Interview with John Olson

Time for another interview from www.wherethemapends.com.

Please Welcome…John Olson

(*Originally posted February 2009)

What a joy to have Christian speculative novelist John Olson as our interview guest this month at WhereTheMapEnds.com.

When I asked John how he’d like to be introduced to you, he said, “I’d like to be introduced as the amazingly talented author of the best-selling Harry Potter series. But since I didn’t write any of those books, I guess I’ll have to settle for being introduced as that scientist guy who wrote Fossil Hunter and the ‘vampireless vampire’ novel everyone’s afraid to read.”

The book he’s referring to is Shade. John, like Eric Wilson and others, is part of the very front lines in the effort to expand what can be done in speculative fiction through the traditional CBA publishing industry. I’m especially thinking of vampire fiction here.

John is also the author, with Randall Ingermanson, of Oxygen, the Christian SF that shocked Christian publishing with how well it sold and how accessible it was. It remains the gold standard for Christian SF in the modern era.

John is an idea guy—in addition to being a brilliant scientist. For instance, he hosts an ongoing role-playing game in his home. It’s a Christian character-building simulation of John’s design that rewards players for doing morally heroic things to benefit others, including simple kindness, big brothers protecting younger siblings, etc. The game has caught on and kids from the neighborhood come for their regular session.

John is also an entrepreneur with some exciting ideas about maximizing the Web to create user involvement and buy-in.

So without further ado, here’s the interview.

WhereTheMapEnds: Catch us up with you. What have you been up to lately?

John Olson: Lately I’ve been putting the finishing touches on Powers, the second book in the Shade series. I’ve also been creating some fun, highly-automated, gadget-filled websites for other writers. (Who knows? One of these days I might actually get around to putting some of the tools I’ve developed into use on my own website. Now there’s a thought.)

I’ve also started teaching a biochemistry course at the local university, and I’m really enjoying it. There’s nothing quite like getting up at 6:25 a.m. to teach an 8 a.m. class. Waterboarding is probably close, but since it doesn’t involve the use of an alarm clock, it really can’t compare.

WhereTheMapEnds: Waterboarding? Hysterical (in an awful kind of way). So, John, what is your favorite speculative novel of all time (Christian or secular) and why is that your favorite?

John Olson: Wow! What a hard question. That’s like asking me to pick a favorite daughter—at least it would be if I had more than one daughter.

Let’s see… I love CS Lewis’s Perelandra because of the way it opened up my thinking about time and possessions and joy. But then one of my favorite scenes of all time comes from The Great Divorce. I don’t want to ruin anything for those of you who haven’t read it yet, but the scene about the man with the lizard on his shoulder is profoundly beautiful. I can’t read it without tearing up.

Of course that’s not saying much. I can’t read Twilight without tearing up either. Or The Scarlet Pimpernel… I’ve always loved the Scarlet Pimpernel. Can I count it as an honorary speculative fiction novel? It’s driven by the desire for transcendence—the main driver that’s at the heart of all good speculative fiction.

I loved E.R. Burroughs’s Tarzan of the Apes and A Princess of Mars as a child. They were the first grown-up novels I ever read and they will always have a special place in my heart. As will J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and Stephen Lawhead’s Taliesin and Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time and Lloyd Alexander’s The Chronicles of Prydain and A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh. I could go on forever, but I couldn’t pick one overall favorite.

WhereTheMapEnds: Then we’ll settle for a 10-way tie. What made you want to write Christian speculative fiction?

John Olson: I never set out to be a Christian speculative fiction writer. I just write the kinds of stories I like to read—stories about bigger-than-life moral heroes who are thrust into unique and complex situations.

I love swashbuckling heroism and innocent romance and moral virtue and adventure and mystery and suspense. I can’t help it. It’s the way God designed me. I couldn’t write anything different even if I tried.

