Mysterious Unfixable Elements: Olivia Laing Interviewed by Alex Zafiris

On writing to include others, artists who generate hope, and how constriction can be inventive.

Funny Weather Olivia Laing

Funny Weather: Art in an Emergency (Norton) is a new collection of past work by the British writer Olivia Laing. She is the author of three nonfiction books: To The River, The Trip To Echo Spring, The Lonely City, and the novel Crudo. She has been awarded both the Windham-Campbell Prize and the James Tait Memorial Prize. Compiled here are a selection of essays, profiles, and love letters that she has published over the years, including her celebrated column at the magazine Frieze.  

Laing’s voice is powered by a belief that art is a holding ground for more than just emotion, beauty, and ideas, and that investing time in it, even simply as an observer, will reward you in generative, active ways. When she began her column in 2015, she used art as a way to process the increasingly tumultuous and rapid-fire news cycle. She delved into diverse lives of artists past and present, using their unflinching eyes to reassess disasters both global and individual. She named the column “Funny Weather”––a reference to how unbelievable and unsettling the daily reports of crises had become. In her introduction to this collection, she explains that though her favorite artists are fearless in the face of tragedy and pain, catharsis is not the point. Rather, she writes, she is concerned with “resistance and repair”, qualities of movement and growth, and the possibilities therein.   

I held my breath many times while reading this book. Where I had once found Georgia O’Keeffe cold and unapproachable, I was suddenly moved by the portrait of a vulnerable woman who worked incredibly hard to maintain a streamlined, elegant independence within which she could freely create. In just three pages, the piece “Bad Surprises” confronts death and violence: bringing together an essay by the queer critic Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Trump’s election, a poetry reading by Eileen Myles, and a play by Richard Porter which investigates his sister’s suicide. If only for a few moments, the multi-streamed narratives of despair, love, horror, and hope in my head morphed from noisy pressure into an expansive landscape. In her love letter to John Ashbery she writes: “He washed language and put it back on the shelves all wrong. It looked so much better that way.” Laing’s insights led me towards redefinition and discovery, both inside and out.

—Alex Zafiris


Alex Zafiris My favorite artists make me feel free. I was moved to see that the word freedom appears in every portrait in the “Artist’s Lives” section. I’m assuming from these first essays that how you live life, and how you create and write, are intertwined. Where does freedom come into your work?

Olivia Laing Ha, I hadn’t noticed that. But it’s an intense preoccupation of mine, as well as the subject of the book I’ve been working on for the past few years. It’s something I was hyper-aware of from a young age, growing up in a queer family during the 1980s. That was the era of Section 28, a homophobic British law that banned teaching about gay relationships, and especially gay families, in schools. It left me with an abiding interest in the possibilities of resistance, of creating utopias inside an antagonistic world. In my twenties I was very involved in environmental activism, and as I got older I became fascinated by art. The work I’m most drawn to invents new forms, new possibilities, new ways of seeing, and that’s what I try to do with my own work. Part of the reason I wrote Crudo was to smash the mold of the kind of book I might be expected to produce. There’s an element of Wile E. Coyote about it—making new work should feel like stepping out into thin air.

AZ How do you approach the form and language systems of publications? How do you think about readership (if you do, at all)?

OL I started out as a newspaper editor, so I don’t mind being edited, but I do pick where I write very carefully. I’m always looking for editors who will allow me to follow my own interests, and who aren’t trying to jam pieces into a pre-formed shape. The Frieze gig was a dream because there was so much freedom in terms of subject matter and formal composition. That said, I like the confines of commissions, and especially a word count and a deadline. I do find it stimulating to have limitations imposed. Constriction makes me inventive.

As for readers, I think about them all the time. What I’m trying to do, with nonfiction in particular, is to write about complicated ideas in language that everyone can understand. I think art is democratic, truly, but critical writing often isn’t. It serves as a way of gatekeeping, and in the worst instances it exists to obfuscate and exclude. I believe people are smart and curious, and that, contrary to what right-wing politicians like to tell us, it isn’t an elite sport to discuss ideas. They matter to all of us. I write to include. I want to share what matters to me, and to make it matter to you.

