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Elodie Olson-Coons

Elodie is a writer and artist working with text currently based in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland.


Her work has been published in Guernica, [PANK], 3:AM Magazine, and in two print anthologies. In 2024, she was awarded a four-month SKK residency in Belgrade, which she spent researching river borders. She works in English and French.

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First off, I must say I've always admired your writing. You craft hauntingly gorgeous sentences. Rich with memory and exuding beauty. Weaving vignettes together synesthetically - like I can feel your words. Dreamy but (very) real. Have you always written this way? I know you write poetry (I really like your poem: Circles and Circles: on absorption, anxiety & post-metal) and prose - do you think your styles of writing fiction/CNF and poetry are similar, or different? Do you consciously decide what form a particular idea/memory/place/feeling will take in your writing? Tell me a little about your process. 


It’s always a joy, as a writer, to be read – to be seen – in this way. Thank you! To answer your question, everything overlaps. I think I often start from an impression, an emotion, which connects with (or becomes) an idea. Notebooks help record these fleeting elements I want to capture: an atmosphere, a sense of longing, a kind of friction between two things. This and this. Then, whatever it is, I try to give it shape, attempt to give it structure, but that’s the hard part for me, zooming out. What I really want is to write from a place of immediacy. Which is why, I suppose, I seem to be drifting further and further away from fiction, these days.

You are currently finishing-up a four-month writing residency in Belgrade. Can you tell me about the (writing) themes you consciously went into the residency with, if they changed during your time there, and whether your (final-ish) piece reflects the original idea? 


Yes! I was writing about karst landscapes, herons, winter swimming, anxiety, abandoned glassworks, stone paths from 1726, Allerød bear skeletons, heavy metal, cyanobacteria, divorce, all of this gravitating around the river near where I live, in La Chaux-de-Fonds, the Doubs river, which is about a five-kilometre walk from my apartment, straight downhill and then back up to come home.


Since I was going to be spending all this time in Serbia, I thought maybe I could connect this border river, which links and separates Switzerland and France, with waterways in the Balkans. In Serbia, the country is surrounded by river borders, these ambiguous, shifting, politically unsettled spaces – the Sava, the Drina, the Nera, the Danube, and many more across the Balkans, borders that have shifted historically but also geographically, in places where the river’s route has meandered away from the line on paper.


But the more I read about these particular spaces, the more my sense of what this ambiguity means started to evolve. For one thing, these rivers cut right across the Balkans migration routes, so they’re deadly spaces for a lot of people on the move – often violently policed, on top of being remote, cold, full of strong currents… Ambiguous, then, but for many, uncrossable. I was deeply moved by my reading around the subject, and conversations I had with people in Serbia (and more recently in Bosnia) around the topic. I’m still trying to write something more in-depth on this. But in the meantime, at the end of my residency, I took the source material and printed it out, cut it up, pasted it back together, made it into a zine. I suppose this is one way of attempting to take my idea directly out of my head and put it directly into people’s hands.

Most of us (literary) writers carry this unspoken burden of creating "perfect" pieces of writing. This is why I think I publish so little of what I actually write - because I'm eternally unhappy with entire novels and essays I've written (pulping them before anyone else sees them). I suspect you may suffer from a similar affliction. You'd mentioned recently publishing something that felt a bit raw, and making peace with imperfection. Tell me more! 


Oh, the smartest, most talented people around me, especially women, all seem to suffer from some version of this – which is, I suppose, a comfort of sorts, though it mostly makes me sad. Fear of failure is always hovering at the edges of my vision, though I’m never quite sure what exact form this dreaded failure will take, or how it could be worse than never participating in the conversation at all.


I had a few sleepless nights before printing this little zine: but when it was there, when I was assembling and folding it and stapling it, I was really proud – imperfect, unfinished as it was. To have made something from start to finish. To have pushed through my perfectionism. To have given the idea a form. I think I’m working hard, right now, with making peace with creating things that are partial, that are a gesture towards an idea or an exploration of an idea and nothing more, that are maybe part of a larger project, maybe not.


I think I’m also trying to work against this idea that the writer has to occupy the space of expert, hierarchically. I’m much more interested in positioning myself as a witness, a listener, a passer-on. In this, I’m having to fight against my strict French education, which taught us to write and structure our arguments like Greek orators, and left me feeling like I was unqualified to write nonfiction about anything unless I had PhD-level mastery of the subject.


