Angel Olsen and Jules Ohman Talk Queer Joy, Finding Yourself, and Making Art in a Pandemic

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There’s an argument to be made that all art—fiction or otherwise—is on some level an artist encountering herself. In her sixth studio album, Big Time, Angel Olsen works through grief and pleasure—the pain of losing both her parents, two months apart, after having experienced the joy of coming out to them as queer. She recently joined a Zoom call with debut novelist Jules Ohman, whose book, Body Grammar, follows Lou, a teenage model thrust into the world of fashion, all while navigating loss and queer love. In a conversation moderated by novelist Rebecca Sacks, Jules and Angel talk art, sex, and heartbreak.

REBECCA SACKS: First of all, mazal tov to both of you for making art during the pandemic. Youve created work that gives the audience so much pleasure while working through some painful stuff. I lost myself in Jules’ book, reading on my patio with my dog for hours; and I’ve been driving around L.A. listening to Angels album, feeling blissed out. It made me think of how distress can lead us to create—and how it can also lead to an experience thats pleasurable for an audience.

ANGEL OLSEN: [The way I] approach writing is I will change a few things from what happened. I’ve often asked myself, am I creating chaos in my world? Or is it the way that I see through this? My most recent record is probably the most intimate, honest, unguarded thing that I’ve done. It’s the first time I’m sharing my actual life, or the actual events that inspired the songs. Jules, you’ve written about coming to identify as queer through your writing. I think that I have, too, but in a different way. It’s like all my fans kind of knew before me. Are you inspired by real events in your life?

JULES OHMAN: I am very much a fiction writer. That essay was the first time I had written nonfiction in a decade, and it felt like I was accessing a different emotional space. [But like Lou, Body Grammar’s protagonist,] I was a model in high school. I was a terrible model. I couldn’t walk the runway. I was very awkward and shy. They could’ve only wanted me for my body, because there was nothing else. I was very closeted and kind of unable to move within that world. I had to present a certain way: wear high heels and move in a feminine way. Obviously, there have been models celebrated for their androgyny—even when I was doing it. But I wasn’t one of them.

jules ohman

Jules Ohman

Courtesy of the subject

Ultimately, Lou is not me, but I certainly had to create me as a 19-year-old, as a character—an exaggerated version of myself at that age, set now-ish, since I graduated from high school in 2009, when nobody was talking about being queer. I work a lot with teenagers now, and, at least in Portland, Oregon, a lot of them are like, ‘This is how I identify.’ The internet put up so much for them. We had the internet, but we didn’t—

AO: We didn’t have the tools or the language. I think Gen Z is allowed to talk about their feelings. Our generation was like, ‘Okay, we can talk a little bit about your feelings, but not too much.’ And now Gen Z is like, ‘Let’s practice nonviolent communication. Let’s ask everyone their pronouns.’ There are aspects of it where I think, Oh no, the world still doesn’t function like this! And I’m worried for these young people, but then I remember that they are the world, that they’re going to change the world.

JO: I was 22 when I started writing this book—a version of it anyway. It’s been redone a million times. But back then we were pre-gay marriage, pre- a lot of language that now exists. And I was writing into characters who had accepted themselves or who felt confident in queerness in a way that, honestly, felt like a fantasy when I was writing it. But I said to myself, No one is gonna come out in the story. Like, I’m just gonna fucking write it. And now there are so many novels like that. It’s the norm. People have created that reality. But I tried to make every character in the book queer that I could, because I’ve read so many books where there’s one queer character that I read the book for. But actually, most queer people are surrounded by other queer people. Because it’s fun.

RS: So you were deliberately trying to avoid a coming-out narrative with queer characters, and at the time you were writing it, that felt revolutionary? Or at least, not done?

JO: There were novelists who were writing books with queer characters where it wasn’t a coming-out narrative. But in terms of the stuff that was a little bit more mainstream, there just wasn’t that much really. Now there’s kind of an abundance that’s amazing to be in the landscape of, just as a reader.

The three of us are all in our thirties—I feel this weird distance between what our years of adolescence would’ve been like culturally and how much has changed. I had emotional whiplash over it for years. Like you said, Angel, about your fans knowing: Why was it more evident to them and not evident to you, you know?

angel olsen sitting at dusk, near shrubs

Angel Olsen

Angela Ricciardi

AO: Maybe it’s the way I hold my character. I think it’s probably the way that I hold myself. I dunno. I do think that there is a certain kind of neutrality and openness in writing. For me, I would often kind of hide, being like, ‘Well, I’m just writing for human beings, you know? I’m not gay—I’m just trying to connect with people.’ I think people are afraid to say the word gay. When I came out, I was like, I need to use the word gay.

But I am attracted to writers that, whether or not they are queer, are unorthodox in their confidence and neutrality. I really love Joan Didion, Rachel Cusk, Clarice Lispector.