AZ How do you negotiate the terms between writer and reader, especially when discussing violence or trauma? Where do you think those instincts come from? 

OL I think it’s really important not to re-traumatize people. What I’m trying to do here is to consider difficult and painful subjects in terms of art: to use it as a way of interrogating them, and to see what possibilities arise for resistance or alternatives. I’m writing for people who are troubled or afraid, and I want to connect with them there, to admit my own fear and horror, but then to get to work trying to see what can be done next, or instead. It struck me really hard recently how much contemporary art is involved in creating dystopias. There’s a place for that, for sure, but I began to wonder why we’re pouring so much creative energy into imaging the worst thing possible, when so much of it is already happening all around us. My own experience of consuming dystopian art is that it leaves me paralyzed and despairing, when what I want and need to feel in the current political landscape is energized, resilient, and capable of hope. The essays in Funny Weather are introductions to artists who generate that hope and energy in a multitude of ways. I do frankly believe in the possibility of things being better than they are, and I think art can help us achieve it. I heard this phrase recently, and I’m going to repeat it now: I’m very ambitious for art.

Olivia Laing Funny Weather

Photo of Olivia Laing by Sophie Davidson.

AZ I am struck by the feeling of community in all of your work, which you exemplify in magnetic form in your fiction. In Crudo you adopted the persona of a real artist, Kathy Acker, in order to free yourself to write about a certain time and place. Here in Funny Weather, I have a sense of you walking all over cities, going to events, meeting friends, discovering new things, falling in love with people you encounter, and also falling in love with people you have never or will never meet. I feel this particularly in your meeting with Chantal Joffe, where you two collaborate within the writing of the piece, and through your long friendship with Ali Smith, and her own introduction of the artist Pauline Boty in her fiction. Someone like Boty––her energy and intelligence creates an entirely different influence and force in our current context.  

This creative process of collaborating feels to me like an essential new paradigm for increased access to selfhood, and therefore growth and enhanced intimacy. It also involves so much skill. This chafes against a current, very rigid discourse that pledges fact above all else, dismissed as plagiarism, or worse, handily repackaged as “autofiction.” What happens when you and your friends encounter this?  

OL Well, I take fact pretty seriously! But as a biographer in particular, I’m also interested in the space between the known and the unknowable, and in how to make those zones of unknowability tangible to the reader. For example, writing about Virginia Woolf in my first book, To the River: A Journey Beneath the Surface, I was very clear that I didn’t ever want to try to imagine what she was thinking as she committed suicide. That feels grossly intrusive to me. Instead, I arranged the factual material that remains, the coroner’s report, the eyewitness reports, and so on, and allowed those disparate bits of archival evidence to tell the story. I really like letting people speak for themselves. Objects too––with Henry Darger, say, in The Lonely City, I used his possessions as a way to reclaim his narrative from the unpleasantly lurid speculations that have dogged him, and to reframe it as a story about class, poverty, and exclusion. 

I don’t want to trespass or gossip, but at the same time I am continuously interested in how life and work interact. I research deeply, and I don’t say things happened when they didn’t. Even in Crudo, which is a work of fiction, I was inserting Acker––a real person, with a real biography––into a real world and life, my own. The fictional element was to do with the fusion that occurred. I think the bottom line to all this is that I just find reality more exciting, strange, beguiling than anything I could make up. I don’t think I’ve experienced the kind of policing you describe, but I wonder if that’s because of the dense and pretty visible archival underpinning to my writing. I think that the artists I’m drawn to, or who form my community, share that fairly passionate interest in reality, whatever route they use to get there.

AZ I reread “Feral” over the weekend, your essay about living solo in the wild as climate protest, because I was wondering about how activism looks now. I vividly remember the groups and movements you describe, and their very strong presence. Is it much different now? 