WhereTheMapEnds: We’ve heard that a lot in these interviews over the years. People don’t usually set out to be a certain kind of writer. They just sit down and write the stories burning in their hearts—and very often they’re speculative! Or we wouldn’t be interviewing them here…

So, John,  how was your first idea for a Christian speculative novel received (by anyone: spouse, friends, parents, agent, publisher, readers, reviewers, etc.)?

John Olson: Even though Shade is my latest novel to be published it was the first speculative novel I ever wrote. Ten years ago, when I first showed it to people, the reactions to it were amazing.

My mom was afraid to read it. My friend and writing partner, Randy Ingermanson, took the manuscript to a conference and ended up sleeping with his lights on. I showed it to Steve Laube at one of my first Mount Herman Christian Writers Conferences, and he said he “wouldn’t touch it with a sixty foot pole.” He said the Christian world wasn’t ready for it yet—that it was too intense and creepy and weird.
Karen Ball, on the other hand, loved it. She knew Steve was right about the market not being ready for it, but she believed in it so much she tried over and over again to get her house (Broadman & Holman) to publish it. She ultimately succeeded.

Now that Shade is finally out, the reactions to it are still mixed. Some readers (my mom included) think it’s the best book I’ve ever written, but there are a few readers who say they didn’t understand it.

WhereTheMapEnds: I’m glad to hear there have been no angry mobs assembling outside your home. What is your favorite speculative genre to read? To write? If they’re different, talk about that.

John Olson: Here you go with another favorite question. You’re so evil. Let’s see… What’s my favorite genre to read? Hmmm… I could try to impress you with something intellectual and artsy… or I could tell you the truth.
I actually like reading YA fantasy—a lot. Books like the DragonKeeper Chronicles series by Donita K. Paul, the Twilight series by Stephenie Meyer, the Gregor the Overlander series by Suzanne Collins, the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling, or The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis.

I consider it a great privilege to read what my kids are reading, and I love discussing stories with them. I think I gravitate to YA fantasies because they tend to be more innocent and moral than their adult counterparts. Even though I write scientific or supernatural thrillers, YA fantasies tend to have the same elements I like to put into my stories: lots of action, moral heroism, adventure, mystery, suspense, and sweet innocent romance.

WhereTheMapEnds: How would you characterize the current state of Christian speculative fiction writing and/or publishing?

John Olson: The Christian market seems to be at the end of a state of cautious expansion. Publishers have been trying out some new authors and new subgenres recently, and now they’re waiting to see what sticks to the wall. If something catches on, then great; they’ll publish a little more. But eventually something won’t sell well (for whatever reason) and they’ll contract again and fall back on the old tried and true.

If a book in their regular, tried and true genres doesn’t sell well, publishers tend to blame the economy or the writing quality or even, on extremely rare occasions, the marketing execution. If, however, one of their speculative titles doesn’t sell, they tend to blame it on the genre.

WhereTheMapEnds: Great observation. You’re so right. What have you seen that encourages you about Christian speculative fiction writing and/or publishing?

John Olson: The most encouraging thing I can think of is the launch of Marcher Lord Press. Speculative fiction authors everywhere are watching eagerly to see what happens with this completely new publishing model. If it works, it will break the publishing world wide open. Help us, Obi-Jeff Kegerke. You’re our only hope.

WhereTheMapEnds: [blushing] Garshk, shucks. ‘Tweren’t nothin’. Well, I do enjoy encouraging Christian novelists. It’s a great feeling knowing so many people are pulling for MLP to succeed. On April 1 they’ll be able to show their support directly by buying the latest release list!

What do you think Christian speculative fiction writing and/or publishing will look like in three years? Five years? Ten years?

John Olson: I think Christian speculative fiction writers and readers will eventually take things into their own hands. I think we’ll all band together and form some sort of a co-op—not only to encourage each other, but to support the genre by subscribing to a certain number of softcover fiction titles per year.

This sort of subscription-based publishing model could really help small Christian speculative fiction publishers make a go of it, and it will force the more established Christian publishers to take the genre seriously.

