The bluest period I ever spent was in Manhattan’s East Village, not so long back. I lived on East 2nd 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.
I wasn’t supposed to be in New York, or not like this, anyway. I’d met someone in America and then lost them almost instantly, but the future we’d dreamed up together retained its magnetism, and so I moved alone to the city I’d expected to become my home. I had friends there, but none of the ordinary duties and habits that comprise a life. I’d severed all those small, sustaining cords, and, as such, it wasn’t surprising that I experienced a loneliness more paralysing than anything I’d encountered in more than a decade of living alone.
What did it feel like? It felt like being hungry, I suppose, in a place where being hungry is shameful, and where one has no money and everyone else is full. It felt, at least sometimes, difficult and embarrassing and important to conceal. Being foreign didn’t help. I kept botching the ballgame of language: fumbling my catches, bungling my throws. Most days, I went for coffee in the same place, a glass-fronted café full of tiny tables, populated almost exclusively by people gazing into the glowing clamshells of their laptops. Each time, the same thing happened. I ordered the nearest thing to filter on the menu: a medium urn brew, which was written in large chalk letters on the board. Each time, without fail, the barista looked blankly up and asked me to repeat myself. I might have found it funny in England, or irritating, or I might not have noticed it all, but that spring it worked under my skin, depositing little grains of anxiety and shame.
From Me, Myself, I Aeon
Olivia Laing is a writer and critic with a particular interest in art, literature, and sexuality. Laing's new book, The Lonely City, is an investigation into loneliness by way of art. It will be published in March 2016.
To the River is the story of a journey down the river Virginia Woolf drowned in. It was a book of the year in the Evening Standard, Independent and Financial Times and was shortlisted for the 2012 Ondaatje Prize and the Dolman Travel Book of the Year.
Her second book, The Trip to Echo Spring, is about the liquid links between writers and alcohol. Described by Hilary Mantel as 'one of the best books I've read on the creative uses of adversity', it was shortlisted for the 2013 Costa Biography Prize and the Gordon Burn Prize, and was a book of the year in the New York Times, Time, Observer, Times, Economist, New Statesman and TLS.
Between 2007 and 2009, Laing was Deputy Books Editor of the Observer. Laing currently writes and reviews for the Guardian, New York Times, Frieze and New Statesman, among other publications.
Recent awards include fellowships at Yaddo and MacDowell and grants from the Arts Council and the Authors' Foundation. Laing was also 2014 Eccles Writer in Residence at the British Library.
Lonely City comes out in March 2016, are you working on a new project?
Sort of. I've written three books in six years and I feel like I've now tapped out that particular seam, that I've worked through the things I was burning to say. So now I'm figuring out, quite painfully, whether I want to do this long-term, and if so what that's going to involve. But I do have a new project in mind, about the experience of embodiment in the 21st century, both in terms of vulnerability and resistance. And I have some characters I want to get closer to, including the abstract painter Agnes Martin, Michael Jackson and the psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich.
You cross disciplines between biography, criticism, and as an essayist. Are there pressures or tensions in working like this?
People don't always approve, but it works for me. I'd go out of my mind with boredom writing a straight bio, in part because what really interests me is investigating a theme - alcoholism, loneliness - by way of a set of characters who have experienced it in diverse ways. That seems like such a fertile way of going about things, and I don't think I've exhausted it yet.
You work between the UK and the US.
Yup: mainly US for research and UK for writing, though I did write a lot of my last two books in various cafes in the East Village. I'm very deeply interested in America and American art, so have drifted more and more in that direction, though on the other hand I feel more deeply rooted in the UK right now than I have in years.
There's an interesting intersection between art and literature in your work, is there a root reason for this?
First it was literature, which I find truly agonising to write about. There's a hall of mirrors effect about writing about writing, which I experienced strongly with Echo. So it was a huge relief to me to come to the new book, and to deal with physical objects. I think I'm better at it and I certainly enjoy it much more - there's been a shift in my journalism this year towards art too and I feel much happier for it.
The people you write about in Lonely are people whose work holds very particular and strong connections for you - they aren't incidental choices. There's a discourse here between you and the work, your world, and the writers/artists world.
Yes, I wrote very consciously about people I loved. Echo was a book about mostly heterosexual masculinity, which is something I'm interested in but not necessarily that comfortable with or attracted to. This book is about queer lives, which is much more my natural habitat. Wojnarowicz is really my hero, if that's not a corny thing to say, and I started out thinking Warhol was vacuous and banal and ended up passionately in favour of his work and extremely fond of him as a person too. That's the magic of deep research: that you get to encounter people so deeply, and be so surprised by what you find.
You work on large projects (loneliness, drinking) which have to do with how a person, particularly a creative person, operates independently and socially. There's a huge cost - if that's the right word - for the creative individual (perhaps more so in the 80s, 90s).
God, always. I think gentrification and commodification and the relentless pressure to be financially successful is having grave effects on creativity today. You can't rent a walk-up in the East Village or Soho for a tiny proportion of your income now. I think the lack of opportunities for working class artists is a huge problem. Actually now I come to think of it all the artists in The Lonely City come from very financially deprived backgrounds.