In fact, and I’ve seen this coming up a lot for other people in social media posts around the genocide in Palestine, I’m now trying to return to a place of much more stripped down, simple empathy and anger, to say: no, you are in fact qualified to have an opinion, you don’t have to be able to list historical references off by heart to speak up, you are allowed to write from a place of humanity and condemn something that is very clearly and deeply wrong. By the same logic, it is in fact quite easy to say: tens of thousands of people on the move should not be dying as they attempt to cross the external borders of the EU. Full stop, new para. Ideally, then, you can fill in as much context as possible, you can do the reading – the history, the current politics – you can amplify more qualified voices, you can reduce the space you take up in the equation a little. But staying silent, I’m done with that.

Your essay in Guernica titled "We Have Our Ghosts" continues to stay with and haunt me. I remember reading it in 2022 when you first published it, and now again in 2024 for the purpose of this interview. The essay is so subtly written and woven with memory, history, and grief, that it sinks into the reader through several sieves of meaning. Your mother's beautiful presence shines throughout the essay. It must've been incredibly hard to write it. "Part of this is bad record-keeping; part of it is grief" - you write... "In my creaky two-room apartment in the Swiss town of La Chaux-de-Fonds, I occasionally dust my mother’s books, and drink Campari out of her antique French glassware. We have our ghosts." I suppose I don't have a specific question to ask. Perhaps, you could tell me where, when, and how you came to write this wonderful essay. 


Several people have told me this essay made them cry, which is the highest form of praise possible, as far as I can tell: to feel that shock of connection on an emotional and personal level. I think this sense of mutual understanding and shared something across vastly different lived experiences is what keeps me writing through a personal lens. I deeply admire writers – Lidia Yuknavitch, Rebecca Solnit – who hand you their experience in a way that feels unfiltered, like their heart is an egg cracked into your hand, their hope and their fury: of course, this is a craft in itself.


A lot of my writing, I think, is an attempt to engage with the aspects of being in the world that are hard for me to articulate, to engage with the questions I don’t have answers to. I keep gravitating to questions of home and belonging, with occasionally contradictory answers, or no answers at all: just a desire to keep questioning. Giving shape to the felt, the unknown.

"Homes, like cathedrals, are inhabited by a theory — by an ideal — that weighs heavily on their timber, glass, and stone. Such places are made to hold meaning — to distill it, like something whittled towards perfection over years, towards linear if asymptotic completion, or a dream come to life: an architect’s sketch, sweat and turpentine, a stonemason’s mark" - you write. I wonder: have you found a home in your adult life that fulfills some of these ideals/dreams? The nostalgia of home is something I obsess about a lot in my writing too. I've led a very nomadic life and can't think of any one place as home. 


I will probably continue to circle this particular question for the rest of my life; I no longer expect to find a fixed answer. I’ve had times when I felt most myself in motion, in discovery, and times when I felt a deep pull towards anchoring and putting down roots. In both modes, I believe in construction and growth above all.


In Polly Barton’s Fifty Sounds, she examines her relationship with place – in the context of her move to Japan – through the lens of attachment theory, and this stayed with me for a long time after I finished the book.

The idea that we relate to different places in our lives through the lens of emotion, of comfort and struggle, push and pull. I suspect the best balance, for me, will lie somewhere around the halfway point: to have an anchor point, and always movement too.

Tell me more about the book project you're currently working on - which revolves around rivers and swimming; and the River Doubs. And you're writing this book in French! Have you written longform work in French before? Do you think in French or English, first off, or both, (l tend to switch between Tamil and English) - how does that affect your writing style? 


The book is about the river, about swimming in the river during the time when I was realising I needed to separate from my partner of eight years (and husband of five months), about the separation itself. A lot of it is about how the landscapes surrounding the river have been through so much deconstruction and reconstruction – as industrial and post-industrial spaces, as landscapes in the Anthropocene, but also through the lens of deep time. Karst landscapes are endlessly fascinating, both fragile and completely unfathomable. So I suppose this book is asking: how do we define a river? How do we delineate the self?


I spent a lot of time worrying about the risk of navel-gazing in memoir; the risk of assuming universality, too. But in this story of learning to stand on my own two feet, I try to come back to this sense of: well, I didn’t know this was a shape a woman’s life journey could take, and I wish I’d known. That you can set your own parameters – or, at least, give it a try. That you can look for something more than comfort and contentedness, that you can work towards a life chosen actively, alive, engaged. So in that sense, I think the personal can in fact be deeply political. That you can look from the small end of the telescope, from your own lived experience, at a broader set of expectations and values, and take a shot at them from there.

