Eric Olsen is the co-author with Glenn Schaeffer of We Wanted to Be Writers: Life, Love, and Literature at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop (Skyhorse Pub, 2011), wherein the two alumni of the program offer a rollicking and insightful blend of interviews, commentary, advice, gossip, anecdotes, analyses, history, and asides with more than 20 graduates and teachers at the now legendary Iowa Writers’ Workshop between 1974 and 1978. Among the talents emerging in that period were John Irving, Jane Smiley, T.C. Boyle, Allan Gurganus, Sandra Cisneros, and Jayne Ann Phillips. That’s a pretty good haul of literary talent. Here’s what Eric had to say about the books that inspired him to read and write even before the IWW:
When We Fell In Love By Eric Olsen
No one volume led to my love affair with books. Rather, it was a genre, science fiction, as it was for a surprising number of writers I interviewed in We Wanted to Be Writers: Life, Love, and Literature in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
For me, it all started when I was a kid of maybe 8 or 9 and discovered the Mushroom Planet series by the Canadian writer Eleanor Cameron at the local library. The first book in the series, The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet, involves a mysterious scientist named Tycho Bass, who enlists the help of two boys, David and Chuck, to build a rocket and travel to the tiny, invisible planet of Basidium, orbiting near Earth. The planet and its occupants face some danger. David and Chuck save the day with the assistance of Mr. Bass and, if memory serves, a chicken. I don’t recall all the particulars, but I vividly remember how I loved the Mushroom Planet series, and how bummed I was when I’d read them all and there were no more.
But by then I was hooked on reading and the whole world of science fiction lay before me, and I devoured the novels coming out back then by Asimov, Dick, Clarke, Spinrad, Heinlein, Simak, Bradbury, Leiber, Boucher, Zelazny, and to me perhaps one of the greatest novels of all time, Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz.
I was reading this stuff throughout my childhood and into adolescence, and so by the time I got to high school, I had a serious attitude problem, especially when it came to lit classes. They’re making us read Hawthorne and I’m wondering where the hell are the proton beam deflectors! Where are the mind-reading mutants with tentacles for hair? Where are the trans-lightspeed rocket ships? We’re talking the 1950s, the 1960s, the Soviet threat, Khrushchev banging his cheap collective-made shoe on a podium, Sputnik, and nuclear attack drills in class and our teachers trying to convince us that we could survive an A-bomb blast if we just got under our desks quickly enough. I knew better, of course. I knew they were lying to us because I read science fiction! I knew about proton beams.
There was something transgressive about science fiction. My teachers disapproved. Which of course is one reason I loved science fiction so much. And also why it was natural that from science fiction, the next step for me, once I got to college, was to get political. Our teachers were lying to us? Hell, so was everyone else in power! Science fiction was about heroes who paid attention to the man behind the curtain. The war in Vietnam was escalating. Kennedy, then LBJ, then Nixon were lying to us, and so from science fiction it was on to Marcuse, Fanon, Soul on Ice, Mao’s Little Red Book, and all that.
And thus my interest in actually trying to write something started when I got involved in the antiwar movement at U.C. Berkeley in the late ’60s. The war in Vietnam was raging. Young men just like me were getting shipped over there to be killed. I had a student deferment but decided that it was chickenshit — I needed to throw myself full-time into the antiwar effort. I dropped out and declared that I intended to go mano a mano with the Selective Service System. To say I needed some adult supervision back then is putting it mildly. I was sure, though, that Tycho Bass would have approved.
Soon, I was writing one-page antiwar screeds — “down with the man” and “hell no we won’t go” and all that sort of stuff — which we’d run off on a clanking mimeograph machine in an office full of young Maoists and anarchists and Students for a Democratic Society. (The Young Maoists, interestingly, were always breaking the mimeograph, while the anarchists treated it with delicate reverence. Go figure.)
It was all great fun, anyway, everyone writing screeds and running around stapling them to telephone poles and bulletin boards and raising clenched fists and shouting down with the man. What I wrote made absolutely no difference, but I remember how fun it was, a bit of a rush, really, to think that something I wrote might have an impact. And of course, thinking back, I realize that the “rush” was really from the fumes of the solvents used in the mimeograph ink; the room we worked in wasn’t well ventilated. But I’ve been writing ever since.