Interview: Gary Olson

Where do you draw the most inspiration for your writing?

First, it’s impossible to list more than a fraction of the writers who’ve inspired my own work. An abbreviated, eclectic mix would range from Jonathan Swift, Karl Marx, John Steinbeck, Peter Kropatkin, and Wallace Shawn to Frans de Waal, Noam Chomsky, Mike Parenti, Howard Zinn, and Garrison Keillor. Beyond that, the civil rights and anti-war movements undoubtedly awakened my consciousness and informed my commitment to working on behalf of peace and justice.

What challenges do you face when writing?

Recently, out of frustration with other avenues of communication, I attempted to do some political satire, writing under my own name as well as the pseudonym I.M. Salmon. Some examples appeared on sites like ZNet and The Dandy Goat. Two challenges arose: First, today’s horrific reality tends to exceed the most creative satirist’s imagination. Second, we might ask, “Where is our Jonathan Swift now that we desperately need him?” The answer is that real political satire—think of an updated “A Modest Proposal”—goes wanting because some matters are too controversial for mainstream outlets. In response, I penned “A Satire on Impermissible Satire,” a critique of The Onion, Andy Borowitz, and late night comics like Stephen Colbert who invariably pull their punches.

Have you ever found yourself stuck on a piece of your work? If so, what methods help you get around this?

This occurs frequently and generates nagging doubts about ever finding a resolution. Sometimes, going for a long walk or just sleeping on it helps. I suspect the questions are percolating in my subconscious and solutions take shape. Too often, I just stare at the page, hoping the muse makes an appearance!

What made you first want to start writing?

For me, writing has been a natural extension of teaching. I consider myself a second-tier intellectual at best, but I take seriously Noam Chomsky’s injunction that “It’s the responsibility of intellectuals to tell the truth and expose lies.” Throughout my 40+ years of writing, teaching, and research, the subject of empathy—arguably the preeminent human emotion—has animated my work. What are the optimal conditions under which our hard-wired capacity for radical altruism might flourish? One of my early articles was titled “The Execution Class” (1988), about my efforts to take on this issue in my own classroom.

My most recent book, Empathy Imperiled: Capitalism, Culture, and the Brain (NY: Springer, 2013) draws upon neuroscience, political economy, cultural anthropology, and primatology. But it also includes sections on the critical function of novels, photography, plays, music, and film. Poetry is missing because I’m spectacularly unqualified to gauge its undeniable contribution.

What advice would you give someone who interested in writing? (Maybe something you didn’t know when you started out but know now).

Beyond the obvious advice like wide reading and gaining first-hand exposure to other cultures, I would recommend developing a thick skin. Don’t be paralyzed by fear of rejection. Persist. Get something published and it becomes easier as your confidence grows. Share your work with someone who won’t bullshit you. Before submission, everything I write must pass muster with my favorite editor, my wife.

Finally, it’s a privilege to grapple with these excellent questions. And it’s gratifying that young people of such high caliber are still drawn to working on fine publications like Portage Magazine. Bravo!

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