Sydney-based creative non-fiction writer OLIVER MOL won the Scribe Non-fiction Prize for Young Writers for his piece called ’34 Memories From Growing Up in Texas’. These mini-stories are scattered throughout Lion Attack!, his new memoir about his early twenties in Sydney as he searches for a job, meaning, and love – all those terrifying adult things. It’s a sincere, funny, refreshingly unpretentious musing on life. ANGUS DALTON caught up with Oliver via email while he travelled through North America.
How’s New York? Is it a concrete jungle where dreams are made of? (Edit: Angus mistakenly thought Oliver was in New York at the time he was writing the questions. He was wrong, obviously, but the answer is still brilliant.)
Right now I’m in Calgary. I’m sitting at the airport. The last time I was in Calgary was 2007. I’d hitched up from Banff because I heard there were jobs driving forklifts in warehouses. I didn’t really have any experience but I lied and said I had heaps of experience. I got the job. Maybe two weeks in I caught my foot between a ‘sidewall’ and the forklift and then I reversed. I tore most of the tendons in my ankle. I screamed but, like, it was more than a scream. I screamed so hard that no sound came out. When my manager found me he said ‘umm’ and ‘ahhh’ a lot and eventually he decided to get me very stoned in his car. He told me it was for the pain and then he winked and said, ‘Not that we need a reason to get stoned ha ha.’ When I think about Calgary I remember staying in this hostel/halfway house and not really leaving the hostel/halfway house. Because of not being able to walk. It was my birthday that weekend and I bought an orange juice. I was feeling pretty shitty so I decided to splurge. I bought the most expensive orange juice they had. I took a sip and it tasted like how dreams can taste: acidic, too sweet, death-like. I smiled. I thought: welcome to the rest of your life.
I haven’t been to New York on this trip yet but I did go with my best friend in 2009. If I had to review New York I would say this: super friendly! Could not believe! Everyone seemed ‘v cool’ heh. Lil expensive though he he! But if I had to answer your question I would say this: it’s hard for me to say whether New York is a concrete jungle where dreams are made of because I don’t know everyone’s dreams. It seems probable that some people’s dreams are being made in New York. But those people, probably, are privileged people with privileged dreams. Sometimes I think about rent in places like New York and Sydney and London. How it costs upwards of $220 a week to live there. And I think about what we learned when we were younger. That dreaming is free and if we work hard we can become whatever we want. But it turns out dreaming isn’t free. Turns out some cities cost >$30 a night to dream. I don’t know. I imagine a lot of non cis white straight male’s dreams are being stepped on. I imagine a lot of cis white straight males don’t even know they’re stepping on people’s dreams.
How do you feel about a bunch of strangers reading your personal and honest thoughts? Is it weird to think that someone reading Lion Attack! would come to know you quite well, but you’d have no idea who they are?
I feel pretty good about it. I’ve never really felt the need to keep my life private. Most of my Facebook friends know the dumb things I’ve done. Like getting frostbite on seven toes because I thought I’d look tough wearing converse while parting at night in the snow. Like accidentally smuggling weed in and out of an Ecuadorian maximum-security prison. Most of my Facebook friends have seen me naked. I don’t know. I just want to be honest and being naked seems a good way to express that. Maybe that doesn’t make sense. But what does make sense is this: writing a book like this is a selfish thing to do. Because you take people’s stories and make them your own. It’s selfish on partners and family and friends. Your moments cease being your moments. They become text. And then they are gone. Writing this book was very emotional for me. I gave this book everything and there were times when I laughed and when I loved and when I went: YES YES YES and there were times when it nearly broke me. It led to the downfall of several relationships.
Does your book sit comfortably in the ‘memoir’ genre? Is it entirely non-fictional?
I’m not sure. I feel pretty uncomfortable, in general, with putting “absolute” labels on anything. Like, labelling something ‘non-fiction’ tells the reader: THIS IS A FACTUALLY TRUE BOOK YOU ARE LOOKING AT RIGHT NOW. But you know what? That book is lying. All books are lying. Because by even omitting that you had a cup of coffee in the morning or that you thought: ‘f**k you, asshole’ when you looked at yourself in the mirror, you’re fictionalising a narrative for the sake of readability and arc. The only kind of book I would feel comfortable calling ‘non-fiction’ would be a Maths textbook that, to date, hadn’t been disproven. I just wrote the kind of book I wanted to read. The majority came from my life but some parts didn’t too. The emotional truth, however, was always there and, for me, the emotional truth holds more weight than factual. In the back of my book I go through and list everything I made up or didn’t. I probably missed some stuff. I don’t know. Every book you have ever read has lied to you and I think that’s beautiful. Books are flawed like you are flawed. It’s nice to feel like we’re all in this together.
