By Cailey Rizzo
I met Lauren Oliver during the first week of college. She lived in a dorm room on the opposite end of the hall; She wore black-framed glasses and a wispy pixie cut. I was immediately impressed. The way we met is a blur, the way it always is in an instant friendship.
My favorite memories with her are all just conversations. She identifies themes in art, TV shows and people that I would have never thought to pursue. She has always had the ability to see the beauty in the quotidian things that most of us pass by without a second glance.
Through our conversations over the years, I have gained a dear friend with amazing perceptions. Her work — which centers on themes of religion, sexuality and relationships — has been a constant source of inspiration for me.
I hope our conversation (transcribed below) about her art, her city, and the Sheraton Hotel will be a source of inspiration for you.
Fair warning: Things got real weird, real fast.
Cailey Rizzo: How do you think your childhood and being brought up in Queens influenced your work?
Lauren Oliver: My immediate neighborhood of Forest Hills, which is a very religious neighborhood, is majority Jewish -- but I went to catholic school in Forest Hills. That environment and that school definitely shaped me as a person. But it also influenced my art and just, spiritual guidance, I guess.
C: How strict Catholicism was it?
L: I feel like it was quite traditional.
C: Did you get smacked over the fingers with a ruler?
L: No, but we did have nuns as teachers.
C: What about a crucified Jesus in the corner of the room?
L: There were a lot of nods to it. Maybe not crucified. No, yeah, crucified. Yeah.
C: I had to take Driver’s Ed in a catholic school for some weird scheduling reason. And I remember sitting in the classroom and they were giving the presentation or whatever and there was a crucified Jesus above the blackboard. And apparently it was like that in every single classroom in the building. And I was like, "I don’t know if that would make me study harder or if I would not want to study at all if I saw crucified Jesus up there every day."
L: Yeah. I think the symbol of that, to me, is so beautiful. Obviously it’s a really painful depiction, but I find calm in it.
L: In some instances that you do come across a cross when it’s not as literal, it’s very ironic. For me, taking things that are in your everyday life and making contrasts and realizations — the things that people walk by — to bring it to everyone’s attention is really rewarding.
C: When you’re putting two things together, would you be upset if someone misinterpreted the juxtaposition?
L: I think sometimes you can perceive things as so literal, but that’s only obvious to you sometimes. As literal as you think it is, anyone can come out of left field and say, “Oh, it’s not this?” and that’s so wonderful. I love getting the opposite reaction sometimes because you want people to see so many different things in your art. You don’t want it to be one-noted.
C: Did you ever read My Name is Asher Lev?
L: No, I don’t think so.
C: It’s a book about this Jewish boy who grew up during the great depression or something [Editor's note: The book actually takes place in the 1950s, in New York.] And he was a painting prodigy, he was really young. And he became fascinated with the crucifix and just started painting crucifixes everywhere because he just loved the symbol. And then he got in tons of trouble with his synagogue and his parents and community...
L: That’s really interesting.
C: Yeah, it was a really interesting talk about, like, the concept of the crucifix: its literal iteration versus its perceptions.
L: It’s so relevant; I feel like I need to read it. Because what I do, similarly to that book, is try to document every cross that I come across — whether it’s a literal one or a more abstract. I like to see them in everyday life and the environment they're in.
C: You said before that you observed environment, how do you do that? Is there something your eye is consistently drawn towards when you’re out and about?
L: Earlier today, when I was walking to your home, I noticed on my slow walk up here that you guys have a lot of really nice churches in this area.
C: We do, we really do.
L: And they’re so beautiful. And so I went into one and I just looked at it.
C: What church was it?
L: It was on First and 66th..?
C: Oh, I think I know which one. It’s, like, a lighter brown?
L: Yes. It’s so beautiful. The facade is insane. It’s different toned bricks that come together and are patterned in a weird way. And I was like, "Oh, I have to go in there" because it was open. So I just went in and sat there for a while. And I was thinking while I was in there — maybe this is a disrespectful statement — that churches, while they are a holy place, they’re like museums.
C: Oh, yeah, completely. I feel the same way. It’s a living architecture museum.
L: It’s just so beautiful to take in. And I started thinking to myself, what happens to the churches that close down? What becomes of that building?
