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Oliver Mol: King of a New Jungle

The young author discusses his first novel ‘Lion Attack!’, the online literature community and the importance of self-depreciation.

“It’s kinda like this. It’s about growing up in Texas, but it’s also about living in Melbourne. And it’s kinda dark and funny. I’m working in a warehouse and meeting a girl online and going to the movies. And there’s sex in a car. But it’s also critiquing modern day Australia as I see it.”

He’s imitating himself, recalling the initial pitch he presented to publishers over a lunch meeting. For whatever reason his voice is considerably more high-pitched than his usual speaking tone. He sounds kind of unhinged. Maybe that’s the short long black he’s just “smashed”. He doesn’t normally drink coffee. It gives him “hectic anxiety”.

Oliver Mol’s writing style is neat. Not “that’s neat” like your Dad describing his new haircut. Neatly presented. Nothing wasted, nothing overdone. Just short and sharp. Sentences are punched out as Tweet-length thoughts, with the harsh pauses between utilised as structural weapons. In reality, his speech is considerably less measured. While ideas flow with a similar spontaneity, there’s less weight on their impact. As we chat, he frequently lists off things, such as literary influences, attaching each addition with “and” rather than a comma. The freedom of being able to keep adding items seems paramount. He could effectively go on, listing things forever.

“Grammar ceases to matter”, Mol bluntly states as he attempts to relight his cigarette, extinguished by his animated hand gestures as he excitedly attempts to explain the unrestrained methodology of the online writing community he’s part of. “It’s still readable, everyone still knows how to read it. You’ve got to question: why would I use grammar? And if you’re using grammar so people can understand you, then not using grammar is a form of that to.”

Heavily influenced by fellow online writer Heiko Julien, several years ago Mol began utilising Facebook as his primary publishing platform. “I’d done a series of mini-narratives, sudden memoirs”, the 27-year-old, Sydney-based writer explains, “I was like ‘maybe I’ll just try this and see how it goes’, so I did this thing called ’34 memories of Growing Up in Texas’. I woke up each day and wrote out on my phone a memory of growing up in Texas. I did that for 34 days and then had this collection of… something.”

That ‘something’ ended up being submitted as Mol’s entry for the Scribe Non-fiction Prize for Young Writers. He won, and set about building a more complete picture around that initial collection. The resulting novel, entitled Lion Attack!, takes those unconnected short snippets of a “hyper real version of America itself” and intermittently slices them in-between chapters of another story entirely, where Mol moves to Melbourne, works a dead-end job in a warehouse, falls in love with a girl, tries to finish up writing a novel. Amidst all this, commentary on social issues such as homophobia, feminism and masculinity fill the edges of the more concreted plot points. It’s almost exactly what he’d pitched to Scribe Publishing in his initial caffeine-intoxicated rant.

It’s the pairing of the subtly introduced discussions of wider issues and the “meta-narrative” of attempting to write a book while he fumbles through the new life in the new city that connects the two tangling storylines. Mol says he “tried to copy the structure” of Ways of Going Home, a novel by celebrated Chilean author Alejandro Zambra, but concedes it “ended up vastly different”, because after reading the book four times he still “didn’t fully know how [Zambra] wrote about the past and the present simultaneously.”

It’s an analysing statement that highlights an ever-present characteristic of not only Oliver the author, but also Oliver the lead character of Lion Attack! — self-deprecation. “I found out really early on, a great way to write about yourself is to make yourself look worse than other people. Everyone has their own shit, their own things that they either choose to tell or don’t choose to tell. It’s like when you go on a first date, you’re not really meeting the person, you’re meeting a projection. Who they feel you’ll be attracted to or something like that. I kinda just do the opposite. Put it all out there. People can either take it or leave it.”

There’s a liberated tone to how Mol speaks. Unfiltered, yet far from being brash or rude. It’s a refreshing sense of freedom that’s an extension of not not only his own creative writing, but also his initial discovery of online literature. Something he found to be particularly attractive when compared to Chekhov, Bradbury and other “old dead male writers” he’d grown up reading. “Everyone was basically under thirty”, he says excitedly, “Everyone was publishing whatever they wanted and it was using this thing called ‘the Internet’ which is engraining in all of our lives.”

