This fall, I had the opportunity to sit down with The University of Alabama MFA graduate and current UA English Instructor Brian Oliu to discuss his career as a teacher and a writer. Mr. Oliu works with numerous publications around Tuscaloosa, the subjects of which range from local interests to video games. He is an acclaimed writer and teacher across a wide range of subjects and offers students a unique way to study creative writing. His enthusiasm for writing and his comments on his career are an inspiring example for aspiring writers.
I understand that you are from New Jersey but studied at UA. What drew you to this particular university?
For me, it was that I was really interested just in the MFA program, so that’s why I initially came down here, for Creative Writing. Alabama had great funding, so that was definitely part of my decision to come down here initially, because I thought it would give me a great opportunity.
You teach a wide variety of courses here at UA. Which of the courses are most meaningful to you?
I’m in charge of the Slash Pine Internship, which is really great. That’s where undergrads get together and we design books. We do book design stuff and put on events, and that’s really fun. We do a national call for submissions, so they all come in and people sign their submissions, and then we whittle it down. Eventually, we get some finalists and then we pick a winner. Then, we design everything. We do all the typeface work; we make the cover, and then we create the book and print it all out. Then, we hand stitch everything.
Wow, that’s incredible.
Yeah, it’s pretty cool. They’re all on that shelf to your left over there, all those books that are there, all of the stuff that we’ve done. [I looked to my left and saw dozens of small, neatly stitched books fillings the shelves.] Yeah it’s really awesome. That’s really rewarding, just getting to work with the undergrads. Beyond that, we usually think of writing as just being within our own smaller community, whether that’s local or even smaller than that just within your own workshop. With something like this, we get writers from places like Boston who designed their own chapbooks and then trusted us with their work, and they’re super excited to see this finished project. So I’m also super proud of that process. That’s always so much fun. It’s really cool to get to do this type of thing, especially with students who really want to get involved in it. Like right now, we have a really boisterous group. They’re super in to everything, which makes it a whole lot of fun.
Do students get involved in that class through the creative writing program?
Yeah, through creative writing. We have two classes; we have an intro class and then an advanced class. Now students can actually just sign up, and it counts as a 310 English course.
Do you still keep in touch with, or workshop your writing with, any of your fellow UA MFA’s?
I do. One of the important things you do [while working on your MFA] is you have these workshops and you get to find out who your good readers are. They might not be close by. My best reader lives in France, but I have another great reader who lives in Virginia and folks are all over the place, but I know that I can ask them to take a look at a piece for me, and they can do the same to me. I think that’s really, really great, and after you’ve worked with a reader for a while, they kind of figure out how you write. The great thing is that instead of them saying, “I want you to make this piece more like I like it,” they can say, “I can see what you’re trying to do, or what you’re claiming to do, and this is how we can help you get there.” I think that’s what a good reader does, and I keep in contact with a good number of them, and I trust them with my work.
Your bio points out several of your notable works and shows that you have published pieces in both the fiction and non-fiction categories. Which of these genres do you find more compelling to write about and why? Are the writing processes for these two genres completely different?
Yeah, for me it’s interesting; I mostly write non-fiction. That’s kind of my main thing, and that’s usually how I go about it in terms of how my writing process works. Most of the time if things are published as fiction; I just kind of write them as non-fiction. I’m not that in to genre; you know, I’m not that in to saying “this is most definitely a fiction piece or this is most definitely a non-fiction piece, or this is prose and this is a poem.” Those things don’t really concern me all that much, so I just kind of write the way I do; I was trained very much as an essayist. The goal of an essay is to attempt. The phrase “essayesser” means in French “to attempt.” I work with these concepts and ideas that I attempt to explain those things. That’s my approach to writing; I just start with a couple ideas, some personal or informative ideas and attempt to put them all together and see how they work together.
After tornadoes struck Tuscaloosa in 2011, you edited the anthology Tuscaloosa Runs This. What is the significance of the work’s title? What kind of stories did you find most significant within this work?
The title was funny. We just had this kind of mantra amongst folks who would write. We talked a little earlier about when people think of Alabama from other places, they always kind of wonder if people can even write down here. But you know, any time we’d have people from Alabama who were published in these big name literary journals, or who would book out, and they’d have lots of good news, there would always be a lot of pride. It’s just kind of that we’re all in the same writing community, so we’d always joke about this phrase “Alabama runs this” as in “oh, Alabama runs your literary journals.” Then, when the tornado hit, we were deep in to that and we realized we needed a name for that particular event, so it became “Tuscaloosa Runs This.” That idea was the mantra and the reason we adopted it for our event.