You note that the experience of loneliness increases the likelihood of loneliness continuing, that it's a marked phenomena, for the artist there's a specific threat here as much of what we do isn't social, isn't collaborative, and involves isolation. Writing about this subject then seems an inordinate challenge - one which recreates the subject being discussed?
Yes. And I think this is worse for writers, who really must work alone. A lot of my friends are film-makers or playwrights, who get to work in very collaborative environments, and I'm always looking for more of that in my life. And although I explore periods or issues of loneliness in their lives, both Wojnarowicz and Warhol were really prodigious collaborators and social beings. I really think you have to have solidarity with and closeness to other artists to survive long-term, not just to avoid loneliness but to keep stimulated and challenged in your own work.
Your writing is exceptionally frank, when you write about Wojnarowicz you identify closely with his experience - there's an intensity to how you read him, and how you apply his words to your experiences.
Which is in part a testament to his frankness. And also, although my childhood involved nothing like the brutality of his, there was a great deal I identified with. Struggling with sexuality and gender, Catholicism, alcoholism, periods on the street (in my case squatting) - I knew enough of his world to resonate with it really deeply. I said earlier he's a hero of mine, and it's really his frankness and integrity that I'm talking about. Even before his diagnosis, he was very in touch with how short and how violent life is, and what that means in terms of how you should live it. He makes a very strong case for prioritising certain things - art-making, friendship, sexual exploration - because there is so little time.
There's an absorption you have which is intensely private, and very particular. This might be a little reductive, but when you're enquiring into these writers and artists works they feel part of a vocabulary.
I don't like how generic a lot of art-writing is, and how low the stakes feel. Art matters, and it has mattered to me particularly in particular states, so I want to try and capture that. I wrote the alcohol book because I cared very deeply about why people drank. It wasn't academic to me. And the same is true of The Lonely City: I was lonely, and I wanted to know what it meant and particularly why there was this enormous taboo around it. At the same time, I felt like there's a universal element to that kind of very impassioned investigation. Other people have also grabbed hold of a film or a book or someone's life because it speaks to them, because it seems to have something vital to tell them. I try to write from that place of invested interest. And then do a huge amount of research and cover the more academic ground, but from a place of emotional investment.
Were there other ways of reading the work/s that remains as dominant for you? Did you find other competing interests coming out as you worked on this? Ideas you couldn't follow?
Yes, absolutely. There are so many ways of reading all these works. I think that's especially true of Darger and Warhol, where really what I'm trying to do is defamiliarise, or insert a few spaces where the dominant reading can be questioned. Making room for doubt, that was one of my main intentions. With Darger we have this incredibly fixed view of his life, and I just wanted to fight his corner a little, and particularly to raise the issue of class and poverty in the readings of his work and life, because they have often been so deeply apolitical and othering. And you know, I could have gone down so many other alleys. They're all Catholic: that was something I would have liked to explore, but it just didn't belong in this book.
How planned was Lonely, because you make associations and connections as you progress, so what you write reads very much as a series of discoveries, realisations, things found through writing?
I knew who was in it, and I'd done a lot of early research, but I also do a substantial amount as I go along, chapter by chapter, to keep that feeling of being surprised. I had no idea what the last chapter would be, for example, though I knew Warhol's corsets were important.
You speak about being tired of 'carrying around a woman's body', of being alternatively exhausted and enthralled by everything that involves...
Ugh, not even enthralled. I was sick of the whole fucking thing at the time. While I was writing it, I was really struggling hard with my sense of transness, which has been with me since childhood - of being a gay boy in a woman's body. I'm pretty chill about that now. I don't even especially want to transition. It's a complicated gender identity, and I think the great thing about the present moment is that we're realising a lot of people have very very complicated gender identities or relationships with gender. I'm also very happy to be part of a movement in writing that's rejecting binaries and arguing in favour of fluidity and complexity.
There's a kindred sense with Wojnarowicz, where he's clear about how inside and outside his own body he can be, how driven he is by desire, and how aware he is of the associated risks and costs.
Reading David really revolutionised my thinking about sex and shame, about judging people based on sexual desire. And he died of AIDS, but he was absolutely clear it had nothing to do with liking to be fucked up the ass, and everything to do with the prejudices and fears of the government and legislature at the time.
This is a hugely timely project. It's good to see you writing about the 90s, AIDS. Similarly, Sarah Schulman's interviews for the ACT UP Oral History are hugely important in making sure that this history remains under regard. This 'use' and reading of key people and works from that time feels important in terms of marking something which could disappear.
Yes, and Sarah is such a key person here. She's done such incredible work against forgetting, and against the insidious rewriting of history that goes on. It was ACT UP that changed AIDS care in America. It was direct action, solidarity and radical community that changed the course of AIDS. The story of ACT UP carries such absolute hope for the present day, and I think it's vital that it gets spread as broadly as possible, so I'm really glad that comes across. What it tells us is that we the people can change the world. We have before, and we will again.
Olivia Laing website
UK Publisher Cannongate
US Publisher Picador
Essay, Aeon, Me, Myself, I
The Lonely City at Powells
The Lonely City at Foyles