C: There’s this beautiful, old church in Buffalo with gorgeous architecture from when the city was thriving. And it was just dilapidated and completely ruined. And then Ani DiFranco just came in and revamped the whole thing and turned it into a concert hall.
The entire bottom is hollowed out and there’s the stage where the pulpit was. But she kept the choir balcony. So you can either go out on the floor or sit in the balcony and it’s so cool to see a show and there’s this stained glass, shining in with light and beautiful architecture. I just wish every church had a second life like that because they’re such cool buildings.
L: The architecture and the craft and the skill and the style and the design and the ornaments, just everything. You can really sit and take in everything and spend a lot of time in a church, whether you’re there for a holy purpose or not.
C: What else do you like doing, besides going into churches?
L: I really enjoy Spanish Harlem.
C: What do you do there?
L: It’s the reason why people like New York: It’s so visually a cultural neighborhood. Like, you know instantly that you’re in the Puerto Rican part of town.
It represents something so familiar to me, just being in a neighborhood that is predominantly of my culture. It feels like home even though I didn’t grow up in it. And being in a neighborhood that is so culturally vibrant, everything is on the street. The life is on the street. You feel so present.
C: One thing I did want to talk to you about is your Puerto Rican heritage. Because I feel like it plays such an important role in your work. Like, when I think of you and I think of cities, I think of San Juan and New York.
L: There are so many Puerto Ricans in New York, which is why I find that I flock to Puerto Rican neighborhoods in New York, like Spanish Harlem and Bushwick.
But Puerto Rico is really interesting because it has such a Spanish influence. It makes me think that I am Spanish. Spanish culture, Spanish religion definitely come into play in Puerto Rico.
C: How closely do you think your Puerto Rican-ism and religion are tied together?
L: 100% handcuffed.
I think there’s a difference sometimes in religion in language. Like, English Catholicism versus Spanish Catholicism.
And that can have a great effect on how easily incorporated it is into daily vocabulary of people. Because I think that Hispanics integrate it into the way they say hello and goodbye to people.
C: Yeah, literally: Adios. To God.
L: Every single time my grandmother says goodbye to me on the phone, she’s always saying “god bless you” in Spanish, or “may the lord protect you and watch over you.”
C: I think Spanish is very religious and the words that they use for religion are so much more visceral. It’s portrayed as such a sexual culture, too, and I wonder if it all stems from the words they use.
L: Italian, too. And Italian Renaissance artists. Their religious painting is probably one of the most emotional and effective and painstakingly-beautiful depictions of religious scenes and entities. I definitely think that language plays a significant role in how people experience religion and how devout people are.
C: As we’re talking, I think we’re getting to...if you have to choose: Do humans influence everything around them or does everything around them influence who they are? Which came first: the chicken or the egg?
L: Oh, shit.
C: Like, do language and environment influence humans and what they create or do humans put out something that changes the environment around them?
L: Umm...I think it’s somewhat both. But the initial impact is where you’re at. And then based on that, you’re like, OK do I handle it this way or that? How can I make the most of this?
I see it more of a step one, step two. Step three: Repeat steps one and two.
C: Step four: die. Sorry.
L: Step five: cremate body.
L: Cremate yourself. Cream yourself.
C: That’s a fun thing to say in bed: I’m cremating.
L: Yeah. Oh, god. How awful would it be if you had sex with someone and that’s what they said as they were coming?
C: I would be scarred. I could not have sex for three years after that. I’d be like, I’m done. I’m done.
L: NOPE! I can’t. That’s awful. But there’s definitely someone on this earth that does. #ImCremating I just started it. Great.
C: It’s going viral.
L: That’s not the first sexual trend I’ve started.
C: What other sexual trends have you started?
L: Bring Back the Bush 2016
C: I like that. I want that on a t-shirt.
L: I wish it were more culturally acceptable to take a picture of your bush and upload it to Instagram.
C: I mean, if you zoom in close enough, no one would know.
L: Yeah, but people would be like, ughhhh.
L: WE DON’T WANT TO SEE YOUR BUSH!
C: WE TALKED ABOUT THIS, LAUREN.
L: This is a nice photo...but come on, we don’t need to see your bush.
C: I like the composition of this, but again, Lauren.
L: Fuck, that’s nice lighting, but shit!
