Interview with David Olimpio

By Paul Adams, Contributing Editor

 Awst is glad to feature author David Olimpio, and we'd like our readers to know a little more about him. We sat down to get his thoughts on reading and writing, his own work, his life, literary magazines and the future of publication.

So what are you reading right now?

I just started Joseph Anton by Salman Rushdie. Which maybe sounds kind of "high-brow" or something. So I'll counter that by saying I just finished Gone Girl. But of course I don't mean to imply that Gillian Flynn is “low-brow.” Also, a friend of mine loaned me a collection of essays by Tim Kreider called We Learn Nothing. I love it. It’s a mix of cartoons and writing (I like mixed-media). I could say a lot of great things about it, but I’ll just leave it at this: I’m pretty sure it will be one of my favorite books of all time.

As long as we're talking about high and low-brow, are there are any 'great books' you think are over-rated?

Well, I sort of hate saying this, but I didn't like The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz. I know a lot of people I follow really liked that book, though, so there must be something to it. I have also given Everything is Illuminated a couple of tries, but ultimately got really annoyed by the narrator's voice and stopped.

And you think those books might have been over-hyped?

It's funny about the Oscar Wao thing, because that book was recently noted as the top book of this century by The Guardian. I mean, we've got eight and a half decades left!

It does seem a little early in the century to be making those calls. What about the opposite scenario; do you have any favorite books that haven't gotten enough attention?

As far as under-appreciated books, I guess it would be I Want to Show You More by Jamie Quatro. I thought that collection was great. And while I remember reading some press on it when it first came out, I didn’t hear a lot of talk about it online afterwards. Maybe I just wasn’t tuned to the right places.

Let's talk about your own writing, and your primary motivations. What topics are you trying to discuss, what problems are your trying to solve, and what are you hoping to uncover?

I think first of all that I am always seeking to find "identity." Existential meaning is such a loaded term, but it’s probably the thing that fascinates me the most. Who Am I? What am I? How has who I am changed over time? What does it mean when I do things that seem "out of character." What does it mean to follow your instincts? What does it mean not to? Am I the person that other people see? WHO is the person that other people see? I tend to be very interested in those questions.

Those are some complicated and metaphysical questions!

I should have been a philosophy major. I took enough philosophy in college that I probably could have "double majored" but I didn't because I wanted to take too many other things at the same time (like art history). So in the end I just figured I'd be an English major who took a lot of philosophy.

You've explored some of that territory in your autobiographical writing. When you write about your own life, is it more important to be truthful or to be a good storyteller? 

The idea of "truth" in non-fiction gets a lot of impassioned responses at writer's conferences, but I think ultimately in these discussions people tend to be talking about different things. To me, there's "journalism" which tries to arrive at the truth (some kind of empirical truth), and then there's creative nonfiction, which tends to arrive at the author's truth. Whether or not you ate green beans the evening your mom died isn't necessarily important, but it does make a good narrative detail. Or it can. But if you remember green beans, and you’re not sure about it, do you need to somehow “fact check” that? Do you need to qualify it always with “I think it was green beans, but I’m not positive.” That just leads to sloppy prose, in my opinion. The thing is: If you mis-remember the vegetable you ate for dinner the night your mom died, does that really matter?

Those kind of specific details aren't really important?

Details make a good narrative. Details help create a voice. And those are the important things in telling certain kinds of stories. When it comes to nonfiction, I think those are the things that "create the self." Those things you remember (or the things you think you remember) and those you don't. The things you find important to talk about. The things you don't. You know? I remember green beans for dinner. That’s become part of the story for me.

Interesting. So, the self is created through writing?

To me, all writing, becomes, in some ways, a "creation of self." Maybe the best creation of self we have. Maybe the only true self is the "writer self," the one that looks at something objectively and "outside the self." For a lot of 20th century writing the main way to get at "self" was through the format of a novel. Hemingway created himself by writing fictional novels. In the 19th century, when essays and short-stories were more en vogue,  Emerson created himself by writing nonfiction essays, but it's basically the same thing.

What about in the 21st century?