WhereTheMapEnds: As it happens, gentle reader, John and I are currently talking about doing this very thing for Marcher Lord Press. Stay tuned!

John, what advice would you give to someone who aspires to write and publish Christian speculative fiction?

John Olson: Don’t be a “me too” writer. Write what God has put on your heart. If it seems too out there or too weird or if there’s nothing else like it in the market, that’s okay. God designed you to be a unique individual, and He’s called you to a unique purpose.

Ignore the bandwagons and forget about trying to predict the direction of the wind. Just be honest and vulnerable and write the story God has given you.

WhereTheMapEnds: Fantastic advice, John. What’s the best book or seminar on fiction writing you know?

John Olson: Sorry… I don’t really read books on writing. And these days, most of the writing seminars I get to attend are the ones I’m teaching. So no help there either. If you really want to learn how to write, read as many great novels as you can and analyze them to figure out what makes them great.

WhereTheMapEnds: LOL, I know what you mean about not reading craft books lately. So I’ll give you an answer [grin]. Keep an eye out for your new favorite craft book. It’s called The Art & Craft of Writing Christian Fiction, by Jeff Gerke, and it’s due out from Marcher Lord Press in Spring 2009.

What’s the best part about writing and publishing Christian speculative fiction?

John Olson: The best part, by far, is the people I get to work with. The Christian fiction publishing world is filled with the most interesting, creative, loving, godly people on the planet. It’s a great privilege to be just a tiny part of it.

WhereTheMapEnds: What writing project(s) are you working on now?

John Olson: I’m working on the sequel to Shade. It’s called Powers and it’s about a Gypsy girl who has lived her entire life in isolation out in the swamps of southern Louisiana. When her grandfather is killed by ten mysterious cloaked men, she’s forced to flee to the city in search of Jaazaniah the Prophet, the mythical hero of her grandfather’s bedtime stories.

WhereTheMapEnds: That sounds very cool. Speaking of such things, what cool speculative idea have you had lately?

John Olson: I tend to have five or six story ideas per week—so many I don’t even bother writing them down anymore. But here’s an idea…why not write a story about an author who’s being interviewed and has to come up with a cool speculative story idea on the spot?

The first thing he’ll do is try come up with the kind of book he’d like most to read. At this particular moment, he’s really into the idea of supernatural romance. So what if our author’s hero is having visions of the perfect girl for him? He doesn’t know whether the visions are real or if they’re just dreams, but he falls hopelessly in love with the girl and looks forward every night to seeing her in his sleep.

Then his visions turn ugly. The girl of his dreams is in terrible danger. He has no idea where she is—or if she even exists—but he has to find her. His only hints as to her location are the few clues from his dreams and the tidbits he can deduce about her life based on his conviction that she’s the perfect girl for him.

Of course, finding her can’t be the main story question. It would be a pretty boring romance if the book ended right after our hero and heroine meet for the first time. The real story question is whether or not he can save her from the danger. (Don’t worry. I have a hunch he’ll manage something extremely clever in the end. My author’s heroes all tend to be of above average intelligence.)

Now our author has to come up with the danger to the heroine—but that can be the subject of another interview question.

Hmmm… I kind of like our author’s idea. I call dibs! If you want to write it, you’ll have to coauthor it with me.

WhereTheMapEnds: You’ve so got a deal. What if the girl has been dreaming of him too and has gotten in danger because she’s trying to rescue him from his danger, which he got into in order to rescue her from her danger? [now my head hurts]

What would you say is the best speculative story (Christian or secular, book or otherwise) you’ve encountered lately?

John Olson: This Christmas I read several books from Louis McMaster Bujold’s Miles Naismith Vorkosigan series (say that five times fast). Bujold is an extremely gifted writer. I didn’t get into Ethan of Athos, but I enjoyed all the other Bujold books immensely. I also enjoyed Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight and Breaking Dawn. What can I say? I’m a hopeless romantic at heart.

That’s All for This Time

What a wonderful interview, huh? Thanks again to John Olson. Be sure to visit him online.

 

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