C: Third time this month, Lauren.
L: Limit your bush pics to two. Per week!
L: That’s insane! That’s overdoing it.
C: I love the idea of you uploading bush pics, like, one every other day. “In case you forgot, guys…”
L: STILL HERE! Yeah, so that’s Bring Back the Bush 2016. We’re gonna eventually make it an Instagram page.
C: And once we’re famous enough, we can be like, “Submit your own bush pics using the hashtag #BringBackTheBush2016”
L: And if it goes beyond 2016, fuck it, 2017.
L: Recently, I took a date to the Sheraton Hotel Bar.
C: That’s an adult ass thing to do. And effective transition.
L: The Sheraton is a good time. I will say that.
C: Wait. Which Sheraton?
L: It was at the Sheraton in Midtown. That’s date night bar.
C: The Sheraton Hotel Bar.
L: That’s so random.
C: I’m so happy you said that, though.
L: That was such a bold movement on my part. Because I had already been drinking and I was like, "Fuck, where should we go, what’s my vibe?" And then I was like, "I don’t want to be in a bar with smelly people."
Going into a hotel bar is always the right idea. Because you can sit in a comfy fucking seat; It’s not crowded. It was a Wednesday night.
C: You going to a hotel bar on a Wednesday night is the funniest idea to me.
L: It’s the best time to go.
C: I’m sure; I’m just stunned. This is the most adult thing you’ve ever done, I think.
L: And the only other people that were there was a table of white guys obviously having some sort of business meeting, And then I’m just sitting there like trash behind them.
I feel like I made the guy too excited. But I wasn’t even thinking of the hotel, like sexually. I was just like, oh my god, The Sheraton, that’s totally my vibe. I’ve been there before. Like, "Let’s get fucked up in the Sheraton, bro!" Who the fuck am I?
C: You’re a Japanese business man.
L: It was weird. It was lavish. It’s very modern decoration and awesome vibes to be in because it feels a little bit expensive.
C: I feel like it’s the closest you can get to Las Vegas in New York: a midtown hotel bar. While you’re saying this, I’m picturing Fear and Loathing and you just melting at the hotel bar.
Hotels are really interesting places, I think.
L: Well, it’s so weird, the pace of them. Because everyone is always coming and going and there’s so many different types of people. It’s interesting and very sexual.
L: I also think kind of an unknown spot that people should really take advantage of is the Hispanic Society of America. That’s uptown on the west side. It’s a museum, basically. With a gallery of paintings by Hispanic artists, and a lot of design, as well. And antiquarian objects. It’s really cool. I think that’s a must-see place. No one knows about it and it’s such a nice gem.
And Ducks Eatery is a restaurant on East 12th and 1st. And they have this goat’s neck plate, which is absolutely...it’s just goat’s neck on a fucking plate.
C: What type of cuisine is that?
L: To be honest with you, I don’t know. I’ve never known. But, yeah, they have this goat’s neck plate: it’s goat’s neck on coconut rice and they put cranberries in it. And it’s just delicious. I mean, it’s a fucking goat’s neck, so it can be a plate for two.
C: Is it a good date spot?
L: Yeah, sometimes they project movies on the brick wall. It’s kinda small, but I feel like it has the potential to be that. You could share a goat’s neck.
C: I think that’s romantic.
L: It is. It’s very carnal and sexual and aggressive. You just lose all inhibition.
C: Can you think of a sexier food group than meat?
L: No. There’s something really erotic about raw meat. Like, when I’m in the grocery store...it’s insane. For some reason, the places that inspire me the most are churches and grocery stores.
C: I feel that, though. Because I feel like they’re both places we interact with so personally. Like, it’s such a personal thing going to church, and it’s such a personal thing shopping for groceries. And also: Who knows who you’re going to meet in the aisles...of either.
L: I don’t think I’ve ever picked up anyone at a supermarket.
C: I almost got picked up at a supermarket yesterday.
L: Have you ever gotten picked up at a church?
C: By Jesus. My lord and savior picked me up.
L: HE PICKS ME UP!
C: So I can stand on mountains!
L: HE RAAAAAISED ME UP.
And we’ll end it at that.
Lauren Oliver's guide to new york
See more of Lauren Oliver's work on her Tumblr.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.