I recently lent an essay I’d written to the talented Brian Oliu to be remixed as part of The Reprint’s “Stolen Issue.” The essay, “A Florist’s Encyclopedia,” originally appeared in Third Coast in the fall of 2010, and when Brian contacted me about doing a re-write, I answered with a resounding “Hell yes!”
Brian is one of my favorite writers (and he has a reading voice like smooth chocolate pudding), but his style couldn’t be more different than my own. Besides that, my piece is an essay, which means the events in the story actually happened. To me. I wasn’t sure what he’d be able to do with it, but I couldn’t be more excited about the result. Brian grabbed onto the general theme of my piece, collected a few objects and images, and remixed it all into a brilliant essay (“Plants, Flowers, Vines”), both lovely and sad, that is wholly his own. You can read the pieces side by side here.
And in the spirit of intellectual generosity, Brian agreed to answer a few questions about the process of breaking into my essay, filing off the serial number, and taking it for his own under the cover of night.
AH: What was your reaction when you first heard about The Reprint’s “Stolen Issue?”
BO: I was excited to be a part of the issue–I love the idea of working with source material. It gives me something to hold onto and it keeps my writing honest. I looked at it as a ‘text collaboration’: some of the structure and concepts that float through the story are stolen, but I wanted to create a piece that complimented the original text instead of swiped directly from it.
AH: “Text Collaboration” is a good term. Can you talk a bit about the process of writing “Plants, Flowers, Vines”? How did you proceed? How did you decide which elements from “A Florist’s Encyclopedia” you wanted to preserve?
BO: To me, when I started writing this, I wanted to preserve certain elements: obviously, the flowers, but also the elements of death and change which find themselves associated with these things. One of the things that attracted me to the piece was the different sections that served not only as snapshots but as definitions of the flowers and what they meant to the author (you!)–that there are large moments that came forward from small moments. For me, I read each section a few times and ‘extracted’ parts that I very much enjoyed: whether it was the general feeling of that section, a word used, or a story that reminded me of my own story. I think that’s the beauty of a well-written piece: even though the experiences talked about in the story were not my own, the silent and subtle specificity of the moment is so vivid that it makes me think about my own experiences. So, I tended to write about those experiences and weave my own narrative through the images provided by the flowers/losing someone.
AH: How do you feel about the final product? Are you happy with the way it came out? Do you feel like you were able to accomplish what you attempted?
BO: I really loved the final product–I always feel very uncertain about new projects or pieces that take me out of my comfort zone in terms of what I am accustomed to doing. While the end result is typically something that isn’t too dissimilar from what I usually produce, the whole process was a bit different, and so I never really knew what to think about the piece when I completed it: if I had done the source material justice and if I had done my own work and style justice. I let the piece sit for a bit longer than I usually do: I’ve never been the type to rest on something when I feel as if it was ‘done’. I was so nervous to send it to you! I was also hoping to create something that would fit into my manuscript and I was able to do that–it stays loyal to the feel of other pieces in the collection and yet it feels entirely different. I really like that.
AH: Plug time. What are you working on now?
BO: Well, first I’m excited to report that my series of Tuscaloosa Craigslist Missed Connections titled ‘So You Know It’s Me‘ is forthcoming from Tiny Hardcore Press, and I am pretty much over the moon. I recently finished my series of lyric essays based off of 8-bit Nintendo games, but I am going back and adding some smaller parts to it in order to make it feel more like a completed manuscript rather than a series of essays. For National Poetry Month, I’ve been writing a series of prose poems on all 21 counties of New Jersey. I’ve also started work on translating a book on running that my grandfather wrote in Catalan: it’s less about direct translation and more about the act of translating (my knowledge of Catalan is minimal), and trying to create something new out of an existing text. And finally, I’ve started a blog (http://chairmanmet.tumblr.com/) with my cousin Rebecca documenting the 2011 New York Mets season if the New York Mets were under the rule of North Korea.
We’re in the colorful lobby bar of the Marriott in DC, day 2 of AWP. In our little circle is a ton of amazing talent: J. Bradley, Nicelle Davis, Roxane Gay, xTx, Devan Goldstein, Sal Pane, Robert Yune, Adam Reger and, of course, me.
J. Bradley says, “C’mon. I MUST have interviewed you.” But after a few minutes of diligently combing through back emails it turns out that, alas, I had been looked over. I am content to just shrug and make a sad face and continue faux-interviewing myself in the shower and thinking, wistfully, about the interview questions that could have been…
But J. Bradley has a better idea. “Give me a few minutes to re-read your story,” he says, “and I’ll interview you right now. On video.”
Roxane Gay, benevolent overlord of all things PANK, is sitting to his left sipping on something clear and says, “Awesome.”
So, I am psyched to link to my very belated, but totally awesome, PANK (video!) interview. With big thanks to J. Bradley for his brilliant idea and also for caring about the oversight enough to re-read my story, walk out of the bar with me, and do the interview on the spot.