Lion Attack! reads like a stream of consciousness – is that how you wrote it?
The idea of writing a book seemed insane to me. But the idea of writing lots of little things seemed exciting to me. So that’s what I did. Every day I wrote a new chapter. Tiny chapters. Chapters that were usually less than 800 words long. I knew I wanted to write a ‘book’ but it also seemed important to me that each chapter was its own thing. That each chapter had its own life and personality. I felt like I wanted to write about boring things and make them interesting. I wanted to feel/make people feel really shit but then really warm. I’m not sure if what I wrote is ‘steam of consciousness’. Maybe it is. It seems pretty ‘concrete’. Like based in reality. But then the prose sometimes becomes poetry. And sometimes even fantasy. So I don’t know what you’d call it. Maybe you just call it writing.
Did any part of writing Lion Attack! hurt?
Any part of anything hurts if you think about it enough. Especially when that involves your past. Writing about yourself is selfish but it is way more than that too. You are not the person you were five years ago. You are not the person you were five minutes ago. We do things and have experiences and change and grow based on those things but also myriad other things. So remembering your former self can, to varying degrees, be like meeting up with an old friend in a pub. You’ve changed and they haven’t and you’re trying to figure out/remember who this person was/why you liked them at all.
You were in America at the time of 9/11, and you mention the attack a few times in your book. How did you react to it?
I remember getting up and going to school. I remember being nervous because of how my mind sometimes works. I remember being at my locker and hearing two people talk about someone giving head. Sucking d**k with chocolate sauce. Then I remember sitting in my classroom. I remember the teacher was crying and I didn’t know why. I remember watching planes fly into buildings on the television.
I was pretty confused. I didn’t really know what to think. So I just sat at my desk and watched planes fly into buildings.
And even now I still don’t know what to think. Objectively, I know it’s bad. But I also know that terrible, unspeakable things happen every day. That they’re happening right now. Due to the inadvertent reinforcement of oppressive and discriminatory stereotypes that reinforce white/patriarchal power structures there are women being killed and trans people being harassed and Aboriginal people committing suicide at a rate 6x greater than non Aboriginal people. I wonder how long it would take for that death rate to eclipse 9/11’s death rate. I wonder if it already happened. I wonder if anyone noticed.
Are there major fundamental differences between the people in America and Australia?
One thing I’ve noticed is that when people in America really go for something, really believe in themselves, really put themselves out there, and they excel, people begin believing in them too. People hold them up. There’s encouragement. People holler. In Australia, one thing I’ve noticed is that when people really go for something, really believe in themselves, really put themselves out there, and they excel, people begin staring at you. But they are not good stares. They are different. They are stares that mean: why the f**k do you think you’re so special/why the f**k do you think you’re better than us/other things. I think there is a very healthy ‘tall poppy’ syndrome that stills exists in Australia and because I believe in myself and put myself out there sometimes people in Australia have mistaken or classed that as ‘arrogance’ but I just work hard and believe in what I’m doing. Or maybe I am an arrogant asshole. Hehe. I really don’t know.
Why do you believe in social media as a publishing platform?
It’s not so much that I “believe” social media is a publishing platform, but rather that social media is a publishing platform. I just chose to use it. Nearly everyone is reading on social media. And their eyes are hungry. I see their eyes on the train and on the bus and on the sidewalk and at parties and I think: how can I feed you? Maybe I can feed you with sadness. Maybe I can feed you with hahas. Maybe I can feed you in ways I haven’t even thought of. I want to feed the world. It’s problematic but maybe it’s okay too.
List your top three books?
Mira Gonzalez: I Will Never Be Beautiful Enough To Make Us Beautiful Together
Stacey Teague: Takahē
Scott McClanahan: Hill William
Lion Attack! by Oliver Mol is published by Scribe. More info here.