THE FOLLOWING INTERVIEW is with Persian-American author Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi. She is the author of Fra Keeler, a unique thriller that pulls the reader into a complex puzzle and adds touches of humor. Her writing has been compared to that of French author Alain Robbe-Grillet, among others, has garnered prestigious awards, and has appeared in numerous magazines and publications.
In Oloomi’s debut novel, a man purchases a house, the house of Fra Keeler. When he moves in he becomes obsessed with the circumstances of the former owner’s death. His investigation spirals out of control, and we realize we are dealing with a paranoid fixation, with mental illness. But with a twist; as Matthew Jakubowski writes in The Millions:
From this angle, Fra Keeler can be viewed as a critique of the attraction many writers, readers, critics, and scholars have to the clichéd glamor of evil, who fetishize the gorgeous anguish associated with men struggling with mental illness. And once we make this connection between novels that revel in spectacles of madness to the male violence at its roots (see Raskolnikov, Humbert, et al), and after we acknowledge that readers thrill to such spectacles and scholars add them to the canon — should this not prick at the conscience and urge us to examine our tastes?
In this interview, Oloomi speaks about her influences, her writing, and her future projects.
JOHN WISNIEWSKI: When did you begin writing? Did you write short stories?
AZAREEN VAN DER VLIET OLOOMI: I started writing when I was seven. I kept a diary. I had just moved to Iran from the United States via Spain with my family, and I felt like I needed to record everything I was seeing. I kept long lists of the food I ate, advertisements I would see on billboards, the number of cats I would find in our yard, the number of people piled onto a single motorcycle, etc. The diary writing went on for a number of years. I had no idea I was writing; I had no awareness of what I was doing. I started writing consciously in college. I wrote short stories, yes — philosophical ones because at the time I was reading a lot of Gabriel García Márquez, Borges, Fuentes, and Juan Rulfo. Come to think of it, I wrote a story about a man who never left his house. I was very lucky to study with and be surrounded by writers like Rae Armantrout, Eileen Myles, Renee Gladman, and Michelle Latiolais, who taught me discipline. Through them, I became interested in deterritorializing language, in pushing narrative to its limits. I was and still am interested in an aesthetics of failure: in seeing the shapes narrative is capable of taking on when it’s been pushed over the edge.
Who are some of your favorite authors?
I’m a slow reader, but I tend to read from as many literary and aesthetic traditions as I can manage, and I’m often reading books in multiple languages. A short list would include: Lynne Tillman, Lydia Davis, Paul Auster, Brian Evenson, Stacey Levine, Ben Lerner, Danielle Dutton, Claire Donato, Kate Zambreno, Ben Marcus, Teju Cole, Murakami, Enrique Vila-Matas, Christa Wolf, Elena Ferrante, Jean-Philippe Toussaint, Bolaño, Nabokov, Kundera, Saramago. Also, Cervantes, Flaubert, Beckett, Woolf, Borges, Bernhard, Lispector, Robbe-Grillet. More recently, I’ve come to adore Sei Shonagon, Dante, and Petrarch. I confess, I’ve been falling in love with the drama and bombastic quality of medieval literature.
You have said you were inspired by the thrillers of Alain Robbe-Grillet.
Robbe-Grillet’s work has had a huge impact on me, in particular his novel Jealousy, which I love for its static quality. In that book, language originates from a semi-anonymous narrator. The sentences pile up and on revealing small changes that aggregate into a critical mass; in other words, the reality of the novel is revealed through the accumulation of language. In Fra Keeler, language moves in the other direction: the sentences hack away at reality until there is nothing left. Everything is shattered: the phone, the window, the skylight, the neighbor’s body. This unraveling is a double gesture that functions on the level of plot and narrative. For me, Fra Keeler is a novel of unbuilding, of decomposition.
Did you set out to write a unique kind of thriller?
Yes. What I wanted was for the language in Fra Keeler to feel raw and savage in order for it to overtake the reader. I wanted the reader to descend through the language of the text, to be swept away by it as if the novel were a retreating flood taking everything with it, dragging everything into that nothingness at its center. If I could get the reader to identify with the singularity of the narrator’s consciousness, to be enraptured by it, then I could position the reader to question their own relationship to reality. My hope was that in that altered state the reader would be more willing to eschew certainty. I was reaching for a kind of purity of consciousness, for a vulnerable space. Only if I did the work of guiding the reader to that space could I then earn the right to ask readers to reflect on certain troubling questions: What does it mean to be human? Is it reasonable to expect the mind to be stable? Why are we in such a bad state?
How did you see your protagonist — was he someone who would search for the truth and look inward to discover?
The narrator is someone who is searching for meaning, but that search is constantly frustrated by the mind’s acrobatics: the narrator’s memories, delusions, dreams, associations interrupt the forward momentum, the meaning building, leaving him with parts of things, with shattered bits. The novel is as much about the universal impossibility of understanding totality as it is about the narrator’s singularity, his particular unraveling. Rather than to seek truth, the novel seeks, in its own way, to honor the life of the narrator’s mind, even if that mind is unreliable and remorseless.
What will your next novel be about? Will it be in the same genre?
I’m very excited about the novel I’m currently working on. It has a similar restless energy to Fra Keeler, but my concerns are different. I’m thinking a lot about the relationship between literature and landscape these days, not just our mental and emotional landscapes, but the ones out there in the world that shape our geography, language, economy, and culture. I’m also thinking about what it means to have left the Old World to live in the New. To put it simply, the new novel is about a bizarre love story and the journey of a lifetime through the western Mediterranean; it’s about abandoning the New World to return to the Old in order to sink into the architecture of deep time. It’s a darkly comic novel that explores the relationship between literature, art, space, and mortality from the point of view of a narrator who, to borrow Enrique Vila-Matas’s term, suffers from intense bouts of “literature sickness”! It’s a strange, and, I hope, very funny text!
What are you doing when not writing?
I’m not sure I’m ever not writing. Literature has become the mediating force in my life. I’m always thinking about how this or that event, or thing that were said, can be dramatized in fiction. That being said, I do do other things: I travel quite a bit, I walk along the South Bend river with my dogs, and, when in Italy, I’m very good at eating gelato and drinking wine. I also like to stare at paintings, usually one at a time, which makes museum-going a rather arduous and expensive affair!
Has Fra Keeler had great success in the United States?
I think Fra Keeler has done rather well. In fact, this year it received a Whiting Award. There’s been some foreign interest, and it’s currently being translated into Italian. I absolutely love the Italian cover; the title was translated as Il misterioso caso di Fra Keeler, which places it in the tradition of more psychological/philosophical noir novels. I think readers in Italy, in particular readers of titles published by independent houses, will be drawn to the metaphysical and existential questions posed by the novel; I say this because so much of the Italian literary tradition — from Dante and Petrarch to Italo Calvino and Primo Levi — is concerned with the relationship between the real and the unreal, or the real and the possible/the potential. The editors at Giulio Perrone were particularly drawn by what they referred to as the “cosmological nothingness” that lies at the center of Fra Keeler.
Could you see the book as a film?
I can, even though it is a sparse and deeply psychological novel. Fra Keeler was inspired by both Iranian and French New Wave cinema, in particular by films like Le Cercle Rouge and Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales. So, yes, I could certainly see it being translated back onto the screen. I think that would be incredibly fascinating, and I have high hopes that someone out there would be up for the challenge.