24 Mar A Moment with Strangers
W. Scott Olsen is set to launch his 11th book: A Moment with Strangers: Photographs and Essays at Home and Abroad. The book is a fine collection of photographs and thoughts, Olsen at his best, as he travels and considers places as distant as London, Paris, Fargo, Scotland, Hong Kong and Alice North Dakota.
I wanted to ask Scott some questions because I was curious about his writing journey and his combination of photography and writing. I also want to promo his upcoming book launch party. I’m really looking forward to the event! (Tuesday March 29, 6:30 p.m., at Zandbroz Variety store in Fargo.)
Tell me about your writing journey.
My first book was a book of short stories. Writing it, I learned how to make competent short stories, but I realized it was nothing more than that. Good not great. And not all that interesting. If you see that first book of short stories, I’ll buy it from you. I’d love to see it out of circulation!
The quandary for me was what to write next. I was taking notes on some ideas and a friend of mine said my notes were more interesting than my stories. So I switched to nonfiction. My first nonfiction book, Meeting the Neighbors: Sketches of Life on the Northern Prairie, was published in 1993.
Why did you combine photography and essay in your new book?
I have always taken photos. Over the years my passion for photography has increased and I’ve gotten more of an eye for it. So often the brief moments we have are captured by photos. A photo is like taking notes. I find the language later, when I’m back at my computer. In this book, I wanted to combine the photos and the words.
I’ve used photos to write off of each time I’ve produced a book. But this is the first time I’ve made photography a part of the book itself. The pictures by themselves – from a photographers point of view – are not “good.” But they hold memory. Or questions. They are intriguing for what got away. For what is going on. This is not a glossy art photo book and it doesn’t want to be. The photos make their own vocabulary.
Did you first write essay and then chose the photo, or the other way around?
The writing and the photography is all blended together. Sometimes I wrote first. Other times I took the photos first. There wasn’t a linear process. More a putting together of a collection.
Why did you choose NDSU Press for this publication?
I’ve worked with the Institute for Regional Studies in the past so I was aware of the press. This book is a niche project and NDSU Press was not only interested, but Suzzanne Kelley has a real interest in making the press a major player. Being a local press, it also allows me to scoot over and sign books. NDSU Press is local, new, and highly ambitious. It’s a great fit in so many ways.
As editor-in-chief at the nationally acclaimed literary journal Ascent, you are constantly reading submissions and making choices. Does this make you a better writer?
Being the editor at Ascent absolutely makes me a better writer. 90% of the submissions I see are thoroughly well written. Every day I choose between the excellent and the merely very good. When I write, I’m always asking myself if it is as good as it can be or just good enough.
Your book launch party set for Tuesday March 29, 6:30 p.m., at Zandbroz Variety store in Fargo. Tell me about the event.
I’m not going to read for an hour! I’ll read a little bit and talk about the book. It’s a celebration of a new book, at a local independent bookstore, and a celebration of the press. That’s a lot to celebrate! There will be books for sale, signing, and snacks.
I’m just curious. What does the W. stand for in your name?
Walter. But my parents always called me by my middle name, Scott. I use the ‘W’ because there are so many Scott Olsen’s. There’s a professional pitcher for the Florida Marlins named Scott Olsen!
Is there an excerpt from your book you’d like to share?
Excerpt: Prologue ~ A Moment’s Dance
Let’s begin with humility, perhaps a kind of sadness.
I am not the only person in the courtyard at the Louvre this morning with a camera. There are cell phone cameras, digital cameras, professional rigs. Everyone else looks like they know what they’re doing.
Everyone else has already taken the picture I think I want to take, though I don’t know what that picture may be. The building is overwhelming. And even though the day is cloudy, spitting rain, and the light is flat, I do know that flat light is often good. The problem is that every shot has been taken, every angle by now a cliché.
A young woman climbs on top of a box, the pyramids and the old building her backdrop. She has an umbrella and an innocent smile. Her family laughs as they snap away—portraits for the album back in some other place. London, perhaps. Maybe Romania. It really doesn’t matter.
I do not know this girl. She will never know I took this picture. The couple walking behind her, their boredom as much a part of the image as the girl’s lilt, will never know as well. But I owe each of them my thanks. This is the image I now carry in my head. The old building. The edge of a glass pyramid. The people walking, all of them disparate, and the dance of what it’s like to be very young and in Paris, at the Louvre.
This, I think, is the shot I want. It is not an extraordinary photograph. But here, I think, is the moment we all treasure. A small, personal, dance. Not humility, I think. Grace.
Evan Osnos, author of Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China (winner of the National Book Award) says this, “W. Scott Olsen is infuriatingly gifted. He traverses the world with the sensibility that we all wish we had: patient, alert, funny, and awed by genuine splendor, vast and small. His pictures and their stories are poetry without pretense. This is a book to savor.”
Congratulations on your newest book, Scott. And thanks for the interview. I don’t know many 11-book-authors who would have taken the time! Thank you.
For more information: W. Scott Olsen
Come to Zandbroz and listen and celebrate in person. Oh. did I mention that before? Tuesday March 29, 6:30 p.m., at Zandbroz Variety store in Fargo.
PHOTOS: All photos from W. Scott Olsen