Let us delve a little deeper into working between languages. What are the different languages you speak, write, and think in? Do you translate yourself to yourself (I know that sounds weird, but I seem to do that a lot in my head). Does language decide the topic/theme/idea you write about? Do you crossplay inspirations? 


At this point in my life, there’s a lot of mix and blur! English remains the language I have the oldest relationship to, and spontaneously, I mostly think and write in English. But the first eighteen years of my life, I spoke French as soon as I stepped outside the house, and I’ve been living in French-speaking Switzerland for something like twelve years now. My last two major relationships have been with francophone partners; that makes a difference too. So it was something of a conscious desire to pivot part of my writing career into the language of where I’m living, part of a wider desire to bring my life out of the margins and to take up space. But creatively, at least, for me, the two segments feel and operate quite differently. French is still a space of exploration and play for me. If I want to say something plainly – in love or anger – I’ll come back to English.

I know you are interested in contemporary music and opera, and review music. Can you tell me a little about your own training in music? How you came to learn and appreciate it. Whether you think your music ties into your writing. Your writing is definitely lyrical!


There was definitely a turning point in my early twenties, I think, where I actively and definitely relaxed out of trying to understand certain types of music, and consequently started actually enjoying them. Coming in with a fairly classical background, I had this idea that you had to be equipped, intellectually, in order to participate in this corner of the music world. And once I started just listening to the music from a place of presence, that changed. It took away that distance, that idea of needing a framework or keys to access this kind of art; it enabled me to simply be there.


So as a reviewer, I’m coming in from an actively naïve position, a place of resistance. And that resistance is still needed. Opera houses, my god – I feel out of place going to the Zurich Opera House in a leather jacket. And that’s as a reviewer! So there’s still a lot of work to be done to break these spaces open, and let some fresh air in.


In terms of my own writing, I suppose I’m often looking for different kinds of music too. Librettos, lyrics, these incomplete or partial forms interest me very much. Writing with space for something else. I can definitely say that I’m increasingly drawn to interdisciplinary projects; this year, I’m in the early stages of working with composer Maja Bosnić on a project at the intersection of text/music/sound art/technology and I’m very excited about it. To be able to think more widely than the page.

Over the years, you have also worked as an editor, writer, and bookseller - sort of set your foot in the whole spectrum of the written word! One of my dreams has always been something to do with selling books. I'm eager to know what you enjoyed about that experience, and what you learned about readers buying books.


Working in La Méridienne bookshop was a big turning point in my life: one of these moments where I really felt the value of being a part of a community, a city, of belonging in a specific place. It also got me back on the horse, intellectually, after a long period of self-doubt when a novel I’d worked on for a few years didn’t find an agent. I emerged from a sort of cocoon; I remembered: oh yes, I’m somebody who cares about ideas and likes to talk to people! After eight years of full-time freelancing, that very specific loneliness of annotating PDFs, it was a joy to land back in the real world, unpacking boxes, alphabetising shelves, trying to remember people’s names.


I tell this story all the time, but the thing that most struck me in this job was how many reading recommendations I’ve received from readers, in the three years I’ve been working here: I fully expected to be asked for ideas, but not to receive so many in return, the spontaneous generosity, the reciprocity of that relationship. People will regularly come in just for a chat, or to tell us about the new annotated edition of Walter Benjamin’s journals, or to ask what we thought of that play on Wednesday night. I think it’s a small-city, independent-shop ideal that is slowly disappearing, which makes me want to fight for it all the more.

Finally, tell me about travelling. The joys. The sorrows. The beauty.  


I’m acutely aware, these days, that to be on the road, crossing borders, is a privilege. It’s also, for me, a profound source of joy and growth: to get a sense of a place, which is different from an idea of a place.


Somehow, I think this ties in to your earlier questions, in terms of the intersection between the question of how to write one’s life, and how a life is shaped by language and place. When I’m travelling, I often find myself wishing I could be invisible, to come from a place of pure, untethered capturing, as if you could witness without being there. But you’re always there – you’re always writing from a small, inner point, outwards – or at least that’s the kind of writing that most interests me.


I feel like, as a woman creator, you sometimes come across this disdain for the personal, as if it were a small sphere, and not an inseparable part of being in the world and thinking it through; but when I look at writers I’ve been reading recently, whose work circles around movement and exile – Dubravka Ugrešić, Daša Drndić – I don’t think you can write about place without writing about the self. It’s a strength, not a weakness.

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