Before My Brilliant Friend was this big HBO series, I was trying to get everyone to read Elena Ferrante. It was as if a part of myself had been sleeping. Not that I would write anything like that, but it woke something up in me. I was like, This is like how I walk around all the time—with inner monologues about my hetero relationships and who I am to this person, and at the end of the day, just trying to look cute. And so it was really inspiring for me to hear I wasn’t alone. I don’t know if those writers identify as queer, but there is a feeling of I’m disappointed in these structures, whether or not I’m queer.

RS: Did you find the pandemic played a role? Are you and I both pandemic queers, Angel? People who came out during the pandemic?

AO: It started with tour actually, before the pandemic. I was on tour with someone who had been my friend for seven years. I saw this person grow up. I remember meeting them when they had braided Willie Nelson pigtails, and now they’re non-binary. I saw them when they were a different person. Or, they were the same person, but they were exploring something in themselves. And I was a completely different person, also in drag, just trying to make it work within my little world.

And then on tour I was like, why can’t I just hang out with them? They’re my friend. Why is it weird right now? Like, they wanna get coffee with me before the show, and I’m like, I can’t do it. I have to cancel. I was running. Literally, I said, ‘I can’t, I’m gonna run.’ And then I was like, Why do I need to run right now? Why is this so hard for me? Eventually I said something kind of drunkenly, like, ‘I have a crush on you.’ It was the week before the end of tour. And they were just like, ‘Don’t say that if you don’t feel it.’

It’s scary coming out late. I was inexperienced. I’d had very minor experiences, and I was scared to be judged, or scared that I wouldn’t know what to do. And then it would be embarrassing for the other person to have to teach me. But what I realized is that everybody is different, and you’re always learning and exploring with that person for the first time. Everybody has a different language when it comes to sex. So I stopped feeling small and scared about it. Also, I will say the coolest part of that experience is just thinking that you know someone for so many years—and yourself for so many years—and then one day you realize you’re not the same and neither are they, and you can have a connection like that.

Body Grammar

bookshop.org

$15.81

RS: This is reminding me of a friendship in Jules’ book. The main character, Lou, is always being noticed—this tall, androgynous teen. But there are so few people who actually know her. Her oldest friend, Ivy, is a musician, who also goes on tour.

JO: Some people have been frustrated by the relationship between Lou and Ivy, where it’s kind of stop, start, stop, start, stop, start.

RS: Okay, but I’m sorry: Have they ever been gay? I’ve been on a third date, and I still wasn’t sure if it was a date.

JO: That’s what one of my best friends was saying! “You think it’s frustrating to read? Try being a queer teenager or a queer person of any age.”

RS: But maybe something that ties together these narratives is how being seen is not always the same as being visible. And being visible isn’t always safe. And if love is a state of knowledge, it’s powerful to come to know yourself through someone that you’ve known for a long time—someone who’s witnessed you change. I came out during the pandemic. When I came out as gay to my parents, I was so serious that they thought I was going to tell them I was pregnant.

AO: Pregnant with change, pregnant with my hidden identity.

RS: Right, I just gave birth to myself. And then I thought I was done, because the way coming out narratives are often depicted, it’s like you articulate who you are. And then you’re finished. But later, I came out as nonbinary.

AO: You’re never finished.

RS: Right?

AO: I could end up with a cisgendered dude one day. Who knows? I have no idea. But I was hiding this part of myself, and right now, it’s hard to imagine going back.

JO: I think you can present yourself to the people who know you really well, and all of your intimate relationships, in a specific way. But when you put a piece of art out into the world, people are going to say about it whatever they say about it, and, like, listening to the album, Angel, it felt queer.

angel olsen's big time album cover

Angel Olsen’s Big Time is out now.

Angela Ricciardi

AO: I don’t wake up and think, All my songs are about my identity as a queer person. But I am a queer person who is writing these songs. I’m trying to chisel my way through this experience and find the words to uncover it for myself.

I feel like I’ve tried to keep things vague for so long, and this album is the most straightforward. But without knowing the context, you wouldn’t ever know that “Big Time” was something I wrote with my partner at the time. Would you call it a gay song if you hadn’t known that? But it is a song about queer love and falling in love with this person.

After my first queer breakup, I had all of these childhood memories come back. And I realized that because I had been so honest with myself, it was so much harder losing this person than anybody else I had ever connected with. It was like my first break up because I was being my true self.

JO: That is what I mean by Big Time feeling like a queer record to me. When I had my first adult relationship with another queer person, I felt like it was the first time I was falling in love. It was the first time I was having real feelings. When I had my first relationship with a woman, I was like, ‘Are you fucking kidding me? Like, this is how it’s supposed to be? This is how people feel? For real?’ It totally wrecks you.

I have friends right now who are going through this. Queer adolescence is a real thing—that coming-of-age can happen when you’re 50, it can happen when you’re 30. We’re always coming into that, and the pain is so real.

I was listening to the record, walking around in rainy Portland the last few days. I just felt very hit by this line in the title track that goes, “Guess I had to be losing to get here on time.” And I was like, Fuck, if that’s not a feeling of how it’s okay to have ended up here now. Because I think a lot of people feel a sense of like, Why didn’t I do this sooner?

