who helps me out in these endeavors. Google Calendar is my best friend. Typically what I do is I ask myself what absolutely *needs* to be done each day: I need to sleep (obviously), I need to teach, I need to make a deadline for an Armed Mind project. Fortunately, I like all of those things, which I think makes a big difference in time management skills–it’s rare that I have a day where I spend hours doing things that I dislike. Everything else is gravy–I think with finding time with writing, I view it as a reward: I get through the stuff I need to do in a day, & in the back of my mind it’s like “Ugh, I wish I was writing right now!” but then I finish everything & it’s so much easier to sit on the couch, or go to the bar, or play videogames. However, there’s always that voice that’s like “remember earlier? when you were complaining about not having time to write? well, here you go!” & typically I’ll get a little bit of writing done before giving into other temptations. Also, I work better when I have a lot of things going on, & that includes writing projects–I’ve been working on all of those projects for a couple of years now, & new projects keep popping up. But it’s nice to have a bunch of stuff to choose from–the marathon book will get too daunting & I’ll get frustrated, & it’s nice to take a break & write something about wrestling or music for a little bit. As for marathon training, it’s always the first thing I do: I wake up & I go. If I’m not out the door by noon, I am in deep trouble, & I know that–I think the main thing is to recognize your trends & see how everything falls in line. Also, Saturdays are for football. Take those days off.

A pro wrestler, a marathon runner (who speaks only Spanish), and a dragon walk into a ____________. Finish the story. Please.

I like to imagine that they all walk into Egan’s Bar during a dance party, to complete the “Brian Oliu Greatest Hits Cycle”–at my friends’ wedding, they had a signature drink called “The Hulk Hogan” which was pretty much orange juice, vodka, with a popsicle in it. They also had something called “The Macho Man,” which I believe was less successful as it was whiskey & a Slim Jim. So, the wrestler would get a Hulk Hogan. The marathon runner would order an Estrella Damm & then they wouldn’t have it, so they’d get a Michelob Ultra, because that’s the “beer of marathon runners!” & they gave me one after I finished my marathon & it tasted like absolutely nothing, but it was delicious. The dragon, you’d think, would order Fireball, but the dragon has no need for MORE Fireball, so they order a Jameson in a little plastic shot glass. They would all try to talk about how they all feel like imposters & illusions in this great big world, but the music would be way too loud, so they’d just all go dance instead.

Let’s turn to flash fiction. When you think of flash, what are your expectations? Do you have them?

I love flash as a form–I think there’s a lot of pressure on a flash piece, as it has to accomplish a whole bunch in such a short period of time. I want it to feel completely insular & entirely complete–that a writer had something to say & they were able to deliver. I think the hardest thing for flash to do is stick the ending–I think a lot of people think that flash! equals shock! & I don’t think that always has to be the case. To me, I want a piece of flash to capture something flawlessly–to give the impression that there is a world that exists outside of this flash, but this moment, here, is the part that is most important.

What do you hope not to see in the SmokeLong Quarterly queue?

I really like pretty things that are intricate–so I guess, clunkiness is my least favorite trait in writing? I don’t like a story for the sake of a story–in the same way I don’t like a gimmick for the sake of a gimmick; if you’re writing a story in the form of a grocery list, there better be a multitude of reasons why this was the medium that you settled on. I don’t like the word “flesh”.

Is it possible that you’re working on a new project? One so new that you haven’t had time to update your website? What’s the next big thing readers should be watching for?

Secret projects! I am working on two professional wrestling books, actually–one is a series of lyric essays about individual wrestlers, of which I’ve had a handful of pieces published & in the world, but the other one is more straightforward nonfiction that follows the path of one specific wrestler to explain the art of professional wrestling to those who might not be familiar. Other than that, keep an eye out for more running essays & pictures of donuts.

Read “Ghosts ‘N Goblins” by Brian Oliu at Corium Magazine.

About the Reader:

Brian Oliu is originally from New Jersey & currently lives & teaches in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. He is the author of two chapbooks & five full-length collections, ranging from Craigslist Missed Connections, to NBA Jam, to 8-bit video games, to computer viruses. He is currently translating his grandfather's book on long-distance running and writing a memoir about the experience. Recent work appears in Denver Quarterly, Catapult, Another Chicago Magazine, Passages North, and The Rumpus.

About the Interviewer:

Christopher Allen is a translator, freelance editor and the author of the flash fiction collection Other Household Toxins (Matter Press). Allen’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Best Small Fictions 2019[PANK], Indiana Review, Split Lip Magazine, Longleaf Review and others. He is the co-editor of SmokeLong Quarterly.