I'm not sure novels speak to us as a culture anymore. That’s probably a very broad statement that a lot of literary-minded folk will find ridiculous and possibly outrageous. Maybe it is. So I should say: Novels speak to me less than they used to. I feel like as a culture, though, we are making this shift back to essays and it’s kind of like the mid-19th century. We're also going back to short stories. One term I'm beginning to be increasingly interested in is “autofiction.” I don’t know a lot about it to be honest, but I’ve discovered some mention of it recently and I think it’s a great term and it’s a term that resonates with me.

When have you used autofiction, and what were you able to do with it that couldn't be accomplished otherwise?

One story I have written recently is about something that happened to me as a child, but I wrote it from the perspective of someone else who played an integral part in that story.  I like to write in first person but I saw the child's perspective as problematic, and I didn't want to worry about the fact that there were certain "blanks" in my memory. To me, by making it obvious that the story was about me, but that the narrator wasn't me, I could convey to people that this was both fiction and nonfiction.

In your own writing, when is pure autobiography the right choice and when do you find yourself leaning toward more fictional elements?

When you read some fiction, it's transparent that the authors are writing about their own lives and hiding behind fiction. And I don't want to come across that way. I don’t ever want it to seem like I’m “hiding.” I do find fiction useful when you can't tell the story you want to tell due to how it might be received by people close to you. There are stories I'm sitting on because they would be problematic to tell "truthfully" the way I want to tell them.

So, how do we distinguish between autobiographical fiction and fictionalized autobiography? Or should we be worrying about that distinction at all?

I get a bit frustrated by the distinction, but I also understand why it's there. I have tried "pure fiction" but I don't feel like I do it as well as I do nonfiction. For me, there has to be an element of true story, I suppose.  In practical terms, the distinction has made it difficult for me to submit to literary magazines.

You've had some negative experiences with the literary magazine submissions process?

Actually, I’d say most of my experiences with literary magazines have been positive. But there have been a few not so positive ones. I had one piece that I submitted to a magazine and didn’t hear back for four months, so I finally withdrew it because I decided to place it elsewhere. After I withdrew it, the magazine wrote me and said it was making its way through the various readers they had and, just so I knew, ”It was probably going to be a yes." The “letter” was very casual and flip and I just found that really frustrating and kind of unprofessional. Like, what good did it do to tell me that? If it was “probably going to be yes,” they should have gotten in touch with me sooner. Another time, I left something in a magazine's queue for nine months. I had literally forgotten it was there. Then one day I got a canned rejection.

I helped edit an online magazine for several months, and I realize that the reading process has its own set of frustrations, but there’s a simple answer to that: If you’re frustrated by it, you don’t have to do it, you know? When I see editors post snark on Twitter about reading “slush,” it just makes me cringe and I think: Not everybody should be an editor. All you have to do is stop. We need more professionalism with this stuff. On both sides. If you can’t, then it might not be the right game for you.

At the same time, you're a prolific blogger with a loyal readership; your work gets a lot of exposure. Do you think differently about what you write for your blog and the work you submit elsewhere?

My writing process is pretty much the same for blog posts and for non-blog posts. I've only within the last couple of years thought to myself, "Ok, I'm going to try to get this piece published and not put it on my blog." At the end of the day, I feel like I'm going to write what I'm going to write regardless of whether or not it gets published in somebody's journal or I post it on my blog. And sometimes I feel like it’s actually going to see more eyes if I put it on my blog than if I hide it in a print journal.

So you don't think "this is a blog post" for some pieces and "this belongs elsewhere" for others?

I recently wrote about giving up drinking for a month. It was right at the New Year and so it was kind of “resolution-oriented.” And when I write something like that I think "Ok, this is timely and I absolutely want this out now and I want to put personal things in it which I'm not sure will translate to another magazine or web site and so I'm just going to put it up." Otherwise, I'd have to send it out and wait weeks (or months) for a response and by then it may have lost a little bit of its meaning to me. That said, I did ultimately end up submitting that at an online culture magazine (The Nervous Breakdown) and it exists there now, which I have to admit I’m pretty ecstatic about. So maybe I’m leaning more and more toward “this belongs elsewhere.”

