the museum of americana

a literary review

Erica Olsen Interview

Prose Editor Lindsey Griffin interviews Recapture author Erica Olsen.

Erica, in addition to writing, I understand that you also do curation and archive work for archeology museums. Can you tell me a little about how your work in these disciplines has influenced your writing in Recapture?

Most of the stories in Recapture take place in the canyon country (and mountains, and sagebrush plains) of the Four Corners area, especially southeast Utah. I was hiking and camping in this area, and writing about it, for fifteen years before I moved here. My writing actually influenced my career change from full-time editorial work to museum work. I got more and more interested in the past, to the point where I did some formal study of archives management. In my grad program I discovered a whole theoretical underpinning to my interest in memory, artifacts, and issues of authenticity. Working in archaeology museums sparked a return to exploring these issues in fiction in a more systematic way. The result is this collection, Recapture.

It seems to me that you frequently explore memory, artifacts, and issues of authenticity through intersections between artifacts of the past and human problems of the present.  What do you see as the relationship between these aspects of your writing and the history of the American West?

There’s a tension between the dream of starting over in the West, and the reality that you can’t leave your own past behind. Meanwhile, prehistoric artifacts are preserved, admired, and valued. What do we do with our own artifacts? These reminders of our personal histories can cause us so much pain, like the artifact that survives a house fire in my story “Everywhen.”

“Everywhen” appears at the end of the collection right before the title piece, and the site of the burned house functions as a kind of modern ruin. Would you tell me what other factors you took into account as you chose the stories and ordered them, and what your vision was for the shape of the collection?

“Grand Canyon II” is the first story in the collection, and in it the landscape is a replica—a work of art, really. I hope that unsettles the reading of other landscapes in other stories. The last story, “Recapture,” is the longest, and it keeps branching off in an open-ended way into other stories that aren’t quite whole, like the story of the relocated ruin and the girl’s Norwegian tale. I’m not sure it’s successful in its open-endedness, but in some ways the story is about failed projects so maybe that’s OK. Looking at the collection now, I’m starting to see it as an entire book about failure. A Grand Canyon with no water in the river. All those stuck relationships. The intense desire to hold onto or preserve something, when what the thing wants is to be broken, destroyed, or allowed to decay.

Like “Grand Canyon II”, many of your pieces are written from a first-person perspective, though the voices are distinctly different. Erica, I’m curious what position best describes your authorial relationship to these stories—curator, conservationist, Wildmall ranger or something else?

My writing work is in many ways the opposite of a curator’s or conservator’s work. They preserve and authenticate; I imagine and falsify and turn fact into fiction. If I’m like any characters in my stories, it’s the thieves and vandals who alter what they touch. Don’t tell my archaeologist friends.

We talked a little already about “Grand Canyon II.” Both this story and “Utah Wildmall Rangers” introduce questions about the purpose of preservation and imagine a future of masking and loss. I’m curious to know what inspired these pieces, and what aspects of American culture you meant to illuminate.

With “Grand Canyon II” I was thinking about the disaster of the tsunami in Japan, and also the idea of Lascaux II, the replica cave painting site in France, which was built to protect the original site from visitor impact. The South Rim overlooks at the Grand Canyon are iconic. That view is an American symbol—it’s like the nature equivalent of the Stars and Stripes. I believe that we need places like this so much that if something ever happened, like the disasters alluded to in my story, we would craft a replica.

Also, if I can get political: there are always arguments over drilling for oil and gas near national parks. There’s an emphasis on preserving a pristine view. I’m saying this as a conservationist: this is a way of fooling ourselves. If we’re drilling, let’s drill right outside the park entrance, so we can’t avoid seeing it as we drive our cars on our nature vacations. “Utah WildMall Rangers” is partly about masking, as you say—the elevation of the scenic view above all other considerations.

Another thing that struck me as I read is that many of the stories in this collection play with human responses to wildness and a desire for discovery. I want to know what place, view, or archeological find you would like to have “discovered.”

Actually, I’d like to have witnessed some social encounters of the past, such as when the Pilgrims were greeted by Samoset, who had had previous contact with English fishermen. He went up to them and said, “Welcome, Englishmen!” It’s described in Pilgrim sources, including William Bradford’s Journal. Wouldn’t you like to have seen the Pilgrims’ faces? And don’t you wonder if that conversation could have led to a different American-Indian history than the one we got?

That makes for an interesting segue to my next question. I’ve noticed that your work is filled with inversions—outdoor museums and reverse archeology. What is the source for this reoccurring interest in your writing?

Well, those two examples are real things where I live. I didn’t make them up, and I’m lucky that the terms do some poetic work. The outdoor museum is the way people refer to our artifact-rich area, where you can go for a hike on public lands and see potsherds and lithics “in the wild.” Reverse archaeology refers to the research projects that have been carried out to identify where the artifacts in museum collections came from in the old, less scientifically documented days.

An inversion of my own is the ruined ruin, which has been stabilized beyond the point of authenticity, as in the title story, “Recapture,” and the little story that imagines the re-ruining of Cliff Palace at Mesa Verde National Park.

It seems to me that what constitutes an artifact in “Reverse Archeology” is a little different than say “The Curation of Silence.” I’m curious how you would define artifact and what you consider to be the dominant artifacts in Recapture?

For me, an artifact is the thing equivalent of memory. Its existence stubbornly attests to the truth about something. But unlike memory, the artifact doesn’t lie. The story you tell about it, that’s something else. One artifact that pops up repeatedly in my stories is the ceramic bowl. It carries the weight of a troubled relationship in “Reverse Archaeology.” It has monetary value in “Everything Is Red.” In “The Curation of Silence” it’s a big-ass bag of potsherds.

“The Curation of Silence,” which we’ve mentioned a few times, now, is filled with rich imagery, especially at the onset. Would you tell me where the voice for this opening came from and how you see this selection functioning alongside the other pieces?

I wanted to write something that sounded like nonfiction, yet was obviously not factual. In this sense, the story was an outgrowth of the description in “Grand Canyon II.” The voice in the first section was also influenced by the opening of one of my favorite books, Oranges, by John McPhee, which is one awesome sentence after another—about oranges! “The Curation of Silence” overall is a tribute to the idea of collections and preserving the past, paired with an admission that as human beings we can utterly, completely fail to communicate.

Thanks, Erica, for taking the time to answer these questions. As you know, the museum of americana is dedicated to showcasing work that repurposes, reinvents, and re-envisions elements of Americana. I’d like to know what you believe to be the role of Americana in Recapture. Perhaps you can also tell me about the elements of Americana that you find to be most memorable in your work.

In Recapture the West is not a place of freedom or wilderness. It is a place of managed landscapes. Another strand that runs through the stories is to take away a little of the national purity or what-have-you of “Americana.” In one story, “A Dish of Stinging Nettles,” European folklore shapes how the character encounters the forest in Utah. Overall, I think my stories critique a kind of poisonous nostalgia for nature and the West.

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Erica Olsen lives in the Four Corners area, where she does archives and curation work for archaeology museums. A graduate of Stanford, Harvard, and the University of Montana MFA program, she has also been a Djerassi Fiction Fellow at the University of Wisconsin. Her short fiction has appeared in ZYZZYVAHigh Desert Journal, and other publications, and her nonfiction pieces in magazines including Fine Books & Collections and High Country News. Her work has received awards including the 2011 Barthelme Prize for Short Prose (for “Grand Canyon II,” included in Recapture).