OL I think protest is always going on. The things that have been visible here in the past few years are protests against the cuts and Brexit, around climate change (particularly the major shutdowns of cities carried out by Extinction Rebellion last winter), and against Trump. I think the energy is still there, but it’s combined with so much despair and frustration, and with concerted efforts to criminalize many aspects of protest.

AZ I was interested in how the essay on women and alcoholism, “Drink drink drink” follows “Feral.” I realize these pieces are presented chronologically rather than thematically. But for me there seemed to be a train of thought here, with the memory of you wanting to vanish into the earth out of guilt, and then these women wanting to drink themselves into oblivion. It made me wonder how you became a writer, where it began. Were you thinking about the act of writing itself while you were living wild? Was writing in any way a deliverance from what you saw around you? What were the obsessions that drove you to write in the first place? How have you witnessed these urges evolve?

OL I’m pleased you think those two essays are related; I do too. I was writing when I was living wild, but none of it was very good. I was very unhappy and uncertain at the time, and my writing was correspondingly tentative and vague, somehow. I hadn’t quite figured out what I wanted to say, and so everything petered out. What drove me to write were things I felt troubled by, and it took a long time to find a solid enough place to really grapple with them, or to find the language to do it with. Alcoholism, loneliness, gender and sexuality: these were subjects that ran very deep for me, and I think I needed to feel more rooted and stable in my adult life before I could really tackle them. I needed distance from myself, too, which journalism really provided. As to whether I still feel those obsessions, I think each book opens up questions that can’t be answered inside it, and so I am always pursuing the mysterious unfixable element. Loneliness as a subject emerged out of studying alcoholism, and the body as a subject emerged out of loneliness. Now that I’ve written Funny Weather, and am finishing the body book, Everybody, I find my attention being drawn to the subject of utopia. It’s like I’m always drawn to what’s occluded, or impossible, or unspeakable in some way. That’s what I want to write my way into.

AZ During this health emergency, I feel myself sensing these whole other threads of life, previously clouded, unseen, undervalued. Many are positive, but among the negative, and most chaotic, is how much this virus reveals in terms of inequality, hidden violence, and ingrained systems of oppression. You have written so much about loneliness in the past, and also about the AIDS crisis. What has become vivid to you over this past month?

OL It’s hard to think of another situation in which everyone in the world is so profoundly affected by the same crisis. It’s not like a war or a catastrophe that afflicts one country or continent while another thrives. This universality bears repeating, even as it’s also true that the virus and the lockdown impact some people far more grievously than others. It’s different being in a high-rise to having a garden; it’s different being in the UK to being in the Moria refugee camp; it’s different living with a loving family to being in a violent relationship, where the home is not a safe place.  

Two things in particular have struck me: that the crisis has reaffirmed the absolute necessity of an actual, physical world that had begun to feel imperiled both by our migration online and the growing automation of our lives. I hope it will make us cherish and take better care of our magnificent communal institutions––cinemas, libraries, hospitals, farms, subways, rubbish collections, cafes, bookshops, parks. And I hope, even more ardently, that the kind of drastic changes we’ve been forced to make will make us realize that we are absolutely not helpless in the face of climate change. This is a terrifying moment, but it’s also a chance to choose the kind of world we want to live in, and then to make it happen.

Funny Weather: Art in An Emergency is available for purchase here.

Alex Zafiris is a writer based in New York. She is currently the writer-in-residence at the Center for Collaborative Arts and Media at Yale University, where she edits the journal Maquette.

Nathalie Léger by Amanda DeMarco
Nathalie Leger Triptych Revised 2

The archivist and writer’s recently translated triptych fuses autofiction, essay, and criticism to study the complex lives of three female artists in the public eye.

Kei Miller’s Things I Have Withheld by Rianna Jade Parker

In Things I Have Withheld, Kei Miller’s most personal collection to date, the Caribbean philosopher addresses “his own body and its implications.”

Learn So Much and See So Much: Larissa Pham Interviewed by Rebecca Schuh