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RS: I really relate to what Angel said about that fear of inexperience—that at a certain point, it might be too late. That maybe I was only capable of giving certain kinds of pleasure, maybe I could never be a real lover to anyone but a cis man, you know? I felt this fear of being exposed as some kind of fraud.

AO: Well, I thought I was being true to myself before. I think I did connect with those people. I’m not gonna write those relationships off. But my therapist was like, Because you are being really true to yourself, it’s almost like going home for the first time. And there’s someone there who sees you and welcomes you. Then they leave, and it’s like your home isn’t safe anymore.

I was heartbroken before, and then I fell in love again, and I fell in love even deeper with my second partner. It showed me that the deeper that you go, yes, you can get hurt and left behind and broken down, but you learn how to experience things deeper because of those losses.

And I feel really grateful to them, even though they are so fucking exhausting, because they have expanded my ability to hold space for bigger things. More expansive, bigger love. And to hold it in myself.

RS: Do you both feel that art emerges from grief?

JO: I started writing the draft that ended up being the book, more or less, in the summer of 2020. My grandmother who I was super close with had passed away the previous summer. It had been like a year since she died, and I was still very much in grief about her. Also, we were amidst the largest amount of grief on the planet since I’ve been alive.

That was all kind of compounding. I think what I wanted to do, when I sat down to write every day, was occupy a space of beauty and pleasure and love. The book turned way more in that direction than it previously had. I was able to expand into a place of creating—creating an experience for myself first, where it was a comfort to enter that space every day.

The book is a fantasy of teenagers being queer and hanging out in the fashion industry, which is kind of a bizarre place. It was the most lush landscape I could imagine. And I wanted to live in it for just a few hours a day, because everything else was so real and so difficult to process. I couldn’t watch anything or read anything that was more than a romcom. I just stayed in the space of pleasure. It’s interesting when other people read Body Grammar and are like, Oh, this is a book about grief, whereas I genuinely thought this was a book about joy and pleasure.

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AO: You were escaping into the world of the novel during the pandemic. And the pandemic has its own grief. But maybe it inspired you to make those experiences more meaningful as well?

JO: A hundred percent. In Big Time, there are little moments of dialogue, stuff that feels of the world of fiction or prose. Like, you have to fully occupy that scene yourself, and really think about how people’s bodies are in the space. When people are having sex or hugging or just being near each other, how does that feel? Writing it felt like self preservation to me, because it was like, the only person I’ve touched in six months is the person living with me. That’s what made it so much more vivid, because there’s so much desire there—that was something I was missing.

AO: As you started accepting your queer identity through your writing, what are some of the works that inspired you?

JO: That’s a great question. And I really want to talk to you about Ferrante, because I’m totally obsessed with her, and I totally read those books as queer. That interiority and closeness with another person. I’d never seen it articulated like that before, and it blew my mind.

AO: I am curious about Anne Goldstein because she translated all of them in English. So there’s a part of me that’s like, ‘Hmm. Maybe I should read some more Anne Goldstein.’

RS: I really loved the wording you used earlier, Angel, about sensing a certain disappointment in Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels—disappointment with patriarchal structures. It makes me think of how being in the pandemic, and getting a chance to imagine myself outside of certain structures, helped me come out.

JO: I know a lot of people who have come out in the pandemic. I was part of the wave of pandemic proposals. There was a period of time in which people were getting engaged, and now all of those weddings are happening. At that point I had been with my partner for a long time—it wasn’t like we met in the pandemic and then got married, although respect to whoever does: I get it, I really get it. But there was a feeling of, like you said, lifting of structures. Even just people being like, What are your pronouns on zoom? It was a space in which you could make decisions at almost a slower pace because everything was kind of at a remove. [It became clear to me] that I wanted to be with this person for as long as we can [make it work], for as long as it is good.

RS: Were you married recently?

JO: In October, in the Arboretum in Portland.

AO: I would love to get married, even if it ends. I just love ceremony. I love the commitment. So I’m not against marriage. I’m just scared that if I try to marry someone, they’ll run or I’ll run.

JO: I’ve felt that way too. My wife is a musician [Jess Jones, who records as Sand Duney.], and I think the central part of our relationship in the pandemic was being able to go into our parts of the house for significant periods of the day—I’m in our attic right now, and she has a basement recording studio.

AO: It’s really important to have a separate life.

JO: It takes some of the pressure off of your relationship being the main thing. It’s like, well, my relationship is to my writing, and her relationship is to her guitar or songwriting. Those are individual spheres, but then it’s really interesting to be able to connect over that.

AO: I always thought maybe I could live in one house and the other person could live down the street. They’ll have the dogs and I’ll have the cat, you know? And we can have sleepovers, but we have this space to be ourselves.

RS: My ex-girlfriend bought a house in my neighborhood, which is now pretty awkward. But Jules, you’re saying that you’re in the attic and she’s in the basement, and then you meet in the middle?

JO: Yeah.

AO: I love that.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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