Is the writing for that publication mostly done by people from Tuscaloosa?
Yes, so that’s all done by folks who either live in Tuscaloosa or who have lived in Tuscaloosa. The subject matter is about Tuscaloosa. Then we did a sequel, which is “Tuscaloosa Writes This,” which is all writing not necessarily about Tuscaloosa but all done by local writers. It’s really focused on this concept of local writing, which I think is super important. I think it’s really cool to have this kind of local scene and let people know what’s going on here. I think it’s helpful for folks within our community and for those outside of the community as well.
Was Tuscaloosa Writes This the publication you enjoyed writing most?
Well, you know it’s funny; I’m a firm believer in writing about what I love. I love pop culture, so I wrote an entire book on video games, which was really fun.
I actually saw that on your website. I was really looking forward to talking about that.
I really enjoyed doing that because I’d say, “Yeah, I’m doing research,” and I’d be playing video games (laughs.)
Was that the one about video game Boss Battles?
Yeah, I have two: one is a chapbook and the other one is full length.
I bet they were a lot of fun to write.
They were a lot of fun to write. I had an absolute blast with those. I’m actually currently writing about professional wrestling, which is a lot of fun. I’m writing one about the video game NBA Jam; it’s kind of all about basketball and kind of the art of the game. I have a blast doing anything I write; it’s been a while since I’ve had a hard time getting through a project.
How did you begin to write about video games?
Well, I’ve always been interested in video games, but there was this point a while ago when my roommate came home, and we were just hanging out on the couch. I asked him if something was going on and he said, “You know man, I just found out that I have cancer today.” I said, “Wow, I did not expect that. Is there anything I can do?” He said, “Man you know, I just want to beat a video game. I just want to sit down and play a video game and not have to think about it.” And so we did that, and then I thought about that whole experience. I wrote that first book just kind of dealing with that bizarre feeling. From there, I realized that I really enjoyed writing about that experience, so I just kind of went from there. It’s kind of an interesting origin story, as most origin stories are.
That’s an awesome origin story. You know, when I was in high school working for our school newspaper, I really enjoyed writing for the humor section. I felt like I could write better articles on subjects that I was actually interested in.
Exactly, things that you’re more interested in you’re going to want to learn more about. People always say that you should write what you know, but I think you should write what you like. It’s much more beneficial.
What kinds of subjects do you explore in your class centered on video games? What kind of students do you suggest take this course?
In the video games class, we talk about the concept of game as artifice. Pretty much everything we do in society feels game-based. In college, we have to take these classes to get credits to take another class. There’s a lot of conversation that has to do with that. There are different pieces that have to do with games, such as game theory. We talk about the concept of vertigo, which is the idea that you are placed in to an unfamiliar situation, which is also game-based. For instance, imagine that you are placed on a football field at a very high level, but you have no idea what rules—any of the rules—are. You would have no idea how to pick up any of it. We talk about those concepts and how those relate to writing. There’s this term called the “magic circle,” which is what a game is. It’s kind of the idea that if you imagine there’s a football game going on, but we’re outside of it. In that particular, circle specific rules apply; whereas, outside of it you can do whatever you want. So when you think about it, when you play a game, you enter this realm where nothing else really matters, so it really only exists just on one specific plane. I think that this type of concept can really be used effectively in creative writing.
Is that mainly a creative writing class as well?
Yeah, that’s a creative writing class; it’s a 408 level class.
Now let’s talk about your series of essays, Boss Battles. Have you found that your work in academia has been marked with major challenges to overcome along the way, like Boss Battles in video games are?
(Laughs) I think, once again, this is the idea of leveling up. You have this moment where you start off really small and you have to start sending things in to small publications or write little things, and you just strive to get better. Then, you start striking to get some more classes or different types of classes. You know, if I’d walked in the first day in 2005 and asked if I could have a class on video games they would have been like, “Uh, no you just got here. You have no clue.” In terms of writing, there are some fancy journals that I like to think of as nemesis journals and that I feel like I have to beat. So these concepts do happen. Now, in terms of the Boss Battles, there are certain tropes that happen in every game. There’s always a boss that you run into that’s underwater, and then another one that’s made of fire. I thought a lot about Zelda, if you’ve played Zelda, then there’s this kind of thing that goes under ground and then comes back up. So there are moments in these games that you can really recognize as boss battles in every game. I really wanted to tap in to that, and I did it in a series of eight because there are usually eight bosses. I figured if I did one of them I had to do eight of them (laughs). It was a lot of fun I really enjoyed it.