You believe in the blog as an artistic medium?

In the early years of blogging, my first thought was: Here! Here is a medium that speaks to a modern aesthetic! This can be Literature (with a capital “L”). And I think some blogging is Literature. At the very least, some blogging is great writing. Of course, there is also a lot of blogging that isn't. But there are many novels that aren't “great writing” or “literature” either, right?

So technology has been good for the literary world?

Technology has always changed both how people read and what people write, and now we're finding ourselves in the middle of another shift. We're reading things on screens. Our brains are adapting to this format and we're getting better at doing it.

In an article for The Spark, you made a similar case in defense of e-readers and digital literature, which many people still belittle or reject; your response?

I don’t know if so many people are belittling digital anymore. But here’s what I get frustrated by: a lot of people seem to hold on to this idea of the “book” or “novel” as this thing that stands for "legitimate" or "serious" writing in our culture. But this format is only a couple hundred years old! You know? That’s nothing! I just think we're in this new exciting time where technology is creating a new way to read and write and this will lead to more experimentation and all of this, in the end, is good for letters.

What about publishing?

I also think e-readers can be good for indie presses putting things out there. Lower cost. Easier distribution. And yet, I think sometimes it's these indie presses that want to hold on to print. And I'm not really sure I understand why that is. Sometimes I think it's just sentimentality. But I also don't want to be another person shouting "the book is dead!" because I'm not really sure I believe that. I just think it's evolving and we should all be on the same side here, which is that good words are all that matters.

Speaking of new directions for publication, how do you feel about working with Awst? What intrigues you about our model?

Awst is coming from a different standpoint on a few things, which is interesting and fresh. I like that they aim to "go deep" on what writers are doing by featuring them for a bit and looking at past things they’ve published, while at the same time putting out original work by an author in the form of “Collections.”

What do you mean by 'going deep'?

Sometimes I feel like when a piece is published it kind of "dies." You put it in a journal and then it's out there for a few days or a week and then it's gone. I like Awst’s philosophy of showcasing past work along with current work for each author they feature. I feel like this gives a more holistic picture of a "body of work." At the same time, it helps breathe new life into past things the author wrote.

Does this connect with your idea about literature evolving beside technology?

The Awst model definitely embraces new technology. It's an approach I haven't seen before and I think it's taking some risks. And yeah, I think that’s a great thing. The music business has finally started "adapting" to what technology did to it in the early 2000s. We are listening to music in different ways now and people are making money at it. Eventually that's going to happen with the publishing business, too. Ventures like Awst Press, who are trying to re-think what a "journal" is, could be a stepping stone in that direction.

If we can shift focus, I'd like to talk a little more about your influences. How is your writing affected by your relationship with music?

I think in many ways music is more of an influence on me than writing. I love jazz and blues and rock and I am always listening to music throughout the day. Some of my favorite poets are singer/songwriters. Scott Hutchison of Frightened Rabbit is one. Ani DiFranco is another. The rhythm and sound of words are very important to me when I write, and I will read something over and over again to make sure the words convey a sort of music. Tom Robbins, who was one of my favorites when I was younger, was big on this. I’ve heard him tell interviewers that sometimes he even slaps on his leg while he writes to form a beat. The best prose sounds like poetry. I love the novel London Fields by Martin Amis. It’s my favorite novel, in fact. That said, the reason I love it doesn’t have to do with it being a “novel.” As a novel, I find it somewhat problematic. To me, it’s a bit all over the place. That said, there are passages in that novel I read again and again because the language is so beautiful. Steve Almond has said that he writes because it’s the closest he’s been able to come to “song.” (I’m paraphrasing here.) He says something about how time stops during songs. I get what Almond’s saying, and I too would love to write songs, but I don’t quite have that talent. Instead, I write essays. And sometimes I just go ahead and call them songs, anyway.

Another influence seems to be your dogs. They're a huge presence in your work, on your blog, and in your photography. Have they inspired you creatively?

Yes, my dogs have definitely become my muse. That has surprised me. I didn't have my own dog growing up. I'm currently working on a book of dog photos, which I’m hoping to publish eventually.  It'll be called Hound Heuristic or something like that.

