INTERVIEW: Katie Oliver on butterflies, the Twitter takeover and ‘I Wanted to be Close to You’

As part of my interview series Writers on Research, I spoke to author Katie Oliver on the research process behind her collection I Wanted to be Close to You (Fly on The Wall Press, 2022).

I Wanted to be Close to You put me in mind of a conversation I had last year with the author Alice Ash, in which she mentioned how her hyperrealist style lent itself to themes of ‘fixation and obsession’. I feel like some of the stories in your collection mirror this sentiment, in that they sometimes turn up the contrast or colour of the world in a similar way as some psychological/emotional phenomena do, particularly obsession and paranoia. Does that resonate with you at all? What does it mean to you, if anything, to write hyperreality?

Now, it’s funny you should mention Alice Ash, as when seeking blurbs she was one of the very first people I asked! I didn’t think she’d say yes but was delighted when she did, because I love her writing. Re: hyperrealism, that’s a very interesting question. I don’t think it’s something I was consciously aiming for, but on reflection it does describe how I write. I enjoy dialling up the sensory elements of my writing in unusual and grotesque ways – I’m particularly thinking of one of the stories in my collection, ‘Becoming’. I won’t give spoilers, but if I say ‘the worm scene’ you’ll know what I mean! Additionally, fixation and obsession are certainly common themes within my writing, as is the frequent sense that we aren’t entirely sure what is real and what is a figment of the characters’ imaginations. I’m interested in exploring how far people can go in terms of convincing themselves that they can get what they want – whether that’s bringing back a loved one or metamorphosing into a different body.

I’m glad you mentioned metamorphosis, as I feel like the hyperreality in I Wanted to be Close to You is tied in some ways is your approach to nature, particularly in the way you play with devices like anthropomorphism and zoomorphism. I’m curious to know how you handled your exploration of these points of interchange (the animal-in-humans and potentially the human-in-animals), especially in the way the collection repeatedly challenges popular nature metaphors such as the butterfly emerging from its chrysalis.

Now this was something I was very conscious about doing. I’m an absolute nature lover and am never happier than when walking in the woods or searching for shells on the beach, but I was very clear on wanting to subvert the ‘escape to nature/nature as healing’ tropes that we often see. There’s nothing wrong with those – I was just interested in pushing it the other way. The most explicit subversion of the butterfly emerging from the chrysalis metaphor is in the story ‘You can’t kill it because it’s already dead’. I actually got the inspiration for this from years ago when I worked in a school – we had one of those kits where you get caterpillars and watch them as they build and then hatch out of their chrysalides. All went well apart from one poor creature where something hadn’t gone quite right for it and its wings were all wasted, and it died. It was absolutely horrible and the image has stayed with me for years. I feel like the more deeply I immerse myself in the natural world, the more I realise how dangerous, powerful and heartbreaking it can be, whether it’s a poisonous mushroom or a tsunami (or indeed, a doomed butterfly) and in my writing I almost wanted to pay tribute to that. There’s already such a tension between humans and the natural world – as a species we’re generally doing a great job of destroying it and the fanciful part of me feels like nature is just sitting there waiting to fully unleash. See, I’ve personified her again!

I’ve always identified intensely with animals and I’m a huge fan of stories told through their eyes – The Bees by Lalline Paul springs to mind as a favourite – it’s a thriller narrated by a bee trying to hide her secret baby and I would totally recommend it!

In terms of the animal-in-human, I think my interest in this comes from a really natural desire to change, to be someone or something else. The characters in my stories who morph in some way are all escaping something, whether that’s trauma, a bad relationship or simple dissatisfaction with their lives.

Stepping aside from nature for the moment, another theme that jumped out at me was your imaginative handling of complex future technologies, particularly domestic ones. Several stories revolve around characters negotiating their relationships with new body-technologies, often with irreversibly damaging effect. What is your attitude to current and future technologies, especially in regards to their interactions with the human body? Does our attitude to body-technologies need to change?

AI and body technologies are a true fascination of mine – I’m endlessly drawn to learning about them, but equally repelled! The main thing is that while the technology out there is incredibly impressive, I think we can have no real idea of what the actual consequences will be until it’s far too late. I can’t help but invoke the iconic Jurassic Park quote: “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.” I recently read an article entitled ‘AI experts are increasingly afraid of what they are creating’, which says it all, really. For anyone interested in reading more around the subject, I highly recommend the brilliant To Be A Machine by Mark O’Connell.

Leading on from that, one of the repeated approaches to the theme of the body in I Wanted to be Close to You regards your complex handling of the female body, particularly in terms of its vulnerability. In several stories, the female body is stripped of its agency by forces outside each woman’s control – either with the threat of physical assault, the mob judgement of social media, the sometimes-surreal realities of childbirth and motherhood, or with issues of body-belonging within an intimate relationship. As something you write so deftly and passionately about, I’d like to know how you navigated your own thoughts and feelings around agency and the female body. Were there challenges there?

I actually didn’t find it challenging in an emotional sense – it was more cathartic than anything. It is certainly an angry book: it isn’t a safe world out there for women and progress on e.g. reproductive rights has gone hugely backwards of late, so I wanted to write about it (my story ‘Underbelly’ directly refers to this – I wrote it postpartum after a pretty difficult birth). My relationship with writing pretty much all boils down to either processing my emotions or escaping them. ‘TimeOut’ is another story that seems to resonate with people – it links to the previous question about AI and tech. I wrote it when my son was eight months old and I was psychotic from sleep deprivation. I think I almost needed to fictionally present myself with the dream solution and then talk myself down from it by demonstrating how it actually definitely wouldn’t have been a good idea to turn my baby off with a dodgy app. Catharsis indeed!

We touched briefly on social media there, but to close I’d like to dig into that a little further. Twitter in particular has a recurring presence within the collection, handled within the stories in variegated ways. Naturally, these stories were written before Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter, so I’m curious to know if your attitudes towards the app have since changed? How has social media fed into your life as a writer, and in your opinion is there any possibility of it being a force for good in the future?

I was so annoyed when he took over! For the obvious reasons, of course, but when the future of the app was looking very uncertain at the start I was slightly worried my book would be historical fiction before it had even come out…

In terms of social media feeding into my life as a writer, it’s been overwhelmingly positive. I’ve made so many great connections, found my writing group and gained genuine friends from my interactions. I don’t have many writing friends in ‘real life’ and I think it’s so essential to find people to share work with, push you towards deadlines and pick you up after rejections. While social media in general can be an absolute bin, the online writing community is mostly a warm and supportive place. I’ve recently joined Instagram (I have a book to sell) and am actually really enjoying the Bookstagram element, but I have to stay away from the reels on the homepage or else I’ll get sucked into eight hours of watching someone blend their eyeshadow or document their bikini body journey. That’s the real negative side of it for me – the timewasting and toxic body image stuff that’s shoved in your face on a constant basis. It’s the digital equivalent of being accosted by the perfume and makeup sample people at the entrance of a department store. Algorithm, if you’re listening – I do not want bum implants, thank you.

Katie Oliver is a writer based in South West Kerry. Her fiction has been shortlisted in several competitions, including the Bridport Prize and the Short Fiction/Essex University Wild Writing Prize, and her poetry is published in various online and print journals. Her debut short fiction collection I Wanted to be Close to You was published by Fly on The Wall Press in December 2022. She is currently working on her next collection and has work forthcoming in Holy Show later in 2023.

Joe Bedford’s interview series Writers on Research is made possible with National Lottery funding via Arts Council England.

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