Olivia Laing: Intimate Knowledge
Tori Marchiony spends time with Olivia Laing and discovers that her writing explores the aspects of life that are most difficult to put into words.
Olivia Laing is an award-winning nonfiction writer and novelist. She is best known for her 2016 book The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone, which blends personal memoir into essays on how loneliness affects artistic work.
Laing grew up in southern England and studied English at Sussex University. She practiced for several years as a medical herbalist before becoming a journalist, serving as Deputy Books Editor at the Observer from 2004 to 2007. Laing’s work combines biographical research and personal reflection. Her first book, To the River: A Journey Beneath the Surface (2011) reflects on Virginia Woolf’s life and work on a walk along the river where Woolf killed herself. Her second book, The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking (2013) was a book of the year in numerous publications. Her acclaimed work The Lonely City considers urban loneliness through chapters on artists from different fields.
Laing’s first novel, Crudo (2018), won a James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 2019. She was awarded a Windham-Campbell Prize for nonfiction in 2018.
Writer Olivia Laing is a Brit who’s spent nearly five years walking the streets of Manhattan. She’s been an activist, an artist’s model, and an herbalist. In her non-fiction books she’s explored the lives of drinking writers and lonesome artists with the subjectivity often reserved for memoir. Laing’s work on loneliness has become a touchstone for countless others who find themselves in her personal reflections.
(excerpt from “The Lonely City,” 2016)
The bluest period I ever spent was in Manhattan’s East Village not so long back. I lived on East Second Street in an unreconstructed tenement building and each morning I walked across Tompkins Square Park to get my coffee. When I arrived the trees were bare and I dedicated those walks to checking the progress of the blossoms. There are many community gardens in that part of town and so I could examine irises and tulips, forsythia, cherry trees, and a great weeping willow that seemed to drop its streamers overnight like a ship about to lift anchor and sail away.
AJC: So as the loneliness expert first of all, what a title! Do you feel like that kind of gives you permission to enjoy yourself?
Olivia Laing: So much so. I think I can see when I do readings and there are lots and lots of young people that it gives people permission to think, “Oh it’s okay to be lonely.” And also, you’re not going to be a complete downer or you might be a fun person as well. I think that’s nice for people to realize.
AJC: Have you gotten better at shaking off loneliness?
Laing: I mean my life has changed absolutely. I don’t live the same life anymore. I mean, I was, really looking back, incredibly destabilized. I was moving a lot. I was in a different country. I had new friendships here but they weren’t as very deeply rooted as they are now, so it was really a moment in my life. And I think that’s the thing that loneliness is a moment in people’s lives. That people move somewhere, a relationship ends, somebody dies and you go through these experiences of profound loneliness that oftentimes you then come back out of. And it was important for me so to say that loneliness isn’t something that you need to be terrified of. It’s this native human experience.
AJC: And it’s awful and you’ll survive.
These days Laing is far from the loneliness that fueled that book. In 2017 she married the British poet, Ian Patterson with whom she enjoys a fairly quiet stable existence. 2018 brought Laing’s first foray into fiction. The book was written over the course of seven weeks in the summer of 2017 during which Laing had been reading a biography of the experimental novelist Kathy Acker who made a career appropriating the works of others. Before long their stories began to meld.
Laing: She writes about intimacy, she writes about war, she writes about violence, and she writes all the time about what is to be an artist. So we sort of fused, the characters fused, sometimes it’s my biography sometimes it’s very much hers. It’s this sort of fictional construct that shares elements of both of us.
Laing’s gift for transcribing the nearly unsayable stories of our lives is on rich display in all her work. Her new project, a book called Every Body, due out in 2020, is all about our physical selves. It explores Laing’s decidedly unromantic view of the human form exemplified by Stanley Spencer’s intensely realistic portraits and rooted in her own days as an herbalist.
ACJ: So why is celebrating our ordinary icky form a radical thing to do?
Laing: I think there are so many forces in our world that are against the body in various ways. Against specific people’s bodies, kinds of bodies, against women’s bodies, against bodies of color, against trans bodies. It feels to me just the experience of embodiment for a huge amount of people is a radical act because the body is legislated against, is subject to harassment. But even beyond that whereas we’re embodied and yet we have so much shame around our body. So much of our bodily life goes on in secrecy. We’re sort of obsessed with the exterior of our bodies. The actual experience of living inside a body is very somehow resistant to being talked about and these are the subjects I’m always drawn to the things that have a kind of speechlessness around them.
Olivia Laing has a knack for puncturing the silence around subjects that might be easier to hide from or ignore. The body, she insists, is just a bag of skin, and gender a state of mind.
Laing: I think having the poles of femininity and masculinity and being allowed to move freely between them or situate yourself wherever you’re comfortable is totally fine by me. That seems to be much more of a true understanding of what gender is like, that there are people who occupy one position very solidly and there are people who move very fluidly. You know my gender has always felt very fluid to me. It felt like that as a child and it feels like that now.
AJC: And you’re not, at this point, going as “they.”
Laing: No, no.
AJC: You’re still using female pronouns.
Laing: I’m still using her. But I noticed, actually, I keep being tagged in women’s writing and increasingly I’m like, “I’m trans. “Could you stop tagging me as women’s writing?” But I’m not going to tell people for doing that because I think there’s a bit too much telling off at the moment. I think a lightness around ‘genderness,’ the freedom of movement around gender is much more exciting to me than the idea that people are policing everybody’s mistake around it as well. That feels to me like it creates… it doesn’t have the vibe that I like. It doesn’t have the free vibe that I like. I want things to be more free, not less free.
There is no easiness in the work Laing does. No simple topic. She wants to understand those aspects of humanity that are perhaps the hardest to understand. Joy comes in the breakthrough moments. In finding an answer after all.