Can you tell us more about them?

Currently I have Honey (age 7) and Rothko ( age 4.) When I got Honey, there was a lot going on in my life. My mother was suffering from dementia and then she rather quickly declined and passed away. Also, we moved to "the burbs" in New Jersey from a more “city” life in Washington DC. I was struggling with a sense of identity and I think Honey became a way to find myself. I got Rothko a week after I got back from my mom's funeral and he rounded everything out. Dogs are wonderful. I've learned a lot about being human by being around dogs.

Our families are a huge influence on our lives and our identity, and we spoke a little earlier about using family members as characters. In what other ways has family inspired, changed, or limited your work?

I have written a lot about my mom since she died. I’ve also written essays about my dad and my grandfather. My parents’ divorce had a pretty big effect on me as a kid. I guess you could say I’ve found a lot of inspiration in that. I think I will be peeling back layers of that for a long time. In general, I tend to find a lot of inspiration in my early childhood.

And how does family affect you in terms of writing towards the construction of identity?

That’s a hard one. I don’t know if this really answers it, but one thing I’ve found is that my notion of “family” really extends to my friends. My best friend growing up was like my brother to me. He will always be my brother. One of the pieces in the Awst collection is about him. We live pretty far apart now, but I will always be there if he needs me for anything. Likewise, I feel like I can count on him for anything.

I feel lucky in that I have come to find many friends in this life that I feel that way about. The concept of “family” was not necessarily a stable concept for me as a kid. And so I tend to put a lot of value on close friendships, I think. I’m not sure exactly how this affects my writing, but I will say this: I have a group of close friends in Dallas (hi guys!) who are one of my “extended families” and they inspire me by just being who they are. Also, and this sounds weird to say, but I really love the way they use language and the way we all use language when we are together and how we laugh and find pleasure in just being together. I think it’s their voices I’m hearing a lot when I write the voices of my dogs on my blog.

Speaking of identity and influence, do you find that place has much of an effect on your writing? How do the regions we live in inform our work?

I grew up in Texas and it wasn’t always my favorite place to be, for many reasons: cultural issues, hot weather. But the further away I get from Texas both in time and in space the more I find it inspires me. I think Texas will always be part of who I am, like it or not. I wouldn’t say I was very inspired by Texas when I lived there, but it inspires me now, and since a lot of my recent pieces have been about childhood, they’ve all pretty much been set there.

Do people in New Jersey have any misconceptions about Texas?

I think up here in Jersey people tend to consider Texas "The South.” I went to school in the "deep South" of Virginia. (Washington and Lee University) and here’s one of the things I learned while I was there: Virginia is "The South." North Carolina is “The South.” Texas is something else altogether. As anybody in Texas will tell you, it's really it's own entity. 

What do you miss most about Texas?

The main thing I miss about Texas is Tex-Mex food on every corner. Tex-Mex is comfort food for both my wife and me. It's our "default go-out-to-eat choice." Moving to NJ really stunted that habit.

Would you ever consider moving back to Texas? 

I still feel a certain "fondness" for Texas, though it would be difficult for me to move back there, mostly because of how much of a role religion plays in the culture.  My favorite place is Washington DC. I really love that town. It’s got more to it than just politics, believe it or not, and the long-term residents get that. If I had my choice of places to live I would probably choose there.

Well, as long as there's some residual fondness for Texas, maybe we'll see you again. Thanks so much for participating in this interview, and it's great to see you as a featured author. Before we go, is there any subject you wish we'd asked about, or any message you'd like to give our readers? Any shout-outs or thank yous?

Doing this writing thing is a daily struggle of will where you’re constantly saying to yourself “I need to do this” and at the same time “nobody cares whether or not I do this.” So I’m very, very appreciative to all the people in my life, some of whom I only know online, and some of whom I also know in real life, who have given me encouragement. My wife Catherine (or “C” as she is referred to on my blog) is probably at the top of that list. I wouldn’t be doing this without her.


Learn more about David Olimpio and get his newest work here.

Paul Adams is an author and MFA student at Texas State University.