Yet this online community — initially unified under the banner ‘alt-lit’ — has faced a considerable amount of backlash over the past few months, sparked by an article on Medium by 20-year old writer Sophia Katz which details sexual abuse attributed to ‘Stan’, an unidentified editor within the scene. “That got picked up by Gawker, and [the media] sorted of just painted the whole scene as this highly misogynistic, ‘boys club’, which is so far from the truth”. Mol sounds understandably frustrated by what how the issue “snowballed”, stating that while it “obviously is something that needs to be addressed” to “paint the whole scene as that, felt to [him] like more of a ‘media circus’ rather than actually looking at what was going on.”

“It marked the end of a period of time – it was like an economic recession: everything’s great and then all of a sudden you’re like, whaaat?”, Lucy K. Shaw, co-editor of Shabby Doll House’s electronic zine The Reader, said of the fallout from the scandal in a recent interview with Dazed. From this came The Re-up, an issue of The Reader that highlighted the vast amount of amazing work from women within the scene, highlighting the ignorant misconception of that ‘boys club’ label. “And I feel I read way more women than I do men”, Mol adds.

Of which, there’s few Mol holds up in such high regard as Mira Gonzalez. He stumbles over accurate descriptive praise for her work, eventually simply stating that she’s “one of the best poets in America”. He caught up with her in Los Angeles recently, during a reading tour he arranged exclusively through his online pals. He and Mira inevitably ended up discussing the wider online writing community that had supported them so much. “We were just talking about what this whole thing means and it kinda came down to the fact that we don’t know what it means. We have no idea. Other than we’re doing it and that’s exciting”. The pair finally resolved that an all-encompassing definition wasn’t important, just that online literature was obviously “making writing cool again.”

In Australia, few are leading this charge more than Oliver Mol. While he acknowledges that this country’s “tall poppy syndrome” is at direct odds with the scene’s enthusiastic method of self-promotion, he believes the acceptance of the ‘Internet Lifestyle’ is finally beginning to gain traction. A big part of breaking down the age-old conventions associated with the local literature scene, as Mol sees it, focuses on the definition of the work itself. While Lion Attack! is classified as a “non-fiction memoir”, Mol himself views it as an unnecessary label.

“I never even thought about what it would be classified as. I don’t really ever sit down and write and think ‘shit, I can’t include this, because it’s not real'”, he explains, “Inherently, memory is fallible anyway. We could both recall this interview and it would be vastly different. Memory is subjective and even by admitting the fact that we are drinking ‘beer’ and not ‘Reschs beer’, would be fictionalising a narrative. Either by trying to quicken the pace of the narrative arc or, for whatever reason. For me, nothing is truly non-fiction, so I wanted to fuck with that a bit.”

Yet Lion Attack! features both a forward and afterword. The latter is especially effective at removing this hazy line of truth, with detailed clarifications of which specific stories and characters are real and which are works of fiction. But does this ruin that attempt at de-classification?

“I think the forward, that’s non-fiction to me. That seems emotionally true and factually true to me in every way, there’s nothing there that I’ve actually fabricated. The end, that’s more like a bonus feature. You don’t even have to read it. Because, for me, nothing is actually true.”

Under a realisation he was probably getting too philosophical, his thought trails off, before continuing with an analogy comparing the classification to the tactic of taking the taunts of bullies and pointing out the same flaws about yourself, effectively disabling their one piece of arsenal. Given our current topic and how much it drives — or annoys — Mol, it’s tempting to ask him if the specifics of that example is drawn from a real-life experience or not. I decline.

“Every single person who buys my book”, he chuckles slightly at the notion, before hastily becoming serious again, beginning to rhythmically pound the table in time with each unravelling idea, “I just want to be as honest or emotionally honest with them as I can be. I want to respect them as they’ve respected me. That seemed to be way of going about. An extended dialogue, like ‘here is all I know and have’.” Take that.

Lion Attack! is available now via Scribe Publishing. Oliver will be launching the book tonight (May 7) at Alaska Projects in Sydney. More details here.

You can find more of his work online (obviously) via his Twitter and Facebook page.

Photo credit: Cameron Emerson-Elliott.