Interview with Olivia Kan-Sperling

MM) Why did you choose to name your characters Kendall Jenner and Lil Peep?


OKS: It’s the other way around: the novella began with Kendall. I’ve never watched the Kardashians, and don’t care what she’s like as a person, but I was obsessed with her images. Her face is so banal that it suggests nothing; its beauty is like a void. You can’t “read” into it. Similarly, for months, what’s now the first sentence of the book, “Kendall Jenner wakes up” would appear in my mind like an intrusive image or a song lyric. I’m not sure where it came from. The sentence seemed to bear no relation to anything; it felt like an alien language in the form of English. I knew that starting from Kendall would mean not going anywhere, in the sense of plot, and instead creating/holding a blank space in narrative — she’s already a beginning and an end; a photo of her is self-justifying and self-evident. Writing was just as much about this experience of Kendall as drawing the feeling of that first sentence across 80 pages. 

Then I wanted to write about other people that felt similarly auratically dense and mediatically other-dimensional. Everyone who knows about Lil Peep understands why he is a highly absorbent projection surface for emotions/fantasies. Even before he died, watching his music videos felt like making eye contact with a ghost caught on a webcam.

So Kendall and Peep became avatars: figures you can project yourself into. In movies, you cast an actor, and their image will carry resonances that transcend the role they’re playing. Why not cast real images as characters in a book?

And because they were avatars, the story became not just a romance but a virtual world game, structured by the kinds of potentially-infinite repetitions you revolve through in games like that.


MM) Tell me about the MAP OF THE ISLAND. There’s TEXTRON TOWER. There’s THE WICKED WHALER’S BAR — places that are revisited more than once. Why these geographic, and urban, details?


OKS: Except for Kendall’s apartment, the locations are all real places in Providence, RI, which is where I was living during early quarantine, when a lot of these aesthetic ideas were first surfacing for me. I’d walk around alone every day and see the same things: the Textron Tower sign, the sculpture of an infinity sign on my college’s science park lawn. Life and environment felt like an infinite and mutually-constructing loop that would never end and would never achieve meaning. So the book is not just a fan fiction of my life, it’s like a speculative method for making meaning out of random discrete objects and scenes that are, really, nothing other than a dead OBJECT or IMAGE.


MM) Is there a conspiracy in the story?


OKS: I think it’s most accurate to say that it has the atmosphere of a conspiracy. I was writing in a moment when conspiracy aesthetics felt novel/interesting to me rather than cliché. Pynchon has always been my favorite writer. Textron is definitely a True-Anon-episode-worthy company, and there’s lots of Lil Peep conspiracies. But mostly: a pseudo-conspiracy-plot felt like the way to communicate the experience of trying to find meaning in life where you suspect there is actually nothing but a network of things punctuated by bursts of emotions that are equally impossible to decode. 


MM) We connected pretty early on with our mutual appreciation of Pynchon. Why do you think Pynchon sells books? What’s your favorite Pynchon book? How is your book Pynchonian or Pynchonesque?


OKS: The only people I know who really like Pynchon in 2022 are my dad and like three guys I hang out with. Unclear to me why not more people like Pynchon. He’s a lot like cumtown. 

Gravity’s Rainbow is life-changing in part because it’s often boring (why it’s an amazing document of life). So that made me feel ok leaning into boredom on a prose level. I think sometimes you should have places where your eyes go over the page quickly without liking or remembering what you read. Plot-wise, I sometimes envisioned Island Time as an impoverished ripoff (fanfiction) of Crying of Lot 49, like an algorithm attempted to extract the most abstract elements of the mystery without having any sense of narrative or historical depth.


MM) Tell me about your formal choices, like capitalizations and asterisks, your use of hyperlinks. 


OKS: Some of these are language conventions from the text-based games I used to play in online forums. I think the asterisked verbs indicated a motion/action/emotion that crystallizes into a repeatable thing/gesture. You *walk into a room* and AN OBJECT appears.There’s often clue- or key-like objects that you pick up and collect; they might do something now, or later. In games with graphics, the affect of capitalization would be achieved by an icon of an object with a glowing, pulsing halo. For me, the full-caps render the word something more than itself, not just readable but almost object-like, with a density and an aura. Like a word ripped from a billboard in an Ed Ruscha painting. The WORD should also feel like a hyperlink, a possible link to another place, a piece of information, so I used written-out hyperlinks (to music videos etc) to remind the reader of that type of language object.


MM) Much of the book deals in facsimile. In hyperreal depictions of unreality. It feels like a blueprint, but is also oscillating between hyperemotionality and stylized affectlessness; intensely naturalistic descriptions and a kind of conceptual remove. It’s imagistic, but also abstract and diagrammatic. It’s hyper stylized, in part because there’s so many styles. Do you have a writing style?


OKS: I guess my primary interest is in foregrounding style by playing between mediums/genres (virtual world, music video, screenplay, novel). In terms of the oscillation you note: in hindsight the book was about depicting a discontinuity between style/convention and something like life/love/emotion/pain/reality, not that I believe that to be definitely true.


MM) You also designed and coded a kind of online game or e-reader for Island Time, which is still up on your website.


OKS: I’ve always been interested in the “digital reading experience” and experimenting with what that could look like. It’s now kind of cringe to me aesthetically, but it was mostly a proof-of-concept—I’d love to make a better one in the future! 


MM) Why do you like fan fiction, as a form or genre?


OKS: Because I’m interested in pastiche; style transfers; mannerism; writing “under the influence,” through and about what you’re obsessed with. YA fan fiction is the most girly form of writing; it does everything you’re not supposed to do: rococo metaphors, alliteration, attention to the material aspects of language, and everyone and everything is beautiful. 


MM) The full title is “Oblique Strategies 1: Island Time.” Will there be a 2, a 3? What’s next?


OKS: Yes; I’ve been writing a real full-length novel!! It’s similar to Island Time in many ways: it plays with medium (of screenplay) and genre (film noir, and the great American novel) and it stars celebrities (@sarahfuckingsnyder and Leo DiCaprio). But the characters and their emotions are different. I know I will repeat myself, so I built seriality into the title. (Repetitions themselves are already thematized in Island Time.) I think writing variations on a theme might allow me to realize why my obsessions are interesting to me, and teach me something cool about form!!

I hadn’t tried writing fiction since middle school before Island Time, and the idea was to create a radically lofi language- and narration-space, like a thinness of air in which you can barely breathe, less a flatness than “not-enough” — in part because I couldn’t do differently. I think I’m technically a better writer now; I hope I can make a novel that is fuller and rounded.